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IntroductionBanner: Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill
BiographiesBanner: Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr TraillManuscripts and JournalsLettersBanner: Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill
Life in EnglandAbout the Collections
Emigration and Bush Life
Town Life
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Religion and Spiritualism

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About This Site

Town Life

Social Life
Political Life

Social Life

Susanna and John Moodie and family, ca 1866

Both the Moodies and Traills had left the backwoods by the beginning of 1840. Their letters, diaries and published writings reveal a great deal about town life, or "life in the clearings" as Susanna Moodie called it. Her book of the same name, published in 1853, is an eyewitness account of patterns of social behaviour in Canadian communities at mid-century. While writing mostly of her personal experiences in and around Belleville, she also travelled to Kingston, Toronto and Niagara Falls as part of her preparation for the book, noting religious customs, typical amusements, the importance of provincial and local fairs, patterns of rectitude and gossip, typical views on education, social attitudes to and treatment of "lunatics," and prevailing opinions about writers and artists.

Her letters, like those of Catharine, often comment on and sometimes criticize social and familial practices. But as she duly observed, she had little by way of statistical information about social activities: "My knowledge of the colony is too limited to enable me to write a comprehensive work" on such an important topic. Hence, in speaking to the "increasing prosperity and commercial advantages" of Canada by mid-century, she relied on anecdotes, personal experience and her own strongly held values as an English-bred gentlewoman (Life in the Clearings, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989, p. 13). Catharine's book, The Canadian Emigrant's Guide (1854), provides a great deal of practical domestic information for women and, like Susanna's Life in the Clearings (1853), offers many insights into the changing nature of social life in Canada.

The letters of the sisters provide personal observations of social and familial practices. Readers will encounter descriptions of domestic rituals, hobbies, and activities; holiday events (see Susanna's letter to Catharine, December 25, 1853); modes of travel and the new experience of the railroad; the practice of mourning; parental concerns about their offspring and the practical education of the children of friends and relatives; the importance placed on family connections at home and in the old world; the pursuit of patronage positions as a means of making a living; the role of the military in everyday life; the challenges facing young people in terms of careers; public and personal reading habits; and even the secretive but exhilarating practice of spiritualism in Belleville in the 1850s. These and many more aspects of social life are to be found in the books and letters of the two sisters.

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Political Life

Politics and religion were great determinents of social life in Upper Canada. One's political views and place of worship defined one's social place and significance as much as personal wealth and connections. Politics were particularly charged. In the wake of the Mackenzie Rebellion of December, 1837, political feelings ran very high. At first, the Moodies emphasized their own loyalty to England and British institutions. They were unaware of the injustices perpetuated by those in power in the province, particularly the conservative-minded Family Compact.

The Moodies were not long, however, in rethinking their naive view. They quickly learned that there were many substantial grounds for unrest in the province. John Moodie's experience in Belleville as paymaster for the Victoria District (November 1838 to July 1839) made him aware of the legitimacy and importance of the movement for responsible government. His assessment of the political situation in early 1839 (see John's letter to Susanna, May 24, 1839) makes clear his support of Lord Durham's Report and the reform agenda of Robert Baldwin and his supporters. Yet John Moodie's support of political reform would in no way compromise his loyalty to Britain and the British legacy in Canada.

His reform views cost him dearly in Belleville once he was appointed Sheriff. Hated as an outsider by the tories of the town, some of whom were disappointed in their pursuit of the job he was given, he found himself the target of their sustained political hostility. Tory lawyers and supporters did what they could to make his Sheriff's work difficult. John found himself pestered with frivolous, vexatious complaints, and faced delays in prosecutions. (His income as Sheriff came from the cases he could successfully prosecute.) This, in combination with social ostracism, made life for him and his family difficult. Though John attempted to run a middle course in his local activities, including his church attendance, where he tried to placate both the more conservative Anglicans, as well as the reform Methodists and Presbyterians, (see John's letter to Susanna, November 24, 1839), he found himself in an inescapable dilemma that affected both his professional work and Susanna's morale.

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