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Themes - Writing

Margaret Marshall Saunders

Photograph of Margaret Marshall Saunders


Writer, Animal Rights Activist, Organizer


Known throughout the world for her novel Beautiful Joe, Margaret Marshall Saunders was a prolific writer of children's stories and romance novels, a lecturer, and an animal rights advocate.

Margaret Saunders was born on April 13, 1861, in Milton, Queen's County, Nova Scotia. She spent the first few years of her life in Berwick, a charming village in the Annapolis Valley. Her parents, Edward Manning Saunders (an accomplished, educated Baptist pastor, historian and author) and Maria Kisborough Freeman, passed on the importance of reading and education to their children.

Margaret was taught Latin by her father, and she went to boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland, at age 15, followed by another year of education in France.

After teaching for several years, Margaret Saunders was encouraged by a family friend, Dr. Theodore Rand, who later became chancellor of McMaster University, to pursue a career as a writer. She took this advice to heart, and after being encouraged by her younger sister Rida, Margaret tried her hand at writing a short story. Rida took over Margaret's housekeeping duties for three weeks so Margaret could concentrate on this important task. The girls were thrilled when Frank Leslie's Magazine of New York accepted "A Gag of Blessed Memory" for publication. It paid the new author $40.

Margaret kept writing, and in 1889 published her first novel, the love story My Spanish Sailor. Shortly thereafter, she gained international recognition for a novel she submitted to a contest sponsored by the American Humane Education Society. Her submission was Beautiful Joe, a novel about an old dog that she encountered while visiting Meaford, Ontario. Saunders won a prize of $200 for the American Humane Education Society Prize Competition "Kind and Cruel Treatment of Domestic Animals and Birds in the Northern States."

Beautiful Joe was published in 1894 by the American Baptist Publication Society in Philadelphia under the name Marshall Saunders. It is the best known of her literary works, and has been translated into many languages. It is said to be the first Canadian book to sell more than one million copies worldwide. In "The Story of My Life," Marshall Saunders comments, "I have had the honour of leading the old Ontario dog around the world on a chain of translations and rejoice in the report that he has become quite a propagandist for humanitarianism" (Ontario Library Review, p. 43).

Over the years, Margaret travelled extensively in the United States and Europe, and used her experiences as material in her various novels. In 1902 she wrote Beautiful Joe's Paradise, a sequel to Beautiful Joe. She was conflicted about using Joe as the hero of this "paradise," explaining her reasons in the book's preface. "[L]ast autumn, when in great grief over the death of a beloved dog, my mind turned strongly to my animal story, old Joe was ever before me. He, and only he, was suited to preside over the happy republic where the animals found themselves after death."

Margaret won another prize of $200 from the American Humane Education Society for her non-fiction piece "Increase and Cause for the Growth of Crime."

Saunders wrote newspaper articles about supervised playgrounds for city children and other social issues in the Halifax Morning Chronicle and the Toronto Globe. She also lectured frequently and belonged to many organizations, including the Canadian Women's Press Club and various humane societies, the latter being a cause very close to her heart.

Two of the many awards that Margaret received in her lifetime were an Honorary M.A. from Acadia University in 1911 and the Commander of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1934.

The Margaret Marshall Saunders Papers are kept at Acadia University Archives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. The Edward Manning Saunders (1829-1916) and Marshall Saunders (1861-1947) fonds are located at the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Margaret Marshall Saunders died in Toronto on February 15, 1947, forever linked to Beautiful Joe.


Blakeley, Phyllis R. "Margaret Marshall Saunders: The Author of 'Beautiful Joe.'" The Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly. Vol. 1, No. 3 (September 1971), p. 225-239.

Davies, Gwendolyn. Margaret Marshall Saunders and Beautiful Joe: Education Through Fiction. Truro: Nova Scotia Teachers College, 1995.

Howard, Dorothy. "Marshall Saunders: A Tribute to Canada's Most Revered Author." Saturday Night. Vol. 62, No. 26 (March 1, 1947), p. 21.

McMullen, Lorraine. "Marshall Saunders' Mid-Victorian Cinderella; or, the Mating Game in Victorian Scotland." Canadian Children's Literature (CCL): A journal of criticism & review. No. 34 (1984), p. 31-40.

McMullen, Lorraine. "Saunders, Margaret Marshall" [online]. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Edmonton: Historica Foundation of Canada, 2007.
(accessed June 3, 2008).

Morgan, Henry J., ed. "Miss Marshall Saunders." Types of Canadian Women, and of Women Who Are or Have Been Connected with Canada. Vol. 1. Toronto: W. Briggs, 1903, p. 305.

Morgan, Henry J., ed. "Saunders, Miss Margaret Marshall." The Canadian Men and Women of the Time: A handbook of Canadian biography of living characters. Toronto: W. Briggs, 1898, p. 907-908.

Sanders, Byrne Hope. "Marshall Saunders and Her Friends." Chatelaine. Vol. 4, No. 6 (June 1931), p. 13, 54.

Saunders, Marshall. Beautiful Joe's Paradise, or, The Island of Brotherly Love: A Sequel to Beautiful Joe. Boston: L.C. Page, 1902.

Saunders, Marshall. "The Story of My Life." Ontario Library Review. Vol. XII, No. 2 (November 1927), p. 42-44.

"The Story Teller — Margaret Marshall Saunders" [online]. Meaford, Ont.: Beautiful Joe Heritage Society, 2007. (accessed June 3, 2008).

Waterston, Elizabeth. "Margaret Marshall Saunders: A Voice for the Silent." Silenced Sextet: Six Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Novelists. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992, p. 137-168.