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Defying the black flies: The Romanticism of Susanna Moodie
In (1995-96) I attended a graduate course at the University of Toronto called "Romantic Constructions." The purpose of the course, according to the course catalogue, was to "address Romanticism as a cultural phenomenon, as reflected both in late eighteenth/early nineteenth century writing, and in the writing and cultural expressions of our own moment."
Midway through the first term, an event occurred which influenced my choice of topic for my term paper: the federalists narrowly defeated the nationalists in the second Quebec referendum. I became interested in exploring a part of the Canadian psyche that I had previously all but ignored: the 19th century. Susanna Moodie easily came to mind.
I had never read Roughing It in the Bush, but I was aware of Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie. More importantly, I knew that in Survival, her thematic guide to Canadian literature, Atwood had linked Moodie's sense of imprisonment in the Canadian wilderness with a sentimental Romanticism incompatible with black flies and mosquitos. A study of Moodie's "Romantic constructions" seemed like an excellent choice for my term paper.
Moodie came to Canada with visions of Woodsworth's daffodils floating in her head, I saw myself saying. "But the Canadian wilderness breeds only survival instinct," I would quote Atwood. Amongst the bears and the bugs there is no room for sentimentality, I would say. The Canadian wilderness stopped Romanticism dead in its tracks.
The reality, of course, was somewhat different, as I soon discovered. I had to alter my thinking, sometimes drastically, and when I was done I could only say that Atwood was mistaken. Here's why.
On July 1, 1832 a twenty-eight-year-old Susanna Moodie, her husband, J.W. Dunbar Moodie -- whom she had married the year before -- and their infant daughter, set sail from Edinburgh for what was then the British colony of Upper Canada (Moodie, 1991, viii). Over a century-and-a-half later, Moodie is firmly fixed among the early members of the Canadian canon. But who was she? Critics have constituted Moodie in a variety of guises, as Carol Shields has noted:
Moodie is often reduced to the role of microcosmic, schizophrenic citizen. To others Mrs. Moodie is a spoiler, an educated woman, snobbish and dour, who carried to the land of opportunity a baggage of already corrupt literary mannerisms (1).
Of one fact, however, the critics are generally agreed. Moodie was temperamentally unfit for pioneer life in Canada. In Survival, Atwood generalizes this conclusion to Canadian literature as a whole. Atwood writes: "Canadian writers as a whole do not trust Nature, they are always suspecting some dirty trick. An often-encountered sentiment is that Nature has betrayed expectation" (49). Atwood argues that the emotion "may be traced in part to expectations which were literary in origin." Atwood says of Roughing It in the Bush (and other nineteenth century Canadian texts) "the tension between what you were officially supposed to feel and who you actually encountered when you got here -- and the resultant feeling of being gypped -- is much in evidence" (50-1).
My research indicates, however, that Atwood overstates and oversimplifies the case when she claims that Roughing It in the Bush is a catalogue of "Mrs. Moodie's determination to preserve her Wordsworthian faith" despite "the difficulty she has in doing so when Nature fails time and time again to come through for her" (51). Atwood is here perpetuating the myth of Canada's hostile wilderness. "If Wordsworth was right," Atwood proclaims, implying that Wordsworth was wrong, "Canada ought to have been the Great Good Place. At first, complaining about the bogs and mosquitoes must have been like criticizing the authority of the Bible" (50).
It is true that Moodie's descriptions of the landscape of Grosse Isle and that surrounding Quebec City provide examples of the conventional Burkean response to nature popular in the Romantic period (25-38). Moodie informs the reader how she was "blinded by the [landscape's] excess of beauty" (26) and inspired by the scene's "melancholy awe, which becomes painful in its intensity" (27). Moodie responds to the natural world here in the terms laid out for her by her culture: nature is beautiful and sublime, nurturing and terror-filled.
Yet to attribute to Moodie a simplified Burkean (or Wordsworthian) approach to nature, as Atwood does, is clearly inadequate. Moodie's autobiographical novel of her life in the Canadian backwoods includes some of the stock responses to the natural world conventional of her period; however, Roughing It in the Bush is also stocked with the complications presented to those conventions by the Moodies' New World habitat.
Many of Moodie's complaints, for example, have nothing to do with a hostile natural world. Instead, she often complains about the indecorum of someone of her class and sensibilities living in the backwoods (14, 526) and of the greed of unscrupulous land speculators, whom she continues as late as her introduction to the 1871 edition of Roughing It in the Bush to blame for cheating her and her husband out of the money they brought with them from England (527).
The myth that a hostile wilderness is predominant in early-nineteenth century Canadian literature, however, lives on. Les McLeod, for example, is following Atwood when he argues that Romanticism implies the importance of nature and the individual,
. . . [which] posits a beneficent, harmonious and ideal interaction between man and nature. In Canada, when a persona attempts to experience nature in this way, when, so to speak, he or she attempts the pathetic fallacy, the overture is rebuffed, and the persona becomes self-aware in nature (1).
Other critics, like Alec Lucas, find it sufficient to simply restate Moodie's "preconceived view of nature, a Wordsworthian view" (150), as if it were a banality. Atwood, however, is easily the chief propogandist for this view of Moodie. In Survival, Atwood depicts Moodie as a disciple of Wordsworth with "a markedly double-minded attitude towards Canada" (51). Atwood quotes the following passage from Roughing It in the Bush to support her claim:
... The aspect of Nature ever did, and I hope ever will, continue: "To shoot marvellous strength into my heart." As long as we remain true to the Divine Mother, so long will she remain faithful to her suffering children.
At that period my love for Canada was a feeling very nearly allied to that which the condemned criminal entertains for his cell -- his only hope of escape being through the portals of the grave (Moodie, 135).
Atwood says of this passage: "Those two emotions -- faith in the Divine Mother and a feeling of hopeless imprisonment -- follow each other on the page without break or explanation. If the Divine Mother is all that faithful, we may ask, why are her children suffering?" (51). The answer, of course, goes back to the roots of Judeo-Christian mythology, back to the earthly paradise -- Eden before the Fall -- that Raymond Williams argues in The Country and the City the western literary tradition has been attempting to recreate for hundreds of years (12).
Atwood's question, therefore, is too broad to say anything meaningful about Moodie's response to her wilderness homestead. The question distorts the relationship between humanity and nature in Wordsworth's poetry, since it implies that in Wordsworth's "Great Good Place" nature protects humanity from suffering, a position that an examination of Wordsworth's poetry does not sustain. Wordsworth's poetry contains the same "double vision" towards nature that Atwood identifies in Moodie.
In "Michael," the shepherd loses his son; in "The Ruined Cottage" the cottager loses her husband, her children and eventually her life; in the first book of "The Prelude" Wordsworth says he "grew up/ Fostered alike by beauty and by fear" (ll. 301-2) before telling us how he was chased by a mountain after stealing a boat. Suffering exists within Wordsworth's natural world as it does in Moodie's. Moodie's representation of the natural world, therefore, does not contain the break from her Romantic precursors that Atwood would have us believe. Instead, Moodie fits into a tradition Atwood -- with her obsession for defining a Canadian literature -- was unable to see. Atwood oversimplifies Wordsworth's response to nature in order to construct a foil for her vision of the dominant theme of Canadian literature: survival.
As Mary Lu MacDonald points out, the myth of a hostile Canadian wilderness has no basis in the Canadian literature of the early-nineteenth century:
The question of why negative myth-making appeals so strongly to the modern Canadian psyche must be left for others to resolve. It is a present-day problem, the answer to which must come from present-day Canadians. As far as the literature written and read by our ancestors is concerned, the fact is that before 1850, with few exceptions, all the evidence points to an essentially positive literary view of the Canadian landscape (48).
Roughing It in the Bush does not catalogue Moodie's disillusionment with her Wordsworthian inheritance; it records her deepening understanding of the natural world and her place within it. Far from complaining about mosquitoes as if she were "criticizing the authority of the Bible," as Atwood claims (50), Moodie inscribes herself as one who learned to "defy" the mosquitoes -- along with the "black flies . . . snakes, and even bears" (329) -- and milk a cow despite her fear of the beast: "Yes! I felt prouder of that milk than many an author of the best thing he ever wrote. . . . I had learned a useful lesson of independence, to which in after-years I had often again to refer" (183).
We must admit, however, that the myth of a hostile Canadian wilderness remains a complication to any reading of Roughing It in the Bush. While Moodie's feelings about the backwoods may not be entirely negative, they are far from entirely positive. To be honest, we must say that Moodie responds to the backwoods with ambivalence. Her feelings about the Canadian wilderness echo her feelings about emigration. They also plug her into a Romantic environmental tradition that Karl Kroeber and Jonathan Bate have begun to articulate.
Kroeber argues, for example: "An ecologically oriented criticism directs itself to understanding persistent Romantic struggles to articulate meaningful human relations within the conditions of a natural world in which transcendence is not at issue" (38).
Kroeber claims that "too many intellectuals still work from an assumption that nature and culture are essentially antagonistic" (139). Kroeber argues for the suspension of "current presuppositions about humankind's inescapable discomfort within its natural habitat and the inevitability of mankind's self-defining antagonism to nature" (6). Kroeber argues that the Romantics would not have understood the nature/culture opposition as it is presented by critics like Atwood:
people of the Romantic era felt profound respect for and awe of the natural world. Because of that awe and respect their perception of possibilities for channelling, harnessing, directing parts of nature for the benefits of humankind was bewilderingly exciting (42).
We need to consider that when Moodie writes "the Upper Province was reclaimed from the wilderness" (534) she does not imply that the province was built in opposition to the wilderness, but that the wilderness was a partner in the evolution of the developing society. As Kroeber says of Wordsworth:
Wordsworth's profoundest discovery-creation was that we dehumanize ourselves most perniciously when we use our consciousness to separate ourselves from nature. The separation is disastrous because the natural environment is both the source and the primary sustainer of our singularly human power of consciousness, supremely manifested in our imagination (138).
Culture -- or human society -- cannot exist apart from the natural world. As Kroeber says: "Natural history and human history, however different, are inextricably intertwined" (119).
In Natural Supernaturalism, M.H. Abrams argued twenty years before Kroeber that the Romantics made use of the natural world to express age-old religious ideas within a secular frame (13). Abrams sees a "procreative marriage between mind and nature" in Wordsworth's poetry, a union which is "able to beget a new world," a new Eden (27). Abrams construction of Wordsworth's view of the relationship between humanity and the natural world resembles the Romanticism that Atwood says ill prepared Moodie for the settler's life.
An examination of Moodie's inscription of herself in Roughing It in the Bush, however, makes clear that Moodie's relationship with the natural world is not constructed on an assumption that the self is capable of uniting with the nature to create a new paradise. Moodie's view of the natural world is more complex -- and more practical -- than Atwood's projection of Abrams-like views on her suggests. As Kroeber argues: "the Romantic proto-ecological vision is no simple substitute for traditional religion" (119).
The relationship between the natural world and the human world in Roughing It in the Bush is neither idealized, as if humanity and nature were capable of being united in a perfect transcendent union, nor is it presented as a competition of opposites. For Moodie, the two worlds -- nature and culture -- are interdependent, and Moodie inscribes herself as one composed of an integrated nature-self and a culture-self. She is a lover of nature and one who finds meaning in the sensibilities of middle-class urban living. Roughing It in the Bush demonstrates that the latter has a stronger pull on her personality than the former, but Moodie's narrative does not destroy one at the expense of the other. Even after five years in the Canadian wilderness, living in an area she calls in one of her "jaundiced" moments a "cheerless wasteland" (274), Moodie is still able to write of her "dear forest home which I loved in spite of all the hardships which we had endured since we pitched our tent in the backwoods" (480).
According to Kroeber's Romantic proto-ecology, Moodie's ambivalence demonstrates that she understands the complexities of her situation; she is aware that the family's move took her away from her intensive, everyday contact with the natural world. Moodie knows that the move, which provided her with the means to recreate in Belleville a likeness of her English middle-class urban lifestyle, also cost her something; her period of new learning in the backwoods came to an end. Kroeber argues: "for the Romantics, the highest human attainment is to achieve and sustain intensely contradictory feelings" (5).
The paradox of Moodie's nationality becomes relevant here. Moodie's British audience is warned to stay home, yet Moodie proclaims "few people who have lived many years in Canada, and return to England to spend the remainder of their days, accomplish the fact. They almost invariably come back, and why? They feel more independent and happier here" (531). Moodie warns the English class "not only accustomed to command, but to receive implicit obedience from the people under them" (526) to remain in England, yet she celebrates Canada as the best chance for the "sons of honest poverty" (527) and predicts that "before the close of the [nineteenth] century, [Canadians will] become a great and prosperous people, bearing their own flag, and enjoying their own nationality" (534). In the above quotations, we see the primary complications of Moodie's character -- she identifies with both her British audience and her New World neighbours.
Moodie (as narrator) is dependent on the social and cultural traditions of the Old World, which provide her with coherent rules of behaviour and roles for persons of different social standing. The Old World provides her with her social and cultural norms, yet the Canadian wilderness -- both as itself and as a symbol of the resources available to build Canada's prosperous future -- feeds her hope.
Recounting a canoe trip by moon light, she writes: "In moments like these, I ceased to regret my separation from my native land; and filled with the love of Nature, my heart forgot for the time the love of home. . . . Amid these lonely wilds, the soul draws nearer to God" (340). Moodie (as narrator) is neither alienated from the natural world, as Atwood suggests, nor does she seek to unite herself with it, as Atwood implies is Moodie's aesthetic goal. Instead, she demonstrates proto-ecological values by inscribing herself as ambivalent to the natural world; she celebrates it -- and her life in the backwoods -- at the same time as she acknowledges how her circumstances have limited her ability to reconstruct in the New World a life that resembles her upbringing.
Kroeber notes a similar spectrum of emotion in Wordsworth: "Wordsworth's faith in life's intrinsic pleasurableness was held in conjunction with his antithetical awareness of nature as a dauntingly vast, ever-ongoing system implacably indifferent to the fate of particular parts of it" (47).
Susanna Moodie left Edinburgh for the New World thirty-four years to the day before Canada become a country. She remains, twenty-nine years after the country's centennial, a significant member of Canada's cultural legacy. Moodie's Romanticism -- and the proto-ecology embedded within it -- however, is too little understood.
Abrams, M.H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1971.
Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.
Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Kroeber, Karl. Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
Lucas, Alec. "The Function of the Sketches in Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush." Re(Dis)covering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Writers. Ed. Lorraine McMullen. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1990: 146-154.
McLeod, Les. "Canadian Post-Romanticism: the Context of Late-Nineteenth-Century Canadian Poetry." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. 1984 (Spring-Summer): 14, 1-37.
MacDonald, Mary Lu. "The Natural World in Early Nineteenth-Century Canadian Literature." Canadian Literature. 1986 (Winter): 111, 48-65.
Moodie, Susanna. Roughing It in the Bush. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.
---. Voyages: Short Narratives of Susanna Moodie. Ed. John Thurston. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1991.
Shields, Carol. Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1977.
Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Hogarth Press, 1985.