The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten, Victorian Matriarch – ANDERSON (CSS)

ANDERSON, Mary J. (Ed.). The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten, Victorian Matriarch. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2004. 337p. Resenha de: CLARK, Penney. Canadian Social Studies, v.41, n.1, p., 2008.

This fascinating book traces the both ordinary and extraordinary life story of Victorian matriarch, Mary Baker McQuesten (1849-1934). It is part of the life writing series published by Wilfred Laurier University Press, which is intended to promote autobiographical accounts, diaries, letters and testimonials written and/or told by women and men whose political, literary, or philosophical purposes are central to their lives (ii).

Editor, Mary J. Anderson has divided the book into four parts. Pa5rt One is a biography of Mary Baker McQuesten. Part Two describes her work with the Presbyterian Missionary Societies and includes selections from her Missionary Society Addresses. Part Three situates this family story within a broader narrative of Victorian middle-class urban life in Canada. The final section, which is the most lengthy by far, is a collection of primary source materials: selections from the collection of 1000 letters extant in Mary Baker McQuestens hand, her eulogy, and excerpts from her will. There are also extensive and scholarly footnotes. The written text is accompanied by a charming collection of family photographs, including several of Whitehern, the family home in Hamilton, Ontario.

The editor deliberately sets out to make her task transparent, describing her discovery of the source materials and decisions she made as she used them to construct her account. The letters in this collection are unusual in that they seem to have been consciously written with posterity in mind. After they circulated among family members, they were collected and carefully stored. The letters and other papers, as well as the family home, were bequeathed to the city of Hamilton in 1968 by Marys last surviving child, Calvin, so that everyone may enjoythe beautiful rooms of Whitehern and eat their lunches in its pleasant garden (67). The home is now a museum and archives. The editor notes that it is a virtual time capsule because little beyond the essentials was changed after the family became impoverished in 1888. Even the garden has been maintained in its 1930s state, when Marys son Tom undertook a major landscaping project.

Whitehern was the family home for 116 years. The stately home was purchased by Dr. Calvin McQuesten, a wealthy industrialist, in 1852. The following year, Mary Baker married Calvin McQuestens son, Isaac. Isaac was a successful lawyer and received a large inheritance, which included Whitehern, at his fathers death in 1885. However, at the time of Isaacs own death three years later, of an apparent suicide, he was bankrupt. At his death, thirty-eight year old Mary and their six living children, who were between the ages of fourteen and three, went abruptly from wealth and ease to genteel poverty. Fortunately, the house had been placed in trust for Mary and she and the children were able to remain living in it. The family state of genteel poverty continued for twenty years.

As the editor points out, the most vital recurring themes in her writings are those of family finances, health, education, the Presbyterian missionary societies, and Victorian society and culture (52). She adds they also reveal the gradual development of the character of Mary Baker McQuesten from a privileged young matron into a powerful matriarch and a forceful social activist (52). Mary was very active in the public sphere, assuming executive positions in Womens Missionary Societies and traveling throughout Ontario and the western provinces to establish auxiliaries or to inspect missions. She was also a member of the National Council of Women and was instrumental in the establishment of a local chapter of the Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA).

Marys six children did not marry. The two eldest daughters, Mary and Hilda, lived out their days caring for home and family. Older son, Calvin, spent most of his working life as a semi-volunteer chaplain at the Hamilton Mountain Sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. He suffered from what seems to have been an inherited family tendency toward mental depression. Daughter, Ruby, worked as a teacher long enough for her brother, Tom, to complete school with her financial assistance. She then succumbed to tuberculosis and spent much of her time in sanatoriums until her death at age thirty-two. Edna had several mental breakdowns, eventually receiving shock treatments and a partial lobotomy. Second son, Tom, blessed with energy and good health, became a successful lawyer and well respected politician, honoured for his active participation in the city beautiful movement. Among his lasting accomplishments are his substantial involvement in the relocation of McMaster University to Hamilton, the building of the Niagara Parkway and Parks system, and the rebuilding of several forts in the Niagara peninsula.

As a reader, I confess that I was unable to arouse as much sympathy toward Mary Baker McQuesten as the editor seemed to have. There is no doubt that she was a loving mother and an intelligent woman with indomitable courage. She contributed both within her own family circle and to the larger society. However, as I read, I puzzled about her children, who, with the possible exception of her younger son, Tom, led curiously thwarted lives. There is no doubt that only the cruel hand of fate can be blamed for a part of this outcome. However, it is intriguing to contemplate the role that Mary played in their lives. For example, given the archival information with which Anderson acquaints us, there can be no question that she intervened in the romances of daughters, Hilda and Ruby, and son, Tom. I also could not help think about her two eldest daughters and how they spent their lives running the household. In fact, it was their support in the domestic sphere that allowed their mother to engage so enthusiastically in the public domain. She apparently made a deliberate decision, upon her husbands untimely death, that this was the way it was going to be, and so it was. She ran her adult childrens lives down to the most minute details; even advising her adult son, Calvin to rub the [toilet] seat as hard as possible with paper (170) when forced to use public washrooms. On one occasion, she wrote to her son, Tom, we pray God that he will mercifully spare you as long as my life lasts adding as an afterthought, That sounds selfish does it not? (202). Perhaps it does, just a little.

Mary J. Anderson might have been bolder in her interpretations of the wealth of sources available to her. For example, she comments that the mystery of why none of the children were married must be left to the readers judgment (51-52). Since she is the one who has spent time with the primary sources, it seems reasonable to expect that she could be more insightful on this question than her readers.

The book is complemented by a website, the Whitehern Museum Archives ( At this time, the website contains a searchable database of nearly 2000 letters (and will eventually have 3000), 200 photographs, essays, newspaper articles, and sermons; detailed timelines; analysis and commentary based on Mary J. Andersons doctoral thesis; and information about Whitehern itself.

The book, the website, and the home are treasure troves of primary source material for teachers and students interested in womens or family history, upper middle-class urban life in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Presbyterian Missionary Societies, or even medical history, in Canada. Because the editor makes her work so transparent, the book offers a helpful glimpse of how one can go about working with primary source materials to weave a coherent and well supported narrative.

Penney Clark – University of British Columbia. Vancouver, British Columbia.

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