Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870 – NOËL (CSS)

NOËL, Françoise. Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003. 372p. Resenha de: HOFFMAN, George. Canadian Social Studies, v.39, n.2, p., 2005.

In Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870, Franoise Nol portrays middle class family life in the mid-nineteenth century. The book is divided into three parts. Part one is entitled The Couple and deals with courtship and marriage. The second part concerns parents and children and discusses childbirth, childhood and parent-child relationships. The last section discusses kinship ties and community life.

The book contains several generalizations related to Canadian family history in the 1800s. The author contends that most couples married for love. Companionate marriage was the norm, and the role of parents in mate selection was no longer as significant as it had been. As well, Nol shows that relations within families were affectionate. Parents showed an extraordinary concern for their children, which continued even after they married and left home. She also illustrates that much of family life took place beyond the door of the home. Families were a part of a large social network which included kin, friends and neighbours. Sociability was an essential part of family life.

Nol’s account has many strengths. The research, as indicated by the endnotes and bibliography, is impressive. The author shows a broad knowledge of her subject. She links her findings to scholarship in the United States and Britain. She is always aware of the larger picture. Parallels are drawn between families in the Canadas and what American historians of the period refer to as the rise of the Republican Family. When discussing child rearing, she refers to the Enlightenment and the influence which thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau were having on the view that children could be nurtured. Such analysis illustrates the significance of family history as a field of study. Family history is not merely human interest stories from the past. Nor is it titillating tidbits related to love, courtship and marriage. Rather, as Franoise Nol shows, it is an important part of social history which helps us to better understand the overall nature of past societies.

I would suggest that readers begin this book by studying the introduction. Here the author discusses the sources upon which her work is based. The book’s subtitle is A View from Diaries and Family Correspondence. In the introduction Nol identifies the diarists and letter writers. We are told when and where they lived and something about the circumstances of their lives. These people appear and re-appear in the pages which follow. It is important to consider who these correspondents are when assessing the conclusions Nol reaches regarding nineteenth century Canadian families.

The diaries and letters which are used do raise some concerns. The sample is not representative of all segments of society. Nol acknowledges this limitation but suggests that the sources accurately reflect the middle class, which in itself, of course, is a valuable historical contribution. However, some questions can be asked about some of the diarists and correspondents, particularly those who are used to illustrate that family values among francophones and anglophones and people of different religious backgrounds were similar.

There is a general contention in the book that the attitudes and principles which guided family life were similar regardless of religion, language and ethnicity. Several diaries and numerous letters of English Canadians are referred to but so are those of French Canadians like Amde Papineau and Ludger and Reine Duvernay. Considerable emphasis is also placed on the journal of Abraham Joseph, a merchant and member of a well-known Jewish family in Lower Canada. The conclusion that follows is that class, not other factors, was most influential in shaping family life in the Canadas during the nineteenth century. Nol does not ignore religious and cultural differences but in the end suggests that religion was not the deciding influence. Family life of Protestants, Catholics and Jews was similar.

But can Amde Papineau and his extended family be used to prove such a point? Papineau was the son of patriote leader Louis Joseph Papineau. After the Rebellion of 1837 he lived in exile with his family in the United States. There he met and eventually married Mary Westcott, the daughter of a merchant from Saratoga, New York. Amde kept a diary rich in detail about his life before and after his marriage. After moving to Montreal following her marriage, Mary exchanged letters with her father in New York for the rest of her life. Nol uses both the diary and letters extensively throughout the book.

Amde was Catholic, and Mary was Protestant. In 1846 they were married in Saratoga by a Presbyterian minister in a fifteen minute ceremony in the Westcott home. After their move to Montreal, Mary usually attended her own church but sometimes accompanied her husband to a Catholic mass at Notre-Dame. And occasionally Amde went with his wife to a Protestant service. A daughter was baptized in the Presbyterian church and a son in the Catholic church. Clearly this was an unusually liberal attitude toward religion and inter-faith marriage. Or perhaps it was evidence of religious indifference. This unconventional family has an important place in Nol’s portrait of family life. One can well ask if Amde Papineau and Mary Westcott can be used to illustrate French Canadian Catholic families, particularly in light of the conservative forces which were growing in the Quebec church after 1850.

Despite this reservation Family Life and Sociability is a major contribution to nineteenth century Canadian social history. It will not be easily read by high school students or by students in introductory university courses. However, teachers and professors certainly can use it to introduce their students to family history as a branch of historical studies. The fascinating information which the book contains about love, birth, life and death is and always will be of interest to everyone.

George Hoffman – History Department. University of Regina. Regina, Saskatchewan.

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