The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross

In my last post, I wrote about Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables (1908) and Emily of New Moon (1923). Almost immediately following that book, I read The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie; another fictional account of a well known female author from Canada’s past. Susanna Moodie is the author of Roughing It In the Bush (1852) and Life in the Clearings versus the Bush (1853). Her sister, Catharine Parr Traill (who was named for Catherine Parr, wife of Henry VIII), wrote The Backwoods of Canada (1836).

Susanna Moodie immigrated to Canada with her husband in 1832, 42 years before L.M. Montgomery was even born. They had a rough go of it at first, which she meticulously documents in Roughing It In the Bush, but leaves out some of the juicy bits, like how awful she really felt and how mad at her husband she often was for his gullibility and hair-brained ideas.

As when reading Roughing it in the Bush last year, I took a ridiculous amount of notes while reading… but only because I find all of it so fascinating!

Childhood and literary life

I was worried I wouldn’t be interested in the first two parts of the book, which focuses on Susanna’s childhood and early adulthood in England, but it ended up being one of the best parts. I loved reading/learning about the Strickland family and the relationships between the sisters, all but one of whom were literarily-inclined (I might have just made that word up). In fact, 6 out of the 8 Strickland children became published authors in their lifetime. Susanna and Catharine were the youngest of the six girls, and there were two younger boys. They were relatively well educated for women of their time, and it was interesting to read about their ideas on women’s issues.

Their younger brother Tom joined the Merchant Marines and Sam went ahead of Susanna and Catharine to Canada, and by the time they arrived he was already well established. In 1853, Sam published a book called Twenty-Seven Years in Canada West, a year after Susanna’s Roughing It In the Bush. Interestingly, according to this source, their sisters Agnes and Jane Margaret “were eager to see an alternative account of pioneering and settlement to Susanna’s Roughing It in the Bush (1852), which they viewed as an embarrassment to the Strickland family”. Poor Susanna.

When Susanna was a child in Suffolk, England, Jane Austen was still alive (she died when Susanna was 15). Susanna preferred her books over many others, but had to “wait until the ghouls have left” before reading from the “forbidden texts”.

I confess that though I am surely better for having read Locke and Descartes, and Miss Wollstonecraft is indeed an inspiration to the fair sex, I find that the novels of Jane Austen thrill me more than any philosophical treatise ever has. Mama does not consider them appropriate for young women of our class, and Agnes claims to prefer the rigours of historical argument to the “fevered imaginings of an aging spinster.” (She seems oblivious to the hypocrisy contained in such a statement.)

When Susanna met John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie, she had to make a difficult decision between her budding literary life or a life as a wife and mother.

Susanna and Catharine

Despite the fact that the sisters were very close from a young age, there was an intense rivalry between them that often caused tension in their relationship. Which seemed a shame once they were both in Canada and didn’t have a wide variety of friends and neighbours.  They had very different temperaments; Catharine being optimistic and even-tempered while Susanna was more fiery and passionate. Catharine was also more loyal to her husband (in a traditional way) than Susanna seemed to be, which also caused some tension. When Susanna tried to confide in her sister concerns about her husband, Catharine just reminded her to trust in her husband because he knows what’s best.

I cannot reconcile my love for them with the cold fingers of jealousy that grip my throat when I consider their successes. There is something wild in it, some part of me I cannot tame, a place where love and reason do not reach.

Sometimes I think my sister has landed on another continent from the one I currently inhabit. How is it she finds herself surrounded by genteel, educated women, also skilled in the arts of jam and bread making, while I am reduced to begging for candle stubs from sullen, backward harpies? Why should Kate be favoured again? My childish heart protests the fairness of it.

Why do Kate’s meagre successes feel like acid on my own thin skin? The more we need one another, the more we are like curs haggling over scraps of meat.

Susanna and Moodie

If you want to know in more detail what happens to Susanna and Moodie once they arrive in Canada, you can read all about it in my post on Roughing It In the Bush. I admit to getting a bit carried away. But I had made all those notes!

Their trials in a nutshell… cholera, mosquitoes, “bone-shattering roads”, rudeness, rough neighbours, debt, and more debt, extreme weather, fires, confined spaces, crappy food and not much of it, multiple pregnancies, illness, and depression. Susanna writes about all this with humour in her book, but in her journals she is more candid.

On that fetid rock that day, the invisible bonds that had always held everything in place were ripped away. I knew there was no going back, and I was afraid.

I am disappearing. This land is erasing me, and beginning to remake me in ways I never anticipated.

One thing I longed for while reading Roughing It In the Bush was more substance on Susanna’s relationship with her husband. I got the impression that there was some real affection there (which is not always the case when reading about marriage in the 1800s), so I was interested to see it explored in more detail. Susanna was not the type to sit back and trust her husband to everything, and she was not the type to go through life demurely. She was fiery and she had some gumption (you would have to to live through some of the stuff she lived through). So when Moodie made decisions without her input she got angry, and when he made colossal mistakes she became incensed. Moodie did make me want to shake him when he kept getting them further into debt, but he was also so good-natured that both Susanna and I eventually came around and forgave him. It was especially easy to forgive him when he was gone for months at a time leaving us alone with young children and all the work. All was forgiven if only he would hurry home.

Playing the part of submissive, forbearing wife is a role that continues to prickle like a burr in my stocking. Even when I know better, I am expected to smile and submit. It is not in my nature.

Susanna continues to cling to her writing throughout all the hardships in the new world. She manages to sell some stories and poems, as well as some of her paintings to help with their debts. It also brings her purpose and pride to know that her work is being read and appreciated.

The idea, too, that my voice has reached beyond this prison of trees and rocks and is being heard in the wider world affirms my existence as something more than a beast of burden.

But she eventually also comes to appreciate her new home, recognizing the fact that it is the only home her children will ever know.

.. as the wagon jolted north over the corduroy roads that run beside the rushing Otonabee, through swamps and forests linking the clearings to one another like uneven beads on a necklace, I realized that this too is home. Though I have fought hard against it, this landscape, this Canada, is part of me now. I accept it. And that is a kind of victory.

I loved this book. Like L.M. Montgomery, I could gobble up anything written about this woman and others like her. If you have any interest in learning about brave, literary women who come to Canada, have lots of babies in the woods, and realize their lives will never be the same again, you should read this book.

After reading about great female Canadian literary figures like L.M. Montgomery and Susanna Moodie, I’m happy to take recommendations for who to read about next!

Competition for best line:

Ingenuity and forbearance will be about as useful as a thimble in a flood.

If I am doomed to live in a cowshed, then I will be the Duchess of Cowsheds.

I sometimes think a kind of madness has overtaken us all.

Thank you to 49th Shelf who sent me a copy of this book after I was lucky enough to win it in one of their contests! 


36 thoughts on “The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross

  1. didibooksenglish says:

    Non-fiction is not always my first choice but it is a way to learn about people, places, and problems. This one would definitely teach me something about Canada, a place I’d like to one visit.

  2. Penny says:

    I really loved reading this one too Naomi! So fascinating! I just couldn’t BELIEVE what she was enduring and overcoming in the very early days of settling Canada! But how Ross spun this incredibly readable story and journal entries – I couldn’t stop reading it! 🙂

  3. annelogan17 says:

    With all your Canadian reads lately, I think you might enjoy the children’s book m is for moose by Charles Pachter. It was published in 2009 (and I was the publicist for it) but he includes paintings of Susanna Moodie, etc which are so beautiful 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t yet, but I finally went ahead and bought a copy (I found a good used one), and it’s on its way to me right now!

    • Naomi says:

      It felt very true to everything I’ve read so far. All the events I knew of from Moodie’s book are brought to life in this one, and I feel she did a good job of imagining what Susanna’s journaling voice would be like.

    • Naomi says:

      When I read Roughing It In the Bush, the biggest surprise for me was how funny she was. Her humour shines through in this book, as well.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    This sounds really good, and I love the fact that you took SO many notes. That’s always a sign to me of a different kind of engagement, like you want the book to last even longer and the first thing you can think of is to write sections of it out (or key them out, if you use a computer for your notes – I just realised that must make me sound ancient)!

    As for other recs, your question reminds me of a book I’ve had on my shelf for ages, called The Clear Spirit, which does include chapters on LMM and these sisters too, but so many other Canadian women too (mostly white and privileged, as you might guess – it’s a 1966 volume). I’ve been meaning to read it for a long time and your enthusiasm about these women makes me wantt to snatch it from the shelf right now!

    • Naomi says:

      All my notes are written out. I even have many pen colours, so I don’t get tired of looking at the same colour all the time. 🙂
      I think taking a lot of notes means that I want to remember everything about a book – and that’s my way of attempting the impossible. I also want to share my love of it with everyone, but then realize that it doesn’t make sense to re-write the book!

      I hope you do snatch that book up – I want to hear more about it!

  5. FictionFan says:

    I’ve never heard of Susanna Moodie but I love her voice in the quotes you’ve given. And anyone who prefers Austen to Wollstonecraft is my kind of woman…!

  6. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    Any woman who has lots of babies in the wilderness is a heroine to me! Especially if there’s only crappy food around (which you have to cook yourself while having babies). 🙂 I well remember your enthusiasm for Moody, so I am not surprised that you enjoyed this book so much. I’m glad it lived up to your expectations.
    I’m about to return Frontier Grit to the library. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far, but the little I did read was really good. I will definitely borrow it again to finish reading it, and if you’d like to read NF about women in the wilderness, then this might be for you.

    • Naomi says:

      I actually ended up enjoying it even more than I thought I would (Roughing It). And this one I had high hopes for because of the last one, and fortunately they were realized!

    • Naomi says:

      I find Susanna’s life fascinating. And it was a fun coincidence that I read a fictional account of her life right after reading a fictional account of L.M. Montgomery’s teen years. Both were satisfying reads for me!

  7. Grab the Lapels says:

    I love this review, and I remember loving the first one you wrote about Moodie. I feel like this woman brings out the Naomi in you, whereas some of your reviews seem less personal. For instance, you write that you AND Moodie forgave her husband 🙂

    I also like this line because I feel like it applies today when you consider play dates and cupcakes and working moms (the do-everything women): “How is it she finds herself surrounded by genteel, educated women, also skilled in the arts of jam and bread making, while I am reduced to begging for candle stubs from sullen, backward harpies?”

    • Naomi says:

      It’s true that I find it fun and easy to write about her! For some reason, I just find her life so fascinating – as I probably would for many other women of her time – she just happened to be one of the ones who documented it all for us to read about.

      As for that quote… yes! it’s just like the comparing we do now, only then it seemed more dire. There were quite a few times when Susanna seemed to be on death’s door (or desperation’s door), and Catharine was no where to be seen. I’d love to read something more personal about Catharine’s life, too, to get it all from her perspective, but I think Susanna left more to go on than Catharine did. Still, I’d be happy if someone even just made it up for me!

  8. susan says:

    I guess I’m more inclined to read Roughing It in the Bush over the novel, but I’m sure they are both interesting. I will add Moodie to my list of Canadian musts. I’m sure: You have to be a survivalist to be a pioneer to what was the bush or the woods back then.

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