Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada by Anna Brownell Jameson

This entry is part 16 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though! 

This is a book I’ve had for ages, but from which I only read a little bit. I figured I’d resolve that, and… quickly remembered why I had never read much of it. Anna Brownell Jameson was long-winded in the way of many people from her era—she was born late in the late 1700s, and this book is an account of her travel to Canada in the 1830s. 

Notably, it’s retitled here—or maybe it was retitled in its 1852 edition, or perhaps the title of an abridgement of the original book, I’m not sure—because the (abridged?) copy available on Project Gutenberg is titled something that aged much less well: Sketches in Canada, and Rambles Among the Red Men. That said, the book is what it said on the tin: the first ~200 pages include some impressions of Toronto after a brief stay, and the remainder of the book (over 300 pages) details Jameson’s trip out into the countryside, including among First Nations people referred to in the title. 

The book is, honestly, a slog punctuated by moments of surprise and oddity. Jameson spends a lot of time outlining her thoughts on Goethe, but then she’ll bust out some comment about the status of women in her time that sounds downright modern. Then… back to Goethe, or Mendelssohn, or some something else less than interesting or exciting. 

Things do get a little more… “interesting” after her trip begins. She makes a lot of observations about the First Nations people, and a lot of those observations are what you’d expect from an Englishwoman of the 1830s: she constantly refers to the indolence of the men, the poverty and squalor and filth and so on. (That said, there are also passages where she uses a lot of the same adjectives for white men in Canada.) Those adjectives tend to get swapped when she is describing Christianized “Indians” and especially when she is describing aboriginal women. Yes, she does compare one to one of the witches from MacBeth, but she describes others as astonishingly beautiful—saying they would be considered so anywhere—and when comparing their condition to the condition of women in England, she concludes that they might even be a little better off than the typical Englishwoman, all things told. Which is to say, when she wants to excoriate Englishmen for their suppression of women, then the aboriginal women she sees suddenly enjoy relatively greater freedom; when she wants to emphasize the inferiority of the natives, suddenly everyone is “indolent” and “filthy” and living in “squalor.” 

Jameson seems to at least partly grasp that these are people living through a slow-moving apocalyspe of sorts—and an apocalypse occasioned by European and specifically English cruelty and viciousness, which she both acknowledges and excoriates, albeit at times couching her criticism in the presumed inferiority of the aboriginal people that she encountered: she outright states that she does not think they are “tameable” for example. (She thinks that she’s complimenting them, but… I don’t feel like she really is, and nor have many modern critics.) Even the sympathies she entertains seem to have their limits… at approximately ten feet, in fact: whenever she interacts directly with a Native person, she slips into praising them; when she observes them at a distance, she’s much more critical, and the biased vocabulary emerges again. Then again, most of her direct interactions with aboriginal people seem to have been with Christian converts. I guess that shouldn’t surprise us: even today, a lot of people have that whole “good ones” and “bad ones” dichotomy in their heads. 

All of which is to say that it’s not the most comfortable reading in 2022, even if you know enough about 1836 going in to expect that. She does, for what it’s worth. try to learn people’s actual names and transcribe them the best she can. She tries to share a song—there’s sheet music on one page of the book—and retells some stories that a missionary translated for her (how accurately, who knows, but probably only somewhat). She relates a little of the folklore she runs across, comparing it to European and Far-Eastern analogues when she can think of them. She does seem more interested than I imagine a lot of English writers would have been at the time, though maybe I’m underestimating her contemporaries. 

That said, the snippet I found most interesting was one I posted a while back, about the Black community there and its powerful resistance to the repatriation of a slave to his American master on a legal technicality: it’s not a surprise that escaped slaves might congregate in the area, since crossing into British territory legally made them free (at this time). Still, it’s a fascinating scene I think most modern, white Canadians cannot imagine. 

In any case, this is a book I must admit I skimmed rather than reading throughout; and I don’t think that neglect is wholly unwarranted,. In many ways, it feels a lot how blogs feel today, a decade after their faltering and mostly slipping from the digital landscape: it’s written for an imagined audience, but with perhaps too little attention to whether that audience would really enjoy what is being written. 

Series Navigation<< <em>May We Borrow Your Husband? and Other Comedies of the Sexual Life</em> by Graham Greene<em>The Cursed Chateau</em> by James Maliszewski, illustrated by Jez Gordon >>

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