Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Trail are among Canada’s most important writers of the 19th century. Born only 23 months apart in England, the two are sisters who took up the writing profession before they were married. They eventually got married to Scottish husbands and immigrated to Canada in 1832, and settled in the backwoods of Ontario which is near present-day Lakefield. They interpreted and recorded their many experiences as pioneers in books that have remained famous to this day. Susanna and Catharine continued to live in Canada as writers until their deaths in 1855 and 1899 respectively. This essay is about the comparison of the books Roughing It in the Bush by Susanna Moodie and The Backwoods of Canada by Catharine Parr Traill.
Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the bush is a narration of how she coped with the hostility of life in the upper side of Canada as an Englishwoman living abroad. Her account was written partly because land-agents in Europe were circulating glowing falsehoods about life in the new land. In her chronicle, she is humorous and frank. She allows us to meet each and every character with her and she lets us in on her secret thoughts as we get to know them. We take in the physical detail beginning naturally with first impressions. It is easy to note any particular features, idiosyncrasies and habits typical of that specific character which not only define the character but also make him or her memorable. One example of such details includes the description of Brain. Susanna describes him as still-hunter with hawk-like eyes. Tom has a habit of absent-mindedly wishing other a good night in the afternoon while Mr. Malcolm puts on an animal expression on his face when he is served his meal.
These two individuals are other examples of the use of vivid graphic description and provision of even the tiniest of details, by Susanna. The various details she gives about each individual character cast the character into a stereotypical role reflecting the writer’s prejudices and conservative sensibilities. After casting her character, Susanna makes some comments to inform the reader of the impressions she has so far of the individual and the conclusions she has drawn. This is an important style in the story as it predicts the manner of her interaction and reaction with the character. For instance, after she describes Mr. Malcolm as small, dark, thick, solemn in appearance and with a gruff voice, she writes: ""I had taken him for a mechanic, from his dirty, slovenly appearance; and his physiognomy was so unpleasant that I did not credit his assumption that he was a friend of my husband, for I was certain that no man who possessed such a forbidding aspect could be regarded by Moodie as a friend."" Susanna is also honest in this book as demonstrated by the account of Mr. Malcolm. Although Susanna portrays him as a beast-like man who is exceedingly lazy, a constant complainer and brutally rude, Mr. Malcolm has one redeeming quality and Susanna paints it as clearly and honestly as the bad ones. This quality is that Malcolm somehow forms a strong and special bond with Dunbar, Susanna’s infant child(Yorke).
In chapter two of the book Roughing it in the bush: The Wilderness, and our Indian Friends, Susanna becomes even more poetic using stylistic features such as symbolism and rhyme. This is evident from the very opening words of that chapter: “The clouds of the preceding night, instead of dissolving in snow, brought on a rapid thaw.” In this chapter, Susanna reveals how she feels about life in the wild parts of Canada. She is bored by the sudden change of the normal weather she’s used to, to a rainy weather that makes “the foot slips into a wet and insidiously-yielding mass at every step,” thus hindering movement from one place to another. She generally unhappy about conditions in her new home, and she applies a deep poetic language to convey this, she says: “The cheerless and uncomfortable aspect of things without never fails to produce a corresponding effect upon the minds of those within, and casts such a damp upon the spirits that it appears to destroy for a time all sense of enjoyment.”
Even after staying for some time in her new locality, she is still afraid of being attacked by wild beasts in the woods. To her, life is gloomy and uneventful. Allusion is another style Susanna employs in this book to help us understand how she feels. For instance, she alludes to the bible when she says, "The wicked are afraid when noman pursueth: but the righteous are as bold as a lion."" She uttered these words to try and “shame” herself into courage but fails to do so because she “could not overcome the weaknesses of the flesh.” Susanna also tells us how she really feels about her neighbors, the Indian people. She says their beauty, talents and good qualities are overrated and they hardly deserve the praise given to them. However, the Indians have two good qualities that may shadow their otherwise dark and unlovely nature. These are honesty and love of truth. The first persona narration of Susana Moodie in this book makes it even more captivating(Celmare).
In her book The Backwoods of Canada, Catharine writes like an innocent obedient child talking to her mother, almost oblivious of the challenges and issues around her. She opens her letters with charming words such as, “I received your last kind letter, my dearest mother.” Instead of being disheartened by the toughness of the long journey, she finds delight in the scenery along the way as these words show, “I was much pleased with the scenery of the Clyde; the day we set sail was a lovely one, and I remained on deck till nightfall. The morning light found our vessel dashing gallantly along, with a favorable breeze, through the North Channel.” Interestingly tough, her fascination and enthusiasm is short lived. After only a week she starts “getting weary of the voyage.” She explores the idea that woman is more advantaged than man because she is resourceful and can quickly adapt to her circumstances in order to get by, while man is hopeless and vulnerable when they have nothing to do. She says, “I really do pity men who are not actively employed: women have always their needle as a resource against the overwhelming weariness of an idle life; but where a man is confined to a small space, such as the deck and cabin of a trading vessel, with nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to do, and nothing to read, he is really a very pitiable creature.” Like her sister Susanna, she uses poetic language beautifully together with symbolism to captivate the reader’s mind. “We were visited this morning by a beautiful little bird, not much larger than our gold-crested wren. I hailed it as a bird of good omen–a little messenger sent to bid us welcome to the New World, and I felt almost a childish joy at the sight of our little visitor,” she says. Unlike Susanna, Catharine is romantic in her book, relating her husband’s display of affection foe her, she says, “my husband brought me a delightful bouquet, which he had selected for me.”
Also unlike her sister, Catharine doesn’t seem to mind the changed state of the weather in her new home. She has a completely different attitude of the woods, than that of her sister Susanna. “There is a want of picturesque beauty in the woods. The young growth of timber alone has any pretension of the elegance of form, unless I except the hemlocks, which are extremely light and graceful, and of a lovely refreshing tint of green,” she says. Also, her impression of the Indian people is different. She views them as kind and honest people. She even quickly forms a bond of friendship with their children, showing how fast she was able to settle in her new home. She writes, “The children are already very fond of me. They have discovered my passion for flowers, which they diligently search for among the stumps and along the lake shore. I have begun collecting, and though the season is far advanced, my hortus siccus boasts of several elegant specimens of fern; the yellow Canadian violet, which blooms twice in the year, in the spring and fall.” Although she is aware of the many challenges and problems of the new life, she is generally positive and hopeful(Whitlock).
Catharine Parr Trail’s The Backwoods of Canada is a series of emotional and descriptive letters of her mother. Although she has a lively personality, her work is less vivid than that of her sister Susanna Moodie, because Susanna is able to show the “dark underbelly of experiences” that Catharine writes about with “great joy.” For example, while Catharine writes of drunkenness and riotous behavior, Catharine makes her account of the same event “sound like a dainty tea party.” She indulges in “upbeat pretense” to cover the inadequacies of family and marriage as well as the hardship of pioneer life. Even though Catharine strove to be at peace with the world and herself, she did so while trying to cope with rapid transformations. That kind of calmness and peace is occasionally achieved in Catharine’s letters. In her book, she notes there must be a boundary to the endless claims of European settler to absolute dominion over land. She also looks into the notion that European settlers, their animals, and crops are in fact usurpers. For Catharine, there is something that is valuable in itself, in the Canadian bush and does not need any transformation. Scholars have come to view it as the inferior of the two because it contains less drama; it is less truthful and lacks liveliness. According to others, Catharine’s work in this book suffers from blandness although still viewed as representing a happy camper of Canadian pioneer experience. (Hessing).