Month: March 2019

Another Female First

This post was inspired by a blog from Jacqui Nelson on the first woman poet laureate of California, Ina Coolbrith.  Kudos to Jacqui for discovering this exceptional woman and a tip of the hat to Ina for creating her mark in the world.

A Canadian woman, Agnes Deans Cameron, has a similar story. Born in 1863 in Victoria, B.C. she became a trailblazer for women. At the tender age of 16 she earned her teaching certificate. Because she was so young, her certificate only allowed her to teach in a school where other teachers were employed. Her first posting was at Angela College, a girls school in Victoria. Later, she became the first female to teach at the Boy’s School  and then Victoria High School. It was here she ran into her first conflict with the mores of the age.

A male student, who’d already failed his course four times, refused the assignment she gave him.  The strap was the accepted punishment for such insolence, but this boy left school rather than submit to corporal punishment. He was suspended but his father complained. Eventually, Agnes was fired. The whole affair was written about in the newspapers, talked of on the street, and preached from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Agnes was a cause celebre.

Later she became the first female principal in British Columbia, with her appointment to that post at South Park School.

Deans Cameron was breaking new ground on other fronts as well. She attended the Chicago Worlds Fair, travelling by herself in an era when respectable women travelled with a companion.

She protested a pay raise for male teachers while female teachers were denied such an increase. As a principal the differing pay scales did not affect her but she felt “as citizens we have a duty to participate, a duty that we cannot relegate to others.” Her outspokenness led her into a conflict with the school trustees and, eventually, the department of education of the province. It was a long and twisting trail, but in the end, Cameron was fired, and her teaching certificate revoked. At the same time, the government was in the process of expropriating her home. As the sole support for her mother and sister, the loss of her living had huge consequences.

on Arctic trek with Jessie Brown

But Deans Cameron was not easily dismissed. She had already been writing columns for various newspapers. Now she embarked on a journey to the Arctic, riding on Hudson’s Bay trading barges and canoes, with her niece, Jessie Brown. As a result of this experience she became a popular speaker and writer. As well as the newspaper columns, she now penned a book, The New North: An Account of a Woman’s 1908 journey through Canada to the Arctic. The book was a huge success and Agnes was much in demand as a speaker, in Canada and the United States.

One would think she’d had adventures enough but Agnes was always curious. She raced bicycles in her youth. Later she joined the Canadian Highway Association for a drive from Nanaimo to Port Alberni. Sadly, this was her last adventure. A few days after the rally she died of appendicitis.

Ironically, Victoria, which had vilified her during the education debates, now welcomed her home as a favoured daughter. She was buried from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, one of the largest funerals the city had seen. The pallbearers, included the superintendent of schools.

If you’d like to read the full account of Agnes Deans Cameron’s life, her biography is called Against the Current and is available here.

 

 

“Princesses”

As a writer of historical fiction, I’m keen on research. Even though my works are fiction, I believe it is important that they be “true” where non-fictional characters or events are concerned. Sometimes my research is a little dry — a task that must be completed, but not my favourite part of writing.

Sometimes the research turns into a page-turning read. Such is the case with Flora Fraser’s Princesses – the Six Daughters of George III.  The book is meticulously researched using letters and diaries written by the princesses and by their governesses and friends. Ms Fraser received permission from Queen Elizabeth II to delve into the royal archives for material. It’s a bit of a tome, 400 pages of close print, plus another 100 of footnotes, but each sentence is packed with detail.

In some ways, this is a sad story. Six lively, intelligent, educated women of the highest rank, whose lives were constrained, cabined and controlled. When they should have been enjoying parties and courtships, they were sitting attendance on their parents. The highlight of their days would be a walk outside. To go riding was considered a high thrill and slightly risque.

The book makes clear that the king’s daughters could have no degree of independence without marriage. Their father promised to find suitable matches,  but rejected every suitor offered, and, in the end, decided he couldn’t bear to part with his daughters so made no move to see them in their own establishments. Don’t forget, this is also the king who went mad.

Perhaps George III could be forgiven for his mistreatment of his daughters because of his mental illness, but Queen Charlotte had no such excuse. With her husband’s illness, she changed from a happy, social woman to a miserable and demanding shrew. She insisted that her daughters dance attendance on her and forbade them having any life that wasn’t under her thumb. Even when Elizabeth, at the ripe age of 46 talked of marriage, her mother spoke against it. A two year engagement was considered “rushed.”

Despite their circumstances, the princesses had distinct personalities–Princess Royal is managing and clever, Elizabeth is plump and pretty, Augusta is artistic and shy.   Sophia is passionate, Mary is good-humoured and Amelia is charming. Ms Fraser has drawn a comprehensive picture of their lives and their times.

For anyone writing of the Georgian or Regency era in Britain, I heartily recommend this book. Research that is fun to read, and one that expounds on the small details of a woman’s life. A common complaint amongst historical writers is that the history books contain world events like war and power struggles and shifting empires, but leave out the domestic details we need to make our female characters come alive in an accurate way. “Princesses” addresses that problem.

Anyone have a great research source for pioneer life in North America? I’d love to hear about it.

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