My book club selection in January was The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor, by Sally Armstrong. This was a fictionalized account of a real historical character, set in the late eighteenth/ early nineteenth century in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Ms Armstrong is a well-respected writer and historian. Charlotte Taylor is one of her ancestors. The book is meticulous in its detail and documents all that could be documented, but part of the tale is fiction as there were no records ever made. Still, we get a good sense of the character of Charlotte and the time and place she lived.
Charlotte came from the gentry class in England. Her father was wealthy. She had an inheritance of her own. She should have made her debut as a young lady, attending balls and seeking a husband. But Charlotte rebelled against the life she was handed. She wanted to make a life of her own. Romance heroines are expected to be feisty and rebellious. Charlotte, not a romance heroine, consorted with the black butler then ran away from home to the West Indies, expecting to become his wife there. This was no flit to Gretna Green. This was a dangerous sea voyage to an unknown destination, beyond the censure or assistance of home and family.
Her life in Jamaica did not work out and she ended up in what was then Nova Scotia. When a well-meaning sea captain, who recognized her name and knew her father, planned to return her to England, she eluded the rowboat that would have taken her to the ship and ran to a Micmac settlement. She spent her first winter there, learning the means of survival. When next she encountered the sea captain, her pregnancy was obvious and he finally understood the impossibility of a return to English society.
Charlotte’s life was hard. She had to expend every ounce of strength and ingenuity on staying alive. She had three husbands, all of whom died early, and ten children, who all survived. She learned to clear land, build a cabin, cook game over an open fire. She learned which berries were edible and which were poisonous. She studied the native lore and learned the medicinal properties of local plants. She fought hard to get a deed to her land. She continued to struggle with the male concept of a “woman’s place.” She lived to old age.
My question when I finished the book was, “was it worth it?” At a time when Jane Austen was penning Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Taylor, wearing moccasins, was trekking through the wilds of Eastern Canada to Frederick Town to demand a deed to her property. The contrast between the old life and the new couldn’t be greater.
Many years after her flight, she wondered about her family and wished for contact with her father, yet it seemed she had no desire to ever return to the land of her birth. Was there joy in her life? Toward the end, when all her husbands were dead and her children grown, maybe.
I highly recommend this book.