Sunday, November 05, 2006

Aristocratic Canadian Life, Circa 1872

Midway through Lady Dufferin's Canadian journal, I'm learning so many things about the social, technological, and geographical situation in Canada that I can barely keep it all in. As a way of recording some random impressions:

The Governor-General -- referred to by his wife as "D" or "His Ex" -- dealt mainly with politics during the scope of the journal (1872-1878). As the representative of the Queen, his offical duties involved giving speeches, attending celebrations, and occasionally observing Parliament.

His wife dealt more with the social side of things. She is endlessly visiting convents, schools, jails, and waterfalls. Wherever Lord and Lady Dufferin go, they are obliged to dine with anybody who asks, and to see whichever local sites the citizens deem important. These sites tend to be waterfalls.

Husband and wife have three main passions:

Skating. Even now they're remembered for personally financing a skating rink, curling rink, and toboggan slide at Rideau Hall. Lady Dufferin loves to skate, but in the first few years she isn't good enough to be comfortable skating at official functions. She frequently says that men are more graceful skaters than women, mainly because they don't need to wear as much clothing. I find myself wondering what these poor women wore when they skated.

She frequently mentions skating terms that probably aren't used anymore: "We worked away at roses, double roses, thistles, lilies, snails, etc."

Lady Dufferin is, in general, fond of snow...with just one exception:
The children, with the help of Colonel Fletcher, Mr. Dixon, and a ladder, have erected in front of my window an enormous and hideous snow-man, who will remain an eyesore to the whole winter, unless some kind friend assassinates him.
Fishing. Wow, do they ever fish. They fish in every backwood stream they can find, often going hundreds of miles out of their way to check out a promising spot. Lady Dufferin is positively obsessed with the sport, often recording the poundage of every fish caught. She gives the impression that she's really "roughing it" during these excursions, but don't be fooled: their whole troop of servants was always sent on ahead to set up the campsite -- in one case even building a cabin -- and the aristocrats arrived once everything was prepared.

Lady Dufferin does not appear to be a fan of the Indians, dismissing them as pagans whose words are too long and who dress poorly. Near Sault Ste. Marie, she says:
At the Fort we saw a number of the most miserable Indians, who sat huddled together, and who were dressing their children's hair much after the manner of the monkeys in the Zoo.
Amateur Theatricals. Lady Dufferin is always roping her servants and her children into plays. I have a feeling this was relatively common for upper-class Victorians, to hold large functions during which the children performed for the visitors. The plays usually ended with tableaux, something we just don't see anymore.

During the summers, the Lord and Lady go on huge, gruelling, four-month excursions to visit the towns and Indian reservations throughout Canada. Lady Dufferin is constantly being attacked by horses (and even sheep), while Lord Dufferin gives speeches and dances with all the ladies. He has this to say about all the ceremonial arches they travel under:
There was an arch of cheeses, an arch of salt, an arch of wheels, an arch of hardware, stoves, and pots and pans, an arch of sofas, chairs and household furniture, an arch of ladders, laden with firemen in their picturesque costumes, an arch of carriages, an arch of boats; a Free-trade arch, a Protectionists' arch, an arch of children, and last of all an arch -- no, not an arch, but rather a celestial rainbow--of lovely young ladies! Indeed, the heavens themselves dropped fatness, for not unfrequently a magic cheese or other comestibles would descend into our carriage. As for Lady Dufferin, she has been nearly smothered beneath the nosegays which rained down upon her, for our path has been strewn with flowers.
Lady Dufferin is impressed by Chicago's hugeness, but finds New York uncouth and ostentatious. She thinks the entertainments are vulgar, and she is particularly annoyed at a woman she sits next to during a dinner:
There was a lady there who was just like a conventional Yankee on the stage. She announced, first, that she had told her husband she would never put on black for him, as she meant to marry again as quick as ever she could. Then she informed me in a light and cheerful manner that she had had convulsions every Sunday since January, and that this was the first occasion upon which she had not been ill! She next proceeded to tell her domestic troubles, and how she had had to get a policeman to turn her cook out of her house.


VanillaJ said...

It's unfortunate that historical accounts are almost exclusively that of the rich and powerful. It would be interesting what the native indians would have said about these folk: "Man, these people are as boring as watching deer hides dry. And really, learn how to fish properly, already!"

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I agree! Though most of them were probably thinking "If you these idiots don't give us some tobacco and candles, let's ambush them and say the Blackfoots did it."