The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten
Hardcover 248 pp.
Online discount: 25%
How did a privileged Victorian matron, newly widowed and newly impoverished, manage to raise and educate her six young children and restore her family to social prominence?
Mary Baker McQuesten’s personal letters, 155 of which were carefully selected by Mary J. Anderson, tell the story. In her uninhibited style, in letters mostly to her children, Mary Baker McQuesten chronicles her financial struggles and her expectations. The letters reveal her forthright opinions on a broad range of topics — politics, religion, literature, social sciences, and even local gossip. We learn how Mary assessed each of her children’s strengths and weaknesses, and directed each of their lives for the good of the family. For example, she sent her daughter Ruby out to teach, so she could send her earnings home to educate Thomas, the son Mary felt was most likely to succeed. And succeed he did, as a lawyer and mpp, helping to build many of Hamilton’s and Ontario’s highways, bridges, parks, and heritage sites, and in doing so, bringing the family back to social prominence.
Mary Baker McQuesten was also president of the Women’s Missionary Society. The appearance, manner, and eloquence of various ministers and politicians all come under her uninhibited scrutiny, providing lively insights into the Victorian moral and social motivations of both men and women and about the gender conflicts that occurred both at home and abroad.
This book will satisfy many readers. Those interested in the drama of Victorian society will enjoy the images of the stern Presbyterian matriarch, the sacrificed female, family mental illness, the unresolved death of a husband, and the dangers of social stigma. Scholars looking for research material will find an abundance in the letters, well annotated with details of the surrounding political, social, and current events of the times.
Mary J. Anderson, an independent writer and scholar, is also co-director of a digitization project, The Whitehern Museum Archives, which contains approximately 1,000 letters and other writings and provides a comprehensive view of a southern Ontario family as well as social attitudes from 1853 to 1968.
“A fascinating primary source that reveals matters of daily life, survival, cultural mores, the impact of social stigma and much more. Extensively annotated with relevant historical notes and insights, The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten is a superb, revealing, and inspiring account, not to be missed.”
“Operating on a tier below other reformers such as suffragist Nellie McClung (a fellow critic of the Great War), parliamentarian Agnes McPhail, and WCTU leader Laetitia Youmans, Mary Baker McQuesten represents many a tireless local activist affected by maternal feminist convictions that women must clean up the mess men had made of society, for the sake of everybody’s children.”
— Jan Noel, University of Toronto Quarterly, Letters in Canada 2004
“Mary J. Anderson has performed a valuable service for historians, women’s studies scholars, and students of autobiography and cultural history by editing and disseminating the letters of Mary Baker McQuesten: public woman, family matriarch, social hostess, and above all, powerful personality. Mary McQuesten’s letters form a fascinating archive of life in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Ontario.”
— Lorraine York, McMaster University
“Mary J. Anderson has raised the blinds on several windows at Whitehern — Hamilton’s historic residence — revealing to the public eye the private life of a complex family. Using the letters of Mary Baker McQuesten in the Whitehern archives, Anderson has woven a narrative so skillfully that it reads like Victorian fiction.”
— Rev. Dr. T. Melville Bailey, Editor-in-chief, Dictionary of Hamilton Biography
“Anderson is particularly deft in her reading of Mary’s letters as literature.”
— The Canadian Historical Review
“Some of the characters in the McQuesten family saga come straight out of a Gothic novel: the wicked stepmother, the alcoholic wastrel, the sacrificial maiden, the suspected suicide and the formidable Presbyterian matriarch.”
— Regina Haggo, The Hamilton Spectator
“Anderson has produced a valuable edition of Mary Baker McQuesten’s letters and life writings, employing a careful selection of 150 documents to illustrate the life of this Victorian matriarch and her family, her social and religious work, and her unique perspective on the culture and society of Hamilton and Canada during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Fully annotated, these letters and life writings are supplemented by biographical information about Mary and her family, pictures and genealogies, and a discussion of personal letters as a literary genre. This volume will be invaluable to both historians and scholars of women’s studies, and would be of interest to any reader who is eager to encounter a powerful and engaging personality.”
— Elisabeth Anne MacDonald-Murray, Canadian Book Review Annual
“[These letters] show a forthright woman unafraid to venture her views on any subject, including the usually forbidden areas of politics and religion.”
— Globe and Mail
“Through her expert and detailed analysis of the McQuesten letters, Mary J. Anderson lovingly places them in context — of the family, the burgeoning city of Hamilton, the nation, and of Western society in general...The letters are riveting reading.”
— Brian Henley, Hamilton historian, writer and broadcaster