I discussed a couple of weeks ago how difficult it is to find women’s history in the archives, and this week I’ve experienced it myself. While I still have reels and reels of Sir John A. Macdonald’s papers to look through, I’ve almost exhausted the material directly linked to Agnes Macdonald. I’ll be frank – so few of the remaining papers are particularly interesting or related to my research topic that I’m not entirely sure what to look at next. In short, I’m experiencing a press of archive fatigue.
So between archive visits, I said to myself, it’s beautiful outside, I’m in Ottawa, and historiography is rapidly evolving and recognizing new and exciting approaches to history every day.
Well, actually, I said I need to take a walk.
Wednesday morning, I went on a walk from Earnescliffe to St. Alban’s Anglican Church. The former is the Ottawa house that Sir John A. and Agnes bought in 1882 and currently houses the British High Commission. The latter is the church to which the ever-devout Agnes belonged and to which she dragged her husband whenever possible (I didn’t walk to Parliament only because Agnes apparently took a carriage to go watch her husband in the House of Commons.)
The idea for the excursion came to me when I read a very unique article, “Adventures in the Archives: Two Literary Critics in Pursuit of a Victorian Subject” by Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol (Victorian Studies 52.3, 2010). That subject is George Scharf, the founder of London’s National Portrait Gallery, a bachelor, a Victorian foodie, and, according to the researchers, “The Most Boring Man in the World.” They found his diaries (scant records of activities and expenses; nothing so literary as Agnes Macdonald’s diary) while researching Victorian dining. Intrigued, they tried to learn as much as they could about this “oddly un-famous” man, and found every researcher’s worst nightmare: nothing. Nothing interesting, at least. The prospect of writing about Scharf’s life or Victorian bachelorhood didn’t appeal to the researchers. Unwilling to throw out their work entirely, they channelled it into an unorthodox medium. With the help of some grad students, they re-enacted one of Scharf’s dinner parties and documented the experience through a blog.
The coincidences between Michie and Warhol’s paper and my project (the title; the blogging; the cross-section of history and literary analysis; the questioning of traditional criterions of historical importance; and the search for an elusive Victorian) were too strong for me to ignore. I decided to do some re-enactment of my own. I don’t have the time or resources to restage one of Agnes Macdonald’s dinner parties – she hosted many of them over her years as Canada’s first lady, along with her other social obligations that sometimes had her entertaining over one hundred people per day – and as she hosted these out of a sense of duty more often than for enjoyment, I didn’t feel like a party was the best way to relate to her. I thought I would do something Agnes enjoyed much more – something she wrote about almost incessantly in her diary: I would go to church.
Relating to the past is the essence of historical re-enactment. Academic historians are often skeptical of re-enactment for this very reason. Particularly, there is the fear that present-day reenactors will project their feelings and emotions onto people from the past. This takes a human experience, a product of innumerable irreproducible factors, and reduces it to a costume that can be put on or a set of actions that can be copied. Even if we can make our bodies move and feel like the bodies of people from the past, we cannot make our brains think and experience like their brains did. Essentially, there is more assumption and less objectivity in re-enactment than in traditional historical methods, like archival study.
I have discussed on this blog, however, that archival study has its own shortcomings. It can bury the stories of people who are excluded by traditional political and social structures. Recently, historians have been re-evaluating performative history for its ability to illuminate neglected areas of history. Many have even, tentatively, accepted re-enactment as a potential historiographical methodology with its own unique benefits. Agnew comments that re-enactment fits in with history’s “affective turn,” which she defines as an increased attention to “individual experience and daily life rather than historical events, structures and processes” (“History’s Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and Its Work in the Present,” Rethinking History 11.3, 2007, 299.) If you read my post on diary-writing, you’ll remember that these are the same qualities that are found in women’s life-writing. Another researcher, Johnson, describes experiencing the intellectual and physical effects of re-enactment while visiting a Jane Austen festival. The festival attendees learned not only how it felt to wear the clothes of a Regency lady, but also learned technical information about how those clothes were made, mended, and maintained. According to most recent papers on the subject, re-enactment, if approached tentatively and mindfully, could teach both historians and the general public about facets of history that are less accessible through archival research.
I didn’t have a Victorian day-dress lying around for my use, so I made do with what I had in my quest to re-enact a small part of Agnes Macdonald’s life. What I had was an entire city: living in Ottawa, I could figuratively retrace her steps and get some fresh air at the same time. I realize the limitations of my little experiment: Ottawa looks nothing like it did at the time of Confederation; I had no chaperone or even travelling companion with me; I am not the highly visible wife of the foremost politician in Canada (alas!); and Agnes Macdonald didn’t need Google Maps to direct her from her house to her church. Still, I set off on the twenty-five-minute walk with the knowledge that, if I learned nothing from it, I would have at least gained some sunshine.
Finding Earnscliffe was my first challenge. It’s on Sussex Drive, but the house itself is back towards the river and, as I learned to my dismay, bordered by a fence and invasive trees. I got a poor view of it while wondering if I could get in trouble for snooping around the front gates of the British High Commissioner’s House.
I then headed down Sussex towards Dalhousie, erroneously assuming that King Edward Avenue would not have existed in Agnes’ day because, well, King Edward would have been Prince Edward during the reign of Victoria. I forgot that streets can, in fact, be renamed; King Edward Street was King Street and a major thoroughfare in the nineteenth century. What’s more, St. Alban’s Church is on King Edward. I really have no excuse for assuming that it didn’t exist. Strike one against my foray into historical re-enactment: too much impulsivity, too little research.
Still, Dalhousie Street was nice to walk down. It’s a quaint street compared to the roaring, scenic Sussex. It was easier here than on Sussex to imagine that my experiment was bringing me closer to Agnes Macdonald’s day, especially because some of the buildings have been preserved since the 19th century.
Rideau Street shattered that illusion quickly, with its sinkhole and its spooky McDonald’s and its high-rise apartments. I was almost at St. Alban’s, which is only a few blocks away and up King Edward. Literally up – the hill it rests on is surprisingly steep.
It’s a low but stately building from the outside, with a plaque commemorating its role as a social gathering place for many prominent families of the Confederation era. I couldn’t go in the front doors, so I couldn’t see the main interior of the church. Somewhat disappointed, I turned into a little courtyard tucked in behind the church.
It’s a beautiful spot down some stairs (with a ramp for wheelchair access – something Agnes surely would have appreciated on her daughter Mary’s account). People were chatting, sipping coffee, and even gardening. One man pointed me to the entrance to the church basement, where I discovered the connection between past and present that I didn’t believe I would find.
The basement of St. Alban’s hosts Centre 454, a drop-in support service for homeless and at-risk people in downtown Ottawa. Being from a non-religious family and never having been part of any religious group, I was completely unaware of Centre 454. The place was bustling. I found advertisements for events, lists of necessities distributed by the centre, and a kitchen where food could be cooked and coffee brewed.
I left quickly but, as I walked away, I realized I had found exactly what I had hoped to find: evidence of Agnes Macdonald, and women and men like her, in the present day. A continuation between past and present, however abstract: and the more I thought about it, the more I found that this was not an abstract connection in the least. Lady Macdonald was a deeply religious woman, and she exercised her faith through community work. Her diary records instances of visits to sick children, relief given to widows, reading lessons for young women, concerts for charity work, and a long tenure as the directress of the Ottawa Orphan’s Home. The tradition of community service that Agnes participated in at St. Alban’s continues today, just in a different form and under different people.
What does this have to do with my research project? Well, I don’t think I learned anything academically astounding through my stint with re-enactment. What I gained was some perspective. I knew about congregational charity work in the abstract, but seeing it first-hand reminded me of the hard work that goes into building a community.
Many historians are content to write about Agnes Macdonald as the Victorian angel of the house, a private woman who constructed the perfect personal life to shelter Sir John A. from his public responsibilities. But Lady Macdonald was, undoubtedly, involved in constructing a community outside her home, too. She was part of her own tradition of public service that continues to this day. In fact, with St. Alban’s being opened in the year of her marriage and move to Ottawa – 1867 – it may not be unfair to call Lady Macdonald a “founding mother” of this small aspect of Ottawa’s community. What independence and Parliament were for her husband, religion and St. Alban’s were for Lady Macdonald.
If Lady Macdonald was active in public life in this sense, there is no reason to assume she was unaware of public opinion and of the importance of preserving public memory, hence her interest in preserving her husband’s papers. It’s not a perfect conclusion, but it is encouraging for my research. Encouraging, too, in a much more touching sense, is the knowledge that charity and kindness still emanates out of Ottawa’s community centres after almost 150 years, and is going strong.