Reflecting on Research

As I write this, it’s Thursday at 10:32 in the morning, I’m sitting in a Bridgehead, twitchy from too much coffee, pulling my copy of How To Ruin Everything by George Watsky in and out of my bag at fifteen-minute intervals, checking my phone twice as often, watching the clock run down a lunch date with a friend. Basically, I’m doing everything I can to avoid writing this post. I post these blog entries on Friday, but usually by Thursday I have them written or at least outlined. This week, though, I’m at a loss as to what to write.

I’m getting to the home stretch of my research project. I have a little more than a month to complete the final paper that my supervisor and I set as my goal. Actually, it’s more proper to say that I set that goal myself: I’ve always felt like academic writing was my strong suit, so when Professor Kinsey asked me what I wanted this project to become, I didn’t hesitate to say I wanted to write an actual, bona fide article. Now that it comes time to actually start writing, though, I’m all anxiety. I’ve come to a funny conclusion. I think the fact that this was all my idea is part of the problem.

This particular post is less a research piece than a reflection. It’s a reflection on just how bizarre it is to take on an academic solo mission. I’m all at once aware of how unlike anything I’ve ever done this is. It’s exciting and terrifying and I hope, perhaps narcissistically, that if I write a self-indulgent post about how this project has made me feel, it might help some other unsuspecting undergraduate down the road understand their own first steps into big-kid academic study.

From what I know, solo study is the backbone of most historical and literary fields. As an undergraduate, though, there are very few opportunities to direct your own research. I certainly felt at times like I was embarking on a totally unique solo project – those propose-your-own-topic papers – but even then, there was always the safety net of class material to fall back on. The content, the interpretive strategies at play, and the requirements of these assignments were always defined by the syllabus. I wasn’t actually on my own.

When I had my first meeting with Professor Kinsey, she told me something that I didn’t quite appreciate at the time, but that I keep going back to now. She described her time studying sciences. In a lab, technicians work under scientists conducting research in a very visible hierarchy. The lab technician does a lot of work, but the scientist directs the entire experiment.

“You’re the scientist now,” she said.

I didn’t go into the sciences in part because I hated doing experiments. I want to know that whatever I work on will turn out well. Not a huge fan of failure, me. Now it’s suddenly my job to prove to others – to everyone – that the work I’ve been doing is worthwhile. I worry that I haven’t accomplished anything – that I’ve wasted these past few months –  that I’ve failed my first shot at research.

Of course, I know that’s not the case. I’ve got a lot done. In fact, more than I thought I would. Another thing about self-directed research is that it is self-scheduled. I don’t know if I should admit the loose definition of “research” I have employed these past few months (though, admittedly, I did write an entire post about taking a walk and calling it “research”). At the end of each week, I always felt like I had never done enough work. Yet today I have a notebook full of more information than I could ever fit into one short paper.

I’m almost done with the research portion of the project. I got the article I needed from the library – Carleton had this obscure article that I could barely find mention of online right in the library, on microfilm, hiding in the cabinets in the back of the second floor of MacOdrum. With some help from the librarians, I got a hold of it (I was going to write a post about that experience, but I realized it would be a very boring post saying, “TRUST LIBRARY STAFF. THEY ARE MAGIC” – something you should know already). I’m prepping a special post for next week, and I’m returning to the archive soon to get my hands on some physical documents. Other than that, I’ll soon be writing an actual article about all the interesting things I’ve found about Lady Macdonald, the archives, and women in Canadian historiography. As terrifying as that is, it’s also exciting (to a history freak like me, at least).

When I think of all the things I’ve done for this project, I realize that I’ve been very lucky. I’ve done a lot that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to accomplish during my undergraduate studies. The fears and worries that come along with it are part of the experience.

I don’t want this to be a saccharine YOU-CAN-DO-IT-IF-YOU-BELIEVE post. After all, I haven’t actually done anything yet – not finished anything, at least. What I want to convey is that, with all the stress and struggle, this internship has been more than worth it. I applaud the faculty for setting up this kind of opportunity for undergraduates. More importantly, I’d encourage any undergraduate thinking of continuing in an academic field to seek a position with the summer internship program the next time it’s offered. Like I’ve said, there’s really nothing else like it.


Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon, or, How I went from national to university archives

This week, I wanted to know if I could get my hands on any of the Macdonald papers at Library and Archives Canada – the actual physical documents, not just microfilm reproductions. An employee of the archives directed me to the second-floor resource room. I didn’t find the Macdonald papers, but if I wanted a more physical archive experience, I found it. It also led me down my first archive rabbit hole. This week, I embarked on a chase after another marginal historical figure that led me to Carleton’s own Archives & Resource Collections. I’ll get to that in a moment, though. For now, I’ll start early on a Tuesday morning in Library and Archives Canada’s resource room.

The resource room catalogs all the documents in the archive. It is filled with “Finding Guides,” huge folios of paper – some old, bound in cardstock and yellowed around the edges, some less old, typed up on a typewriter and stapled together – that are in turn kept in larger folios or binders and stacked floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall. There are inviting couches in front of a service desk, staffed by an employee who kept busy with a slow but constant trickle of document-seeking patrons during the time I was there.

Left to my own devices as in the microfilm rooms, I wandered into an adjoining room and found the incredible “Subject Index.” This huge filing cabinet was the first thing in Library and Archives Canada to make me truly giddy. It looked ancient, important, archival, compared to the steel drawers that held the microfilms upstairs. It had hundreds of compartments. The drawers were labelled in typewriter font: “MACDONALD – MACG-” said one, which I opened with perhaps too much force.

Inside was a stack of index cards, yellowed by time but still stiff and satisfying to rifle through. On each card was the name of a person, then a description of the items relating to them in the archive, and then the number of the finding guide used to locate them. I had found the finding guide for the finding guides. Even though I would only use these numbers find more numbers to find documents that might only be tangentially related to my project, I still scanned the cards and scribbled down numbers with great gratification. There’s just something fulfilling, real, about having physical objects to work with. Call it affect.

Once I had examined a few cards (including those for Joseph Pope, who managed Macdonald’s papers on behalf of Lady Macdonald), I went to look through the finding guides. As I expected, they weren’t really any help. Most were records of personal correspondence: long tables that listed who sent a letter, who received it, the date it was sent, what it was about, and where it was filed in the archive. This last piece of information was another long number that meant nothing to me, if it was there at all.

I looked over to the desk in the centre of the room. The diligent LAC employee was still helping someone else;  I was surprised to overhear the worker saying to a colleague that it was a very busy day in the archives. Perhaps some Canada Day revelers had stayed to learn about their Canadian forebears. Whether it was latent patriotism or just a peculiar day, I only knew I was on my own for the time being.

My gaze wandered over to a wonderful little display that was set up to the side of the desk. It was a set of shelves holding reproductions of historic photographs. (I was drawn to it because  a group of researchers my own age – a rare sight in my experience at LAC – were looking through the photos; perhaps it was an extraordinary day at the archives). I went to the shelf labelled “people,” and – you guessed it – jumped immediately to the shelf labelled “MACDONALD.”

I learned a few things: first, that Library and Archives Canada has a LOT of photographs of Sir John A.; second, that Lady Agnes Macdonald took a good, if slightly dour-looking, portrait; and, most intriguingly, that Lady Agnes Macdonald had a niece named Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon who was an author.

For some reason, Fitzgibbon enchanted me. She had the same direct gaze as her aunt, but her smile was lighter, dreamier. I wondered what she had written. I went at once back to the subject list, this time wrenching open the drawer labelled “FITZ-.” I only found one card for “FITZGIBBON, MARY AGNES,” that listed only one item. I wasn’t even able to find out what kind of item it was, because I couldn’t find her name in the corresponding finding guide.

Equally inspired and frustrated by my morning at the archives, I left determined to find out about Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon. Her Wikipedia presence is pathetically paltry: she is very briefly noted on the entry for Brown Chamberlin, “a Quebec lawyer, publisher and political figure.” Here is the entirety of information on her:

Her [Brown Chamberlain’s wife, Agnes Dunbar FitzGibbon, the daughter of Canadian author Susanna Moodie] daughter Miss Mary Agnes FitzGibbon, wrote a biography of her grandfather, Colonel FitzGibbon, entitled A Veteran of 1812.

So, on Wikipedia, the only mention of Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon is one sentence on her stepfather’s entry. She was, however, a historian. I was even more determined than ever to find out what exactly she wrote about the past, considering that my project is concerned with how women relate to history. Fitzgibbon seemed like a perfect specimen: a woman who was interested in her past and seemed to have nearly slipped out of ours.

I searched for her name on MacOdrum library’s catalogue and discovered that, despite the lack of information on her, she was a prolific writer. She wrote an account of a trip to Manitoba in 1880 (much like her aunt would later write an account of her own journey west), the aforementioned biography of her grandfather, several articles, and introductions to books. These books were also written by women: most of them by her great-aunt, Catherine Parr Traill. I noticed that Carleton’s Archives and Research Collections has a copy of an 1894 edition of Pearls and Pebbles: or, Notes of an Old Naturalist by Catherine Parr Traill, introduced by Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon. I was curious, so I stopped by the Archive and Resources room, on the fifth floor of MacOdrum Library.

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Let me praise my school: Carleton’s archive is much easier to deal with than LAC. This is, of course, because the collection at Carleton is much smaller, much less classified and much less frequented. It felt magical, though, to be able to go into a clearly-demarcated room, ask for a book, and get it brought to me within five minutes. Only one other student was in the room with me at the time – and while I understand that it’s summer and fewer students than usual have need for archival documents, I have to wonder if it gets used to its greatest potential even during the school year. I didn’t even know that we had our own archives that were so readily accessible to students. Any students of history or Canadian literature could probably find something fascinating – keep it in mind.

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The book they brought out to me was beautiful. It was in good condition, but so old that I felt compelled to handle it as I would something precious and delicate. Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon contributed both an introduction to the book and a “biographical sketch” of Catherine Parr Traill’s life. This last piece is a very deliberately “feminized” biography – even calling it a “sketch,” a literary form associated with women writers in the 19th century, foregrounds the feminine. She focuses on Traill’s childhood, family, and home life, and uses as her primary sources stories told to her by Traill and her sisters. In short, it is a very different approach to history than the political biographies of Sir John A. Macdonald that I have been slogging through, in which there are precious few mentions of women.

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I’m not sure if anything about Fitzgibbon will make it into my final research paper. Still, this experience taught me to stretch my archival research beyond LAC and its microfilm palace. More importantly, it gave me further impetus to investigate the role of women in creating history. Clearly, there were women in the past who cared as much about the feminine side of history as I do now.

Well-behaved women, making history: Agnes and Eliza

Happy Canada Day, everyone! I just realized I’m probably posting the least Canadian post I’ve written for this blog on Canada Day. Whoops. What with President Obama visiting Ottawa this week, I figured I might draw some parallels between my project and a piece of American history.

If you haven’t heard, pop history is all the rage right now south of the border. In particular, Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical about the firebrand of the U.S. founding fathers, Hamilton, has spent 2016 sweeping up awards: to date, it has won a Grammy, multiple Tonys, and a Pulitzer Prize. Hamilton is an incredible achievement musically, lyrically, visually, and, I would argue, historically. Miranda’s hip-hop musical is not only a genre-defying hit, but an interrogation of history as we understand it and consume it today. The show challenges us to question how history is created, preserved, and revived through retellings. Or, as the company of Hamilton succinctly puts it: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

 Ron Chernow, who wrote the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton that inspired the show, provides an elegant and touching answer: Hamilton’s story was told by the people he loved – most notably, his wife Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. Both the biography and the musical present Eliza as a pivotal figure, not only due to the influence she had on Hamilton in life, but also due to her tireless work after his death to preserve his legacy for future generations. Unlike Hamilton, whose unstoppable pursuit of glory led him to scandal and ruin (and produced an enormous paper trail), Eliza was an unambitious woman with a quiet sense of duty. Yet, Chernow and Miranda consciously raise her from obscurity and celebrate her as the keeper of Hamilton’s flame and an intensely powerful social reformer in her own right. It’s hard to come away from the book or the musical without a sense of awe for this woman.

My research project was, in part, inspired by the reverence that Miranda and Chernow show for Elizabeth Hamilton. Eliza was a woman of conviviality and convention: the kind of woman whose writings are scant in the archival record, or, if they exist, get overlooked as simple and domestic. Here, though, are two writers who told the story of a woman living in a time when women had very limited social role and no real political role, and yet they recognize and foreground her agency and particularly her activity as an agent of history. She made history for her charitable work, and she literally made history by preserving Hamilton’s writings and promoting his legacy throughout her widowhood.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the famous historian of women’s labour, one wrote that “well-behaved women seldom make history.” The phrase has gained its own sort of fame. My mom even has a t-shirt blazoned with it (which I steal regularly.) It’s sometimes interpreted as an invitation to behave badly – I’m sure that’s why my mom bought her t-shirt – but Ulrich was simply noting that historians often overlook the labour of women who conform to social norms. If a woman keeps her head down, earns her daily bread, marries, has children, and passes away quietly, she is often ignored by historians. A woman has to be exceptional to be noticed within traditional histories that focus mainly on political and economic influence. It has only been in the past forty or so years that social historians and feminist historians have become dedicated to digging up the lives of women who were “well-behaved.”

Lady Agnes Macdonald was, like Eliza Hamilton, the well-behaved wife of an eminent, exuberant, and effective statesman. They were also both deeply religious and used their faith as an avenue for community work. Eliza once remarked to her son, “I cannot spare myself or others. My Maker has pointed out this duty to me and given me the ability and inclination to perform it.” (Chernow, 729). Statements like this one resound throughout Agnes Macdonald’s diary, reminding us that religion and charity were not simply personal affairs for these women, but important aspects of community service.

Agnes was more stern and unforgiving than the warm, sprightly Eliza. She also had more of a lust for power, as she openly admits in her diary: “my love of Power is strong, so strong that sometimes I dread it influences me” (April 19, 1868). Yet even in her most rebellious moments – notably, riding on the front of a train through the Rocky Mountains on the Canadian Pacific Railway – she always presented herself as the perfectly poised Victorian gentlewoman. Like Eliza, she was intensely proud of her husband’s accomplishments and vowed to support him in the domestic sphere, as was her duty as a wife. Again like Eliza, she saw that duty extending even into widowhood, and worked after her husband’s death to preserve his memory and craft his legacy.

Some historians have glibly commented that Lady Macdonald abandoned Canada shortly after Sir John A. Macdonald’s death. While she did leave the country physically, she corresponded with Canadians for most of her life and always kept up with the political tides of “her” country. She was especially close to Sir Joseph Pope, the executor of Sir John A. Macdonald’s papers. It was through Pope that Lady Macdonald wrote to Prime Minister Borden to arrange for the Sir John A. Macdonald fond to be created at what was then called the National Archives of Canada. In fact, she displayed a keen desire to control the historical record, demanding that Pope send her any letters contained in the papers that were written by her so that she could preserve or destroy them as she would. No letters exist between Sir John A. Macdonald and Lady Macdonald, despite the voluminous correspondence he shared with most of the women in his family (similarly, no letters from Eliza to Hamilton exist among his papers). Historians guess that Agnes destroyed the letters. While some offer patronizing explanations – one suggests that she could have destroyed them in a fit of passion or grief – few consider that she may have done it to protect that which she didn’t want to become part of her late husband’s public image.

Lady Macdonald participated in other methods of memorializing her husband. In 1897, a “Macdonald of Earnscliffe” – a thinly-veiled pseudonym – wrote a piece for England’s Pall Mall Magazine lionizing Sir John A. called “A Builder of the Empire.” This piece has been so forgotten and buried that I can’t find it online or in print; I’m still waiting to receive a copy from the interlibrary loan. She expressed a wish that her and Sir John A.’s daughter, Mary, should have a house in London where she could receive visiting Canadians. She never truly abandoned the memory of her husband or her country. “I am in truth only a very sad old woman,” she wrote to Pope, “with a past alas! wholly unforgotten and unforgettable” (quoted in Sandra Gwyn, The Private Capital, 203).

Chernow describes Eliza in the early 1850s (she lived to be ninety-seven years old – and how incredible to think that Eliza and Agnes lived at the same time!) as a woman with eyes that “betokened a sharp intelligence, a fiercely indomitable spirit, and a memory that refused to surrender the past” (1). He also criticizes the historians who for over a century presented Eliza as anything but, nothing that “as a broken, weeping, neurasthenic creature, clinging to her Bible and lacking any identity other than that of [a] widow” (728). While Agnes’ widowhood was less philanthropically impressive than Eliza’s, these statements could describe Agnes Macdonald and her presentation within Canadian historiography.

Many people – I fear a number of historians included – assume that women living placidly in a society that denies women political and economic power must have no power at all. Women like Eliza Hamilton and Lady Macdonald, however, complicate this narrative of benign subjugation. “Well-behaved women,” especially those of privileged classes, may have approached power less directly than the men in their lives, but they had power nonetheless. Sometimes, the powers they assumed even included the power of shaping history, such as with Eliza and Agnes’ control of their husband’s papers. Historians, then, cannot afford to ignore these women and the history they, extraordinarily, made – even if they did so through unextraordinary means. What seems like a silence in the historical record may be, in part, a silence on the part of historians, a disinterest in studying “well-behaved women.”

Yet the popularity of new history, social history, and women’s history is challenging this trend. The rise of Hamilton’s Eliza, portrayed by Phillipa Soo, proves that there are compelling stories to be told about well-behaved women. In this sense, the power of pop culture to bring modern feminism and history into dialogue has resulted in a positive interest in non-traditional histories. Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda, simply by challenging the assumption that a happy bride and dutiful wife like Eliza must have also been powerless, have created one of the most moving portraits of a historical woman in recent memory.

From Earnscliffe to St. Alban’s

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Finally, documents: the diary of Agnes Macdonald

In an earlier post, I described seeking out Agnes Macdonald’s papers in Library and Archives Canada. After scrolling through the six reels of microfilm containing her personal papers, I finally found the reel containing her diary. Of course, it was on the last reel I tried. I didn’t regret taking the time, though. I realized that reading a diary – whether as a piece of literature or as a historical document – is a complicated but rewarding process.

Here’s the box/microfilm that the diary is preserved on, featuring the sickly green glow of the microfilm reader:


It’s so thin! That small roll of film contains about 160 pages of entries, spanning from 1867 to 1883.

She also signed the first page, only five days after Canada became an independent country:


I was so excited to finally have found the diary that I had to take a photo. I was excited over a signature. This is what archival research has done to me.


I spent a few hours combing through her tangled handwriting on a microfilm reader in the archive and found myself enjoying parts of it. She has a direct yet descriptive style – it’s not hard to imagine why she went on to publish travel articles and political sketches. If you want to try reading her diary for yourself, I discovered that a digitization of the microfilm is available online. Check it out – it provides a unique perspective on the beginnings of post-Confederation politics and life in Ottawa in the mid-19th century. (If the thought of reading the diary of a housewife makes your eyes roll back into your head, go to her April 1868 entries for some amazing descriptions of the trial that followed the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of Canada’s founding fathers.)

Honestly, if you can get through a page of the diary without puzzling over a word or a phrase or an entire paragraph, you’re better at deciphering handwriting than I am. Her diary has never been published in a transcribed format, meaning that the only way for historians to study it is to look at reproductions, with all the problems that come with them: the cramped handwriting, the distortions and gradual decay of the original document, and the lack of scholarly context that comes with editorial glosses like footnotes.

Nonetheless, some scholars have braved her diary, particularly Robin Sutherland, who wrote a dissertation about Lady Macdonald’s representations of Canada in her writings (“Peace, Order, and ‘Good Housekeeping’: Feminine Authority and Influence in Lady Agnes Macdonald’s Canada,” University of New Brunswick, 2010). Sutherland believes that Lady Macdonald “used her diary, in part, to craft an image of herself for public posterity” (7). She also “actively and consciously participated in a process of ‘imagining and constructing’ a narrative about nation” (Sutherland 9). In her diary, Lady Macdonald presents herself not necessarily as she was, but as she wanted to be seen. Similarly, she presents the Canada she hopes, from her privileged position as the wife of the first prime minister, to create: a predominantly Anglo-European nation held together by traditional British social structures.

Many Victorian women kept diaries like Lady Macdonald’s. Hers was likely preserved because of her unique social position; it is, after all, stored with her husband’s papers. The sad fact is that many other diaries, each a unique record of a unique life, have disappeared over time. This has much to do with the fact that diaries, especially those kept by disadvantaged peoples, have not always been considered worthy of study. As I discussed in my last post, there are various reasons why such documents are not preserved, archived, or made accessible. This, luckily, is changing in Canadian studies.

Canada already has a recognized history of life-writing, a loose category that includes diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, or any type of writing that records the author’s lived experience (this blog is even a form of life-writing). In my Canadian Literature class, I struggled through sketches from Susanna Moodie’s woebegone Roughing It in the Bush and did much better making it through selections from her sister Catherine Parr Traill’s more cheery The Backwoods of Canada. These are published memoirs, but they are also strongly domestic, describing the day-to-day life of a woman in colonial Canada. Sutherland argues that valorizing the life-writing of early Canadian women as genuine literary and historical documents would illuminate the day-to-day experiences of early Canadians (9).

In light of this, scholars have begun publishing the diaries of lesser-known Canadian women. Frances Hoffman and Ryan Taylor’s Much to be Done: Private Life in Ontario from Victorian Diaries (2007) and Katheryn Carter’s The Small Details of a Life: Twenty Diaries by Women in Canada, 1830-1996 (2002) are both available through MacOdrum Library. Neither of these books contain selections of Lady Macdonald’s diary, although they mention her as a prominent Canadian diarist in their introductions. Lady Macdonald’s exclusion is actually a good sign for the study of Canadian women’s literature, in my opinion. Most of the women featured in these two collections are of a considerably lower social standing than Lady MacDonald, meaning that the field is expanding beyond the confines of upper –class English women’s diaries to include the diaries of rural women, French-Canadian women, and working-class women.

The diaries that do survive may be under-studied because of the difficulty they present to historians. There are very few conventions of diary-keeping, other than a regular or semi-regular recording of experiences. Complicating matters even more, each diary is unique. It is a fragmented document of lived experience that has been selectively put together by an author who may not have intended it for publication. Diaries reveal personal lives, but they also have maddening silences. Why didn’t they record on such-and-such day? What did they mean by that passage? Who were they referring to on this page? Did they imagine that anyone else would read these pages? Some scholars of Canadian literature have argued that every diary has an implicit audience – Lady Macdonald certainly seems aware of potential readers (Sutherland 29). Did they intend to influence this imagined audience? Did they distort the truth in any way? In short – what biases did the author bring to the pages of their diary every time they sat down to write an entry?

Despite these difficulties, there is a lot of potential for the study of Canadian women’s diaries. Of course, as I discussed last week, women’s papers are often underrepresented in archives. It’s imperative that diaries are recognized as literary and historical artifacts worthy of interpretation – even if that interpretation is challenging. Scholars like Robin Sutherland have already begun the process of reevaluating the diary as a literary and historical work. Women’s diaries should be recognized as pieces of deliberate historical writing: women using their voices to record their world, their lives, themselves. Take a look at Lady Macdonald’s – I hope you’ll find, as I have, that finding the pieces of personality pressed between a diary’s pages can be rewarding.

On finding women (and others) in the archive

In 1978, Veronica Strong-Boag wrote an article that appeared in Archivaria called “Raising Clio’s Consciousness: Women’s History and Archives in Canada.”A lot has changed in the fields of archiving and women’s history since 1978. In my time scouring the archive, however, I have found that many of her observations on the status of women’s history in Canadian archives are still relevant.

Strong-Boag writes that women’s history is hindered by “time-worn classification systems which emphasize the activities of political, military, diplomatic and economic elites” (73). If you’ve read my other post, you know about my encounters with those “time-worn classification systems,” which, in all fairness, did not restrict me as much as they might restrict others. I eventually found what I was looking for, and I’m sure I would have found it more quickly if I had worked directly with an archivist. Keep in mind, though, that I wasn’t just looking for any woman’s papers – I was looking for the papers of Lady Agnes Macdonald. She was absolutely part of the political elite, even though she did not participate directly in politics or diplomacy. She was also white, educated, and born into an English upper-middle class. Later in life, after her husband’s death, she was even made a Baroness. If any woman’s papers can be considered prominent in the hierarchy of the archive, they would be Lady Macdonald’s. Still, even though she was a woman at the top of Canada’s social pyramid, there is an odd downplaying of her papers within the traditional classification system.

To demonstrate this without forcing you to trek down to Library and Archives Canada yourself, I’ll point you to Library and Archives Canada’s 2008 online exhibition Sir John A. Macdonald: Canada’s Patriot Statesman. Despite the warning that the site is no longer current, not much about the Macdonald papers has changed in the past eight years. It’s a very interesting, if simplistic, resource to get familiar with the kinds of papers included in the commection.

On this site, Lady Macdonald’s diary is categorized under “EPHEMERA.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for ephemera should help me elaborate on why I find this an absolutely bizarre label for anyone’s personal papers:

ephemera n. Things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.

The implication is that Agnes’ diary was not written with the intent of preservation or long-term interest; it is supplementary to the non-ephemeral (i.e., official or political) work of her husband. Of course, there is some justice in this categorization if we consider that Lady Macdonald saw it as her duty to support her husband’s career. Still, it is strange to think that archival material can be characterized in this way. Lady Macdonald certainly knew she was writing a document that could be preserved for future generations. One of the most-quoted passages from her diary is from her entry for 17 November 1867: “Of course one keeps a Diary with a vague consciousness that at some time or another, some person or another, will read some part or another of that Diary.” I can’t imagine she saw her diary as ephemeral; however, as late as 2008 the decision was made to classify it as such for the website.

(Also: a photo of the first page of her diary shares a page with a photo of my plastic Sir John A. Macdonald figurine, apparently another piece of “ephemera.” I may be biased, but I don’t equate those two things in terms of historical significance.)

These are the kinds of minor decisions that Strong-Boag argues have a major impact on the ability of historians to find records of women’s lives, which are not always as closely tied to the “public sphere” as those of men’s lives. I agree with her. I chose to study Agnes Macdonald in part because I knew there would be clearly-marked material in the archive for me to workwith. The limitations of the archive led me to focus on a white, upper-class narrative. If I were looking for other women in the archive, I would have found much less material. For example, only a handful of letters (that I have found) written by the Macdonalds’ daughter Mary, who was disabled, survive. That number is, I would suspect, even fewer for disabled women of a lower economic class or different race living in Canada during the same period. The archive is a primary source of historical evidence. Historians are in a tough place if they hope to write about people who have slipped through the cracks of its classification system.

Obviously, there have been changes to the archive since Strong-Boag’s article. Even at this early stage in my research, however, I can tell that there are still many instances in which the archive does not equally and explicitly represent all peoples. A historian of any level should keep this in mind when approaching a potential project. It will save them a lot of frustration to know just how deep they can expect to dig to find the line of inquiry that they are looking for.

Strong-Boag’s article is available to read if you’re particularly interested in archive studies or women’s studies.

Undergraduate vs The Archive, part II

Last week I wrote about my first impressions of the National Archives as a space. The atmosphere of a place – sometimes called “affect” – is important because it can change the direction of a research project. To illustrate, I could point to hundreds of articles directed at students that suggest keeping a dedicated study space that gives off an appropriately studious mood. A good atmosphere begets good work, at home or at the archive.

So, if you picked up on the panic in last week’s post, you can probably guess that I didn’t get a lot of work done on my first visit to Library and Archives Canada. I went back this week and, luckily, had a more productive visit: I broke out the microfilm.

Microform is a method of reproducing documents that has been used since the nineteenth century. You may remember the negatives that pre-digital cameras used to take photos. Microform is the same as those undeveloped photographs: it’s a very small negative photograph of a document. This method allows an archive to store tons of records in a variety of different ways and in a minimal amount of space. A microfilm, for example, is a strip of microform negatives rolled up onto a reel. Because they’re so small and fine, they’re undecipherable without a microfilm reader. This is where my story begins.

Once I found the microfilms of the Macdonald Papers, I had to choose where to start. At this point, I just wanted to familiarize myself with the documents. There are hundreds of reels of this stuff, each with hundreds of individual documents, so I did what all first-time – and I suspect, most veteran – researchers would do: I picked one out of the middle of the drawer and hoped for the best.

The microfilm reading room on the third floor of Library and Archives Canada is eerily dark; it has to be, because over half of the machines are projector-style and thus only work in dim lighting. These hellbeasts remind me of the classroom overhead projectors from my time in elementary school, but upside-down, with the film going in the top of the machine and the image projected onto a white slate below, at about waist-level.

I stood in front of one of the machines in the dark room, having somehow slipped past the notice of the front desk. I assumed, at the time, that I was just being thrown to the archival wilderness and was therefore expected to figure out how to read the microfilms on my own. I still count it a miracle that I didn’t break something as I tried to figure out how to load it – the top of the machine looked like a cross between the controls for a moon rover and the innards of a 1980s tape deck. The roll finally slotted in, and, after more fumbling that would have been embarrassing if anyone else was around to see it, I managed to get the film projected. Looking down, I saw the promising words “REEL START” on the white slate. I could scroll through the documents by literally scrolling the reel.

What did I find? What wonderful new information about Canada’s first prime minister was I about to become privy to?

I found a bunch of receipts. At least, I think they were receipts. They all shared a letterhead from some kind of Montreal-based shipping or building company – or maybe it was a law firm, come to think of it. I didn’t even have the context cues to figure out what was in the huge, bold-printed header that spanned the top of every page.

That was disappointing, because everything under the header was even harder to read. Having been spoiled, I suppose, by modern printers and their ubiquitous block letters, I couldn’t decipher the cursive of these nineteenth-century correspondents. Some of the scripts were beautiful, others were cramped and scrawling, but all of them gave me a headache. I should add that I learned cursive in school and could decipher individual words here and there, but I couldn’t manage to read full pages of it when the microfilm images were so imperfect and blemished by age and wear.

Scrolling through dozens, even hundreds, of business letters and transaction records that I couldn’t even read made me feel all over again how in over my head I was. I was almost ready to leave for the day, without finding a single useful piece of information for my project. Looking back over my notes, I didn’t take anything significant away from that first roll of film – and that was just one of hundreds of rolls in the Macdonald Papers. I couldn’t just pick at random, then, if I wanted to accomplish anything. I had to know what I was looking for.

Or I had to guess what I was looking for, because (as you may recall from part I of my account), knowing where to find anything in the archive is half a miracle in itself.

I searched for Agnes Macdonald’s papers for a while, before realizing that they were held in the same collection as her husband’s papers. I pulled out the first reel of her papers, popped in in a machine (this time one of the more modern versions, complete with an actual computer screen instead of a projector) and rolled the tape to the first set of documents.

It was more receipts.

Looking back, I gained little from the actual documents I looked at that first day in the archive. I did, however, learn how to navigate this unique building. My supervisor mentioned that all researchers have a similar feeling of displacement when first encountering an archive – and all archives work differently, so a familiarity with one doesn’t necessarily translate to another. Now, I feel more oriented within this particular space and I know what challenges to expect while working there. I overcame that terrifying first of firsts, and now I feel more positive that I can tackle this project. I did spend a much more productive day in the archives this week. Here’s hoping my pace only picks up from here.