The Victorian Family in Canada in Historical Perspective: The Ross Family of Red River and the Jarvis Family of Prince Edward Island
While a good deal has been written in recent years about the family in nineteenth-century Britain and the United States, the study of the family as an institution is in its infancy in Canada. How were families organized, what were their preoccupations and ambitions, how did their households function? Unlike Britain and the United States, Canada had precious few self-conscious literary families in the Victorian era, and so one of the most common sources for study of the individual familyprivate papers assiduously collected by literary scholarssimply has not existed. At the same time, substantial bodies of personal and intimate papers of articulate Canadian families, carrying sufficient detail to enable some sort of reconstruction, do survive. Two such sets of family papers are those of the Jarvis Family of Prince Edward Island and the Ross family of Red River. The Jarvis Papers are in the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, N.B., and the Ross Papers are in the Public Archives of Manitoba. A careful reading of these geographically widely-scattered documents suggests the danger of approaching them as merely local records.
Some extraordinary parallels exist between the two sets of papers and the two families, although they were separated by nearly 3,500 kilometers in two relatively isolated colonies in British North America. In terms of the study of the nineteenth-century family, what is most striking about the parallels is how well they fit into the larger patterns of recent secondary literature on the Victorian family. The Jarvises and the Rosses were not simply unique colonial families, but very much part of a transatlantic culture. Given the facts that mama Ross was an Indian and the children “half-breeds,” the similarities between the Ross and the Jarvis families suggest that we must be careful not to make too much either of colonial location or of racial and cultural differences.
There was a middle-class culture in the nineteenth century which transcended many theoretically exceptionalist factors. One hesitates to limit the culture to the label “Victorian,” since it was equally powerful in the United States and much of Europe. Those researching the family in nineteenth-century Canada ought not, we would suggest, assume that their Canadian subjects existed in splendid isolation from general cultural developments in the western world and thus produced localized and unique patterns of behaviour. Colonial societies less often initiated than imitated, and while identifying deviations from larger patterns is crucial, one must begin with the larger patterns.
Before turning to our analysis, it might be well to introduce the two families briefly. Edward Jarvis was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1789, the son of Munson Jarvis, a leading Connecticut Loyalist. Educated at King’s College, Windsor, he was admitted to the New Brunswick bar in 1812 and subsequently to the bar at Inner Temple, London. He served in Malta before his appointment as Chief Justice of Prince Edward Island in 1828. In 1817 Edward married Anna Maria Boyd, the daughter of another influential Saint John family active in mercantile affairs; the Jarvis and Boyd families would intermarry frequently over the succeeding years. The couple had eight children, three of whom died in infancy and one in childhood. Those surviving to adulthood were Mary, Munson, Henry, and Amelia. Their motherMaria, as she was knowndied in 1841, and Jarvis remarried in 1843 to Elizabeth Gray of Charlottetown. This union produced three children, one of whom died in infancy. Elizabeth herself died in childbirth in 1847, and Edward a few years later in 1852. The correspondence to be discussed, mainly between members of a close-knit family writing between the Island and mainland New Brunswick, covers the period from 1828 to 1852.
Alexander Ross was born in Nairnshire, Scotland, in 1783. He emigrated to Canada as a schoolmaster, but became involved in the fur trade, joining John Jacob Astor’s Astoria expedition in 1811. Ross subsequently served in the Pacific coast fur trade until his retirement to Red River in 1825. While in Oregon he had married Sarah, the daughter of an Indian chief (an Indian princess, went the family tradition) according to the “custom of the country,” and formally remarried her in Red River in 1828. The couple had at least thirteen children, of whom the important ones for our purposes are William, Henrietta, James, and Jemima. In Red River Ross became a prominent government officialsheriff, magistrate and member of the council of Assiniboiaas well as titular head of the Scots Presbyterian community. In his later years he authored three books describing his experiences in the fur trade and chronicling the development of Red River, a trio of works woefully neglected by Canadian literary scholars and students of Canadian historiography. The Ross family correspondence upon which we will concentrate in this study covers a shorter period of time than the Jarvis set, since only during the years 1852-1856, when young Jemmy Ross was studying at Knox College in Toronto, did the family correspond intimately and regularly.
Edward Jarvis and Alexander Ross were contemporaries, and both were important political and social figures in their respective communities. Their residential accommodation reflected their positions. Edward began planning his house in 1833, when he bought a farm on the outskirts of Charlottetown for 500 pounds. As he intended the house to be a family seat for “generations yet to come,” his plans called for the use of brick, an uncommon Island building material. Most of the material was imported from England, and the construction was not completed until 1835 at enormous expensemore than “one hundred per cent upon the original estimates and contracts.” Furnishing of “Mount Edward” was finished in 1836, and early in 1836 the Jarvises held a housewarming ball for 81 persons. We know considerably less about “Colony Gardens,” the Ross residence in the Point Douglas area of what is now Winnipeg, but it was a large and substantial frame house, a landmark in its day. On the other hand, the later (1854) construction efforts of William Ross are discussed in the correspondence. William himself enthuses, “without boasting it is the best, the handsomest and most comfortable house on the banks of the Riviere Rouge,” befitting, added his father, a “son who had stepped into the shoes of his father.” The William Ross house still survives in Winnipeg, a museum open to the public as the oldest house yet in the city.
As paterfamilias, Edward Jarvis had a limited share in the day-to-day operations of his household. Like many nineteenth-century fathers he was often away on circuit as the only judge of the Island’s supreme court, on the mainland seeing to business matters in the summer months, and in England (for six months during the fatal illness of his first wife). At that, Jarvis was far more housebound than some of his contemporaries; the Earl of Dalhousie, when he returned to Britain from governing in Canada, had been away so long that he was totally unable to recognize his eighteen-year-old son. But absence aided the remoteness which most Victorian fathers like to maintain, and Jarvis does not appear to have been especially close to his children, especially the boys, who unlike the girls were sent away to school for much of their adolescence and brought home only under financial stringency. At the same time, Jarvis did play a key role in the upbringing of his children. Major decisions were his, and many minor ones were deferred if he were absent. Jarvis did not lose sovereignty over the household, and the family, especially the women, were expected to subordinate themselves to his needs and wishes.
The Ross papers suggest that Alexander Ross was substantially closer to his children than was Edward Jarvis. In part this attitude reflected personality, in part the fact that there was nowhere to travel in remote Red River, in part probably his wife’s background. Ross did make an annual hunting expedition to Shoal Lake after the harvest, but characteristically, he turned it into a family affair which became one of the high points of the year. The Ross situation was complicated by the presence of “mama” (both families called the mother “mama”), who at least by the time of the correspondence of the 1850s was no longer running the household, a position assumed by the eldest unmarried daughter. Ill health was obviously a key factor in her stepping down. Nevertheless, Ross’s domination of his household was typically Victorian, the family revolving around him as it did around Jarvis. While it was true that “Ross shaped the upbringing of his half-Indian children,” as Sylvia Van Kirk has emphasized, it should be noted that most middle and upper class Victorian fathers behaved similarly without the presence of an Indian wife. While Ross may have been less distant from his children than Jarvis, his correspondence with his absent son James demonstrated a stiffness and formality quite different from the tone of Jemmy’s letters from his brothers and sisters. And like Jarvis, Ross was far more affectionate with his daughters than with his sons.
Middle-class family life in the Victorian era was characterized by two related developments. The first is generally referred to as the “domesticization” of the household, a clear separation of work-life and home-life and the withdrawal of the various household members into the privacy of the home, which became the central social unit for “the transmission of culture, the maintenance of social stability, and the pursuit of happiness.” This process had been completed by the Jarvis family before the opening of the surviving correspondence in 1828, and by the Ross family by the time of the intimate letters of the 1850s and indeed probably years earlier. Closely connected with domesticization was a new attitude toward human emotion usually labelled “sentimentalization.” In its Victorian context, this attitude encouraged the effusiveness of personal feelings and sentiments on certain approved topics relating to the home and the family: love, death, marriage, and “making it” in the outside world. Gone was the stoicism and terseness of earlier generations toward the vagaries of family life and relationships, replaced by open avowals of sentiment, often over-stated. It should be emphasized that this openness was confined to approved topics and closely circumscribed by fairly clear and generally held ground rules of respectability. It is this new attitude of sentimentality, combined with the standards of respectability, that finds its closest parallels in the Jarvis and Ross papers.
In terms of the traditional milestones in the cycle of lifebirth, education, marriage, and deaththe Jarvis and Ross correspondence exhibit sentiment most openly and frequently on the subject of death. Indeed, nearly half of the Jarvis letters between 1828 and 1852 contain some reference to death: reporting one, responding to a report, or mourning the death of a loved one. The incidence is little different in the Ross letters. This emphasis is not surprising, since death and its aftermath were matters that often provoked a correspondent to take pen in hand. For the modern taste the sentiments expressed may border on the morbid and maudlin, but they filled a real need for those involved. Those familiar either with Victorian novels or the literature of Victorian piety will not be surprised, for example, to learn of the facination of both our families with detailed descriptions of death-bed scenes.
We are given two eyewitness accounts of the final sufferings in 1841 of Maria. One, by her son, is of her last hours, and another, by her daughter, describes the terminal weeks. According to young Mary Jarvis, her mother had twice before the fatal day “called us all together to bid us farewell for ever and had recovered.” A few years later Elizabeth Gray Jarvis died in childbirth, a particularly important rite of passage and a major family event, usually occurring in the home with the woman surrounded not only by the medical folk but often by friends and family as well. Spiritual preparation was important, since the risks were considerable. One gains some impression of the event and the rituals surrounding it from Munson Jarvis’s description of the death of his stepmother:
Obviously the doctor had not been able to help.
Within a few months in 1856 the Ross family experienced two deaths, first that of William and then that of his father Alexander. Again, there are detailed descriptions of the last hours. Alexander Ross described William’s demise to James in Toronto:
The accounts of the death of Alexander himself were even more explicit. According to John Black:
Further details came from Jemima:
The Ross accounts all emphasize the fortitude of the sufferer and the peace with which death was facednot hidden from view in some distant antiseptic hospital but at home, in the immediate presence of the family circle.
They also emphasize the importance of proper spiritual preparation. As the account of the death of Elizabeth Gray Jarvis suggests, the most disturbing feature here was its suddenness. The Ross correspondence makes similar points frequently. In 1852 William Ross wrote of the death of “young James Fraser” noting “only seven days sickwhat a warning for all those who are alive to prepare for death while in health for we know not the day nor the hour when the “Knock” shall be at our door.” Both Jarvis and Ross papers are full of the reminders of the constant razor-edge upon which life was balanced.
A willingness to acknowledge the trauma of the death of a loved one was also a central feature of the correspondence. The death of his first wife hit Edward Jarvis very hard, partlyone suspectsbecause he felt guilty about being in England for his own health while Maria was battling her fatal illness on Prince Edward Island. Daughter Mary certainly thought her father’s absence, however unavoidable, contributed to her mother’s demise. As Edward wrote to his wife’s sister upon his return to Charlottetown late in 1841:
Such a sense of depression was hardly surprising under the circumstances. What was different from earlier times was the openness with which Edward confessed his feelings in his correspondence for several years thereafter. Alexander Ross admitted to his son James with regard to William’s death, “The event has given a severe shaking to your mother, to myself also; but we thank God that we are able to bear with it as we do. Nevertheless our position is one of pain.” Such pain was now openly acknowledged.
If death and mourning were sentimentalized by the Victorians in words, they were also enshrined in new and more extreme ritualization. Mourning and commemoration of the dead took on new forms. Even the physical letter itself was part of the process. Munson Jarvis opened a letter to his Aunt Caroline with the words, “You must be aware upon seeing the border of this letter that our family has been deprived of one of its members.” The first letter home of James Ross upon hearing the news of William’s death was edged in black. The Jarvises were not invited to Government House on New Year evening in 1848 because “there has been a death so recently in the family”in this case of Edward’s eldest daughter Mary.
The dead were also commemorated in ways both more ostentatious and more personal. In one letter of 1842 to his sister-in-law, Edward reported ordering from England a monument to his wife (“of white marble, of the Sarcophagus shape”) and added:
Burial became a matter of considerable ritualization and a symbol of the relationships of the deceased while living. Edward’s parents, after an even more protracted correspondence among the family, were disinterred and placed in a family vault in the new burying ground of Saint John. John Black reported after the death of Alexander Ross, “On Monday 27th amid great con-course of people we laid him in the narrow house here at the Frog Plainnot alongside of William so that the graves are in a lineWilliam lying at his father’s feet.” And although the correspondence does not show it, Edward Jarvis was buried in Elm Avenue Cemetery in Charlottetown next to his first wife, while his second wife was buried elsewhere in the same cemetery along with her family.
Another important aspect of the household was the raising of children. Expectations and training were quite different for boys and girls. Both sexes were educated at home for most of their early years by both the Rosses and the Jarvises, owing as much to the scarcity of acceptable schools as to the wishes of their parents. Neither family employed governesses or tutors. The Jarvis boys were subsequently sent off Island to school, while it was hoped that a projected academy for young ladies on the Island would serve for the girls. When the academy did not appear, the girls were either taught at home or, after Maria’s death, bundled off to relations on the mainland to learn the requisite skills. As for the Ross children, the younger boys all attended Red River Academy or its successor St. John’s College, essentially a grammar school in the British tradition established by the Church of England in Red River. For James Ross to go away to university in Toronto was a considerable step for both James and his family, although others of his contemporaries from the College attended Oxford and Cambridge. Cousin Roderick Ross, Alexander Ross reported in 1854, was off to “Swell the list of Pussyites at degraded Oxford.” The arrival of John Black in Red River and his subsequent marriage to Henrietta Ross opened new educational opportunities in the colony, especially for the younger Ross girls. Jemima was sent off to the manse at Kildonan in 1855 to pursue her studies, learning geography, grammar, French and ciphering, and Henrietta Black herself “got very clever” after her marriage.
As for expectations, Edward Jarvis intended his three sons to enter the professions. Munson, the eldest, was trained for the law on the Island. Second son Henry was sent to Edinburgh to medical school, and youngest son William entered the Church. According to Edward, “I am unwilling to oppose a decided inclination in my boys for any particular profession,” but it all seemed somehow to work out in fairly orthodox fashion. One suspects that Edward would have preferred the eldest to be the doctor, but Munson was not a favourite:
So Henry was allowed to go to Edinburgh, where he did well professionally but disappointed his father by marrying too quickly an “unhealthy” wife.
As for the Ross boys, the first-born son Alexander died early. William stepped smoothly into his father’s shoes, as his father had obviously intended, and James was able to go to Toronto, where he prepared for the ministry, a career approved by the entire family. Upon the death of William, James hesitated, obviously debating whether to continue his studies or come home to assume his family responsibilities. His father wrote him a few weeks before his death that “sacrifice ... is in my opinion a better plan for all the time we expect to live to enjoy this life, than withdraw our children from those pursuits in which their future happiness depends.” After Alexander’s death, James did return to Red River and assumed leadership of the family.
For the daughters there were clearly different expectations. In one letter William Ross described the Ballenden daughters as, “so far as we Red Riverians can judge perfectly accomplished ladies.” He continued to list the requirements:
While marriage was the ultimate goal, household management was extremely important. After the death of Maria Jarvis, Edward attempted to replace his wife as household manager with his eldest daughter. Mary escaped by marrying herself, after some agonizing over whether “I make up my mind to leave my dear Papa.” Only Edward’s remarriage prevented Amelia from becoming her successor. In the hiatus between Mary’s marriage and his own in 1843, Edward found it difficult to continue Amelia’s education, writing “I hardly know how I can get on without her management of my household, for I shall have no one at present besides the two servant girls.” After the death of his second wife, Amelia again had the responsibility for her father, but this time she had assistance from a succession of maiden aunts.
Henrietta and Jemima Ross could easily have sympathized with the problems of Mary and Amelia Jarvis. Henrietta was running the household at the time of her marriage to John Black, and Jemima was forced to step into Henrietta’s shoes. Her letters to her brother indicated her problems. “I write to tell you,” she announced in 1854, “that I have no time to write with Hay and harvest all are busy and I am no less busy baking and cooking for those out of doors.” Mama and Isabella had gone berrying, she added. “I wanted to go too, but I had to stop and keep house.” A few months later she wrote, “I suppose you have heard that Hen has left me to do for myself, ... I am now Miss Ross Master in the house.” Within a few days she commented that she was “tired with house-keeping and all its duties, for there is no end of working.”
Brother William dealt perceptively with Jemima’s dilemmas in a letter discussing family reactions to the annual excursion to Shoal Lake. “Sister Jem,” he wrote:
While Jemima was at Mr. Black’s pursuing her studies, her mother’s health suffered, presumably because mama was forced to take over the running of the household. After a few months she was recalled to Colony Gardens. The family “can’t do rightly without her at home,” William reported.
As we have been suggesting, while the household functioned around the needs of the males, it was the women who made it work. The Victorian woman’s role as wife and mother ought not to obscure her onerous responsibilities as housekeeper. The role immobilized the woman and made it difficult for her to travel from the house. “I must reluctantly stay at home,” wrote Maria of a projected visit by her husband to Saint John in 1837, “to take care of the establishment.” To see people, especially in remote colonies, women had to expect them for long house visits, only adding to the burden. Houseguests invited by her father were coming, reported daughter Mary reluctantly in 1843, adding, “I was very sorry for it as it will give me much more to do, ... but I did not like to say so to Papa as he seemed to wish to have them.” Maria found herself unable to report on her housewarming ball to her sister, commenting, “I was much too fatigued in mind and body to enjoy it and even the repetition is painful to me for I was obliged to force my spirits ... You will be astonished that I am alive,” she concluded, proceeding to catalogue a herculean series of labours which ranged from supervising the slaughter of seven hogs to hanging the draperies in six public rooms. There is no evidence in either the Jarvis or the Ross papers of a direct act of defiance of male wishes by a female. The Ross and Jarvis women were not advanced thinkers; there was nothing in their upbringing to encourage notions of independence.
Both sexes had to beware of the great abyss for Victorians: the fall from respectability. This subject was a matter of considerable concern in both sets of correspondence, usually in terms of the peccadilloes of other people. When H. Wright married an illegitimate daughter of Sir H. Lowe, despite the fact that the girl “lived in his family and is very well educated,” her sister’s concluding comment to Maria Jarvis was “Silenzio.” A young Scotch lady in Red River was “guilty of having made a faux pas,” wrote William Ross to his brother, “she was delivered of a boy last week.” Edward Jarvis obviously found some satisfaction when his “old antagonist” John Stewart, after burying his wife left for England almost immediately, having “married his servant girl, 18 years of agehe is nearly 80 himself.” Jarvis continued:
Jarvis took equal satisfaction in recounting that a certain “young sprig of a parson ... with his true orthodox spectacles upon his nose,” had secretly breached the canonical law by marrying his late wife’s sister. This form of “incest” remained legally forbidden in Britain, despite frequent attempts to revise the law, until well into the twentieth century. “So you see John Gunn found out by sad experience,” noted William Ross with satisfaction equal to that of Edward Jarvis, “that instead of gaining by Slander he had lost by a good deal his former little respectability.”
Everyone well understood the implications of breaking the codes. As Edward Jarvis wrote of the Smiths, who were “dreadfully depressed about their unfortunate brother” who had committed some unspecified offence: “well they may bedeath would be far preferable to the never-ending disgrace.” Fortunately, no Jarvis appears to have blotted the family name during the course of the correspondence.
While both families were conscious of the abyss, it gaped open much more widely for the Ross family, both because “mama was an Indian” and because Red River was commonly perceived as a colony of semi-civilized half-breeds. The point came out quite clearly in responses to James Ross’s early success as a student in Toronto. Cousin Roderick hoped to join James at university, calling for “a mighty effort to try to make poor Red River respectable,” and John Black described old Alexander’s response to son-in-law George Flett at news that James had won a scholarship: “What will they say of the Brules now, Geordie?” William was already “in a fair way of becoming respectable,” exulted his father, and James was not far behind, although extremely self-conscious about his origins.
All of the Ross family had to deal with racial hostility, even in Red River. Jemima was upset in 1854 at comments overheard at church about the number of “blacks” in the front pews, for example. But none of the family were more sensitive than James. John Black was forced in 1855 to give James a written lecture in response to the young man’s attempts to derive a complex classical etymology for the word “halfbreed.” Black observed, “Half breed is a simple natural homemade English term which we could have invented if we had known as little of Greek and Latin as we do of the Japanese.” Although James was extremely proud of his father’s books and literary success, he protested strenuously to the old man about his treatment of half-breeds in his writings. After the death of his father, James wrote an extremely revealing and agonizing letter to his family in Red River, in which his concerns about the abyss were clearly revealed:
James would spend the remainder of his life attempting to prove that halfbreeds were as good as anyone else.
But if the abyss for James Ross (and perhaps for the remainder of his siblings) was perhaps wider and the descent into it considerably shorter, we ought not to over-emphasize the differences between the Ross and the Jarvis families. The assumptions and concerns of the two families on this and other matters were, in the last analysis, remarkably similar. Both were Victorian, colonial branch. Perhaps the Jarvises were more comfortable with their status than were the Rosses, but there was considerably more common ground than one might anticipate.Back to top of page