Manitoba History: Review: Barbara Roberts, A Reconstructed World: A Feminist Biography of Gertrude Richardson
by Allison Campbell
Barbara Roberts, a Quaker and a peace activist, was looking to link her scholarship with her activism when she saw a letter from an unknown writer, Gertrude Richardson, in the Violet McNaughton collection. Roberts’s research into Richardson’s life originally focused on her large collection of poetry and newspaper articles, but it resulted in a full-scale biography of a dedicated feminist and pacifist, whose life ended tragically, yet stands as an example of courage and perseverance.
A Reconstructed World: A Feminist Biography of Gertrude Richardson is no hagiography. Roberts explores her subject’s life fully, and shares her dilemma of how to portray a heroine whose story ends in defeat. Gertrude Twilley Richardson was born in Leicester in 1875, of English working-class parents. Her family was active in the anti-war movement during the Boer War and Gertrude (as Roberts refers to her) worked for the Stop the War Committee, collecting petitions and distributing anti-war literature.
A peculiar marriage (unconsummated, it was never annulled or invalidated, and her husband abandoned her within the year), poor physical health, the trauma of the war, and the death of her father, all contributed to what was likely a nervous breakdown, and she was hospitalized intermittently from 1901-1906. In 1911, she and her mother moved to Swan River, Manitoba, to join Gertrude’s brother and sister, who had emigrated earlier.
Although Swan River was isolated in comparison to Leicester, Gertrude soon found a leading role there. She wrote for many papers, including one in Leicester, Women’s Century, the monthly magazine of the National Council of Women of Canada, and received and publicized international news from other suffrage and pacifist groups. She was also President of the Roaring River Suffrage Association.
She married a successful farmer, Robert Richardson (although the unresolved status of her previous marriage caused serious difficulties later). Her family joined in her suffrage activities, helping to organize picnics and fundraising meetings that were addressed by the likes of Nellie McClung and Lillian Beynon Thomas. Gertrudes’ activism during World War I was a natural extension of her earlier pacifist work. She argued against conscription, and in favour of an early and equitable peace settlement, and worked to ease the sufferings of the civilians in the defeated countries, facing the hardship of the post-war embargo.
The War seriously challenged the strength of Gertrude’s beliefs. One brother enlisted, one was jailed as a conscientious objector; and the suffrage movement was similarly divided. Some of the women Gertrude saw representing a world of peace and justice, supported the war—for various reasons and in varying degrees. Disappointed by the failure of the women’s movement to represent “women’s traditional values of peace and nurture” (p. 200), she abandoned it and redirected her hopes towards “the brotherhood and sisterhood of the new humanity” (p. 191). She also turned her back on organized religion, declaring that “true socialism is Christianity” (p. 207) but her activities support this less clearly than her writing.
After WWI various illnesses returned, or occurred for the first time. These were accompanied by signs of mental stress; lack of appetite, sleeplessness, depression, and aural and visual hallucinations. In 1921, Gertrude was hospitalized in Winnipeg. Released in 1925, she never entirely recovered her physical or mental strength, and was readmitted in 1930, this time to Brandon’s Hospital for Mental Diseases, where she remained until her death of heart failure in 1946. The once internationally-known writer and tireless activist for peace and women’s rights spent the final years of her life swinging between lucid visits with family members and haunting hallucinations where voices condemned her.
As a feminist biographer, Roberts examines numerous details about Gertrude’s friends and family life in order to understand her world. One of its more fascinating aspects was her national and international contacts. Other details, such as the treatment of conscientious objectors, and the role of labour and church groups in the anti-war movement form an important part of Gertrude’s context and help the reader understand her experiences. Because Gertrude’s personal papers did not survive, some of her activities must be inferred from other material.
Richardson refuses to be distant with her subject. We hear of her struggle to understand the primary place of God in Gertrude’s life, and of Richardson’s search for historical role models in a movement in which she was involved. She shares her delight of travelling in Gertrude’s territory and her disappointment of the wasted talents of her later years.
Robert’s treatment of Gertrude’s opponents, however, needs more balance. While bias is an acceptable of any biography, to summarize the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire as “one of the more rabid groups” (p. 228) and the Winnipeg Great War Veterans Association as “a hooligan group of superpatriotic returned soldiers” (p. 155) is both annoying and uninformative. If Roberts can debate whether or not it was stocking seams that Gertrude’s family were sewing in the Leicester factory, and list eight lines of meals cooked for harvest crews, she can afford to elaborate on the reasoning behind such remarks.
Roberts introduces a number of themes worth further emphasis and development, even if no final answers are possible. What kind of continuity did the peace movement show between the Boer War and World War I? How did Gertrude define her socialism, given that her support of woman’s suffrage was as much about her belief in women’s inherent goodness as it was about any issues of equality? What about the personal stress of her disappointment with the women’s movement, once her source of friendship and strength? Did her religious beliefs and concepts of sin contribute to her mental instability? Was there a sense of failure as Gertrude, childless at 42 years of age, called on the fine qualities of the “motherhearts”? Since her writings had such personal and emotional slant, why did she keep the adoption of a child secret from her readers? What about the sudden reappearance of that child’s birth mother, nineteen years after the adoption, and her role as ‘housekeeper’ to Gertrude’s husband, at least twenty-five years her senior? By this time, Gertrude was hospitalized, and the question-able status of her marriage was coming to light.
Roberts writing warmly recreates some of the pastoral aspects of Gertrude’s world, too; the landscape of small-town Manitoba, a daily life of cooking, gardening, and socializing. Although the project began with Gertrude’s writing and poetry, and the themes and ideas within them are critical to our understanding of her, the biography could have featured even less poetry. As a poet, Gertrude’s skills were limited, and the poems don’t travel well outside of the early 1900s.
Leaving aside the question of Gertrude’s literary merit, Roberts convincingly portrays a woman of undying dedication to her cause—as a feminist, a peace activist and an internationally-known writer. Roberts shows us the both the achievements and shortcomings of her heroine, and reminds us of the powerful influence one individual can have. And it left me wondering—did Gertrude’s earlier achievement compensate for her final years of illness and despair, or was her illness the final sacrifice to her cause?
Page revised: 11 January 2015