Isabella Valancy Crawford Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Isabella Valancy Crawford 1850-1887

Irish-born Canadian poet, novelist, short story writer, and fairy tale writer.

Crawford published one book of poetry in her short lifetime, Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems (1884), in addition to numerous pieces in magazines and newspapers. Writing primarily as a means of supporting herself and her family, Crawford penned poetry and prose that emphasize the importance of nature and romance, and employ the tension of opposites in symbolism and imagery. Her work features social criticism and an emerging Canadian nationalism. Critics highlight the influence of contemporary poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson on Crawford's work, and discuss how her interest in mythology impacted her writing. Relatively unknown during her life, Crawford is now generally regarded as a substantial figure in Canadian literature.

Biographical Information

Scholars debate the details of Crawford's early life, including her date of birth, but it is generally agreed that Crawford was born in December, 1850, in Dublin, Ireland, to Dr. Stephen Dennis and Sydney Scott Crawford. Of at least 12 children born to the couple, only Crawford and a younger brother survived to adulthood. Her father, having difficulty supporting his family, decided to emigrate to North America in the early 1850s. The Crawfords settled in Paisley, Ontario, Canada by 1857.

In Paisley, the Crawford family owned a plot of land and were supported by Dr. Crawford, who was an alcoholic with unreliable medical credentials, and thus ran an ill-esteemed practice. For three years, Crawford and two younger siblings were taught at home. There, she read classical Greek literature and Dante, while also learning French, and Latin, music and needlepoint. Crawford held nature in high esteem and had a sentimental appreciation for Native Americans in the area, both of which would later play significant roles in her writing. Because Dr. Crawford's practice was failing, he planned to return with the family to Ireland in the early 1860s. However, he was later convinced to move to North Douro, Ontario, and become the local doctor in 1862. North Douro was a setting that further nurtured Crawford's interests in music and nature, and is probably where she began writing the fairy tales that would later comprise Fairy Tales of Isabella Valancy Crawford (1972). The Crawford family continued to struggle, and by 1869 moved to Peterborough. By the early 1870s, Crawford was writing short stories and poems, winning competitions, and publishing her work to help support her impoverished family.

Crawford's literary activities increased in 1875 when her father and beloved younger sister died, and she became the sole provider for herself and her mother. For four years Crawford published solely in American publications such as The Popular Monthly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper because they were more lucrative than Canadian magazines. Although Crawford became more withdrawn and continued to struggle financially, her writing remained imaginative and optimistic.

In 1876, Crawford and her mother moved to Toronto where they lived in boardinghouses. By 1879, Crawford's work appeared again in Canadian journals such as the Toronto Globe and the Toronto Evening Telegram. She also published short stories and novels in serials. In 1884, hoping to generate income and establish her status as a writer, Crawford self-published a collection of poems, Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems. While favorably reviewed, the volume did not sell. Undaunted by dismal sales, Crawford published less but continued work on a novel and a possible second book of poems. One of the last works she published in her lifetime was the poem “The Rose of a Nation's Thanks” (1885), which brought her public recognition. Reprinted on February 7, 1887, in the Telegram, the verse commemorates the return of soldiers to Toronto from the battle of Batoche. Five days later, on February 12, 1887, Crawford died of heart failure. Her works continued to be collected and published in various volumes after her death.

Major Works

The only volume of poetry to appear during her lifetime was the self-published Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems. The collection garnered optimistic reviews in America and England, but sold sparingly in Canada. The poem that has attracted the most critical attention from this collection is “Malcolm's Katie.” The plot focuses on the romantic troubles of Katie whose father Malcolm tries to prevent her from marrying her boyfriend, Max. Katie also has an evil admirer, Alfred, who tries to kill both Katie and Max. Katie eventually marries Max, Alfred is reformed, and Katie and Max name their son after him. The narrative poem focuses on love's triumph over darkness and the relationship between man and nature. Crawford includes in the poem a complex use of natural imagery.

Natural imagery plays a similar role in another narrative poem about crossed lovers, “Gisli the Chieftain.” Gisli is a hero who is to marry Brynhild, a swan-maiden, but complications result because of a phantom rival and the Goddess Lada. Crawford again pits good versus evil, love and light versus darkness. Mythology being a tenet of her poetry, this poem features Norse and Russian Lore. A shorter poem of note in the collection is “The Canoe” (also known as “Said the Canoe”). The plot of the poem focuses on two hunters who are getting their evening campsite together, and is written primarily from the point of view of their vessel, the canoe. Like the other poems, there are tensions in the binary imageries: love and the hunt, death and life, man and nature.

Well received by critics and the general public, “The Rose of a Nation's Thanks” was written in 1885 when Canadian troops returned to Toronto from the battle of Batoche. The poem was reprinted in the Telegram several times at the request of patrons. Stories written for newspapers and those that were unpublished were collected in Selected Stories (1975). Crawford's unpublished fairy tales appear in Fairy Tales (1977); the stories feature many elements found in her later works, including descriptions of nature and the use of binary oppositions in her symbolism and imagery. In 1977, another of her previously unpublished works was printed, the unfinished narrative poem, Hugh and Ion (also known as “The Hunters Twain”). The story focuses on the philosophical discussions and disagreements between the title characters. Ion, the intellectual, is pessimistic, while Hugh, the painter, is more hopeful. The poem contains social criticism, sexual metaphors, and more tension between opposites, including city versus country. The Halton Boys, a serialized novel, was published in 1979. Typical of Crawford's work written for serials, the story focuses on twin brothers separated at birth—one raised in wealth and privilege, the other in poverty—who later meet. Again the tension between opposites, in this case light and darkness, plays a prominent role symbolically and thematically.

Critical Reception

Crawford's Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems, was reviewed favorably by critics at the time of publication. Other works published in newspapers, including serialized novels, were similarly regarded. Despite this, Crawford was relatively unknown in her lifetime. However, one person who sent congratulations to Crawford on the publication of her poetry volume was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who many critics regard as a primary influence on her poems. Others disagree and instead site the impact of other poets of the time, as well as the importance of mythology in her work.

Public and critical interest increased after Crawford's death, with a large amount of criticism appearing in the 1970s. Many modern critics regard Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems as inconsistent, with some brilliant and other less-notable poems. “Malcolm's Katie” receives the bulk of critical attention, though it is controversial and there are many interpretations of the imagery. Some critics interpret the poem as an early feminist work and/or an ironic, complex poem, while others regard it as problematic with one-dimensional characters. While some critics see Tennyson's influence, others believe that Crawford was reacting to other sources like Charles Gounod's Mireille, an opera. Originally viewed as an unknowingly gifted poet, critics have reevaluated Crawford as an intellectual who carefully crafted her verse and whose work accurately reflects nineteenth-century Canadian life.