Susanna Moodie Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Susanna Moodie 1803-1885

(Born Susanna Strickland) Canadian nonfiction writer, memoirist, novelist, poet, short story writer, and children's book author.

The following entry presents criticism from 1979 to 2000 on Susanna Moodie's works. For further discussion of Moodie's life and career see NCLC, Volume 14.

An important early figure in the literary history of Canada, Moodie is best known for Roughing It in the Bush; or, Life in Canada (1852), a collection of sketches and poems that chronicles her experiences as a well-to-do immigrant from England dealing with harsh circumstances in the Canadian backwoods. Moodie was one of several authors in her family, which included her sisters Agnes Stickland and Catharine Parr Traill. Moodie's literary career began in England with juvenilia and religiously-oriented poems, though it was with the essentially non-fiction Roughing It in the Bush and Life in the Clearings versus the Bush (1853), a series of sketches about life in growing Canadian towns, that attracted the most critical attention. She also wrote several minor novels with Romantic and sentimental tones. Though Moodie has been viewed at times as anti-Canadian, her depictions of the emigrant experience are generally regarded as insightful and revealing.

Biographical Information

Moodie was born Susanna Strickland on December 6, 1803, in Bungay, Suffolk, England. She was the daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Homer Strickland and had five older sisters and one brother. Moodie's father had been the manager of Greenland Dock but retired soon after Moodie's birth. After living a short time at Stowe House on the Waveney near Bungay, Moodie's father bought Reydon Hall, near Southwold, Suffolk, where Moodie grew up. Reydon Hall was rather isolated but contained an extensive library. Moodie's elder sisters had been tutored by their father, but his failing health rendered him unable to provide the same instruction for his youngest children. Instead, Moodie's sisters served as her educators. By the time Thomas Strickland died in the spring of 1818, Moodie's sisters had begun their literary careers—in part to support the family—writing on a variety of subjects in a number of genres. Moodie began publishing in the early 1820s, developing literary relationships to further her pursuits as a writer. One important connection was Mary Russell Mitford, who wrote rural sketches in books like Our Village (1824). Moodie wrote similar works, such as “Sketches from the Country,” for London-based magazines with publishing help from Thomas Harral. Moodie's writing also reflected changes in her personal life. Active in the Anti-Slavery Society, Moodie abandoned her strong Anglican roots to attend a Nonconformist Chapel of Congregationalists. Though her family was unhappy with this choice, Moodie's religious experiences often became the subjects of her poetry and prose. In 1831 Moodie married Lt. John Dunbar Moodie, an officer on half-pay and a minor writer. The couple emigrated to Canada in the summer of 1832, with hopes of a better life and more stable income as reported by many early settlers. The Moodies experienced much hardship in their first years in Canada. After initial attempts to work a cleared farm they purchased near Cobourg (in what would come to be known as Ontario), they moved to the backwoods near Peterborough. They were neither happy nor successful in either location because they were not prepared for the experiences they faced that were so different from life in England. In her new setting, Moodie wrote only on occasion, publishing poems and essays in local magazines. The Moodies continued to face many financial difficulties, however, and by the late 1830s, the family left the backwoods when John Moodie was appointed sheriff of the Victoria District. The family moved to Belleville in 1840 and Moodie increased her writing efforts. She published sketches of Canadian and English life as well as serialized novels in the Montreal-based Literary Garland from 1838 to 1851. She also edited and wrote much material for Victoria Magazine in collaboration with her husband. Moodie collected some of the pieces she wrote for the Literary Garland into a book that was published in London by an associate, Richard Bentley, and entitled Roughing It in the Bush. Bentley helped her publish many of her subsequent books through the mid-1850s. Moodie again focused on her Canadian experiences to write Life in the Clearings and Flora Lyndsay; or Passages in an Eventful Life (1854), a semi-autobiographical novel about a young emigrant couple. By the late 1850s Moodie's literary output had significantly declined, but when the family was confronted with new financial troubles due to the loss of John Moodie's position as sheriff, Moodie returned to writing. She published two novels The World before Them (1868) and George Leatrim (1875), in addition to contributing to periodicals. After John Moodie died in 1869, Moodie lived alternately with two of her five surviving children. She died in Toronto on April 8, 1885.

Major Works

Moodie's first works were published in England. Her first novel, Spartacus, A Roman Story, (1822) demonstrated her veneration of valiant heroes. In 1831 Moodie published Enthusiasm, a collection of poems. Primarily written after her religious conversion, these poems were sentimental, moral, and emphasized the importance of faith and humility. Moodie's most important works were written after her emigration to Canada. The first and best known is Roughing It in the Bush. John Moodie wrote some chapters included in the first edition of this novel, but these were removed in subsequent editions. While her intent in writing the book was to warn those of her social class not to emigrate to Canada and live in the backwoods, but to live only on cleared farms or pursue investment opportunities, misfortune and bad experiences were not the sole focus of the text. Moodie also included humorous anecdotes regarding the natives and poetic descriptions of the landscape. Moodie next published Life in the Clearings. In this book, Moodie wrote about frontier Canadian towns and burgeoning institutions, seeking to convey the development of Canadian society. Many of her subsequent works were sentimental novels, including Mark Hurdlestone, the Gold Worshipper (1853) and Geoffrey Moncton; or, The Faithless Guardian (1855). One of the most important of her later works was Flora Lyndsay. The novel employed an episodic structure and was character, rather than plot, driven. Many critics noted the uniqueness of Flora Lyndsay in that the main character in the story writes a novel that takes up much of the text. With Roughing It, Life in the Clearings, and Flora Lyndsay, Moodie formed a moving trilogy about the immigrant experience.

Critical Reception

Critics have centered most of their attention around Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush. While initial response to the book was lukewarm, some critics did appreciate the factual information Moodie included, as well as its humor and lively style. Modern critics have focused on a number of issues, including the collection's social value and its reflection of the time in which it was written. Critics have analyzed its structure and genre: some see it as strictly autobiographical, while others believe the text has many dramatic and fictional elements. The desperate nature of the language Moodie employed and her intent in writing the text have also been debated. Critics have discussed issues of class, depiction of Native American women, women's view of emigration, and religion in Moodie's novel. Scholars have, in addition, contemplated the influence Roughing It had in the development of Canadian literature. Similar analysis is made of Life in the Clearings, though many critics see it as less despondent and repressed than Roughing It. Modern critics have not paid much attention to Moodie's writing beyond these two books, though Flora Lyndsay received some notice in being compared with other pieces of the trilogy. Critics have attempted to offer insight into the inspiration of Moodie's poems—Canadian events, religious concerns, grief and disaster, among other topics—though most have been unimpressed, pointing out that structure does not harmonize with content in Moodie's poems. Poetry is also found in Roughing It, and critics discuss the relative success of this technique within Moodie's narrative text. While some critics view Moodie as anti-Canadian, especially in her Roughing It in the Bush, they admit that her work was significant in the development of Canada's national identity.