Roughing It in the Bush

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 23 May 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "Roughing It in the Bush", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 5, pp. 404-406.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Originally published in 1852, and in Canada in 1871, Roughing It in the Bush takes the form of sketches written by Susanna and John Moodie. They emigrated to Canada from England and spent the years 1832‐1839 in the backwoods north of Lake Ontario. The editorial and historical issues raised by the book, and its place in Canadian literature, make it rather a special text. It also has links with historical children's literature since Susanna Moodie was a Strickland, from a literary family rather like the Brontës, her sister Agnes writing the well‐known Lives of the Queens of England and another sister, Catherine Parr Traill, writing not only a biographical sketch of Susanna but also works like The Backwoods of Canada (1836, her own pragmatic experience there) and Canadian Crusoes (1852, a Robinsonade).

Roughing It appeared in a well‐established contemporary genre at the time – that of emigrant sketches and autobiography. It was a genre that combined travel with a major demographic shift at the time; it was an opportunity to describe the frontier and far‐distant places, celebrate the wonders of nature, and cash in on commercial and literary fame. Susanna (1803‐1885) published a book about Spartacus in 1822 and a collection of poems in 1831. There were other books later, including an uneven sequel to Roughing It called Life in the Clearings (1853). She married John in 1830: he was already a published author with a book about South Africa, and he was a major collaborator to Roughing It. In fact, the text is more of a collaborative work than one by a sole author, a fact that has attracted textual critics and bibliographers over the years.

It is a book with another resonance, too: that it was published by Richard Bentley, one of the major publishers of travel books of his day. These various points make the book, historiographically and bibliographically, as well as textually, very interesting indeed. It has claims to literary and historical importance, too, because it has become an established text in Canadian literature (and editions have been published for students), and the storyline and tone of the text are interesting in their own right. This is not an idealized story in any way – there are times when the harvest is in and the views are striking, but on the whole the Moodie's experienced dangers and despair.

Their arrival at Quebec was a rude awakening. Their backwoods land was hard to work, the winters were severe, ruthless money‐lenders, and illness ever‐present. So outspoken is Susanna about these things (hers is the main part of the book, with John providing factual background) that reaction to the book in Canada, as to Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), was hostile. Emigration was not only popular and often founded on ignorance and idealism: there were vested national interests and criticism like Roughing It, telling it “like it is”, were unwelcome. The Moodies were also seen as snobs, with their literary aspirations. While in Canada, both succeeded in publishing both prose and poetry for (often short‐lived) magazines like the Literary Garland. These and other factors make the book a popular focus for literary criticism and historical interpretation, above all where evidence from the journals of the Moodies (edited by Margaret Attwood, 1970), their letters (edited by Carl Ballstadt, 1985), and biographical evidence about Susanna and Catharine (by Charlotte Gray, 2000) are taken into account. Her distinctive female viewpoint on the events and experiences of her time in Canada has made it attractive to women's studies courses.

The book was first published in 1852 by Bentley. A second edition, with added material, appeared later the same year. The same year, too, Putnam published a pirated edition in New York. It was not until 1871 that it appeared in Canada (Hunter Rose of Toronto). Peterman has edited this Norton edition and used the second English edition as his text. In Susanna's introduction to the 1871 edition, she speaks plainly about her hopes as an emigrant (“rich in hope and poor in purse”), saying that the book was written partly to warn settlers not to go into the wilderness, speaking of the hostility the book has caused among bureaucrats, and challenging Canadians to put things right. The book itself, like this introduction, includes a controversial account of the Rebellion in 1837 and this, along with everything else, helped to make Roughing It in the 1859s almost as popular a bestseller as Uncle Tom's Cabin itself.

All these insights into the book emerge clearly because this edition – as with others in the series – includes not just the text of Roughing It but also a generous body of background information (illustrations, other stories and letters, reviews) and criticism (by writers like Ballstadt, Thurston, and Peterman himself, all associated with Moodie and the period). This makes the book (a well‐bound paperback) very good value for both personal and library use. A short bibliography is also provided. Throughout Roughing It, Susanna and John Moodie contributed poems – period for us today but revealing in highlighting the highs and lows of emigration. The best‐known poem is “The Sleigh‐Bells” and this became a popular song: the hearty tone (“Our hut is small, and rude our cheer, But love has spread the banquet here”) contrasts starkly with her fear of debt and cholera, struggles to make things grow, and seeing herself grow old. No surprise, then, that there is so much critical (post‐colonial) interest in what she wrote and the genres within which it appeared and still is read today.

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