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Born: 1850. Died 1887.

Author: Michele Holmgren

Early biographers often succumbed to the temptation to portray Isabella Valancy Crawford as a tragic genius inspired by the beauty of unspoiled nature. She was introduced as “divinely dowered Isabella,” an “angelic mendicant” and “blessed gypsy of Canadian woods and streams” in a posthumous collection published in 1905. Crawford, who died young of heart disease, was certainly an outsider to the nascent Canadian literary scene, complaining that she had been “quietly sat upon by the ‘High Priests’ of Canadian periodical literature,” and witnessing her only book “practically fall dead from the press,” with only a few dozen copies sold. However, her Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems nevertheless caught the attention of reviewers in Canada and England, and she was hailed as a promising Canadian voice. The Irish-born Lord Dufferin, the former Governor General of Canada to whom she dedicated her book, felt that it had “nobly shown the way” towards an original literature for Canada.  

Unlike other celebrated Victorian writers in Canada whose flowery style withered in the Modernists’ critical glare, Crawford’s poetry (and increasingly, her fiction) has received sustained critical attention. In the 1960s and 1970s, scholars and writers (who were themselves struggling to articulate the complexities of Canadian national identity) felt her idiosyncratic images and symbols helped create a distinct national mythos. Both her subject matter and style continue to be relevant through her ambivalent treatment of the heroic myths surrounding Canadian settlement in the West, Indigenous-settler relationships, and the role of women, making her one of the most intriguing, original, and quintessentially Canadian poets of the nineteenth century.

Crawford’s own view of her nationality was more complicated. In a brief autobiographical sketch, she avoids identifying herself as Irish, instead claiming to have been “born in Dublin, Ireland” of “mingld [sic] Scotch, French, and English descent.” Her identity has proved elusive in other ways as well. Like the researcher-narrator of Alice Munro’s short story “Meneseteung” (possibly inspired by Crawford), biographers continue to piece together an account of her life using scant and often contradictory records and to fill in the gaps with conjecture.  Her birthdate has been variously given as 1846, 1847, and 1850, with ship’s records supporting the 1847 date. The family’s peripatetic history either contributed to or resulted from regular setbacks and traumas. An Irish epidemic reportedly claimed five Crawford children, followed by more deaths after the family emigrated.   In Canada, friends and neighbors recalled that the family would conceal their extreme financial distress behind a genteel façade, even if they were starving.  

The family initially settled in the village of Paisley around 1857 before leaving for Lakefield in 1861, drawn either by the family’s “fatal love of beauty,” according to an early biography, or to escape scandals when her father, an unsuccessful doctor addicted to “milk punch,” was suspected of embezzlement of town funds when he was treasurer, according to local gossip. In Lakefield, the Crawfords first stayed at the summer home of Samuel Strickland, a prominent settler in the area, and Isabella found a congenial literary social life within the Strickland family circle that included the famous writer Catharine Parr Traill.  When they moved to Peterborough, a more populous town, Isabella was likely exposed to a wider artistic circle; she may have been befriended by the musical and literary McCarroll daughters. Their father James McCarroll, an Irish-born writer and musician, may have introduced her to the publisher of New York papers that carried much of her popular fiction in the 1870s and 1880s.

The North American markets for popular and sensation literature became a lifeline for the ever-diminishing family after the death of Dr. Crawford in 1875, followed by the death of Crawford’s younger sister a few months later.  Crawford and her mother moved to Toronto, living in various boarding houses, and Crawford’s writing paid the rent, albeit irregularly. Rather than a naïve and romantic singer of Canadian woods and streams, Crawford learned early to be an astute manager of her own career, initiating lawsuits, for example, when promised literary prize money did not appear, and keeping a meticulous record of payments and number of words written.  Her writing was also worldly and current: her fiction could be keenly ironic, and the targets of her satire included the more famous and less gifted poet-politician Nicholas Flood Davin.  Her occasional poems commented on current affairs, including the second Northwest Resistance of 1885, and, farther afield, the Irish land wars of the 1870s and 1880s.

Crawford’s family emigrated a decade after the Irish Famine, and the humanitarian crises she portrays in her poem “A Hungry Day” could be read as commentary on both past and current Irish issues, especially since she would have witnessed immigrants’ continuing struggles in Toronto. Her own hand-to-mouth existence may have made Crawford acutely aware of the sharp contrast between extreme poverty and wealth created by industrialization, with scenes of urban squalor and pastoral peace existing side by side.  Such contrasts feature in her most powerful poetry and fiction. In her unfinished long poem Hugh and Ion, a social crusader witnesses a machine take the “serf that serv’d it … and comb his sweating flesh sheer from his bones / With glittr’ing fangs.” The crusader shares with the protagonists of Malcolm’s Katie a vision of a new social order where “panting, human waves / Upheav’d by throbs of angry poverty”  would finally settle into “the calm / Of sun-ey’d Plenty.” Crawford sees the expanding Canadian territories as feeding soul as well as body, shown when Hugh and Ion’s visionary narrator witnesses a lakeside dawn in a landscape no doubt inspired by Crawford’s childhood homes:

Naked, a second, on the shore…

With all the innocent, small feather’d things

Flying to touch the scarlet, lucid bars

Of her stretch’d fingers…

Crawford’s life, shaped by individual and national tragedy in Ireland and by her rural and urban experiences in Canada, produced rich and complex writing whose antinomies created a distinctive Canadian voice that readers still find relevant today.

Further Reading

Ethel Wetherald, Introduction, The Collected Poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford, J.W.Garvin, ed. (Toronto: William Briggs, 1905) p. 17.

 Katherine Hale, “Isabella Valancy Crawford.” https://canadianpoetry.org/poets/Hale_Katherine/Isabella_Valancy_Crawford/bibliography.html

The Collected Poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford, J.W.Garvin, ed., pp. 6-7.

Reaney, Introduction to The Collected Poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), and Northrop Frye, “Preface to an Uncollected Anthology,” The Bush Garden (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1995).

Crawford, letter to The Week, quoted in Galvin, Isabella Valancy Crawford Galvin, We Scarcely Knew Her. (Toronto: Natural Heritage/ Natural History Inc., 1994.) p.5.

Alice Crawford, a descendant of the poet, notes that the the ship records for the Liverpool-New York journey of the R. Robinson lists the Crawford family and gives Isabella’s age as ten in “New Information About Isabella Valancy Crawford and her Family,” Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews, 69(Fall/Winter): 87-88.

Mary Martin, “The Short Life of Isabella Valancy Crawford,” The Dalhousie Review Vol. 52, issue 3, 393.

Katherine Hale, “Isabella Valancy Crawford,” Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1923.

Ibid, 393.  See also Ross, “A New Biography of Isabella Valancy Crawford,” Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews, 38 (1995). https://canadianpoetry.org/volumes/vol38/a_new_biography_of_isabella.html

See Michael Peterman, Delicious Mirth: The Life and Times of James McCarroll (Montreal and Kingston, 2018): 284-285.

Len Early and Michael A. Peterman, “Introduction.” Winona; or, The Foster-Sisters by Isabella Valancy Crawford. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2007

Crawford, “I wonder much what brought the bald bard back,” Lorne Pierce Collection, quoted in Robert Alan Burns, “Crawford, Davin and Riel.”

Isabella Valancy Crawford, Hugh and Ion,edited by Glenn Clever. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1977, p. 10 

Isabella Valancy Crawford, “Malcolm’s Katie,” The Collected Poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford, J.W.Garvin, ed. (Toronto: William Briggs, 1905) p. 204.

Isabella Valancy Crawford, Hugh and Ion,edited by Glenn Clever. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1977, p.12.

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