Susanna Moodie "Life in the Clearings"

A Walk Through the “City of the Bay” with Susanna Moodie
by Janet Jarrell

Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County
On a city walking tour, it is a pleasure to discover the rich history that lies quietly in our midst waiting for us to rediscover it, to remember. One such historic figure is Susanna Moodie, an English born literary notable that made Belleville her home and resting place. Moodie has connections in both the Hamilton/Peterborough area and again right here in Hastings County. She was born in 1803 in Suffolk, England into a literary family, and was a published author by the time she was nineteen years old. In those early days, well on her way to becoming a professional writer, Susanna met Lieutenant John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie in 1830 and a year later they were married. Neither had the backing of an inheritance that would provide for them in the manner to which they hoped to live in England. As a retired veteran, John was entitled to a substantial land grant in Canada – thus, the decision was made to move. With a newly born Catherine Mary (Katie) in tow, the Moodie’s set sail for their new lives, eventually settling in the Douro Township, just north of Peterborough. After almost a decade of living in the ‘backwoods’, John Moodie was appointed as the first Sheriff of the newly formed County of Hastings in 1840, offering the growing family a new start in Belleville. This position saw John working out of the stone courthouse on the hill, a historic edifice that still occupies that hill to this day. Although the main front building has been completely rebuilt, the stone house in back where the Warden of the gaol (jail) lived remains to tell its story as it is known to be haunted.

It was while living in Belleville that Susanna began writing about her life and times in Douro, which was the basis and the inspiration of Moodie’s best-known book, Roughing It In The Bush. This most important literary work depicts life in a very young Canada during the years 1832-1840 from the perspective of a cultivated English woman turned pioneer after she has immigrated to Upper Canada. The work describes in detail the life of an early settler, the struggles associated with working in communal working ‘bees’ clearing the land and also society as it was developing with regards to the relations between Canadians and the Americans, thus making it both a historical and political piece, which is still studied to this day.

To local historians in the County of Hastings, of equal importance is a later work, Life In The Clearings. This work is a follow up to Roughing It In The Bush, and reads like a walk through Belleville during the mid 1800’s. Susanna much anticipated a new life in the city for herself and her growing family. On the one hand, Belleville was a welcome change from the isolation she had come to know in the bush, on the other hand, Susanna was mildly disappointed with the city. She saw it as an “insignificant, dirty-looking place” where the layout of the city did not measure up to what she would consider civilized.  She says, “the few streets it then possessed were chiefly composed of frame houses put up in the most unartistic and irregular fashion…their gable ends or fronts turned to the street…without the least regard to taste or neatness’’ and continues, “at that period there were only two stone houses and two of brick in the place.” This was most assuredly accurate as Belleville was, in fact, just coming out of the depression. It did recover quickly, and after a few years and some traveling about, Moodie grew to deeply admire and connect with the land. She describes how over the next decade the city flourishes, grows in population and expands in size. Moodie writes about of some of the most historical landmarks, influential people and significant events in this town. Of mention is Canniff’s mills, presently known as Canifton. She says, “Lumber forms, at present, the chief article of export from this place.”

Through Life In The Clearings, Susanna Moodie takes the reader on a walk through the streets, to the churches and to meet the “Odd Characters” that she describes in magnificent detail. From “Sketches of Society”, to “Camp Meetings” to “Lost Children”, the chapters of this work are an honest account of the life and times. She begins where most cities begin, with the churches. She describes the four “on the hill” in such detail that when you look at those same churches today, you can see the features and fine points that she highlights.  She mentions St. Michael’s church with “its elegant structure and graceful spire” and how the church bell was shipped in from Spain and reportedly cost 700 pounds, which can be heard 8 miles into the country. In her travels, Moodie made visits to Picton, a place she says that stands at the head of Long Reach. While in the County, one of her most pleasurable trips was to ‘Lake of the Mountains’, as she referred to it. This spot has been rumored to be a mystical place for writers to visit and be inspired. Moodie notes, “strange stories are told of its unfathomable depth”. Most of the stories about this beautiful spot “rest only upon hearsay”.

Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County
Those early days for the Moodie’s were not without personal and professional struggles. To begin with, the family suffered from the loss of their son George Arthur who died in infancy. Then again a few years later, the tragic death of their five-year-old son John, who drowned in the Moira River. Susanna writes about the boys in her poetry A Mother’s Lament and in The Early Lost. Further, a fire completely destroys their family home leaving them with a huge financial burden, which would continue to follow them for the rest of their living days.

Professionally, Susanna continues to write through it all. Her political views in support of responsible government challenged the establishment at that time and were unwelcomed as the views of an outsider. The Moodies were frequently critized publically in the local newspaper, The Intelligencer, by the editor George Benjamin. This public defamation inspired Susanna to write Richard Redpath, depicting a character based on Benjamin that was published in the Literary Garland. These political battles made things difficult for John in his position as he struggled for balance between his work as Sheriff, his own writing and his political views.  Nevertheless, it is the prolific writing of the Moodies that serves to best document times as they were.

With a walk through Belleville today, you will see the strong influence the Moodies had on this City. The well-known and recently recognized Susanna Moodie School stands as a constant reminder of the importance education had in the minds of the Moodies. Also, the beautiful stone cottage where the Moodies resided with their children stands at the corner of Bridge and Sinclair. The house has been deemed a historical landmark, a distinction marked by the plaque out front in Susanna’s name. Both Susanna and John have city streets in their name, Moodie and Dunbar respectively, and finally, at the Belleville Cemetery, a monument stands out, the large white angel of granite marks the Moodie gravesite.

As published in The Link Spring Equinox 2012 issue.


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