Jodi Lee Aoki, Trent University archivist and author of Revisiting “Our Forest Home,” kindly agreed to respond to a few questions abour her recent book featuring the letters of Frances Stewart. In our discussion, she talks about some of the challenges of writing about nineteenth-century life, how Stewart continues to resonate with her in her daily life, and some of her possible future writing plans.
JO: Can you tell us what the most challenging aspect of compiling and editing these letters was for you?
JLA: Definitely the fact that many of the archival documents are copies or extracts which were made by recipients of Frances’s letters and passed on to other family members and friends contributes to an extremely complicated set of raw data. Trying to decipher originals from copies and identifying the anomalies in text between the originals and copies was time-consuming. Choosing the content for Revisiting “Our Forest Home” was also complicated by the fact that I did not have access to some original letters which Ellen Dunlop, Frances Stewart’s daughter, published in the 1889 and 1902 editions of Our Forest Home; these letters may no longer exist. An important distinction between the Revisiting edition and Ellen’s earlier editions is that not all letters are represented in all three publications; the earlier publications include letters which were outside the scope of my project around the originals, and the Revisiting edition includes letters which Ellen may not have had access to. All three editions contribute in significant but different ways to the telling of Frances’s story.
JO: Why do you think it’s important for readers to revisit an era that has a great deal written about it?
JLA: If I flash-forward 200 years and look at all the ways in which our lives intersect, how each member of a community contributes to the community and to community development and how we all do influence the governing decisions of our leaders, I can see that it is the complex interweaving of all the lives of a population, of both women and men, which constitutes the essence of human experience. For this simple reason, it is important to consider the writings of nineteenth-century women as an incredible resource for furthering our knowledge of the period in general – the women did not live in isolation from husbands and brothers who were more commonly associated with having authority and power. The personal narratives of Upper Canadian immigrant women – and men – contribute meaningfully to the historical canon and have the potential to constructively extend a founding consensus which has tended to endorse the white male gentry renditions of the historical past.
JO: You’ve worked with these letters for years Jodi, what did you discover about Stewart that you hadn’t known before, in your writing and editing processes?
JLA: I became increasingly aware of the depth of Frances’s feelings of sadness at being parted from her loved ones in Ireland. These feelings permeate all her writing; her stoic acceptance of her situation in the New World seems to be intricately tied, at least in part, to a sense of duty which she had come to embody.
JO: Did you find yourself identifying with Stewart by the end of the editing and writing process?
JLA: I wouldn’t say that I identified with Frances, but I do think that I got closer to seeing who she was. There are so many opportunities for research in these documents. What is intriguing is that, at the end of the day, the writings of Frances Stewart will continue to be what they are, just what their author meant them to be, regardless of the meaning which we impose on them. We can never really “know” her.
JO: Was this project something you would undertake again Jodi?
JLA: I would. It was fascinating to become so involved in the letters. I sometimes look out across the Otonabee from my work-place at Trent University and try to imagine Frances walking along the river between her daughters’ houses in her later life. Frances continues to be of great interest to me.
JO: Were there any other books that you used as models in crafting this one?
JLA: I pored over many books which deal with immigrant writings before I decided how I wanted to present the letters in Revisiting “Our Forest Home”. A few books which were especially helpful were: A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters, and Art of Anne Langton, edited by Barbara Williams; and three books edited by Carl Ballstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael Peterman: I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill; Susanna Moodie: Letters of a Lifetime; and Letters of Love and Duty: The Correspondence of Susanna and John Moodie.
JO: Is there anything in nineteenth-century Canadian literature (fiction or non-fiction) that is of particular interest to you Jodi?
JLA: For my research on Frances Stewart, the many books published by Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie were especially of interest as they helped to provide context for visualizing Frances’s life. Travel literature of the period, including writings which cover the explorations of Canada’s North during the nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century, is also of immense interest to me.
JO: The book is shaped by a feminist perspective. Was it important to you to frame it this way?
JLA: This is an interesting question for me. I guess I’ve never really thought of myself in a feminist framework. Framing this book as I did came absolutely naturally to me; it wasn’t conscious. This does make me a feminist, doesn’t it!
JO: How has the book been received by Frances Stewart’s family?
JLA: Some Stewart family descendants attended the book launch and were very supportive of my project. I had met with a few members of the family while doing my research and they were very helpful in ironing out many elusive details. I heard from some who have read the book and they expressed that they enjoyed it and appreciated that I had undertaken this project. I am grateful for their support. I’ve always felt a responsibility to the family to do the best job I could to represent Frances accurately.
JO: Do you have any plans to write or edit another book in the near future, Jodi?
JLA: I’m very interested in nineteenth-century Upper Canadian history. Currently, I’m looking at other women besides Frances who immigrated to the Peterborough area early in the nineteenth century. Peterborough has a rich legacy of women’s writings from that period. I’ve recently given a paper about six European settler women who arrived in the Peterborough area between 1822 and 1837. I’m interested in understanding how these women coped when they found themselves, separated from their families and loved ones, forging out new lives in the bush in an unknown country. I’m aiming through this lens to glimpse the ways in which female lives intersected community development in the colony. The authors’ representations of their lives in their writings are intricately mixed with nostalgia and memory of their lives in the homeland and this is an intriguing area for me.