Find us on Google+

The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten

Interview with Mary J. Anderson

« Return to The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten

Why do you refer to Mary Baker McQuesten as a Victorian Matriarch?

She lived from 1849 to 1934, during the extended Victorian era in Canada. She modeled herself after Queen Victoria: “The Ideal Wife and Mother,” and was an assertive, determined, and highly principled woman who guided her family through adversity with a strong Presbyterian ethic so she also shared some characteristics of the Queen. She was highly critical of ministers and politicians and was publicly outspoken in her views.

Her husband died abruptly. Is it possible he committed suicide because of bankruptcy and other problems?

Perhaps we’ll never know, and this continues to be debated, but the evidence is increasing that he did. He suffered from alcoholism, and what is now called bipolar syndrome. He received treatment but, on the verge of bankruptcy, he died suddenly at home, from the effects of a sleeping potion combined with alcohol.

How did Mary manage to succeed after being widowed?

For twenty years she and the family lived from day to day not knowing how or if they would succeed. Mary suffered periods of exhaustion and depression, but gradually devised a plan. She assessed each of her children for their strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, in the late 19th Century, it would be impossible for any of the four daughters to become professionals, only a man could accomplish that. The third daughter, Ruby, was scholarly, and Mary arranged for her education as a teacher and found her a job in Ottawa. Ruby then sent her salary home in order to educate the youngest son, Tom, who showed the greatest promise of success. Twenty years later, when Tom graduated in law, and began to earn a salary of $1000 a year, that was the first indication that the family might succeed. Mary maintained her matriarchal control over Tom and urged him to come home to Hamilton to practice.

What did Tom accomplish?

While practicising law, he took a position on the Parks Board and began to develop Hamilton on the “City Beautiful” model. His accomplishments include Gage Park, many other parks, the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG), The High Level Bridge, and he was largely instrumental in bringing McMaster to Hamilton. He later became MPP with the Transportation portfolio and then branched out to build the QE Highway, Rainbow Bridge, several other bridges, the Niagara Parkway, the horticultural school, and many heritage restoration sites and forts.

Why None of Mary’s six children married. Was it because she was a powerful and controlling mother? Was it a concern for eugenics because of the family history of mental illness?

Mary, herself, suffered a milder form of the family nervous ailment; her son Calvin, born slightly disabled, had sporadic breakdowns; and her daughter Edna, had frequent collapses and died in a mental institution at the age of 51. Also daughter Ruby suffered tuberculosis which added to the social stigma in the Victorian era. The social stigma had two effects on her children. First, partners for her children that Mary might consider suitable to the McQuesten social station were not forthcoming. Second, the partners that did come forward were not deemed suitable, and she succeeded in breaking up three prospective engagements for her children. It is likely that Mary considered the new scientific evidence for eugenics, and felt that her family’s genes should not be reproduced.

Was Mary too controlling? Or was she a loving, and sometimes frightened, single parent, who did what needed to be done for survival?

These questions form the tension at the heart of the book. One thing is clear, Mary led her children through adversity and made of them a great family. We are indebted to Mary and her family for some of the points of interest in and around Hamilton.