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Love Strong as Death

Interview with Jack Little

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Who was Lucy Peel?

She was the young wife of a British naval officer, Edmund Peel, who was related to the Conservative Prime Minister of the time, Sir Robert Peel. Upon marriage, they left England to establish a new home as settlers in Lower Canada’s Eastern Townships. English settlers of this social class were attracted to this region because of its picturesque hills and lakes, which they associated with a romantic pastoral way of life, as opposed to grain farming in the low-lying, malaria-prone countryside of Upper Canada.

How were the letters located?

A descendant discovered a three-volume transcription of the letter-diary in an old family house in Norwich. The transcription was probably made shortly after the letters were received, possibly because they were circulated among her parents, siblings, and in-laws.

What are the letters generally about?

The letter-journal includes some excellent descriptions of the trans-Atlantic voyage, overland journey from New York City, Eastern Townships landscape, local American and Irish settlers, and the office-holding elite. As documents meant to be read by her family, Lucy Peel’s journal entries were obviously self-censored to a considerable degree, but the strong emotional attachment she expresses toward her husband and children is clearly genuine. Even her descriptions of mundane chores are interesting, for these were a novelty to someone of her privileged social background.

Of what value are these letters to a historian?

Apart from the vivid descriptions referred to in the previous answer, these letters provide the personal perspective that is generally missing in the official archives of political and business leaders. I have written a good deal about the political conflicts that took place in the Eastern Townships during the pre-Rebellion era, but until I read these letters I had very little knowledge of the private lives, or even the physical appearances and personalities, of the most prominent men in the region. These letters will also be of interest to gender and family historians, for they represent a female voice that reveals how important the role played by genteel women was, not only from the perspective of domestic economy but also in terms of defining and preserving social status. While one male historian has suggested that the gentry women were a hindrance to their husbands on the settlement frontier, and feminist literary historians have argued on the other hand that they were transformed by the frontier experience, I believe that they are both missing the point. Lucy Peel’s letter-diary (like many others) reveals that she adapted quickly to the physical demands of the frontier, yet she was very careful to maintain a social distance from the lower-class Irish and American neighbours who were actually more successful economically than she and Edmund were. So rather than having a levelling social influence on the genteel British immigrants, the democratizing and “de-civilizing” threat presented by the Canadian frontier made them more cliquish and status conscious than ever.