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Women writers and the study of natural history in nineteenth-century Canada Matthews, Charity Christine

Abstract

During the nineteenth century, women in Britain and Canada read about natural history, wrote about it, drew it, and collected it alongside their male counterparts. Produced during a time when it was widely accepted that, as Charles Darwin succinctly stated in The Descent of Man (1871), “Man is more powerful in mind and body than woman” (597), women’s contributions to the natural sciences were often overshadowed or ignored. However, women in the nineteenth century in Canada contributed greatly to the development of knowledge of meteorology, botany, zoology, and ornithology. Indeed, their work sometimes anticipated the modern ecological critique of a preoccupation with cultivating and controlling nature in the names of science and capitalism. This dissertation examines the intellectual, literary, and scientific experiences of nature for women in nineteenth-century Canada, namely the geographical region known as Upper Canada (1791-1841), Canada West (1841-1867), or Ontario (1867-present), and investigates the language and scientific systems that were available to women to describe those experiences. Instead of struggling amateurs restricted to domestic pursuits, nineteenth-century women writers were sometimes pioneering naturalists, popularizers of science, and innovators of a hybrid approach to the language of natural history. Naturalist observations and the negotiation of how to understand nature, seeing nature as hostile, neutral, or divine, were central elements in the creation of the nineteenth-century woman’s identity. The writers examined in this study— Anna Jameson, Anne Langton, Susanna Moodie, Mary Ann Shadd, Harriet Sheppard, Frances Stewart, and Catharine Parr Traill— read scientific and literary texts and used the information to shape their understandings of the natural world, the weather, flora, and fauna. As educated, reflective thinkers, they use their letters, journals, emigration pamphlets, and autobiographical narratives to respond to systems of Linnaean classification as well as to participate in discussions which anticipated the shift later in the century to ecological perspectives inspired by Darwinism. This study examines the ways in which women writers were actively exploring shifting conceptions of the natural world as it developed alongside settlement and seeks to offer new ways of approaching the work of Jameson, Langton, Moodie, Shadd, Sheppard, Stewart, and Traill. In chapters devoted to meteorology, botany, zoology, and ornithology, this thesis rethinks both nature writing and women’s writing in Canada.

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