1858 engraving of Victoria

Colonial History Vancouver Island

Maureen Duffus - Author and Historian


Women's History

Women's Voices from the Past

Excerpt from a talk about writing historical fiction from sources used for A Most Unusual Colony

I didn't plan to write fiction, but I could not think of any other way to use the varied source material in a way that be would enjoyable to read.

I also felt strongly that women's voices of the period had hardly been heard, and remembered a quote from Amanda Cross:

"Women of the past have a dreadful tendency to disappear into a cloud of anonymity and silence - one feels impelled to recover their voices and their stories."

I had another fiercely strong incentive when I found how much my 10-year-old granddaughter was enjoying her collection of books from the excellent series called The American Girl. Learning history through American children's eyes is all very well, but surely Canadian history could be just as interesting?

First I thought the story could unfold through letters supposedly written by a woman who arrived on Vancouver Island in 1849 and remained through the decade from fur trade fort to colonial Capital City. Great grandmother Mary Yates would serve well as the writer of invented letters - especially as she was the young bride of a first-class radical troublemaker, in the thick of Colonial controversies from day one.

Unfortunately Mary could only tell part of the story, social divisions being strict in Hudson's Bay Company establishments. I needed another voice.

And Kate Murray materialized. She turned out to be the daughter of one of Governor Douglas's clerks - he had many, some less competent than others, so I felt he could use an extra fictional assistant called Allan Murray from Edinburgh.

Kate exists as a combination of all those ephemeral young females who were around at the time but remain silent. She went to school with the Company officers' children, socialized with the Langford daughters and the Douglas girls, and so was in a position to go to the naval balls, the fort entertainments and so on.

Fortunately there are memoirs by pupils of the fort school, which may not be entirely reliable, but which provide delightful adventures about the life of children at Fort Victoria in the 1850s. Kate remembers her childhood, part of which was spent with James and Mary Yates, in her (invented) reminiscences. Added to Mary's letters, they complete my perception of the political and social life in the young colony.

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