Monday, 31 October 2011

Mercy Coles and the failed Ball Government House Quebec October 1864

Originally Government House, also known as Spencer Wood, now Parc du Bois-d-Coulonge in Quebec City
image from Tourisme Quebec

This is a continuation of Mercy Coles' diary from the Quebec Conference of October 1864. Mercy was 26, unmarried and the daughter of George Coles of PEI, one of the Fathers of Confederation. The unmarried daughters and sisters went along to Quebec as well as the wives of the delegates. Mercy wrote of the parties and balls and of the sights and other 'goings -on'.

“Monday Afternoon – 17th
      Home all alone. I have not been able to leave my bedroom since Friday [October 14, 1864]. Just as I was going to get ready for the Ball I went to comb Mamma’s hair and nearly fainted. She made me lie down. I got so nervous and excited that I [unclear] crying. Papa went off for Dr. Tupper, he came up directly. He wrote some prescriptions and sent them off to have some medicine made up for me, he saw I had a very sore throat and was very feverish, of course going to the Ball was out of the question so I very soon undressed and got into bed. ... They [her mother and father] did not start until nearly 11 o’clock and were home by 2. Dr. Tupper came in again when he came home. He saw I was very ill indeed. All day Saturday I never raised my head from the pillow, only to take the medicine or gargle my throat. Yesterday morning it broke, it still remains very sore. The Doctor has just been here and he says I shall be quite well in a few days. I hope so for there are two or three Balls and parties this week, one ‘at Home’ at Government House on Friday night and a party at Mde. Tessiers [Lady of the Speaker of the Legislature] on Wednesday. Papa and Mamma have gone out to make some visits. Mr. Crowthers has just called and left a comic newspaper with his compliments. He, Mr. Drinkwater, and Mr. Bernard call everyday to enquire for me. The Ball [The Governor’s Ball at Government House, also known as Spencer Wood, now Parc du Bois-d-Coulonge] on Friday, October 14] I believe was rather a failure as far as the delegates are concerned. The Quebec People never introduced the ladies nor gentlemen to any partners nor never seen whether they had any supper or not [emphasis mine]. The Col Grays [Col John Hamilton Gray, Premier of PEI, and John Hamilton Gray, a lawyer and former Premier of New Brunswick.] are both rather indignant at the way their daughters were treated. Miss Gray and Miss Tupper came to see me this morning. They came to the conclusion I had not missed much yet. ...”

Edward Whelan says differently though:

In his The Union of the British Provinces: A brief account of the several conferences held in the Maritime provinces and in Canada, in September and October, 1864, ...  online  (the book is short, the title though ...)  however says “On the evening of the 14th a very brilliant Ball was given in the Parliament Buildings, under the auspices of the Canadian Ministry. It was attended by the same classes – the same distinguished persons and society as attended the “Drawing Room” on the 11th. [Remember Mercy thought this was quite tiresome as well.] His Excellency the Governor General [Lord Monck], His Excellency the Lieut. Governor of Nova Scotia and Lady, the Members of the Canadian Government, the Delegates from the Eastern Provinces, and about 800 others, formed a large and most agreeable party, by whom the pleasures of the dance were kept up without interruption and without an incident [?!] to mar the harmony of the occasion, until nearly 3 o’clock on the morning of the 15th.”

I guess it depends on your perspective, and who you might be trying to impress. Whelan’s book was compiled after the conferences and the speeches were written out by the delegates after the fact.

Re the New Brunswick John Hamilton Gray, I can find no mention him being married, or having a daughter, even in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography On line . As the unmarried daughters and sisters of the delegates went along to well, get to meet the unmarried men of the rest of the country, it’s unfortunate that there is no record of what happened to them, aside from in some family histories perhaps.

It is interesting to think about what happened to these lost “Daughters of Confederation”. I won’t give away quite yet what became of Mercy Coles. If people do know what became of their great great great great(?) aunts and grandmothers who went to Quebec for the confederation conference of October 1864 perhaps they could let me know and I’ll post updates.

There are endless interesting aspects of the conference and the mixing of the social with the political agendas. To read more of the rest of the week to Friday October 21, 1864

 “Tuesday Afternoon [October 18]
            I am sure I shall know the shape of every shingle on the roof of the old house opposite.” Mercy was quite sick and unable to leave her room aside from a half hour here or there for some days. She kept in touch with what was going on though – seeing the “invitations from the Bachelors of Quebec to a Ball at the Provincial Building on Friday evening. We are also invited to a party tomorrow evening. I hope I shall be able to go.” [But she wasn’t. She was sick with diphtheria and was not really better until Wednesday Oct 26 – and they left Quebec City Thursday Oct 27. The weather can’t have helped.] It’s [Quebec] the most miserable place to live in one can fancy. We have not had one fine day ever since we came. It has been pouring just a few minutes ago. Such dumpy, draggled frail women they have here. I have just seen one go by with a handsome embroidered skirt over a red one. Her white one an inch thick with mud. ...
Wednesday Afternoon
      In bed again the whole day. [Her throat was worse and Dr. Tupper ‘opened’ it again – this seems to mean that he cut it open. She had to hold ice in her mouth all night.] ...

Thursday Morning
     In bed yet. ... They had a great Ball last night at Mde Tessiers. Papa came home with every stitch of clothes wringing wet with perspiration. He says he never had such a time. The French ladies are the very mischief for flying round. John A and he saw Mde. Duval and her daughter home. ...”

And this – tying it back to the conference goings on, is the day, the night as the delegates met till 10 that evening, that the Islanders voted against the resolution of representation by population ‘rep by pop’, which had already been more or less agreed upon in Charlottetown (from 1867 How the Fathers Made a Deal, p13 - 114). So even though Coles would likely have been upset with Macdonald, and vice versa, they were out together. Why? Because Macdonald was so charming? Because Coles hoped for better? Because - ?

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Fact and Fiction Mercy Coles and John A Macdonald

October 1864 is when the Fathers of Confederation met in Quebec to create the 72 resolutions that make up the BNA Act of Canada's constitution - they took along their unmarried daughters and sisters too. Mercy Coles wrote of the events in her diary - I used it in creating her character in my novel and used the timeline to help structure the novel. On Wed Oct 26 she writes of John A at dinner with her - read that note here on my posting on Christopher Moore's history blog


When they all returned to their seats the conversation
continued, a little louder, more merry. They talked of
the tour ahead, of Montreal and Ottawa. Of the trip around
the lake, through Kingston and Toronto and on to the Falls of
Niagara. Everyone talked eagerly, looking forward to the trip.
Mercy was eating new potatoes, the taste of home, the first
time she’d enjoyed eating anything in the past two weeks. The
two of them, Mercy and John A, still connected in the dance,
a shift in one causing a change in the position of the other.
A synchronicity of movement though they were turned away
from each other and talked to the people beside them. Mercy
felt how every subtle movement in her changed him, knowing,
with an edge of thrill, that if she were to stand now and leave,
he would follow.

As dinner ended they moved to the drawing room, the
women first as the men lingered behind talking. Mercy sat on
the blue couch by the fire, a silk cushion at her back. She felt
a draft of night air come in through the window; the damp of
it mixed with the smell of the wood smoke in the small room.
Macdonald was the first to enter the room. He walked over to
her bringing her dessert. As if he ought to do it, as if he always
would do it.

He sat with the men and poured himself a drink. The talks
were over, Mowat finished with his finances. Seventy-two
resolutions, the draft completed. Next the tour to convince
the people. He rested back into his chair. He liked the smell
of damp wood, the same as the smell of night in the trees by
his lake and the wet leaves of fall at home. Here it was nearly
winter, rain becoming snow too soon in the season. They
were headed back now, towards home. He closed his eyes for
a moment, smiled. He’d stop, see Hugh John. He raised his
glass, drank.

Mercy sat silent holding her plate. She wished she could
take off her gloves and feel the air on her skin, the coolness of
the fork against her palm, the texture of the plate. She wanted
to touch, feel the air. She could feel the cushion at her back,
was conscious of how her legs touched each other under her
dress, and how her feet rested lightly on the floor, every inch
of skin aware, everything magnified. She watched a drift of
smoke rise to the ceiling, the air quivering in the damp. She
sat eating her cake. There was a crumb at the corner of her
mouth. Raising her hand, she dusted the crumb away, leaving
lemon sugar on her lip. She licked it away, a small indelicacy,
her napkin held in her hand. And she saw Macdonald look up
at her just then, but her small tongue was out of her mouth.

John A watching, smiled as he looked away, the tip of her
tongue sweet in her mouth.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Book Review for To the Edge of the Sea

Politics vs. a Trip to the Circus

By Heather Allen - Penticton Western News

In September 1864, John A. Macdonald’s ship pulled into Charlottetown’s harbour. Its hold was full of champagne, ready for a great celebration. After all, Macdonald had just reached a deal that would lay the path for the confederation of Canada.

The townsfolk were in the street partying, bedecked with picnic baskets and parasols. But they weren’t interested in the upcoming conference. Only one man rowed out to greet the political guests and even he was longing to be back on shore.

It seemed the Islanders wanted to celebrate an arrival of a different sort: the circus. And who could blame them? It had been ages since a circus came north to their shores. In the 1800s, East Coast circuses travelled by ship and it was only because of the American Civil War that this one made its way north and toured Canada.

Does it seem farfetched that more people would be interested in the circus than the formation of a country?
The story is, in fact, true.

In her just-released book, To the Edge of the Sea, author Anne McDonald follows John A’s campaign to champion confederation. McDonald first learned of the circus incident on a Canadian Heritage TV commercial. Intrigued, she spent nine years extensively researching the events.

In the book, though, McDonald doesn’t just focus on the campaign. She frames the story with the blossoming romance between John A. and a young PEI woman named Mercy Coles. McDonald also inserts two fictional brothers into the story.

The first brother, Reggie, protests alongside his farming relatives, who are fed up with paying rent to the few landlords who owned most of P.E.I. The other brother, Alex, runs away with the circus. He eventually finds himself in Niagara Falls, coming face to face with the legendary tight rope walker, Farini. As it turns out, John A. and Mercy Coles also happen to make a stop in Niagara Falls.

It’s obvious that McDonald loves intriguing, obscure and humorous historical details. She includes many discovered while poring over history books, old newspapers and even a copy of Mercy Coles’ diary tucked away in the P.E.I. archives.

To the Edge of the Sea has a dream-like quality and is playfully poetic. McDonald follows a historical narrative, but is just as interested in language, symbols and metaphors. If you enjoy the writings of authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Sheila Watson, then this is an interpretation of Canadian history that you won’t want to miss. Happy Canada Day!

Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.

Friday, 7 October 2011

My notes on Diarist Mercy Coles - one of main characters in my novel TO THE EDGE OF THE SEA

Mercy Coles diary (unpublished, in the National Archives of Canada) was a great source of information and also helped me to structure my novel. I loved the job of creating a character based on some real information - having to keep certain ideas in line, reading between the lines,  and most importantly following a time line - these were great structuring tools.

The Prince Edward Islanders left this week - on Wednesday October 5th to be exact, for the Quebec Conference. They went earlier than the others and went by train (and boat down the Bay of Fundy) rather than by the Canadians steamship The Queen Victoria which the Canadians sent for the rest. I'm not sure why the PE Islanders didn't go by ship with the others or why they went earlier (though I speculate why in the novel).

I've posted some of Mercy Coles's diary here on Christopher Moore's History News Blog