Catharine Parr Traill

Catharine Parr Traill, née Strickland, pioneer writer, botanist (born 9 January 1802 in London, England; died 29 August 1899 in Lakefield, ON). Catharine Parr Traill’s books are some of the earliest in the Canadian literary canon. Works such as The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer (1836) offer detailed descriptions of pioneer life in Canada, while Canadian Wildflowers (1868) and Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885) showcase her skill as an amateur botanist.

Traill, Catharine Parr
The realistic detail found in the late-19th century writing of Catharine Parr-Traill has become a tradition in Canadian literature (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-067337).

Early Life and Family

Catharine Parr Traill was born in 1802 to Elizabeth and Thomas Strickland in London, England. She was the couple’s fifth child out of a total of eight children. Catharine had four older sisters — Elizabeth, Agnes, Sarah and Jane Margaret — as well as a younger sister, Susanna, and two younger brothers, Samuel and Thomas. Shortly after her birth, Catharine’s father retired from his position as manager of the Greenland Docks on the River Thames and moved the family to the countryside in Suffolk, where they developed a keen appreciation and love of nature. Strickland was determined that his daughters be educated. He took on this responsibility himself, schooling his girls in geography, history and math. As a result, Catharine Parr Traill and her sisters received a level of education uncommon for women of their time. With the exception of Sarah, all the Strickland sisters went on to be writers; Elizabeth and Agnes became famous biographers of the royal family. One of their brothers, Samuel, also published an autobiography.

Catharine Parr Traill was engaged to Francis Harral, the son of a prominent English writer and editor, for two years. The engagement ended in 1831. In 1832, Catharine met Thomas Traill, a widowed, retired lieutenant. They married in the spring of that year and emigrated to Canada shortly thereafter. Thomas, who was in debt, hoped to take advantage of land grants and cheap property in Upper Canada. He left behind two sons from his first marriage. Catharine’s brother, Samuel, was already established in Canada and helped them secure a land grant. They settled on the Otonabee River near Peterborough, Ontario. Catharine’s sister, Susanna Moodie, eventually moved in next door. 

Catharine and Thomas had nine children: James, Katherine, Thomas, Anne, Mary Helen, Mary Elizabeth, Eleanor, William and Walter. Mary Helen and Eleanor died in infancy.

Writing

Over the course of her life, Catharine Parr Traill wrote 24 books. The first, The Tell Tale: An Original Collection of Moral and Amusing Stories, was published in 1818, when Catharine was 16 years old. A friend of her father had found the manuscript, edited it, and taken it to a London publisher on Catharine’s behalf. Much of her early work was educational in nature, offering readers lessons in morality through stories or autobiographical essays. Some of these titles included Disobedience: Or, Mind What Mama Says (1819) and The Keepsake Guineas: Or, The Best Use of Money (1828). Before moving to Canada Catharine Parr Traill wrote The Young Emigrants: Or, Pictures of Life in Canada (1826). It drew on letters she exchanged with her brother Samuel and other friends who were already settled in the country.

Once she had settled in Canada herself, Catharine wrote children’s books as well as guides to a pioneer’s lifestyle and Canadian flora and fauna. The most famous of these works was The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer (1836), a factual and scientific account of her first three years in the bush, a pragmatic and optimistic work stressing the kind of realistic detail that has become a tradition in Canadian literature in such writers as Farley Mowat and  Pierre Berton. Her treatises on Canadian botany, Canadian Wildflowers (1868) and Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885) are also well known.

Botany

Throughout her life in Canada, Catharine Parr Traill collected flowers and other plants, often pressing them between the pages of books and taking detailed notes of each species. “I consider this country opens a wide and fruitful field to the inquiries of the botanist,” she wrote in The Backwoods of Canada, lamenting that she hadn’t accepted her sister Elizabeth’s offer to teach her how to paint flowers.

Although Catharine was not a skilled illustrator, she was a keen amateur botanist. In the 1860s, she collaborated with her niece, Agnes Dunbar FitzGibbon, to produce Canadian Wildflowers (1868). Catharine provided the text while Agnes contributed the illustrations (like her mother, Susanna Moodie, Agnes was a skilled flower illustrator). Agnes also provided the illustrations for Catharine’s longer work, Studies of Plant Life in CanadaorGleanings From ForestLake and Plain (1885). Despite her lack of formal training as a botanist, Catharine Parr Traill’s observations made a significant contribution to early European records of plant life in Canada. For example, Canadian Wildflowers is considered one of the country’s first field guides, and her descriptions of her surroundings help present-day scientists reconstruct Upper Canada’s forest as it stood over 150 years ago. James Fletcher, who was the first permanent dominion botanist and entomologist at Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm, praised her work as “one of the greatest botanical triumphs which anyone could achieve.”

Later Life

When Thomas Traill died in 1859, Catharine Parr Traill was left to support herself through her writing. She moved to a cottage in Lakefield, Ontario, to be near some of her children. There, she lived until 1899, when she died of heart failure at the age of 97.

Books

The Tell Tale: An Original Collection of Moral and Amusing Stories (1818)

Disobedience: Or, Mind What Mama Says (1819)

Reformation: Or, The Cousins (1819)

Little Downy: Or, The History of a Field Mouse (1822)

The Flower Basket: Or, Poetical Blossoms (c 1825)

Prejudice Reproved: Or, The History of the Negro Toyseller (1826)

The Young Emigrants: Or, Pictures of Life in Canada (1826)

The Juvenile Forget-Me-Not: Or, Cabinet of Entertainment and Instruction (1827)

The Keepsake Guineas: Or, The Best Use of Money (1828)

Amendment: Or, Charles Grant and His Sister (1828)

The Step-Brothers (1828)

Sketches from Nature: Or, Hints to Juvenile Naturalists (1830)

Sketchbook of a Young Naturalist: Or, Hints to the Students of Nature (1831)

Narratives of Nature, and History Book for Young Naturalists (1831)

The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer (1836)

The Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains (1852)

The Female Emigrant’s Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping (1854)

Lady Mary and Her Nurse (1856)

Canadian Wild Flowers (1868)

The Infant’s Prayer Book: With Texts and Simple Hymns for Infant Minds (1873)

Studies of Plant Life in Canada: or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain (1885)

In the Forest: Or, Pictures of Life and Scenery in the Woods of Canada (1886)

Pearls and Pebbles (1894)

Cot and Cradle Stories (1895)


Read More // Catharine Parr Traill

Further Reading

  • Marian Fowler, The Embroidered Tent (1982).

  • Marian Fowler, The Embroidered Tent (1982).