Isabel Grace Mackenzie King (born 6 February 1843 in New York City, United States; died 18 December 1917 in Ottawa, Ontario). Isabel Mackenzie King was the daughter of 1837 Upper Canada rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie and mother of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. She had an intense relationship with her son and supported the development of his political career.
Isabel Grace Mackenzie was the youngest of 13 children of William Lyon Mackenzie, a Scottish-born journalist, politician and leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion, and Isabel Baxter. She was born in New York, as the family had fled Canada following the collapse of the rebellion. The Mackenzie family experienced poverty during Isabel’s early childhood, and six of her 12 siblings died. In 1849, her father was pardoned and the following year, the family returned to Toronto. In 1851, William Lyon Mackenzie was elected to the Province of Canada legislature. Isabel was educated at Miss MacNally’s, the Ladies’ Seminary and Loretto Abbey in Toronto and excelled at dressmaking and playing the piano, enjoying French Canadian folk songs such as “Vive la Canadienne.”
Marriage and Children
On 12 December 1872, 29-year-old Isabel Mackenzie married John King, a lawyer, in Toronto. The couple moved to Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener), where he established a law practice. They had four children: Isabel “Bella” Christina Grace (1873–1915), William “Willie” Lyon Mackenzie (1874–1950), Janet “Jennie” Lindsey (1876–1962) and Dougall “Max” Macdougall (1878–1922). In 1893, the family moved to Toronto, where John King accepted a lectureship at Osgoode Hall Law School. Over the course of his career, King experienced setbacks and financial difficulties, which frustrated his wife. She focused her hopes for social advancement, as well as her need for emotional and financial support, on her elder son, William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Influence on William Lyon Mackenzie King
William Lyon Mackenzie King was devoted to his mother. He wrote in his diary on 2 September 1901, “My heart was full of admiration for my mother, of compassion & sympathy for her, she was so noble, so heroic, so brave. Her character revealed itself in all its strength and tenderness.” He also noted that he had whispered in her ear, “I might become the Premier of this country,” concluding with “If I ever do, or come near to such a mark, it will be to her life & her love that I have done so.” The phrase “dear mother” appears more than 1,000 times in Mackenzie King’s diaries over 57 years.
In her correspondence with her elder son, Isabel Mackenzie King combined praise and encouragement with demands for financial and emotional support. In a letter dated 6 April 1897, when he was studying at Harvard University and considering marriage, she wrote, “I have built castles without number for you. Are all these dreams but to end in dreams? I am getting old now and disappointment wearies and the heart grows sick. Sometimes when I hear you talk so much what you would do for those that suffer I think charity begins at home and as you do so it shall be done onto you.”
Isabel Mackenzie King discouraged her elder son from marrying because of his responsibilities to his parents and siblings. As she grew older, her physical and mental health declined. She experienced severe headaches and exhaustion following her husband’s career setbacks — as well as abrupt changes in mood, from elation to despair — which her children attempted to manage by praising and placating their “dear mother.”
When William Lyon Mackenzie King was first elected to the House of Commons in 1908, his parents witnessed him taking his seat in the legislature in 1909 and attended receptions hosted by Governor General Earl Grey and Speaker of the House of Commons Robert Franklin Sutherland. King wrote in his diary that the guests at these events “all remarked on [his mother’s] beauty and said, ‘how distinguished.’ Surely there is reward in this for her as well as me.”
Isabel Mackenzie King’s public profile was limited in the early years of her son’s political career. According to journalist and author Heather Robertson, “Few people in Ottawa ever actually met Isabel King…until the last year of her life she lived in Kitchener or Toronto, visiting Willie only at Kingsmere, his summer cottage in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa, where she saw almost no one except Willie’s neighbour, Mrs. Herridge.”
It was Mackenzie King who shaped his mother’s image during her final years and after her death in 1917. As prime minister, he often spoke of his mother, delivering a long speech about his parents at the Quebec Conference of 1944. He showed his mother’s portrait to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) during the 1939 Royal Tour, drawing attention to “the fire light in my mother’s face and a softer light on the back of her hair.” In private, Mackenzie King made efforts to contact his deceased mother through spiritualism and wrote in his diaries about the advice and encouragement that he believed he had received from these sessions.
Isabel Mackenzie King did not live to see her son become prime minister in 1921. She died in 1917, a few hours after he suffered defeat in the December federal election. Her last words were “poor soul” in response to news of the defeat. Her daughter Bella had died in 1915, and she had been widowed in 1916. She spent the last year of her life living with her son in his Ottawa apartment. He was the sole beneficiary of her estate. Both mother and son are buried in the family plot in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.
Isabel Mackenzie King has been criticized by recent biographers for her relationship with her son William Lyon Mackenzie King. The publication of his diaries, which first became available in the 1970s, put a spotlight on the intense relationship between mother and son. Mackenzie King’s 2011 biographer, Allan Levine, said, “Historians generally have not been kind to Isabel, regarding her as self-centred, possessive, manipulative and even spiteful.” According to Mackenzie King’s 1980 biographer, Joy E. Esberey, “If Isabel Mackenzie were to be judged on her own accomplishments, she would fade into oblivion.”
Her biographer Charlotte Gray presented a more sympathetic account of her character and motives, concluding that, having been disappointed by her husband, “she arranged her whole life around [her son]” who “blossomed in the warmth of her love.” Gray also highlighted the pressure placed on women of her social background — the “shabby genteel” who were expected to present the appearance of leisure while undertaking a punishing schedule of household chores with little help or labour-saving devices.
In popular culture, she is best known for Mackenzie King’s efforts to contact her after her death through spiritualism. She was the subject of a 1979 play, Isabel: The Continuous Dream of the Former Prime Minister: A Play in Three Acts, by Elizabeth Gourlay. The close relationship between her and her famous son has been explored and satirized by Canadian writers. The poet Dennis Lee wrote, “William Lyon Mackenzie King/Sat in the middle and played with string,/And he loved his mother like anything—/William Lyon Mackenzie King.”