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Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush

Susanna Moodie’s narrative, Roughing it in the Bush, describes the adventures of the author during her emigration from England to Canada. The narrative is written in a humorous and entertaining manner, offering an interesting and unique perspective on the contrast between the civilized “old country” and the savage new world. The author details her experiences in the new country, while, at the same time, she comments on the differences between her homeland and the yet uncivilized Canadian land.

Although by the time she actually began writing her narrative Moodie had changed her perception of Canada and its inhabitants, she is careful to render the first impressions she had of the country. She captures therefore the initial period of accommodation in the new country and Moodie’s state of mind during this time. The emphasis lies therefore on the difficulties encountered by the civilized, literate woman while trying to adapt to the wilderness.

The land which impresses with its heavenly, unspoiled beauty in the beginning, proves to be an unsuitable dwelling for the civilized man who is dependent on modern commodities. But it is not only the utter lack of convenience that makes the life of a civilized person so difficult. Moodie and her family are deprived, at first, of the companionship of other educated British people. Consequently, the impact that the new country has on them is enhanced by the lack of society.

As Moodie and her family try to adjust to the new and uncouth environment, they have to learn and understand the habits of the primitive men and women that surround them. The impropriety of their behavior and that of their customs appears all the more outraging since it is described from the point of view of a Victorian author. The Victorians greatly prized civility and morality, and therefore the total absence of principles and manners that the Canadian Yankees manifest seems appalling to them. Roughing it in the Bush is therefore a poignant exploration of the chasm separating civilized man from primitiveness.

Essentially, Moodie’s book is the story of unsuccessful pioneers, who were unable to adapt to the life in the woods and to become rich. As it shall be seen, this is due to the fact that Moodie is an artist who cannot adapt to the wild life of the colonists and their lack of civilization. The material deprivations that Moodie is confronted with soon become spiritual sufferance as well. Moodie’s narrative is therefore the story of an intellectual emigrant who has to face extreme poverty and want in the woods, paired with a spiritual crisis.

Susanna Moodie’s narrative is an important historical document, detailing not only the early life of the Canadian colonies but also the contact and exchanges that took place between the two civilizations. What Moodie seems to perceive most keenly is not the absence of commodities and other material traces of modern life, but the absence of culture. Her literary interests are frustrated by the country’s lack of cultural background. Without the possibility to exchange opinions and ideas in a civilized manner, Moodie is forced to limit herself to the conversation she has with her family and her few friends.

The rest of the interactions are limited to the negotiations with the uncivilized population surrounding her. The author’s perception therefore shifts from the initial enchantment exerted by the natural landscape, to the miseries of primitive accommodation and finally to the appreciation of Canada as a developing country with a huge potential for both economy and culture. The first impression that the author gets of the country is one of unbounded admiration in front of the beauty of the pristine land.

Moodie is seized by wonder at the natural panorama that sets before her eyes, as the ship lands on the shores of Canada: “Nature has lavished all her grandest elements to form this astonishing panorama. There frowns the cloud-capped mountain, and below, the cataract foams and thunders; wood, and rock, and river combine to lend their aid in making the picture perfect, and worthy of its Divine Originator” (Moodie 18). Coming from a civilized but also industrialized world, Moodie is captured by the splendor of the land.

At the same time however, the author is also seized by an inevitable feeling of alienation. Although magnificently beautiful, the Canadian land is unfamiliar and strange. After the first impression of delight fades, Moodie comes to the realization that the homeland is a thing of the past and that she and her family have to begin life anew in a strange world: “The lofty groves of pine frowned down in hearse-like gloom upon the mighty river, and the deep stillness of the night, broken alone by its hoarse wailings, filled my mind with sad forebodings,–alas!

too prophetic of the future. Keenly, for the first time, I felt that I was a stranger in a strange land; my heart yearned intensely for my absent home” (Moodie 28). The author therefore feels all the effects of the clash between the land that she has left behind and the one where she has to reside in the future. Moodie describes the land in detail as well as her family’s adventures as they try to find a place to live. While the land faces them with its savage beauty, the poverty of the inhabitants and the lack of acceptable accommodation baffle the British family.

This impression is very marked at the beginning, when the family first settles in one of the log cabins that should be their home. Without any different options, the prospect of their life in Canada appears very dismal at the beginning: “I gazed upon the place in perfect dismay, for I had never seen such a shed called a house before. ‘You must be mistaken; that is not a house, but a cattle-shed, or pig-sty’” (Moodie 56). Moodie feels that she and her family have to be reduced to the conditions of animals and to endure extreme discomfort because of the improper shelter they are given.

The wild weather that rages outside also invades the ramshackle cabin that the family has to inhabit: “The prospect was indeed dreary. Without, pouring rain; within, a fireless hearth; a room with but one window, and that containing only one whole pane of glass; not an article of furniture to be seen…” (Moodie 57). Moodie captures thus the material difficulties that her family has to overcome when they first set in the country. Without the basic necessities of a modern person, the family has to contrive means to survive.

The author highlights the way in which apparently minor details completely abort the possibilities of having a normal, civilized life. The land is indeed wild, with almost no man-made devices that would provide a minimal comfort. The first months after the initial settlement are therefore filled with disappointment and despair. Other particularities, such as the cholera epidemic that rages throughout the land as they enter it, make their arrival and settlement all the more dismal.

Besides the actual physical and material discomfort, the British emigrants also feel desolated because they lack the educated company they were used to in their own country. Their life “in the bush” is certainly not an easy one, as they have to endure hard work and great poverty, which keep them away from any intellectual pursuits. In the absence of physical and intellectual comfort alike, man is reduced to a primitive state. Recounting the hardships that her family endures Moodie details the extensively the contact that they have with the local people.

The episodes that narrate the way in which the neighbors prey upon the British emigrants under the pretext of asking for loans are at once amusing and distressing. As soon as the family attempts to restore the dilapidated wood cabin it has as a home, they are visited by one of the many rude people that will eventually prove extremely bothersome. Emily, Betty Fay and a few other people from their vicinity come frequently to their house and ask to borrow a variety of household items and foods which they never return.

The description of the local people is often picturesque but it transmits, at the same time, dismaying: “Imagine a young lady, dressed in ragged petticoats, through whose yawning rents peeped forth, from time to time, her bare red knees, with uncombed elf-locks, and a face and hands that looked as if they had been unwashed for a month–who did not know A from B, and despised those who did” (Moodie 60). What Moodie notes while she describes the quaint young girl that makes her appearance at their household is very significant: the girl seems at once completely ignorant and full of despise for the civilized world.

The people that surround Moodie and her family are not only completely uncivilized but also devoid of any natural modesty or nobility. Their ignorance is paired with a lack of decency which renders them dangerous. The clash between the British civilization and the Canadian people is tremendous. While the British regard the local people with distrust because of their lack of morality and their uncivilized behavior, the Canadian are also suspicious and seem to have a natural aversion to the niceties that the emigrants always surround themselves with.

Moodie therefore always feels unsafe, unable to protect her possessions and her privacy from the Canadian Yankees that constantly invade her home. The lack of civilization and principles that the local population manifests is extreme. They do not respect any norms and seem entirely devoid of ethical principles. Moodie and her family are surrounded by people who do not evince even a natural sense of shame and decency. Their quasi – barbarous habits repel the British people, who are moreover unaccustomed to their customs and are easily deceived.

The wilderness seems here an engulfing force that threatens to absorb the civilized man into its swirl. The warning that the emigrant family receives before setting on its journey is very significant in this context: “But the refined habits in which you have been brought up, and your unfortunate literary propensities–(I say unfortunate, because you will seldom meet people in a colony who can or will sympathise with you in these pursuits)–they will make you an object of mistrust and envy to those who cannot appreciate them, and will be a source of constant mortification and disappointment to yourself.

” (Moodie 44) Moodie and her family are indeed forced to renounce their intellectual preoccupations when they find that the people in the colonies cannot understand them or respond to them. As already mentioned, besides the physical sufferings that the protagonists have to endure, they also have to adapt to a world where people have no interest in the spiritual and intellectual life. Moodie translates her own feelings and reactions to her wild surroundings.

One of the most significant aspects of this experience is the fact that the author is not only a civilized person but also an intellectual woman living in the Victorian Age. Thus, one of the greatest deprivations that Moodie is forced to endure at the beginning of her exile in the new world is the fact that she is unable to pursue any of her literary interests. As a woman in the nineteenth century, Moodie is already disadvantaged. While in Canada, she has to renounce her literary aspirations completely.

When she appears to have a chance at reviving her passion for literature and getting published, she is once more disappointed. Because of the great financial difficulties she and her family encounter, Moodie is unable to pay the postage of her manuscripts to the United States and therefore misses her chance at being published there: “Several other American editors had written to me to furnish them with articles; but I was unable to pay the postage of heavy packets to the States, and they could not reach their destination without being paid to the frontier.

Thus, all chance of making anything in that way had been abandoned” (Moodie 278). During her time in the wilderness, surrounded by uncouth people, Moodie feels that there is no place in her life for the mental activity that she yearns: “I had never been able to turn my thoughts towards literature during my sojourn in the bush. When the body is fatigued with labour, unwonted and beyond its strength, the mind is in no condition for mental occupation” (Moodie 278).

Because of the physical exertions and the great deprivations that she has to suffer during her initial life in Canada, the author does not have any energy left for her intellectual and artistic pursuits. This is in fact the most difficult thing that she has to face. Her attempt to adapt to the life in the backwoods is ultimately unsuccessful because she misses the intellectual circles she was able to frequent while she lived in England.

While living in the woods, she is moreover unable to leave peacefully and enjoy the beauty of the natural environment because of the material difficulties she faces and the rudeness of the people she interacts with. Despite the fact that Moodie ends her narrative in a positive key, emphasizing the fact that she has managed to adapt to her life in Canada eventually, it is obvious that the author misses being tied to the cultural world she was accustomed to in her own country. The final pages are dedicated to restoring the image of Canada by drawing a positive picture of its future.

Moodie declares that the country has suffered a positive transformation both in the landscape and the inhabitants, and admits to having become reconciled to her life there: “The scenes and characters presented to the reader in the preceding pages, belong, in some measure, rather to the past than the present state of Canada. In the last twenty years great changes have taken place, as well in the external appearance of the country, as in the general character of its inhabitants. ” (Moodie 329).

Similar statements are also made in the beginning of the narrative, where Moodie feels compelled to emphasize her love for the country and justify the descriptions that are to follow as a product of her early inability to adjust: “Now, when not only reconciled to Canada, but loving it, and feeling a deep interest in its present welfare, and the fair prospect of its future greatness, I often look back and laugh at the feelings with which I then regarded this noble country ” (Moodie 57).

While Moodie’s feelings may have indeed changed as she grew more adapted to her new environment, it is obvious that she could never be completely reconciled to a life devoid of artistic satisfaction. The fact that she had to endure extreme poverty and constant humiliation because of her loss of social status was enough to make her embittered and leave enduring scars. Critic David Stouck remarks that Mrs. Moodie and her family were never able to become fully adjusted to the environment they lived in.

According to him, Moodie was not prepared for the difficulties of the life that waited for her in the new world: “Mrs. Moodie was not prepared for the hardships she experienced during her early years in Canada or for the disrespectful treatment she received from the other settlers in the area, who made fun of her attempts to preserve her English customs. Her only cultural tie with the larger world during the years she lived in the backwoods trying to raise a large family was her affiliation with the Montreal Journal…”(Stouck 18)

As a woman who, at a certain point, has to endure separation from her family and face extreme poverty and hunger while attempting to support her family, Moodie is obviously kept from achieving her literary ambitions. The humiliations and the terrible restrictions that limit her freedom, frustrate her ideals and her intellectual impulses. Therefore, her narrative constitutes itself as the story of an emigrant settler who undergoes a spiritual crisis. As Janet Floyd emphasizes however, Moodie’s narrative does not follow in the steps of the ordinary exile story and spiritual autobiography.

Instead, Moodie’s authorial voice is poignantly felt by the reader: “If the unhappy experiences of emigration are interpreted by Moodie as producing this kind of spiritual crisis, her narrative scarcely has the self-abnegatory assumptions of the spiritual autobiography” (Floyd 68). Moodie gives a subjective account of her experiences in the backwoods of Canada, pointing to her material and spiritual sufferance during this time. As an author, she does not bow to any other authority and does not bend her writing to the service of an external purpose.

The story is merely an honest exhortation regarding the immense gap between the civilized man and a primitive state of life. Moodie’s sufferance is therefore primarily an intellectual one: being reduced to the ultimate limit of subsistence and to an instinctual urge for survival in the direst circumstances, the author feels the vulnerability of a human being in front of the forces of nature. There is a conflict therefore between the spiritual needs of man and the natural ones.

Faye Hammill also notes that Moodie’s main misfortune was that she was unable to adapt to her environment because of her artistic quests. Hammill discusses the life that Moodie led in England and observes that she must have been discouraged and disappointed when she saw that her intellectual preoccupations could not have a continuation in Canada: “Susanna Moodie missed the London literary circles she had frequented. She also, no doubt missed the literary coterie which she and her sisters had formed within their own family…”(Hammill 26).

As Hammill points out, even when her economic state was partially improved, Moodie only acquired the latest books and publications in English with difficulty: “The situation in the towns of Upper Canada was, however, much better than in rural areas, and after Susanna’s move to Belleville she had less trouble obtaining new books” (Hammill 28). The author was therefore at odds with her life in the new country, unable to feed her literary interests. Roughing it in the Bush is much more than a mere emigration narrative.

It gives an account of the rough experiences undergone by a woman while living with her family in the backwoods of Canada but, more than this, it a spiritual and intellectual autobiography of a woman writer. What is valuable in the story besides its worth as a historical document, is the very personal and individualized voice of the author. With an almost modern technique, Moodie filters all the events through her own perspective, tracing thus her spiritual transformation. Her voice is clearly that of an artist who observes and tries to capture the life experiences in a work of art.

Moodie faces numerous physical and spiritual traumas during her stay in the new world. Her experience ranges from unbearable hunger and poverty, illness to separation from the family. The narrative makes a potent statement regarding the difficulties faced by a sensible, intellectual human being who has descended to the lowest state. Moodie draws her own portrait as she faces the scarcity of her life in the woods, deprived of her intellectual and spiritual satisfaction. The difficult life in the wilderness is seen through the eyes of a woman writer who sees her own condition reduced to an absolute minimum for survival.

This fight for survival inevitably bends her spirit, bringing her to despair. The narrative ends however in an optimistic tone. The author seems to have benefited from spiritual healing after the long years of privations of all kind. Nevertheless, the story denies the myth of the paradisiacal new world, where absolute innocence and good dwells. Instead, it draws attention to the extreme difficulties posed by the life in the wilderness for the civilized man. The civilized person that has attained a certain degree of spiritual evolution is unable to adapt to the primitive conditions of life.

Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush represented a novelty upon its appearance precisely because it offered the subjective, personal view of an author regarding the experiences in the wilderness of Canada. Beyond the adventures and sufferance described, the voice of the author rises to demolish the mythical image that the rest of the world had of the Americas. ? Works Cited: Floyd, Janet. Writing the Pioneer Woman. Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002. Hammill, Faye. Literary Culture and Female Authorship in Canada 1760-2000. New York: Rodopi, 2003.

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