Kenneth C. Dewar. Charles Clarke, Pen and Ink Warrior. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002. 352 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-2354-8; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-2520-7.
Reviewed by Edward Smith (History Department, Guelph University)
Published on H-Canada (May, 2004)
Moving to the Middle
This book operates on more than one level. While it is firstly a biography of a little known political figure in nineteenth-century Ontario, the book serves also as a narrative of middle-class Victorian Canada. Narrative political history has been out of favor for some time now, and biography especially so. While Kenneth C. Dewar does present a political story in biographical form in Charles Clarke, Pen and Ink Warrior, this book's primary focus reveals layers of social and cultural meaning through the eyes of one individual, without sacrificing the larger view. Dewar is able to say something on a whole laundry list of Victorian society: ideas of manliness, the proper relations between genders (from the male point of view), the economic and business climate as it affected middle-class Ontarians over the course of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the state of technology and physical infrastructure with their impact on settlement and development, and finally the reaction of thinking people to the advent of "progress" and its impact on the environment.
The sources that Kenneth Dewar uses permit him to penetrate to the depths of his subject's life: journalism (Clarke wrote and edited for a number of southern Ontario newspapers of the day), his diary, and an autobiography which he produced at the end of his life. There are also letters surviving, though many of those more potentially interesting for the historian of mentality were destroyed by family prior to being archived. These major sources form, therefore, a biography, but biography as intellectual and cultural history, and as history of mentality, which touches on the nineteenth-century classical liberal mind. Dewar did not arrive at this happy circumstance deliberately; rather the dearth of other evidence turned him to this more interesting biographical focus. This use of evidence highlights the difficulty of reconstituting the lives of minor figures who do not leave behind quite the same variety of sources as do the major subjects of biographies like a Brown or a Macdonald or even a MacNab.
The book is organized around the three types of prose utilized by Clarke, entitled respectively: "Polemicist," "Diarist," and "Memoirist." The first section of the book recounts Clarke's history from his early life in England, emigration to the Niagara area in 1844 at the age of seventeen, then to Elora in 1848, where he lived the remainder of his life, but for a brief sojourn in Hamilton. Chapter 5 at the end of part 1, and chapter 6, the first of part 2, shift gears from journalism to diary and from a look at exterior to interior life. Where the first part of the book dealt with Clarke's involvement in politics, the popularization of Victorian science, and a Romantic interest in horticulture and gardening, the second looks inside the Victorian mind of Charles Clarke. The last section utilizes his memoir in an attempt to unlock the Victorian world more generally from the particular and subjective reminiscence of Charles Clarke.
One serious structural weakness in my view is the lack of a bibliography. While it is true that the book's extensive endnotes serve this function to some degree, this lack makes the life of the serious researcher difficult. I know it is a fashion to eliminate bibliographies, but a fashion to be decried.
As Dewar notes in his preface, he graduated from viewing Clarke as a political thinker--a nineteenth-century reformer and radical--occupying a place on the spectrum somewhere to the left of George Brown of the Globe, to seeing Clarke as "the exemplar of a culture" (p. xiv). Thus, although Dewar does deal with the political climate and battles within the context of Ontario and to some extent the ideology of reform, he primarily sets Clarke before us as a portal into the nature of Victorianism in nineteenth-century Ontario.
Dewar makes the point that "it was this explicit integration of aesthetics, science, morals, and manners which distinguished the Victorian intellectual outlook" (p. 12). Kenneth Dewar is concerned to show that "refinement," that distinguishing Victorian middle-class characteristic, was the result of the pursuit of this integration, and that it could be found in small towns and villages such as Elora as much as in the larger cities of British North America. Here the great strength of Dewar's approach is revealed: this international culture labelled Victorianism was not restricted to important urban centers, or to the imperial metropolises in Europe and the United States, but had roots deep into the more remote places of the western world--in fact so far as deepest, darkest Elora. This biography is useful for what it reveals about the lives of local elites in small towns and villages as society in Ontario coalesced and grew to maturity in social, cultural, and political terms. It is also a useful reminder that the focus of life for many if not most early Ontarians was not Toronto or Hamilton, nor was it was urban and industrial life, but agricultural and commercial centers like Elora.
Dewar's analysis of male associational life seems to imply that Clarke was unusual in the number of organizations he either joined or founded. Dewar seems to suggest here that male voluntary associations were peculiar to "new backwoods settlements" (p. 85). While it is important to know and note that associational life was a major part of smaller-town male culture, this was so in larger centers also. The middle-class Victorian male in British North America and Canada belonged to a rather amazing number of voluntary organizations--all at the same time--both secular and religious, apparently spending every waking moment either working or attending meetings.
Thus without addressing it specifically as a sub-theme in the book, Dewar sheds much light on gender. This is especially revealing when Clarke married a second time and to a woman younger than his youngest child, prompting his adult children of the first marriage into various adverse reactions. Clarke's diary provides a tantalizing look at gender relations also, not only in what it records, but in the fact that both husband and wife contributed to "his" diary and read it aloud to one another.
This study also broaches the little-touched area of English ethnicity. Ethnic history as a mature field is filled with studies of the many ethnic groups which settled in Canada. Yet the English are ill-served in the literature. Charles Clarke was a nineteenth-century English immigrant from Lincoln. He settled first into farming near Canboro in the Niagara area, then moved with his step-father to Elora where together they built a successful merchandising business in the village. More than just an economic peek at the nature and circumstances of English immigration, the biographical form also allows a look at the home life and interests of the English ethnic. Dewar's use of Clarke's diary, for example, reveals his subject's mature interest in English dialect and the history of the English language, which itself suggests a sense of immigrant nostalgia for the home tenant.
One point where Charles Clarke, Pen and Ink Warrior does not satisfy is Dewar's analysis of the intrinsic importance of religion to the Victorian Canadian. For most members of Canada's Victorian elite, "church" (in terms of public adherence) was a social necessity. Churches of all denominations were well attended and heavily supported financially (Victorian churches being the most prominent and expensive structures in any nineteenth-century settlement), and formed centers of associational life outside of even their primary religious functions. The source of this lacuna may perhaps be Clarke himself, who was raised in the English radical tradition. Although a theist, he was not particularly enamored with the great Protestant denominations of the day and did not make "church" a central focus of his life. He was in this more typical of the late-twentieth or early-twenty-first centuries than of his own time. For Clarke, social improvement and progress stood in for religion.
While Kenneth Dewar misses the large and growing literature on the relationship between religion and society in this era, he does supply important clues on the place of Catholics in Ontario. Charles Clarke was unusual in championing Catholics at a time when this was a far from popular position to take. Clarke's second wife was Catholic and Clarke himself met, on a few occasions, with Archbishop Lynch of Toronto. Yet it is noteworthy that the children of his second marriage were raised Protestant. Mixed marriages were perhaps not uncommon in the nineteenth century, as my own research on Hamilton Anglicans suggests, yet this was not a relationship of equals. My own research into the mixed marriages of Anglicans and others suggests that the children generally followed the religion of the father, not the mother. This was true of Charles Clarke.
The use of Charles Clarke as exemplar is, however, somewhat problematic, as Dewar himself notes. The term "Victorianism" is redolent of restraint and an aggressive moral code that may not apply well to nineteenth-century Canada. Dewar contests this view, suggesting instead that "societies caught up in rapid and profound change" (p. xv) are comprised of many different strains, one of which is represented by Charles Clarke. Dewar suggests that struggle is the mark of the Victorian era. While Dewar is too vague, I think he is onto something here nonetheless. The Canadian variant of Victorianism was wilder and only reached a more cliched version at the end of the century, a progression well illustrated in the life of Charles Clarke. This story relates the growing cultural moderation in Canada through a tale of the ongoing frustration of Charles Clarke's political radicalism and dissenting mindset. Ironically, Clarke the radical "Clear Grit" and Unitarian is personally happiest when serving as Speaker of the Ontario legislature, where he ably treads a balanced, middle course. By then, perhaps, he had fully shed, without realizing it, his radical English youth for the careful via media which even then was growing in Canadian soil.
Thus the biography has interest for urban and cultural historians as well as political historians who wish to get below the level of high politics in provincial capitals. This biography serves ultimately to fill in part of that vast jigsaw puzzle which historians of varying hues (cultural, religious, intellectual, religious, local) are building of life at all levels in early Ontario and Canada.
All in all, then, this is a most satisfying biographical look at, if not exactly the grass roots of nineteenth-century Ontario Canadian sub-culture, then surely at least the grass itself.
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Edward Smith. Review of Dewar, Kenneth C., Charles Clarke, Pen and Ink Warrior.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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