Joanne Findon. Seeking Our Eden: The Dreams and Migrations of Sarah Jameson Craig (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015).
By Linda Kealey
Seeking Our Eden provides an engrossing account of a 19th-century woman born and raised in rural New Brunswick. The author, English professor Joanne Findon, is Sarah’s great-granddaughter. As Findon explains, reading Sarah’s diaries (1865-1889 and 1902-1919) and a memoir helped her to understand how unique and determined her great-grandmother was in the context of her time; Sarah grew up in the backwoods with no formal education and in hardscrabble poverty. Yet early on she devoured whatever books and magazines she could obtain. At the age of 14 she ran away to St. Andrews, NB naively thinking that she could draw upon family friends for funds to become a writer and perhaps escape a life of domestic drudgery. Although ultimately she returned home, her ambition to become a writer never faded. Through periodicals brought from the United States by her brother she became acquainted with various reform movements including hydropathy (or water cure), dress reform, and utopianism.
Findon reflects on this story in a very personal way drawing comparisons to her own mother’s scrimping and saving to attend Normal school to become a teacher and thus the most highly educated member of her family at the time. Like her great grandmother, Sarah’s grandmother (who typed up the handwritten memoir composed in Sarah’s later years), possessed a critical edge and sometimes a hurtful tongue which caused tensions between them and delayed Findon’s reading of the diaries and memoir until adulthood. Sarah’s love of writing, her intellectual engagement with the reform movements of her day, and her lifelong struggle with poverty resonate with Findon who has brought Sarah to life in vivid detail.
Sarah embraced water cure treatments which promoted hygiene and promised to prevent ill health as well as treat illness through the use of cold water as a drink, in baths, and wraps. Water cure enthusiasts rejected alcohol-based medicines and drugs as polluting the body and upsetting nature’s balance. Similarly she adopted “American” dress-the Bloomer costume-which eschewed tight corsets and long skirts for trousers with a short dress. As part of the general movement toward a healthy lifestyle, dress reform, like temperance, hydropathy, and vegetarianism, represented a radical break with contemporary mores. These movements, especially hydropathy and dress reform, urged women to take care of themselves and take charge of their health and that of their families. Hydropathy in particular rejected the idea that women were “weaker” and that pregnancy was a disease (29). Dress reform promised healthier babies and more natural deliveries when women abandoned the restrictive and distorting corset. Indeed, Sarah herself credited the ease of her fifth delivery to her hygiene regimen.
Sarah’s adoption of these reforms, however, brought considerable hostility from the local community. Consequently she and her husband, Joel, often were isolated and his difficulties with hard physical labour after a leg injury meant that he was frequently away trying to provide for the growing family. Early in their marriage (1861-1862), they organized the Universal Progressive Reform Association which advocated abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, meat, and drugs as well as dress reform and women’s political, social, and domestic rights. This small group consisted of family members and “a handful of sympathetic friends and neighbours” (52). Although they were perpetually on the edge of extreme poverty, Sarah and Joel launched a plan in 1864 to establish in the United States a reform community of families who shared their values. Over the next few years they corresponded with people from various parts of North America about their dream that was never to be fulfilled. Instead they remained in New Brunswick. After Joel’s death in 1886, Sarah reconnected with a former correspondent and potential colonist who needed a family to live on his farm in New Jersey. After several years there the family moved once again to Ontario, this time to join one of Sarah’s sons and family. By the turn of the century the Prairies beckoned with a promise of homestead land in Saskatchewan. Their final move took them to Kelowna and fruit-farming. Although this was not the utopian community Sarah had envisioned, it was a kind of Eden involving the whole family in a business successful enough to allow Sarah a comfortable house and income. Sarah spent the last nine years of her life there and died at age 79 in 1919.
There are a few errors of fact in the contextual detail. Findon assumes that rural women rarely kept diaries when in fact many are buried in archives among family papers and a number of collections have been published, most recently A Calendar of Life in a Narrow Valley: Jacobina Campbell’s Diary, Taymouth, New Brunswick, 1825-1843, D. Murray Young and Gail G. Campbell, eds. (2015). Although Findon asserts that utopian communities were few, Chris Jennings’ Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (2016) notes that at least one hundred of these communities existed in the post-American Revolution era. Nevertheless, despite these minor quibbles, the physical and mental journeys undertaken by Sarah Jameson Craig provide a fascinating insight into rural life and utopian dreams.
Linda Kealey recently retired from the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick and previously taught at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her research focuses on women’s and gender history in Canada.