Chapter 1: Miss Derick Regrets
I am trying to picture in my very modern mind’s eye how it all might have unfolded way back when in July 1913. In Montreal, Quebec, where I now live, but in the era of shirtwaist suits, Model-T Fords and suffragettes.
The Post-Edwardian era, the Pre-WWI era, the post-Laurier Era in Canada.
The era BBC Radio Four has recently referred to as “The Birth of Now.”
But first I must invoke a be-speckled woman, past middle age, seated in an armchair by the window in a small parlour, in farm country, 100 or so kilometers away.
The woman seems tall and is solidly built, yet trim, with a strong, attractive neck over narrow sloping shoulders. There’s a gentle spray of silver in her mahogany brown hair; her eyebrows are pronounced and arching over a perfectly oval face; she has a nose too large that is slightly hooked, a straight slash of a mouth with nice full lips, and more than a mere spark of intelligence in her large wide-apart, almost doleful brown eyes.
She is sitting alone in the reception room of a relation’s conventional red brick house, a 30-foot long box, no gingerbread on the porch, in a remote corner of the Eastern Townships of Quebec. In Clarenceville, Quebec.
Her gaze is turned toward the picture window that looks out onto a moderately-busy street.
The armchair where she has parked her posterior is part of a three piece walnut parlour suite purchased from the 1900 Eaton’s catalogue, a ghastly plebeian set displaying the over-generous curves and elaborate and clunky carvings popular back in the day.
The suite still has its original upholstery, a floral motif in French silk, with large hairy dark gold blooms on a still invigorating fuchsia background.
10 years with the same home décor is not a long time in farm country where things move so slowly.
The woman vaguely notices that the couch’s covering has faded in a few places, despite great efforts by the housekeeper to shade it from the sun with thick brocade drapes drawn over the picture window that faces West onto the town’s main drag.
This afternoon the drapes are pulled wide open for this visitor’s pleasure.
She, herself, is draped rather conservatively, in a bottle green linen dress in what would be described on the era fashion pages as ‘a smart and serviceable style.’
The top or ‘waist’ is in the ‘mannish’ mode, but ‘in a slightly decorated way’ not nearly as severe as the strictly mannish shirtwaists worn by younger working women these days as a symbol of their emancipation.
There’s even a touch of lace at the top of the bodice.
The sleeves are three quarters and turned up as if in readiness for some kind of hard work.
The skirt is without buttons, pleats, French knots or scallops.
The dress is probably new, there’s no fading at the hem or thinning at the elbows.
This is an outfit that attracts no attention at all. Nor does it detract from the woman’s carefully curated image.
She has chosen to wear dresses like this from intuition.
As a professional woman of a certain age, there are no instruction manuals to show her what to wear.
She is the pioneer, after all, a one-off of sorts, a kind of five-leaf clover of her sex.
A cup of black tea in an exquisite green and gold cup has been placed beside her, on a two-tiered side-table with scalloped edges from the same turn-of-the-century Eaton’s catalogue. There’s a stack of newly-minted journals grazing the green cup: the Botanical Gazette; the Record of Science; the Journal of the Microscopial Society.
The woman is spending this summer afternoon catching up on her reading: She is a scientist! And a lady scientist, at that!
By all accounts this lady scientist should be in Montreal this day, downtown at Stevenson Hall, presiding over a reception for 300 members of the National League of Women Workers who have crossed the border in support of the striking garment workers.
She is also a social reformer of consequence and THE expert when it comes to working women in Montreal, on the Protestant side, anyway.
She is the person who presented a brief, the year before, at MacDonald College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, to Mr. Robertson’s Royal Commission on Technical Training and Industrial Education.
“Thirty-three percent of women between 15 and 24 are working,” she soberly informed the esteemed gentlemen of the Commission.
“A woman’s work is the same source of strength and pleasure as it is to man; self-respect is deepened by economic independence and her womanliness is only fully revealed when every power is given opportunity for exercise. But the idea has not been recognized.”
But the men of the Commission, visiting Europe this year, are not interested in working women, she knows this. They want all females to remain in the private sphere, to be trained as middle-class home-makers or, if circumstances dictate, as domestic servants for the wealthier.
The woman has folded open a Montreal Gazette newspaper and placed it on the coffee table in front of her. She turns her gaze from the window to glower at one article in particular.
AMERICAN WOMEN INVADE CANADA. Party of 300 working women spent glorious Fourth of July here, BUT NOT SUFFRAGETTES. Entertained by Local Council.
“Not suffragettes!” The lady is highly irritated. Any chance those Montreal newspapermen can get to take a jab at Mrs. Pankhurst and her ilk – and by extension at herself.
What are they so afraid of?... Ah, she very well knows.
Just last month a large assembly of striking garment workers, mostly women, marched up St. Lawrence Street, led by the all-male Executive of the United Textile Workers of America.
The majority of these marchers were unmarried maids, ”some even pretty” a Gazette reporter smugly noted in his report, but some other marchers were married women with children, and some of these married women were in the back of the parade, pushing babies in perambulators.
But were a mix of magnificent Montreal womanhood, young, middle-aged and old; rich and poor and in-between; mothers, spinsters and childless widows; to march for equal rights in a suffrage parade, say, up Sherbrooke Street, say, passing by the elite Mount Royal Club, where the scions of Canadian industry supped and smoked cigars under a private collection of fine paintings while planning hostile take-overs of each other’s companies, now THAT would be the end of the world.
And this despite all her efforts as President of the Montreal Council of Women (up until recently) to educate local citizens about the wide spectrum of suffragism that exists within England and out in the wider-world, by holding lectures and information sessions, by bringing in moderates to speak, like Mrs. Philip Snowden, and the more advanced, like Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst.
A gorgeous golden tabby cat stretches out on the carpet in the sun splash beside her. The woman notices a sprinkle of tiny rainbow tints reflecting in the filaments of the animal’s supremely healthy coat. The woman delights momentarily in the extraordinary sight.
Many people wouldn’t care about this inconspicuous miniature rainbow, hiding in a domestic animal’s fur, but this is a lady-scientist, remember, who is trained to look closely at nature.
A Botanist of note.
And her handiwork hangs nearby as if to prove the point: two wooden frames up on the wall over the settee across the little room from her showcase some black and white sketches of plants indigenous to the province of Quebec.
These are her sketches, Flowers of the Field by C.M.D. Montreal Family Herald, published in 1900. Summer: loosestrife, clematis, and evening primrose. Autumn: touch-me-knots, harebells and Indian pipes.
The frames have served for ten years as an ego-boosting conversation piece to her cousin, a work-a-day farmer’s wife, now retired to the town to live with a daughter.
C.M.D. Carrie Matilda Derick. The memory is uncomfortably clear. A decade ago, the editor of the Montreal Gazette thought it best not to reveal the author of the special feature as a woman, even if the author was a Donalda, a McGill graduate, as well as a lecturer and demonstrator at the same prestigious Canadian university.
Has anything really changed in 10 years? Has it, now?
Just as well, she thinks, the drawings are not nearly bravura enough. She is no fine artist, no Maria Sybilla Merian.
The frames have collected a layer of dust on top, she notices, missed by her hard-working younger cousin who cannot afford a full-time maid.
Carrie Derick stands up with the spring of one much younger, stretches her strong, graceful neck to gaze out, once again, at the street and flat farmland beyond.
No question, she has an intimate knowledge of every plant, shrub and tree out there. She probably knows more about the flora in these parts than anyone else alive on the planet.
But does having an intimate knowledge of some aspect of Nature make a person appreciate it more? She used to think Yes, no question, but today there’s doubt in her mind.
Her mind is drifting like a cluster of dandelion seeds in the wind and that is so unlike her. This is a woman whose life has been characterized since adolescence by a bold, glowing vision – and a certain sense of destiny.
Maybe this is the reason why she seldom comes home to the E.T. to visit. It takes her back too far.
Random snippets of thought continue to swirl and dip, puckishly, inside her head. Why can’t she concentrate?
Nature study, now, is a required course in the schools. Children need to get back to the land, especially in the towns and cities, so believe the (mostly) men who decide such things. And all inspired by the Macdonald Robertson Movement for Rural Education.
But trying to solve society’s problems by turning back the clock seems a bit disingenuous to Miss Derick. It takes a farm girl to know.
A local woman she recognizes as kin from the general facial features (well, who isn’t kin in these parts?) barges by in a hat far too big and far too fashionable for such a sleepy town as Clarenceville, Quebec.
The hat is a yellow straw shape with a profusion of red poppy petals over top, likely bought in Montreal. Derick has seen similar ones in the shop window at Ogilvy.
She watches as the anonymous relation dashes into the dressmaker’s shop across the street. She likely wants a nice new dress to match her fancy new Montreal hat.
Carrie Derick smiles, just a bit. Her heart is touched to see such pretentions from country folk. She herself has studied in Europe and has watched, without being at all moved, the beau monde strut and stroll in their finest costumes down the grand avenues. Today, she regularly hobnobs with Canada’s social elite, from Julia Parker Drummond down.
All fashion-pride is such nonsense to her. It’s just a matter of degrees. Nature always has the last word on beauty. Those fake crepe poppies can’t hold a candle to the real thing.
Class: Equisetopsida Subclass: Magnoliidae Superorder: Ranunculanae Order:
Ranunculales Family: Papaveraceae Genus: Papaver. The poppy. Symbol of fertility and death.
Yes, her mind is wondering – and she fully knows why. It isn’t her cousins’ cozy (but dusty) parlour, or the quaint Clarenceville main street that is keeping her off-task.
There’s a troublesome thought looming on the periphery of her consciousness that is trying ever so hard to poke through – and, the truth is, she’d rather avoid it.
So, to work! She slides a few magazines off the top of the pile, flips through to inspect the covers and, sadly for her, lands on a magazine that is not a science journal at all.
Votes for Women. The Women’s Social and Political Union. Mrs. Pankhurst’s magazine. With a cartoon on the cover of Christabel Pankhurst riding a broom.
She has had a subscription since Pankhurst’s December, 1911 visit to Montreal. Unfortunately, her housekeeper thought it best to slip it in with the other magazines.
Now Miss Derick can no longer keep that bothersome thought at bay. Mrs. Pankhurst! Oh, Emmeline! My British sister-at-arms.
How you have let me down!
For decades, everything I’ve striven for, every challenge I’ve met, every hill I’ve climbed, every unlikely victory I’ve pulled from the jaws of defeat has been rendered virtually meaningless, today, and by YOU, Mrs. Pankhurst!
Or, perhaps, Emmeline, I am being too hard on you.
All Rights Reserved 2014. This is the first chapter from Furies Cross the Mersey, available on Amazon Kindle.