Saturday, April 16, 2016

In Flanders Fields, the CBC and my Husband's Great Grandmother


A funny thing just happened to me. Just last night.

As I was searching Google news archives for any story on Andrew Macphail, the McGill professor who wrote a strange article back in 1910, the Psychology of the Suffragette (that  I wrote about in the previous blog post)  I bumped smack into my husband's great-grandmother, Margaret Nicholson's, 1942 obituary!

Margaret, born 1882, wouldn't have approved of Macphail's essay, had she read it.

She was an era 'new woman' and all for the militant suffragettes - as were her boffo daughters, Edith, Flora and Marion (my husband's grandmother).

It is just so ironic because Margaret Nicholson is the very reason that I'm considering writing a play about Andrew Macphail (a McGill medical man and Man of Letters who hated to see the world change) and his odd relationship with feisty feminist future-gazing author Frances Fenwick Williams.

In 1913, Frances was involved with the Montreal Suffrage Association as well as the more militant Montreal Equal Franchise  League. She visited England in 1912 and was introduced to Mrs. Pankhurst's troops by some of her outlier literary friends, including Ivy Compton Burnett.

Frances even made fun of Dr. Macphail and the way he liked to deconstruct the feminine psyche in  her 1915 novel, A Soul on Fire.

Margaret Nicholson is the one who kept about 1,000 family letters in an old trunk in her attic in Richmond, Quebec - a trunk that ended up in the hands of my mother-in-law,  her granddaughter born 1917, and which I discovered about 10 years ago.

These Nicholson letters date from 1879 to 1938. As the obit explains, Margaret moved to Montreal to live with her daughter in 1939, so letter-hoarding days were over.


Margaret, top right, beside husband Norman, with Edith and Marion and older woman, Norman's sister, Annie Watters.

I read all of these family letters, transcribed them, made sense of  them, and posted them on a website, Tighsolas, that I have since taken down.

Not to worry, though, in the ten year period I penned a number of ebooks based on the 300 Nicholson letters from the 1908-1919 period.



Threshold Girl, Diary of a Confirmed Spinster, A Laurier Era Family and Not Bonne Over Here, the WWI letters of the Nicholsons.

Because Margaret and her daughters were very interested in the woman suffrage movement back in 1910,  clipping all kinds of stories from the Montreal Standard, Herald and Witness, I got interested in that quasi-censored episode of herstory and researched all there was to research and wrote Furies Cross the Mersey (about the British Invasion of Suffragettes to Montreal in 1912/12) and Service and Disservice, about the Canadian suffragists and their iffy involvement in the Conscription Crisis of WWI.


Remnant of a suffrage article from 1912.  I luckily transcribed it first. Militant Barbara Wylie visits Montreal, and, surprise, she is so lady-like and pretty!


These past weeks I've been fishing around for another project of  the non-Nicholson variety.  I have to keep busy, you know, but I've had enough with genealogy.

 I've been auditing online law courses, environmental law, human rights law, so I thought I might write about Annie Langstaff and the other pioneering lady lawyers in Canada.

That, too, is a forgotten feminist tale.

Then, it suddenly occurred to me that I might write about Montreal author and suffragist, Frances Fenwick Williams,who is a character in many of my ebooks.

I know a lot about her and her writing. Yet, she remains a bit of a mystery.

Frances Fenwick Williams was Andrew Macphail's secretary in and around 1907, helping him edit the conservative University Magazine, even contributing to it, occasionally. (I must check the issues at McGill).

As it happens, John McCrae, the author of the famous WWI poem In Flanders Fields, who died in 1918 of pneumonia in the war, also contributed to the same magazine.

I just learned that the original In Flanders Fields is held in the Macphail fonds at McGill, because it was Macphail who discovered the poem. Supposedly, it  had been written by McCrae,while in Flanders in 1915, then handed  to a fellow soldier . (So the story goes. See the Heritage Minute on YouTube.)

Andrew Macphail, also serving there as a medic, although over 50,  retrieved the unsigned poem at the headquarters/convent near Ypres and immediately recognized the literary style as McCrae's. (So he says.)Well, he recognized that the sonnet was identical in construction to another McCrae poem, The Night Cometh.  (You would think the handwriting would have been the real give-away.)

The poem was published  in Punch in December 1915 in the UK . No by-line apparently.

Why, I wonder. McCrae was an amateur poet who enjoyed getting published.

Macphail says in his essay about McCrae that the poem was sent into Punch in the regular way, by mail, with a self-addressed stamped return envelope. (He doesn't say he sent it in, but it sure sounds like it.)

Now, if you read my Service and Disservice you will learn how that poignant patriotic poem was used by certain Montreal suffrage leaders in July, 1917, to signal in the Press their support for Premier Borden and Conscription.

It was the ideal recruitment poem but with an anti-war feel to it, too.

(I've loved In Flanders Fields since I heard it recited on the CBC in the 1960's - and so well. I realized - then and there - that  HOW you read a poem is very important.)



So, yesterday,  I was looking into starting a non-Nicholson writing project, for a change, and ran smack into Margaret, her obit, anyway. It's as if..well...

The obituary says that she was Head of the Richmond, Quebec Red Cross during the Great War.

This isn't mentioned in the 1913-1919 letters. It's Edith who seems to be doing everything with respect to war work.

I must go back and re-read Not Bonne Over Here to see if there's any hint of the fact.


My husband's uncle from the other side of the family brought his shell casing back from WWI. His family used it as a doorstop. Funny, we humans....Reminds me of the poem Highgate, not a poem used to promote patriotism, but a cynical poem written during WWI predicting future careless War Tourism.