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A Poet Laureate in Retrospect : Isabella Valancy Crawford

For the week of Monday February 6, 2006

February 12th, 1887, marks the death of one of Canada’s most notable early female writers of poetry and prose, Isabella Valancy Crawford.

Isabella Valancy Crawford
© Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library T13275
Isabella was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Christmas Day 1850. Her family emmigrated to North America in the mid-1850s and settled in Paisley, a small village in western Ontario. It was not a very lucrative location for Isabella’s father who was a doctor. After several difficult years in Paisley and elsewhere, the family moved to the more established community of Lakefield in eastern Ontario, a town connected to two earlier Canadian authors Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. In about 1870, the Crawford family settled in nearby Peterborough, Ontario. Here, on the banks of the Otonabee River, Isabella began writing seriously, drawing much inspiration from the beauty of her natural surroundings that she closely experienced while canoeing on the river.

Isabella’s father died in 1875. The following year, with all but one of her 11 siblings also dead by then, it became clear to Isabella that it would be up to her to support both herself and her mother through her writing.

Lilypads on the Indian River, east of Peterborough
© Darrell Whalen 2005
The pair moved to Toronto where an extensive literary scene provided good opportunities for Isabella to be published. There was no longer much room for her own creative endeavours; rather, she was forced to cater to the desires of those who purchased the popular publications in which her poetry and prose would appear. As a result she wrote mostly homely verse, humorous sketches, short romantic stories and melodramatic novelettes.

Nevertheless, her work remains notable because of the imaginative way it responds to the Canadian landscape and society in which she grew up. Her most anthologized poem is entitled, Malcolm’s Katie which tells a typically early Canadian love story set in a new world of lumbering and farming. Isabella received very little recognition during her lifetime; it was only in the 1970s with the discovery of previously unpublished manuscripts that the literary community began to study her work seriously.

Isabella Valancy Crawford was designated a National Historic Person 1945 and in 1983, nearly a century after her death, a commemorative plaque was erected in Scott’s Plains Park in Peterborough, Ontario close to the location of her former home.

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