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The Woman of a Million Books

For the week of Monday February 14, 2011

On February 15, 1947, Margaret Marshall Saunders died in Toronto, Ontario. She was a celebrated Canadian author whose masterpiece, Beautiful Joe, continues to be enjoyed by readers in Canada and abroad.

Margaret Marshall Saunders as a young woman
© Henry J. Morgan, Types of Canadian women, and of women who are or have been connected with Canada, Vol. 1 (1903).
Saunders was born in Milton, Nova Scotia, in 1861 and grew up in Halifax. At 15, she left Canada to study abroad spending a year each in boarding schools in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Orléans, France. After returning to her family in Halifax, she worked as a teacher. Saunders was persuaded to take up writing as a hobby by Dr. Theodore Rand, a future President of McMaster University. She was further encouraged by her sister, Rida, who agreed to do Margaret’s share of the housekeeping for three weeks permitting her sister to write her first short story, “A Gag of Blessed Memory.” Margaret sent the story to Frank Leslie’s Magazine in New York City who, to the two sisters’ amazement, agreed to publish the article sending Margaret a cheque for $40. Through this small triumph, Margaret had broken into the world of professional writing.

Saunders holding a dog
© Beautiful Joe Heritage Society.
At the age of 23, Saunders became a full-time writer mostly composing short stories for literary magazines. In 1892, she was inspired to write her greatest literary achievement of a true-life story about an Airedale terrier that had been rescued from an abusive owner in Meaford, Ontario. She skilfully adapted this tale for an American Humane Education Society competition for the best story with a message against cruelty to domestic animals. Not only did her entry win the competition’s top prize, but it was also published in 1894 as a children’s novel entitled Beautiful Joe: An Autobiography. This book was wildly successful, reportedly becoming the first book authored by a Canadian to sell over one million copies worldwide.

For the next 34 years, Saunders continued to combine writing with campaigning for social reform. She advocated for child and animal welfare in her novels, published articles in support of supervised playgrounds in the Halifax Morning Chronicle and participated in the Canadian Women’s Press Club. After her writing career, she conducted a trans-Canada lecture tour speaking to audiences about her many pets and her literary adventures. In later life, Saunders’ accomplishments were recognized when she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1935. By the time of her death in 1947, Margaret Marshall Saunders had gained a reputation among Canadians as a leading writer of popular literature resulting in her designation as a national historic person that same year.

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