“I do so like to identify myself with all my Husband’s pursuits & occupations.”
Agnes Macdonald, Diary
Agnes the good, the care-taker, the preserver of him who was the hero, the arranger of domestic order and calm, the sayer of prayers. Agnes of God.
Agnes the shrew, the nay-sayer, the destroyer of all fun, the abstainer from booze (though he liked it), the enforcer of rules. Agnes the moralizer. Agnes of sourness and boredom.
Who was She?
Historians and biographers have long tried to figure out Agnes Macdonald, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s wife (and the new Canadian Dominion’s first ‘first lady’), ascribing to her a curious split – or double – personality: one, the vivacious, attentive, caring wife; the other, the humourless battle-axe inclined to stern judgments. That inability to pin Agnes down – and the consensus about her perceived multiple personality disorder – say as much about the apparent unease that has met political wives, and perhaps particularly prime ministers’ wives, in the nation’s mind, as they do about the complex character of Agnes.
Agnes Macdonald, Political Wife
A recent biography of Sir John A. credits Agnes – if perhaps somewhat grudgingly and born out of the trend to acknowledge more women in historical texts – as “a Mother of Confederation” (R. Gwyn 18). The label appears to be ‘official’ recognition of the person and role of the politician’s wife. Agnes is portrayed as always attentive to her husband’s needs and, through her care, even as having extended his life by the decade and a half he needed “to give the country a spine” (26). Even so, the split-personality view of Agnes (with all its unsympathetic characterizations) is perpetuated yet again.
Agnes certainly was closest to the centre of the whirlwind that was post-Confederation Canada. She was, after all, married to John A., but she owed her (perhaps privileged) position as much to her intimate relationship with the nation builder himself as to her own intelligence, interest in politics, and attraction to power.
During both of Macdonald’s tenures as premier, Agnes regularly attended sessions in the House of Commons. Seated in the Ladies’ Gallery, she was able to observe the proceedings (as well as to be observed in her attendances; there could be no question that she kept herself informed!). She even communicated messages and the political mood among the ladies present to her husband using the sign language they both had learned (Newman 10).
As early as July 5, 1867, just days after Confederation, Agnes noted with wry humour in her diary, “Here – in this house – the atmosphere is so awfully political that sometimes I think the very flies hold Parliament on the kitchen tablecloths.” The comment isn’t just amusing. It also exposes as well as destabilizes the strict division between public and private space (that applied particularly to women), highlighting Agnes’s astute awareness of her ‘place.’ More so, in politicizing the kitchen, the very centre of domesticity, Agnes defines her domestic situation as “an active site of political negotiation and influence” (Sutherland, “Peace, Order” 108).
In addition to her function in the politics of Canada – and her influence through her role as John A.’s confidante in the “political experience” of marriage (Rose 7) – Agnes also actively built the nation through her involvement in the church and in charitable organizations, such as the Ottawa Orphans’ Home. This engagement, providing examples of female participation in the public sphere, contributed to the production of civic society in the new Dominion.
Perhaps Agnes provokes a certain amount of hostility in commentators because as a woman who was highly intelligent, intellectually curious, serious-minded, and at times rather stern, she does not conform to traditional ideas of femininity. And perhaps political wives, unless they are more or less invisible, are bound to be controversial because of their closeness to power.
An Itinerant Life
Curiously, despite the uncertainties of political life, the 24 years of Agnes’s marriage to John A. were perhaps the most sedentary and stable in her life. Born Susan Agnes Bernard in 1836 to plantation owner parents in Jamaica, she experienced a series of upheavals before coming to Canada with her mother in 1854: her father’s death in 1850; farewells to two brothers whom she would never see again; a move to Britain; a further uprooting in the move to Canada. In Canada, Agnes and her mother lived with Agnes’s lawyer brother, Hewitt, who had become Macdonald’s private secretary. The job involved moving repeatedly while the government alternated locations between Toronto, Quebec City, and finally Ottawa (in 1865 – Agnes and her mother were not attracted to Ottawa; they chose to go to England instead).
Following a whirlwind romance in late 1866 to early 1867, the spinster – Agnes was thirty at the time – and the widower – Macdonald had been married before, to Isabella Clark, who had died in 1857 – were married. They had one daughter, Mary, who was born disabled and who required special care throughout her life. After Sir John A.’s death in 1891, Agnes and Mary went to live in Europe, where “they were wanderers and would continue to be such for the rest of Agnes’ life” (Reynolds 150). Agnes died in England in 1920.
Love and Grief
In all her undertakings, Agnes was, first, John A.’s wife. She was not just interested in her “husband’s pursuits & occupations,” as she says in her diary (July 7, 1867), and not just attentive to his wellbeing, but also “head over heels in love with her brilliant husband” (S. Gwyn 192). Seen through her eyes, the intellectually edgy prime minister emerges “laughing like a schoolboy with his hands in his pockets, and his head thrown back” (July 7, 1867) or enjoying a quiet evening reading on the sofa, while Agnes rests her head on his shoulder (November 17, 1867).
How painful would it be for her to find that her contribution to Canada’s story has gone “largely unrecognized” (Sutherland, “‘Good Housekeeping’” 36). And how much more painful to find that history assesses her marriage as one of “convenience,” and John A.’s feelings for her as ones of “respect” and “loyalty” but “never stronger than these” (R. Gwyn 17, 25-26)?
It is equally possible that the easy affection Agnes and John A. shared early in their marriage was ground down by the tragedy of having a severely disabled child, as well as turned into a perhaps more profound but also more burdensome kind of love by the strain and effort invested by both, in different ways, into building a nation.
Sources and further reading
Gwyn, Richard. Nation Maker Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Volume II: 1867-1891, Toronto: Vintage Canada Editions, 2011.
Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper and Collins, 1984. Print.
Macdonald, Agnes. Diary, 1867-75; 1883. LAC. Macdonald Papers, MG26A, Vol. 559A.
Newman, Lena. The John A. Macdonald Album. Plattsburg: Tundra, 1974.
Reynolds, Louise. Agnes: The Biography of Lady Macdonald. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1990. Print.
Rose, Phyllis. Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Random House, 1983.
Sutherland, Robin. “‘Good Housekeeping’: Agnes Macdonald Writes About Home and Parliament in Nineteenth-Century Canada.” Studies in Canadian Literature 29.1 (Spring 2004): 35-49. Print.
—. “Peace, Order, and ‘Good Housekeeping’: Feminine Authority and Influence in Lady Agnes Macdonald’s Canada.” Diss. University of New Brunswick, 2009.
Zeller Thomas, Christa. “Proximity to Power: Relationality in Agnes Macdonald’s Diary.” Conference paper, 7th IABA: Life Writing and Intimate Publics, Brighton, UK, 2010.