“She was a shy woman.”
Harold Nicholson about Lady Dufferin
In July 1872, a new wind began to blow in Ottawa that swept though all of Canada – which had grown to span the continent from coast to coast – and that emanated from Rideau Hall. Between 1867 and 1872, during the tenures of governors general Lords Monck and Lisgar, official Ottawa had been quite informal, according to contemporary sources (though Agnes Macdonald had found Lady Lisgar a bit chintzy). All that changed when the Dufferins arrived, who brought to Canada a grand social energy that bestowed a sparkle on the rough new Dominion it had not had before.
As the new governor general’s consort, Lady Dufferin – Hariot Georgina Rowan Hamilton – was not ‘Canadian’ but a diplomat’s wife, yet her interest and influence in Canada make her a Woman of Confederation. (Canadian citizenship, in any case, did not exist then; ‘Canadians,’ like the Dufferins, were British subject.)
Falling in Love with Ottawa
Lady Dufferin, born in 1843 in a Norman castle in Northern Ireland and nurtured in grand estates, found that rough little Ottawa, and Canada, “agreed with her” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 163). Following his stint in Ottawa, Lord Dufferin, with Hariot by his side, went on to a splendid career, serving as ambassador to St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Rome, and Paris, and as viceroy in India, the jewel in the imperial crown, yet of all these postings, it was Canada that captured Lady Dufferin’s heart.
Her stay in Ottawa started ominously. After landing in Quebec, and immediately being “charmed” by the city and everything else she saw en route to the capital (Dufferin 3), she found that the “first sight of Rideau Hall did lower our spirits.” The access road to the building was “rough and ugly” and the house itself “at the land’s end” and without a view (4). Not twelve hours later, however, Lady Dufferin had already cheered up: “I dare say that in winter this place looks lovely! Our house is, they say, very warm and comfortable, and the Houses of Parliament which, after all, I do see from my windows are very beautiful … so why did I grumble? We have driven in state through the town, and have visited the Government buildings. I was delighted with the Senate, and with the Library, a large, circular room. When the House is sitting I may come and listen to debates” (4).
And that is exactly what she did. Like Agnes Macdonald before her, Lady Dufferin was a regular visitor to the Ladies’ Gallery in the House, actively following Canadian politics and staying, if necessary, into the early hours of the morning. She gained a reputation for animatedly reporting the proceedings to her husband (who by law was prevented from attending the debates to ensure his non-partisanship), and even acting out the speeches and gestures of individual speakers.
She immersed herself in Canadian life, doing charitable work and organizing amateur theatre – she herself was an enthusiastic actress – that had a “galvanic effect” on Ottawa and “spread through the town like a wild-fire” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 174). She also threw more parties and travelled further and wider in Canada than any woman in her position had done before, ever “impatient to see more of the country and the people” (8-9). She was the first Governor General’s consort to accompany her husband on his tours.
Travel, Travel, and More Travel
Looking back to the 1870s from our current perspective, one has to admire the stamina needed to undertake all those voyages at a time when travel was anything but fast and easy. In 1872, Lady Dufferin visited Quebec and Tadoussac (where the Dufferins chose to build a summer house) as well as Toronto and Hamilton. In 1873, while pregnant with their sixth child, she went to Montreal as well as, after the birth of a daughter in May, to the Maritimes, celebrating in Charlottetown Prince Edward Island’s entry into Confederation.
In 1874, while Lady Dufferin was pregnant again (with their seventh and last child), she toured Ontario, delighting in rustic accommodations and tents “spread with fir-boughs, which are laid down most carefully and scientifically by the men, and make a most delightful carpet and spring mattress” (168). In 1876, the Dufferins went to British Columbia, having to rely on American rail lines (Canada’s Pacific Railway was far from completed), and in 1877 they toured Manitoba, also accessible only by American rail (and boat). Before departing Canada in 1878, they squeezed in a trip to the Eastern Townships. Just about everywhere she went, Lady Dufferin enjoyed the beautiful scenery and pleasant, friendly people. The very air she found “delicious,” feeling overall “so well and cheerful!” (12).
The Joys of Winter
Even Ottawa’s cold climate, though warranting several entries in Lady Dufferin’s journal and thus apparently a matter of some concern, did not really put her off. On one occasion she wrote, “the thermometer was 10 below zero, but the day was bright, and we did not feel the cold at all” (49). One simply “wraps oneself up like a mummy,” she declared, “and drapes one’s face in an indispensable and most becoming cloud [a long wool scarf draped round and round], and thus defies the weather” (127). Her winter-hardiness alone should make us conclude that “Lady Dufferin is one of us” (Fowler 218).
In later life, she suffered a series of heavy blows. Her eldest son was killed in the Boer War, another in WWI, and her third son died in an accident in 1930; her husband died in 1902, having lost his entire fortune. She lived until 1936.
A Sense of Duty
The woman that emerges from Lady Dufferin’s Canadian Journal, though, is one that impresses through its enthusiasm, optimism, sheer physical health and vigor, vivacity, and the ability to have fun. That she was prepared to be such a public persona (not just accompanying her husband but occasionally also filling in for him) is all the more remarkable as she was, at heart, private. The mark she left on Canada – through involvement in politics, federal-provincial relations, social and creative activities – is a measure, therefore, not just of her lively interest in the Dominion, but also of her sense of responsibility and duty.
Dufferin and Ava, The Marchioness of. My Canadian Journal. London: John Murray, 1891.
Fowler, Marian. The Embroidered Tent: Five Gentlewomen in Early Canada. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.
Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper and Collins, 1984. Print.