The Collection

Featured books: Wilderness & Domesticity

Wilderness and Civilized Domesticity: Adventurous Boys and Resourceful Girls

Cheryl Cowdy

“The wilderness as the Other of civilization, an uncontrolled and gendered space that shapes masculinity, has long been a trope in Canadian children’s adventure stories, a stage on which narratives of survival are acted out”

(Gail Edwards & Judith Saltman, 2010)

The books in the Children’s Literature Collection are stunning artefacts of children’s material culture of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries that represent the visual and cultural iconography of a possible and impossible Canada on book covers, spines, and illustrations: many of the images communicate a gendered and racialized tension in the idea of Canada as both a wilderness playground for the colony’s boys, and a feminized pastoral space of domesticity. Scholars of the print history of children’s literature of the pre-Confederation period point out that the predominance of British and American publishers and literary markets for children’s books set in Canada translated into an emphasis on representations of the natural landscape.[i] For Mavis Reimer, “the idea of the natural” is closely tied to the wilderness, “a conventional setting in Canadian children’s literature since the nineteenth century.” The wilderness is frequently coded as a feminine space in adventure novels.[ii] Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century settler children’s books often “functioned as Bildungsromane in which the growth of the protagonists mirrored the transition of the nation from childhood to adolescence, usually achieved after an apprenticeship in the country’s wilderness spaces.[iii]

 While the wilderness was the playground for young male protagonists, the female child is often associated with pastoral domesticity, as is depicted on the cover of Betty in Canada by Etta Blaisdell (c.1910). Books in the collection highlight this tension; some, such as May Wynne’s The Adventures of Two (c.1930) suggest that authors and publishers of the 20s and 30s recognized that young girls and women were among the readership for adventure novels featuring female protagonists surviving in the wilderness. That such books participate as problematically in the racialization of the wilderness, however, is highlighted by the iconography of the spine cover: the image of a young woman holding a gun on the spine may challenge stereotypical gender roles of the period, but the image of a large black bear towering over the body of an Indigenous warrior suggest that her survival, as for her brothers, requires the vanquishing, not only of the wilderness, but of the figure of the Indigene commonly conflated with the natural environment. 

[i] Edwards and Saltman; Galway.

[ii] O’Malley, 70.

[iii] Cowdy, 16.


Exhibit: Information on the Book History & Print Culture

The Search for Molly Marling

Scott McLaren

Charles J. Musson established The Musson Book Company in Toronto in 1892 not primarily to publish books but rather to import and distribute them to Canadian readers. Indeed, the vast majority of books bearing Musson’s name at the turn of the century were neither published nor printed by him, but merely imported by his company for resale through local booksellers. The Search for Molly Marling was most likely secured by Musson on one of his routine trips overseas sometime after The Religious Tract Society (RTS) first published the book in London in 1903. No doubt Musson was able to obtain particularly good terms from the RTS since its chief aim was not to secure large profits, but rather to disseminate wholesome Christian literature far and wide. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century the RTS was circulating tens of millions of items per year – including a rapidly expanding catalogue of religious fiction that was routinely offered in partnership with businesses like the one Musson operated in Toronto. (See Michael Ledger-Lomas, “Mass Markets: Religion” in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain edited by David McKitterick (Cambridge UP, 2009) 6:334ff.)

It is perhaps ironic, in view of The Search for Molly Marling’s transatlantic publishing history, that its author, Emily Poynton Weaver, lived in Canada for the whole of her adult life. An active member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor Street, Weaver was born in Manchester, England, before her parents immigrated to Canada and settled temporarily in Woodstock. Weaver was a prolific and well-known author of books for Canadian children. Some of her most celebrated titles included Canadian History for Boys and Girls, Canada and the British Immigrant, and The Only Girl: A Tale of 1837. Weaver was an honorary life member of the Toronto Women’s Historical Association and a former member of the Ontario Historical Association. She was also associated with the Toronto branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club. Weaver died in Toronto in March 1943 (“Emily Weaver, Author, Dies” Globe and Mail 12 March 1943, p. 7).


The Adventures of Two

Scott McLaren

This is a good example of what is sometimes referred to as a Victorian publishers’ binding. As the name suggests, these illustrated bindings were typically associated with books produced during the second half of the nineteenth century – especially those aimed at the juvenile market. This book, which was probably published around 1920, is a late example of this kind of binding. In general, the bindings for children’s books became much plainer after the First World War as publishers began to produce less expensive and even more colourful paper dust jackets. The technologies that went into producing illustrated bindings like the one on this book extended back through much of the nineteenth century. It began with the adoption of cloth as a primary binding material in the early part of the century and was followed by the development of methods for blocking that cloth in gilt. By the 1880s, pictorial bindings of the kind we see here had become very popular and often entailed the use of three or four distinct colours to create the image. Such bindings were produced separately from the book itself and typically attached to the text block using gauze secured by the endpapers.

May Wynne was the pseudonym of the popular British author Mabel Winifred Knowles. Knowles published many titles for children under this name including Comrades from Canada, A Cousin from Canada, Mog Megone, and numerous others. Knowles also wrote novels for adults including two, Big Money and The Education of Nicky, that were adapted for film. Knowles died in London in December 1949 (“Miss Mabel Knowles” The Times 5 December 1949, p. 7).

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