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Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper Class Victoria 1843-1918, More English than the English: A Very Social History of Victoria

By Valerie Green, Terry Reksten

Review By Katie Louise McCullough

October 28, 2013

BC Studies no. 178 Summer 2013  | p. 131-133


In “Tracing the Fortunes of Five Founding Families of Victoria” (BC Studies 115/116 1998/1999), Sylvia Van Kirk revealed the mixed cultural background of some of Victoria’s most important settler families (the Douglases, Tods, Works, McNeills, and Rosses), whose patriarchs settled their families on Vancouver Island after retiring from Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) service. With the notable exception of Van Kirk’s article, recent academic social histories of British settlers in Victoria are few and far between. Popular social histories, on the other hand, are plentiful. Authors such as John Adams, Kathryn Bridge, Valerie Green, and Terry Reksten sell extremely well to audiences, both academic and non-academic. However, with the exception of the Douglas family (James Douglas, as the Governor of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia is worthy of attention), the other mixed heritage HBC families seem almost absent from the popular historical imagination.

British settlement to British Columbia, as a diasporic phenomenon, is an understudied topic in general. Until recently, Canadian historians were reluctant to include Canada in “the new imperial history” pioneered by J.A. Pocock, Kathleen Wilson, Catherine Hall, and others, but this is slowly being rectified (see Nancy Christie ed. Transatlantic Subjects: Ideas, Institutions, and Social Experience in Post-revolutionary British North America. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2008). We are now gaining the tools with which to properly place British North America within the Atlantic World, including its crucial relationship to the United States. But we do not have a clear picture of where the British settlers in Victoria fit as peripherals of the British Empire.

Vancouver Island, as the site of an ambitious and significant colonial experiment orchestrated by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Colonial Office, was not only acted upon by Imperial forces, but its settlers in turn influenced domestic British culture through the familial, political, cultural, and intellectual ties they established between the Island colony and Britain. Ideas about where Victorians sat within the Imperial imagination reflected their contact with Aboriginal peoples and other groups that settled alongside the British in smaller numbers in the nineteenth century, including Chinese, Hawaiian (“Kanakas”), African-American, Sikh, Jewish, German, Canadian, and Japanese migrants. The ideas and imaginings of the British settlers in Victoria reinforced racial hierarchies and assumptions of White (or Anglo-Saxon) superiority in opposition to the many “others” encountered on this North Pacific island.

In Valerie Green’s Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper Class Victoria 1843-1918 and Terry Reksten’s More English than the English: A Very Social History of Victoria, the reader is given a glimpse into the lives of some of the more notable British (and Irish) settlers in Victoria during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Through the use of diaries, letters, and newspaper articles, Green gives us a taste of the daily lives of some of the notable upper-class Victorian families. The parties, picnics, plays and other social gatherings of the Douglas, Pemberton, Skinner, Crease, O’Reilly, Trutch, Rithet, and Barnard families — “an elite and powerful group of settlers who became the aristocracy of Victoria” (13) — were attended by much of the colonial gentry, including officers of the Royal Navy. These interactions cemented the far-flung colony’s British connections and, as the ruling “elite,” these British colonials reinforced ideas of White superiority through the social networks they maintained.

Reksten, on the other hand, provides a more general overview of Victoria in this period, but she never intended the book to be a comprehensive, or “academic,” history; rather, it was “written for those who might not usually find pleasure in reading about the past” (9). And this is certainly the case. This book is accessible and interesting and will appeal to anybody interested in Victoria’s past. Many of the scandals – such as Alice Douglas’s escape in 1870 to England from her husband Charles Good, her father’s private secretary, with her three children after she had taken “an inconceivable dislike to [him], so much so she could hardly bear to see him” (129) — and the notable characters of this small but vivacious colony are expertly woven into a broader narrative. Of particular note in this reprinted edition is an updated list of sixty-one historical sites, with maps, that enable the reader to visit the remaining stately homes and other historical points of interest which, according to Reksten, “represent Victoria’s real, rather than imagined, past” (208).

However, both authors agree that Victoria never became the “Little England” envisioned by some of its earlier settlers; rather, the settlement occupied a space in between British colonial outpost and the North American frontier. But it is largely the stories of the men and women who tried to make Victoria a White British settlement that we hear in these books. We must take these books for what they are: stories of some of the people who settled in Victoria at the height of the British Empire. Until the new imperial history brings Victoria into the fold, we must turn to popular histories for our basic regional history. We must ask ourselves, what can a settlement like Victoria illuminate for historians of the British Empire and diaspora studies in general? Until that time, we must rely on these well-researched and well-written books by two English-born authors who, like many of their historical subjects, settled in Victoria. As a native Victorian, I enjoyed these books very much indeed as rich and important sources for future scholarly inquiry.

Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper Class Victoria 1843-1918
By Valerie Green 
Victoria Sono Nis, 1995; reprinted Touchwood, 2011. 240 pp, $19.95 paper

More English than the English: A Very Social History of Victoria
By Terry Reksten 
Victoria: Orca, 1986; reprinted by Sono Nis Press, 2011. 232 pp, $19.95 paper

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.