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Liberal Hearts and Coronets: The Lives and Times of Ishbel Marjoribanks Gordon and John Campbell Gordon, the Aberdeens

By Veronica Strong-Boag

Review By Carolyn MacHardy

May 10, 2016

BC Studies no. 191 Autumn 2016  | p. 140-141

Veronica Strong-Boag announces at the outset of her latest book that “Lords and ladies are rarely in fashion for critical scholars or democratic activists. This is unfortunate” (3). Thankfully she decided to take on Ishbel and John Gordon, the Aberdeens, and her meticulously-researched and engagingly-written study serves as a timely reminder that not only is there still much work to be done by scholars of both Canadian and late British imperial history, but that the Aberdeens, “this atypical lord and lady [are] worth recollecting” (16). We, of course, are interested in the Aberdeens in British Columbia and Canada: in the early 1890s they purchased two properties in the Okanagan Valley: Guisachan in what is now Kelowna and the Coldstream Ranch in Vernon, in the hopes of developing fruit farming in the region, and their near-mythic status pops up in regional histories in connection with both places. Within a few years of these purchases, John Gordon served as Governor-General of Canada under four prime ministers from 1893 to 1898, while Ishbel threw herself into important causes such as the National Council of Women in Canada (she was its founding president) and the Victorian Order of Nurses.

However, Canada is only part of the Aberdeens’ lives and times — though an important one, as the author notes — as it served as their model for their second Irish viceroyalty. By the time of Ishbel’s death in 1939, the Aberdeens were “quickly fading emblems of a bygone age of socially responsible aristocrats who aimed to channel a liberal faith into a somewhat better deal for ordinary people in Britain and around the world and secure social betterment without resort to revolution” (199). Prior to that, however, as Strong-Boag makes clear, they had their hands on many of the issues of the day, from enlightened landlordism on the Haddo Estates in North East Scotland to urban renewal, from evangelical Christianity to global feminism, and support for welfare monarchism, responsible imperialism, and Home Rule for Ireland.

Ishbel, Lady Aberdeen, has received much attention — for her transnational career, for her involvement with the women’s movements of her time, for the books she wrote and those she wrote with her husband, and for the posthumous publication of her Canadian journals — but John, Lord Aberdeen, has met with indifference from scholars. This is a shame, as Strong-Boag demonstrates. Reading him through contemporary lenses of masculinity and gender studies, class and race, and changing ideas about marriage and family, she positions him in terms of hegemonic masculinities and the myth of the “mighty Scot.” Lord Aberdeen was dogged throughout much of his life by doubts about his masculinity, rumours of homosexuality, and the suggestion that he was cuckolded by their close friend Henry Drummond, an idea that Strong-Boag firmly rejects. John Gordon emerges from this study as a man who, upon assuming the family title on the deaths of his father and two older brothers, conscientiously worked with his wife on the many political and social causes that brought them together in the first place. Qualms about his brand of masculinity had disappeared by the time of their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1927: domestic males no longer caused ripples, and misgivings were replaced by admiration for their long and happy marriage. Ishbel, for her part, was the fifth child and second “dutiful” daughter of a wealthy family that had long erased its involvement in the opium trade in China from its family mythology; she brought considerable financial resources with her when she married into the Aberdeens, and of the two, she attracted more controversy, some no doubt occasioned by her social activism in a paternalistic society.  However, as Strong-Boag writes, both husband and wife “could be contaminated by privilege” and “they, perhaps especially Ishbel, could be insensitive when matters did not go their way” (238).

Strong-Boag’s research on the Aberdeens is exhaustive and her assessment of them even-handed. They may not be a fashionable topic for our postcolonial twenty-first century but it would have been a shame if Strong-Boag had succumbed to academe’s own frontier police about what’s in and what is not: this is history with its many strands deftly intertwined with critical biography and it is very, very good.

Liberal Hearts and Coronets: The Lives and Times of Ishbel Marjoribanks Gordon and John Campbell Gordon, the Aberdeens
Veronica Strong-Boag
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 384 pp. $32.95 paper