Reading the Diaries of Henry Trent: The Everyday Life of a Canadian Englishman, 1842-1898
April 12, 2022
Review By Alice Louise Gorton
In Reading the Diaries of Henry Trent, historian Jack Little asks what can be learned from the diaries of a settler who “failed to adapt” to the transformations of the Victorian era and whose life, as a result, does not fit the metanarratives that historians have come to see as defining the period. His answer to this question is essentially twofold: on the one hand, Little suggests that the diary’s depiction of a downwardly-mobile but family-centered man disrupts those well-worn historiographical clichés about Victorian society, including the rise of the bourgeoisie, the prevalence of separate spheres, and the nature of colonial masculinity. On the other, he proposes that because Henry’s thirteen-volume diary captures a life shaped by its time, it offers an intimate perspective on “migration, colonialism, the family, the rural economy, labour, religion, subjectivity, emotion, and the natural environment.”
Little explores this kaleidoscope of themes using a chronological chapter structure organized into life stages, moving through “Boyhood and Youth,” “Emerging Manhood” in two parts, “Manhood,” and “Old Age.” The first chapter traces Henry’s adolescence, which was characterized by a close relationship with his father, George Trent, a self-styled colonial squire who came from considerable wealth but struggled with mental illness. Little describes young Henry’s relative lack of interest in farming and explains that he preferred to hunt and trap in these years. Through the winters, he engaged in self-improvement activities—drawing, reading, studying—but worried considerably about his chances of making a career, a point lent credence by a somewhat awkward rejection from the Hudson’s Bay Company at age 19. Henry lived in the “parental fold” until his father’s death in 1857 left him with a small estate near Drummondville, Quebec, signaling his shift into “emerging manhood,” as described in chapters two and three. This stage saw Henry freed from parental dependence and travelling, notably to British Columbia, where, along with thousands of others, Henry tried–and failed–to find gold. Fortunately for him, Henry had his inherited estate to fall back on, which he did in 1864. Chapter four reconstructs Henry’s fairly late (at age thirty-eight) marriage to Eliza Caya, a dynamic and highly competent French-Canadian woman, with whom he had twelve surviving children. The book closes with a fifth chapter on his final years and a short, helpful conclusion.
By the end of the monograph, readers have gained a thorough overview of one man’s life, but Little’s desire to harness Henry’s diary to “shed light on the broader social and cultural landscape” is a mixed success. At this aim, the book delivers in some chapters more than others. Chapter three, for example, on Henry’s trip to British Columbia, offers valuable details about the nature of the local economy on Vancouver Island, especially for those not engaged in prospecting (– Henry attempted to set up a ferry service after failing to reach the Cariboo). Later sections on the farm economy, by contrast, do not provide sufficient context for understanding the Trent family farm within the history of Canadian agriculture. This criticism owes to the microscopic lens with which Little views his subject. His emphasis on personal detail is often a boon, but the narrowness of the method has its drawbacks, for it fails to provide an overarching framework uniting the patchwork of topics covered. Nevertheless, despite these analytical limitations, the book will provide a welcome resource for teaching, not only in its discussion of using diaries as primary sources, but also in its ambitious effort to introduce and personalize such diverse topics as migration, colonialism, labour, and the family.
Little, J.I. Reading the Diaries of Henry Trent: The Everyday Life of a Canadian Englishman, 1842-1898. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021. 232 pp. $37.95 paper.