Discovering early Canadian women writers

Periodicals: An Invaluable Resource on the History of Women

by Julie Roy

Julie Roy is a researcher and archivist with Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and the Université Laval. An earlier version of this article appeared in Facsimile no. 28 (Summer 2010).

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Despite some 30 years of work by historians of both sexes and from all disciplines, the history of women has many unexplored facets, particularly in regard to the period preceding the 20th century. Periodicals from the 18th and 19th centuries represent an untapped mine of rich material that enables us to discover the history of women and that of their writings in the public arena. By providing access to periodicals, Canadiana contributes greatly to the dissemination of these sources, which are the very foundation of women’s public writing. These sources offer a renewed perspective from which to approach the literary history of women, and to discover some of the writings and views that challenge the established canon of work.

The entry of women into public life was a lengthy process that began to take root well before the appearance of women who were writers or journalists by profession. Here we will examine a few representative sections from this vast body of work, seen from the perspective of the history of women, and of the literary history of women in particular.1

Women and the Reading of Periodicals

Books and periodicals imported from Europe formed the core of what was read by Canadians of the St. Lawrence Valley up until the arrival of the first printing press in Quebec in 1764. In their prospectus, the publishers of The Quebec Gazette / La Gazette de Québec attempted to attract female readership by presenting stories of extraordinary women, biographies of famous women, texts on marriage and etiquette with a moral dimension, or articles on education. Indeed, reading—and reading by women in particular—proved to be a popular and important topic in many newspapers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Certain publishers went so far as to provide explicit assurances about the morality of the texts presented and their suitability for women who would wish to read them. The appearance in L’Abeille canadienne, 1818-19, of an excerpt from a novel by Mme. de Genlis published in January 1819, prompted this remark by the editor-in-chief, Henri-Antoine Mézière: “The novels of Mme de Genlis have the rare advantage of being readable, without objection, by people of all ages and sexes, inasmuch as the author demonstrates respect for religion, proper morals, and propriety.”2 When “Les douleurs d’une femme heureuse” began appearing in serial form in Le Fantasque, 1837-49 Napoléon Aubin included a note stating that: “A mother can allow her daughter to read this.”3 Texts intended implicitly or explicitly for women were published alongside news from Europe, political and economic debates, opinion pieces, poems, stories, and classified ads. They appeared in a regular or sporadic fashion, depending on the periodical, right up until the massive production of family-oriented magazines and women’s magazines that appeared in the last quarter of the 19th century.


Among these periodicals explicitly geared toward Canadian women was the pioneering L’Almanach des dames, published in 1806 by Louis Plamondon.4 It would entail an almost 30-year wait, and the appearance of Mary Graddon Gosselin’s Montreal Museum, published in Montreal from 1832 to 1834, before there was another periodical whose target audience would be women. Mme Gosselin was interested in not only entertaining her female readership, but also encouraged readers to submit their own writing for publication. Although the majority of contributors were anglophones, women readers unquestionably inhabited two linguistic communities, as attested to in this ad published in Le Canadien:

The fifthissue of Montreal Museum that has recently come out is a pleasant literary and arts newspaper published in this city in the English language by a woman who has devoted all her spare hours to it. The publication is a testament to the talent and taste of its editor, and it has been received with the acclaim it deserves. We recommend the reading of it to those among our kind compatriots who, with a facility for English, have the leisure time to devote to the improvement of their hearts and spirits, and to the betterment of the art of writing...5

Mary Graddon Gosselin not only devoted her “spare hours” to managing the publication of the Museum, but she wrote articles of a moral flavour for it, as well as translating texts from French to English. Notably, she denounced the frivolous female characters of certain popular novels, and entreated her readers to avoid this type of reading. A study of the articles, poems, and serials taken from the foreign press and, more specifically, of women writers represented in the press of this period, has yet to be done. With the exception of a few classics, the majority of women authors whose works were published in magazines have long since been forgotten. Canadian women sometimes found in the pages of their favourite weeklies both prose and poetry that they could imitate. Many serials of the time featured young girls and women who were intended as role models. A study of the texts of foreign woman authors reprinted in periodicals can also contribute to our understanding of the writing models and the example of women authors who were able to influence the practice of public writing by Canadian women.

Although writings about reading allow us to draw a portrait of the ideal female reader, a portrait of the actual female reader is, however, difficult to pin down. Few subscriber lists are available today. One exception is the Canada Musical, 1866-81, which in each of its issues listed the names of its subscribers, almost a third of whom were women. And yet, in a social milieu where periodicals passed easily from hand to hand and were often kept in families for many years, such lists would only imperfectly represent the true nature of female readership. We should also be wary of generalising in associating women’s reading with the reading specifically targeted towards them, or in confining ourselves to the perspective of types of texts potentially readable by women, considering the prejudices of the era or our own frames of reference. The rare accounts we find in the correspondence of this period suggest greater emphasis on the reading of news and political debates than of texts generally associated with feminine reading.6 Yet the texts intended for female reader-ship are all we have to go on in drawing a portrait of the ideal female reader and in perceiving, if only in the shadows, the moral, social as well as literary expectations with regard to women.



The involvement of women in the publishing industry is an interesting path to explore. Our first hypothesis leads us to believe that the more women were involved in the conception of a periodical, the more room they devoted to feminine views. Aside from its being an Anglophone newspaper that could draw on the talents of women authors often previously published in England and in the United States, the Montreal Museum was managed, for the first time in Canada, by a woman. This fact undoubtedly had a major impact on the content of the periodical and the prominence that female authors enjoyed there. For the publication of at least its first two issues, Mary Graddon Gosselin collaborated with Elizabeth Ann Tracey,1 sister of Daniel Tracey, a physician and journalist who founded the Vindicator in 1828.

The role of the wives of printers, publishers, and contributors is an equally important avenue to explore. We are familiar with the involvement of Marie Mirabeau in the production of the Gazette littéraire, 1778–79.8 She took charge of the printing house managed by her husband, Fleury Mesplet, during his incarceration in 1776 and over the time period from June 1779 to September 1782. Notably, Marie Mirabeau would oversee the publication of an Almanach curieux et intéressant, a calendar, a collection of psalms, and an Anglo-Mohawk textbook.9 Her involvement no doubt extended well beyond these particular publications, since the Gazette littéraire was the periodical most open to contributions from women throughout the 18th century in Canada, with some thirty texts penned under feminine pseudonyms during the newspaper’s two-year existence.

That is also the case with the Gazette des Trois-Rivières, published by Ludger Duvernay between 1817 and 1819. His sister, Julie,10 had joined him at the end of July 1817 in order to help him with his new publishing venture, which was set to launch in the month of August of that year. Julie Duvernay would remain at his side until the closing of the newspaper in 1819. Even though her role there nominally was as “domestic help,” she undoubtedly had a certain influence on the content of the newspaper, and was perhaps even the author of a poem entitled “L’erreur”, which was published in the newspaper on October 12, 1819 and signed by “Mlle D....” This “Mlle D…” shows the consequences of male double-dealing when women put themselves under the sway of men, believing that it is love alone that motivates them. In the poem she expresses the disillusionment of young women, and the shattering of illusions that comes with real-world experience.

In Montreal, the contribution of Ann Lewis in the production of Samuel Hull Wilcocke’s The Scribbler, 1821-27 is well documented. In the dedication of the first issue, Wilcocke describes Ann Lewis as an “amanuensis,” thus acknowledging the important role she held in the preparation of the journal: “But you not only encouraged me, and rewarded me as I went on, in my literary employment; you also furnished me with topics, provided me with matter, served me as an amanuensis…; what have you not been to me, and to this work? To you, therefore I dedicate both myself and it…”11 This contribution by Lewis is also declared in the very pen name of the editor-in-chief, “Lewis Luke MacCulloh,” which not only forms an anagram out of Wilcocke’s full name, but also contains the surname of Ann Lewis.12


The Classifieds


The contribution of classified ads as a source of information on the activities of women may seem banal, but they are without a doubt one of the fundamental sources for understanding the lives of women in their most varied aspects. In these ads some Canadian women would offer room and board, while others tendered their services as domestic help, teachers, cooks, or even as shopkeepers. These classified ads allow us to discover Canadian society, and to catch a glimpse of the often unexpected involvement of women in diverse spheres of activities. They open a door on the universe of women’s private lives, and indeed of their domestic lives, and allow us to understand the mindset of the era and the hardships they often experienced. An extravagant woman could be denied credit by her husband, while another woman might complain about her spendthrift husband’s wastefulness. People could post a missing person notice (e.g., a runaway female servant) or a notice regarding lost or stolen objects (small key, valuable document, etc.), each of which, in their way, bear witness to the daily life and standards of behaviour of that Canadian society to which women belonged.

These classified ads and public notices also allow us to perceive the involvement of women in educational and cultural life. The announcements and notices regarding activities taking place in schools and the subjects taught, as well as the invitations to participate in charitable or cultural events, may be incomparable sources for understanding the involvement of women in society. Indeed, the first text signed by Canadian women whom we can positively identify is that of a tribute presented to Governor Carleton and his wife during their official visit in 1774 which was published in the Gazette de Québec by the young ladies boarding at the Hôpital général de Québec and their teachers. Certain periodicals offered exceedingly detailed summaries of year-end festivities, where music, theatre, and literature held centre stage. For convent-educated girls and their teachers, these festivities represented the climax of their endeavours in the artistic and literary realms. Obituaries, too, are where women had a place. For most of them, it was the first and only time they would cross the threshold into public recognition. For the researcher, the obituaries are often the single most important source for information about those women who disappeared into the ranks of history’s forgotten.

Women’s Authorship in Periodicals

Canadian women quickly grasped the impact of the printed word on public opinion and the possibilities that it offered them for making their voices heard. Although the pages of the periodicals were filled predominantly with texts signed by either men or anonymous authors, as well as reprints of foreign texts, beginning in the 18th century they also included a variety of texts written under female pseudonyms. The fashion of writing under pseudonyms, however, renders it difficult to identify, with few exceptions, the actual authors of texts up until the late 19th century. If one cannot help but suspect a certain amount of literary cross-dressing in this practice, these texts nonetheless bring to centre stage a feminine language that sheds new light on the expectations of contemporaries with regard to women.

The texts written under feminine pseudonyms appear most often in the form of newspaper correspondence and put in the spotlight women who are preoccupied with what to do in certain social situations or with coming to the defence of their “sex.” Thanks to the “letters to the editor” column, they were able to make the most of a mode of writing where their competence would be recognised, in a forum that allowed them to carve out a corner for themselves in that particular public space. We also find poems, songs, and short stories—some of which evolved into novels in the second half of the 19th century. Though it is true that these texts are generally the fruit of a one-time effort, and that we cannot generally think of any of them as the work of budding professional writers before the second half of the 19th century, some “contributors” nevertheless kept forging ahead beyond their initial effort.

Starting in the middle of the 19th century, periodicals proliferated and gradually began to specialise. Some of them promoted Canadian literature and called for the contributions of neophytes; and sometimes, as was the case with the Populaire, 1837-38, they solicited women directly. This keen interest in feminine writing would engender “Marie Louise,” the pseudonym of Joseph-Guillaume Barthe, who to this day retains his grip on the laurel crown among the pantheon of Canadian authors. Following in the footsteps of her pseudonymous predecessor, young Odile Cherrier, alias “Anaïs,” also became an important contributor to the Populaire.13 From October 1837 to February 1838, she authored two translations of stories that had appeared in American newspapers, an original story entitled “Adolphe et Eugène” and several poems.14 For L’Aurore des Canadas, the young “Améla,” whose true identity we do not know, took up the torch again in October 1839 by penning several prose poems and a love story.15

While Montreal, Quebec, and Trois-Rivières continued to reign as important hubs of magazine publishing, regional presses soon began to be established. Although the proliferation of periodicals amplified the opportunities for a public forum, the percentage of space therein occupied by women remained relatively limited. The analysis of the contents of periodicals from the period 1840–1880 has yet to be completed; but we can report that, while certain periodicals still had little room for women’s writing, others were gradually opening their pages to new voices. Whether making known their opinions on current events, formally thanking someone for his or her invaluable assistance, or eulogising a close lady friend who has died, these texts published by women in the press, whether letters, poems, chronicles, or stories, all reflect some aspect of the social life of the era. Increasingly well-read, these young women who had learned the art of writing in the convents set out to conquer the Muses by offering a few of their own creative pieces to local newspapers and journals. La ruche littéraire et politique, 1853-59 featured, for example, a travel story entitled, “De Québec à la chute Montmorency” by Malvina D****.16 The Montreal newspaper La Guêpe contains several poems by Clara Chagnon during the year 1866-67.17 Several of these would also be published in Le Feuilleton, 1865-67, L’Union nationale, Le Journal de Lévis, and La Minerve. A certain Mlle Chagnon (the same aforementioned Clara Chagnon, no doubt) also published a novel entitled “Les Fiancés d’outre-tombe” in the Revue Canadienne in 1869. This historical novel, though long forgotten, preceded by a dozen years the publication of Laure Conan’s novel, Angéline de Montbrun.18

Despite the publication of numerous texts in the no less numerous periodicals of the second half of the 19th century, “Amélie Deschamps” penned a “Chronique des dames” in L’Opinion publique in June 1876 wherein she bemoans the lack of topics in Canadian periodicals that might be of interest to female readers:

Every timeI open one of our newspapers and run my eyes across the columns, I never close it again without experiencing a painful sensation, a sense of disappointment. What is there, I say to myself, in all these articles, that might interest us women, something that is written from our point of view and that addresses us in particular… Everything is written by men, for men, from the point of view of men.19

This account illustrates the difficulties women faced in finding their place in the press. This type of critical commentary should not, however, lead us to conclude that women were absent from the scene, but simply that they were not as present as one would wish. Yet the examples of feminine contributions were becoming increasingly numerous and diversified. In the last quarter of the 19th century, periodicals began to specialise, thereby further breaching the public space and opening it to women. One need only think of such literary and “feminine” magazines as Le Journal du Dimanche, 1883-85 and Le Monde illustré, 1884-1902; family-oriented periodicals like La Gazette des familles, 1878; and even scholarly periodicals like Le Couvent, 1886-99, which allowed young schoolgirls to publish texts in a newspaper distributed to Canadian families.



Periodicals make up a body of documents whose evolution is intimately linked to the evolution of Canadian society. The history of women, which seems to be lamentably bereft of sources for the period prior to the turn of the 20th century, can be elucidated for us by travelling down the numerous avenues available here toward a better understanding of what was at stake for the societies these women inhabited. In addition, in these periodicals, we can discover their take on their own lives, their sometimes disconcerting traditionalism—but also be surprised by their lucidity and sense of humour. We even see sprouting up there, where we would least expect it, the elements of a feminist language in the making—in a turn of phrase, in a classified ad, in a fictional character created from scratch, or in a love poem.

For those interested in the history of women, periodicals are an inexhaustible source of information. They also present difficulties, especially by virtue of their impressive quantity, their heterogeneous nature, and their varied content. And yet, the biggest obstacle arises, without question, from the fact that the presence of the “feminine,” and of women per se, is often concealed within a jumble of information.

One must also take into account the fact that more often than not women speak anonymously, all the more so when they are draped behind the mysterious aura of a pseudonym. It is necessary, therefore, not only to read carefully and between the lines, but above all to learn to read differently. The digitization of these sources, their gathering into one unique collection, and the democratisation of their accessibility via the Web, along with the availability of full-text search tools, pave the way for a better use of these documents and a groundbreaking opening of this largely unknown corpus. The examples presented here are but a few samples of what these sources conceal. Thanks to the broader accessibility of these Canadian periodicals, the research on this body of work currently in progress—and that which is yet to come—cannot help but contribute to bettering our knowledge of the history of women, and of their literary history in particular.

1. Until now, my research has been based on francophone periodicals published in Quebec between the publication of the Quebec Gazette in 1764 and the appearance of the first women journalists at the turn of the 20th century. This research began within the framework of my dissertation, Stratégies épistolaires et écritures féminines: Les Canadiennes à la Conquête des lettres, 1639–1839, Dép. d’études littéraires, UQAM (2003).
2. L’Abeille canadienne, janvier 1819, p. 21.
3. Le Fantasque, 7 avril 1842
4. Dedicated to Rosalie Amiot, who was to become Plamondon’s wife, this almanac is primarily a compilation of European texts, with the exception of a poem by Joseph Quesnel.
5. Le Canadien, 13 mai 1833.
6. For example, Julie Bruneau-Papineau and Marie-Marguerite Lacorne-Viger take more of an interest in the subject of political debate than in any other. Julie Cerré even takes an interest in international politics, and Victoire Papineau draws on current events taken from the press of the day to entertain her correspondents.
7. Elizabeth Ann Tracey, born in Ireland around 1806, accompanied her brothers to Canada in 1825 and settled in Montreal. She married Charles Wilson, a businessman and senator, on May 19, 1835. She died in Montreal on February 11, 1879.
8. Fleury Mesplet was accused of siding with the Americans in the War of Independence.
9. See R.W. McLachlan, “Fleury Mesplet, the first printer at Montreal,” in Mémoires et comptes rendus de la société royale du Canada—1906, Ottawa, James Hope & Sons, 1906, p. 197–309; and Jean-Paul Delagrave, Fleury Mesplet (1734–1794): Diffuseur des Lumières au Québec, Montreal: Patenaude, 1985. The work of Daniel Claus, A Primer for the use of Mohawk children, is available at in the version published in London by C. Buckton in 1786.
10. Marie-Anne Julie Duvernay, daughter of Joseph Duvernay and Marie- Anne Julie Rocbert de la Morandière, married Pierre Fortin, a carpenter and native of Verchères, in 1822.
11. The Scribbler, June 28, 1821, p. 1.
12. Carl F. Klinck, “Wilcocke, Samuel Hill”, in Dictionnaire biographique du Canada, v. 6, 1987, p. 899–901.
13. Odile Cherrier was the sister of André-Romuald, a contributor to the Populaire, under the pseudonym of “Pierre- André,” and of Georges-Hippolyte, future publisher of Charles Guérin (1853), by P.J.O. Chauveau, and of the magazine La Ruche littéraire.
14. “Rosalie Berton,” 25 octobre 1837, [trans.]; “Horrible tragédie. Une scène à Saint-Domingue,” 17 janvier
1838, [trans.]; “Adolphe et Eugène,” 24 novembre 1837; “À Élise,” 31 janvier 1838; “Une promenade avec André dans le cimetière,” 2 février 1838; “L’amitié,” 12 février 1838.
15. “Romance. Fleurs funéraires d’une jeune Canadienne aux mannes de sa mère chérie,” 4 octobre 1839; “Stances sur la mort de Pierre G. Damour, médecin,” 11 octobre 1839; “Promenade champêtre,” 12 novembre 1839; “Qui s’intéresse à ma mélancholie?” 6 décembre 1839; “Mes souvenirs ou Améla sur la tombe de sa mère,” 23 octobre 1840.
16. La ruche littéraire et politique, mai 1854, p. 220–226.
17. In La Guêpe we find: “Aux Messieurs,” 18 mars 1867; “Qui ne pleure pas le soir,” 30 mars 1867; “Laissez-moi mes rêves,” 30 novembre 1867.
18. Julie Roy, “Laure Conan et ‘Les fiancés d’outre-tombe’ de Mlle Chagnon. Une filiation littéraire inédite,” in Sens commun: Expérience et transmission dans la littérature québécoise, H. Jacques, K. Larose, and S. Santini (dir. publ.), coll.: “Convergence,” Nota Bene, 2007, p. 259–272.
19. L’Opinion publique, 8 juin 1876, p. 266.