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Agnes: The Biography of Lady Macdonald

Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 266
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Agnes Macdonald's private papers are used for the detailed study of Canada's "first lady," who became Sir John A. Macdonald's second wife on the eve of Confederation. The author's well-researched telling of Agnes's story paints a picture of a politically astute, naturally adventurous woman who had to change her style due to her position in the public eye, but who nevertheless retained her own opinions and lived her life with courage and integrity.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8410-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Marilyn Barber

    Susan Agnes Bernard, Lady Macdonald, has entered Canadian history books as the second wife of John A. Macdonald, the eminent Conservative politician and first Prime Minister of Canada. Professional historians assessing the development of the Canadian nation have been interested in Agnes to the extent that John A.’s private life seemed to affect his public performance.¹ In particular, Donald Creighton, the principal biographer and acknowledged expert on John A. Macdonald, judged Agnes’ character and actions in relation to John A.’s life and from John A.’s perspective. Indeed, Creighton has been accused of imposing his own patriarchal assumptions about the proper...

  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. 1 ‘An Insignificant Young Spinster’

    • 1
      (pp. 2-18)

      On July 5, 1867, the wife of the Prime Minister of the new Dominion of Canada opened her new diary. ‘My beautiful new Diary Book! I am ever so pleased with it and have been examining it and admiring it for full ten minutes! The lock too — ! My diaries as Miss Bernard did not need such precautions but then I was an insignificant young spinster.’¹

      When Susan Agnes Bernard made this first entry in her new diary, she had been the wife of John A. Macdonald for only a few months. Her life had taken an unexpected turn with...

    • 2
      (pp. 19-30)

      In February, 1836, a few months before Agnes had even been born, the Law Society of Upper Canada recognized ‘Mr. John McDonald [sic] as candidate for a call to the Degree of Barrister at Law of this Society.¹ He was then twenty-one years old. Before long, he became a politician as well as a lawyer, and by the time his path crossed that of the Bernards, in 1857, he had many years’ experience in both areas. Looking at this experience and at his youth, it seems as if he had always been in training for the highest office in the...

    • 3
      (pp. 31-42)

      The political, as well as the personal, side of John A.’s life was having its ups and downs at this time. As he was painting a canvas of a Canada federally united with the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland, the tensions provoked by the United State’ Civil War intruded. When the Trent Affair¹ made headlines in late 1861 and Anglo-American difficulties looked to endanger Canada’s safety, it seemed obvious that the colony’s defences should be improved. For this reason, John A. introduced a Militia Bill in 1862, only to see it go down like a lead balloon, taking the Government and...

  6. 2 A Great Premier’s Wife

    • 4
      (pp. 44-59)

      ‘This new Dominion of ours came noisily into existence on the 1st’,¹ Agnes wrote in her diary. There was certainly cause for the complaint as well as for the pride in the remark. The importance of the day dictated that it should be properly celebrated as a holiday, and, in Ottawa, ‘Never was a Magistrate’s order more spiritedly carried out than the Mayor’s proclamation requesting the citizens of Ottawa to observe the first day of the new regime as one of general rejoicing.’² On the eve of the great day, hundreds of persons gathered on the Ordnance Lands near the...

    • 5
      (pp. 60-74)

      On May 1, 1869, Agnes admitted to her diary the greatest sorrow a mother can ever know: that her child would never develop normally.

      The day has been stamped with the world’s greatest seal — it is graven, I think, with the word ‘disappointment’. Perhaps yesterday was one of the saddest times of my life — let it pass — let it die — only teach me, Heavenly Father to see the lesson it was destined to teach, and while I learn it to do so cheerfully.¹

      If ever Agnes had need of her faith, it was when she learned the truth about Mary....

    • 6
      (pp. 75-86)

      Agnes must have had mixed feelings about the Conservative Government’s fall from power in November, 1873. On the one hand, it was a personal defeat for her husband and meant at least a temporary halt to his dreams of building a strong Dominion from sea to sea — dreams that she had come to share and cherish. On the other hand, it gave her the chance to get down off the pedestal on which the wife of the Prime Minister must, inevitably, live. This role, with its demands on her time and energy, its access to the inner circle of power...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 7
      (pp. 87-100)

      The Macdonalds packed to return to Ottawa in triumph in the fall of 1878, but Agnes found it very hard to leave 63 St. George Street. She had lavished time and attention on this house they had lived in for two short years. Now, just when the garden was responding to her care and the trees were showing signs of growth, she had to leave. How many times must they move? Could they never stay in one place more than a few years?

      Back in Ottawa, the Macdonalds were lucky in finding a large stone house on Laurier Avenue East...

    • 8
      (pp. 101-118)

      While Agnes had beamed with justifiable pride as she saw how warmly her husband had been received in the capitals of both English and French Canada, she knew, as well as he, that there were many battles yet to come and that he would fight them to the end. The Montreal and Toronto commemorative celebrations had been exciting tributes, but their euphoria could not hide the challenges that lay before him in early 1885. The times were not good: the boom of even three years earlier was over, and, in spite of what John A. had said — or left unsaid...

    • 9
      (pp. 119-132)

      In 1887, Queen Victoria had been on the British throne for fifty years, an event which was celebrated throughout the Empire on June 21. For months, Canada, the first of the colonies to gain a degree of independence, had been talking of nothing but how to mark this great day properly, especially since there had been some criticism of the way the public seemed more and more inclined to treat the Queen’s birthday as a private holiday, rather than an official celebration.

      While contemporary newspapers are short on information as to exactly what the general Canadian citizenry did on Jubilee...

  7. 3 ‘An Exile Indeed’

    • 10
      (pp. 134-145)

      Agnes’ great loss was acknowledged by Lady Stanley when the latter wrote the Queen Victoria, saying‘. . . now, poor thing, her all has been taken from her.¹ Knowing that Her Majesty would be interested in some details of the final days of the stateman whom she had admired, Lady Stanley wrote:

      Poor Lady Macdonald never gave up hope till within a few hours of the end. She never left his side, always thinking he would be able to say some last words to her, but they never came, and it was only by the pressure of his hand that...

    • 11
      (pp. 146-160)

      ‘T’is a beautiful land! — but the joy somehow has gone out of my life’,¹ wrote Agnes soon after she and Mary arrived in London in June, 1893. During those first weeks there, how many memories must have crowded in on her. She could not have helped remembering her first visit to England with Theodora, more than forty years before. At that time, she had been young, possessed of youth’s excitement at the thought of seeing a new land, meeting new people. Then, after beginning another new life in Canada, with Hewitt and Richard, there had been a return to London...

    • 12
      (pp. 161-180)

      In December, 1900, as the Canadian troops who had fought in the Boer War left England for home, Agnes expressed her regret that she ‘could not have gone to more of the Canadian demonstrations but could not as I had to take turns with Mary and [besides] as a Peeress one has to “go and be and dress accordin”.¹

      More and more during these years, Agnes was finding that her title imposed a financial burden, which frightened her. Her attempts to avoid its social obligations were generally impossible to achieve and, as in the case of the celebrations for the...

    • 13
      (pp. 181-198)

      Politics and politicians were not the only subjects that received sharp comment from Agnes’ pen during the last decades of her life. She was worried by many things—from the accommodation of her own needs and Mary’s, to the travails of her few remaining relatives, to social issues of the day—but nothing caused her so much distress as her finances.

      Throughout the long years of her widowhood, the problem of handling money occupied much of her time and attention, and eventually her anxiety about it led her to a complete break with Pope, the person on whom she had...

  8. Notes & Bibliography
    (pp. 199-224)
  9. Index
    (pp. 225-229)