Tuesday, 29 March 2011

History – Up Close and Personal

The other week I took a collection of the Monck family letters and diaries out of the library. Monck, otherwise known as Viscount Stanley, was the Governor-General of Canada in the mid-1860’s, one of the faces behind Confederation, and the collection covered this period, from 1863-1868. Sounds dry and dull, no? But it was a surprisingly funny read. The family all seem to have had a rather astonishing sense of humour, and wrote very little about politics, except in passing.

The upshot of this is that as well as getting an interesting look at social life in Quebec and the Canadian perspectives on the ongoing war across the border in the States, I saw a side of the revered politicians of the day they don’t teach us in school.

Take Sir J.A. MacDonald, for instance. Prime Minister of Canada, Father of Confederation, etc. Monck’s niece reports in her journal, “John A. MacDonald is always drunk now, I am sorry to say, and when someone went to his room the other night, they found him in his night shirt, with a railway rug thrown over him, practicing Hamlet before a looking glass.” She mentions elsewhere, of Sir George-Etienne Cartier at a party, “I sang “The Cure” and most of the gentlemen danced it. Cartier jumped higher than anyone.” Further, of another gentleman, “Major Brice’s dancing is not to be forgotten, hopping with his thumbs en l’air.
So much for stodgy officers and politicos. Can you picture Harper drunk and declaiming Hamlet in a nightshirt? Or Ignatieff and Layton dancing wildly and hopping up and down with thumbs in the air? Sure, and I’d pay to see it!

The army were a constant at Quebec, and seem to have been involved in all sorts of entertainments, from tobogganing parties to theatricals. Often a good thing, sometimes not so much. Gov.-Gen. Monck, writing to his son who was at school in England, noted, “Mama had an evening reception last night which was ‘numerously and fashionably’ attended. We had the band of the Rifle Brigade to play, and they gratified our ears very much. I cannot say much for their effect on our noses, as the esprit de corps was rather strong.” Excellent punster, Monck.

I suspect I would have remembered more of History classes in school if we’d had a few such human touches between the names and dates.

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