Friday, October 13, 2017

Nineteenth Century Heroine: Putting on a Good Face

I’m researching a new series (lovely, lovely research!), and my first heroine is slated to be a cavalry officer’s widow. I wanted her to be well traveled—having followed him to Egypt, Flanders, and Portugal. I’ve seen the Sharp movies. I know the infantry’s enlisted men had ladies in the barracks and in their tents on occasion. So I wondered: Could an officer’s wife have followed him? Could she have bunked with her husband while on campaign? I found several sources that talked about army regulations and traditions, encouraging men 1) not to marry and 2) not to bring their wife and children with them.

And then I discovered this post’s nineteenth century heroine.

We know little about her, not even her name. She was the wife of a British infantry officer during the War of 1812, and she accompanied him to Canada with their infant daughter. She left behind a memoir that could well have been turned into a novel (or a movie!), though she only sent it to a trusted friend whose papers were provided to a museum on his death. Here’s what she said about arriving in Kingston on Lake Ontario:

“…we took possession of our tent by the light of a brilliant moon -- can you imagine anything more delightful or novel than there being at the end of a long day's journey in a very crowded waggon. I could not tear myself away from the door of my tent for hours. The encampment was on a quiet delivity sheltered from the winds by a green hill covered by a magnificent forest and before was the calm expanse of water in the Harbour, reflecting in the moonbeams, and all around us the snow white canvas tents with the bustling soldiers assembling their campfires for cooking their suppers, or resting on the grass, or posting sentinels. It was a beautiful scene and I enjoyed it thoroughly, fortunately without any presentiment of the change which was approaching.”
Ooo, the plot thickens. It seems her dear husband had been chosen for special duty, namely sailing upriver on a secret mission. If he succeeded, he could return to her. If not, the ship would continue to Niagara. Either way, she and their baby daughter Tilly would be left alone in a strange land. What was a lady to do?

Work out a way to go along, of course. She even convinced her husband to agree with the mad plan. He and his men went aboard, while she stayed on shore, waiting for her chance. She was shocked to find the ship a tiny thing with no sleeping accommodations. But she refused to give up.

“Our travelling bags were already on board and with Tilly in my arms I followed at a short distance, not wishing to make myself conspicuous as I would have been had I kept with the party. This, thought I, is one of the consequences for which I thought myself quite prepared. The moment was approaching when I must either be separated from my Husband or take my chances with him in actual perilous mission. It is exactly what I expected and wished and I tried to think it very exhilarating and kept up my spirits and my courage by talking to Tilly and telling her as we walked what a Hero and Heroine she had for a Papa and Mama and what a fearless girl she ought to be with such an example of valour.”
 At last, she made her way aboard, walking boldly past men and crew. No one seemed to notice her. Not even her husband!

“I suppressed the momentary conviction to ‘turn the white feather’ and putting my plaid mantle closely round little Tilly I quickly stept on board without raising any objections from any one so that the first glance of my Husband looking for us found me seated very comfortably in a corner of the deck upon a pile of greatcoats which I had arranged for my own accommodation.”
But alas, all was for naught! The officer in charge noticed her and demanded that she leave.

“I now thought to try the aspect of my pretty face which I have sometimes found a very powerful ally when all other means failed so I thereon gave the old gentleman the full benefit of my most insinuating smile while I pleaded for permission to stay where I was.”
Unfortunately, her attempts failed. The lady was put ashore. And what happened next? I would love to know! Only a piece of her memoir is available online, and for that we are thankful!

You can find the full snippet at the War of 1812 website, courtesy of Access Heritage.  


QNPoohBear said...

Wow! Fascinating! I hope some super sleuth archivist/historian can figure out her name and restore her to her rightful place in history. She sounds like an intrepid woman! Thank you for sharing her story.

Regina Scott said...

Me too, QNPoohBear! If I had access to the full manuscript, I'd certainly love to give it a go!