#981 Voyage to Vancouver Island

The Brideship Wife
by Leslie Howard

Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2020
$24.99 / 9781508259350

Reviewed by Valerie Green

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Leslie Howard’s fictional interpretation of an 1860s journey to the new world on board of one of the famous bride ships is one of the best of many I have read on this subject.

The Brideship Wife tells the story of two women — Charlotte and her sister, Harriet, both victims of a male dominated society in 19th century England — who have been forced to escape England aboard the SS Tynemouth and travel to the colony of Vancouver’s Island.

Cooking on the deck of an Irish immigrant ship, nineteenth century. Painting by Rodney Charman

Charlotte is fleeing from the inevitability of an arranged marriage organized by her wealthy brother-in-law, the Honourable Charles Baldwin, MP, to a scandalous, unscrupulous man by the name of George Chalmers. Charles is pressing for the marriage to take place because it will advance his political career. Meanwhile, Harriett is running from her unhappy marriage to Charles, a man who constantly controls her life while planning to discard her in favour of another woman because she has been unable to produce a son and heir for him.

It is now the spring of 1862 and both women are aboard the SS Tynemouth anticipating their futures as they are about to set sail. Here is where this particular bride ship book is a little different and becomes much more interesting because it manages to combine the two classes of women aboard the ship — those who are part of the consignment of sixty women sent out by the Female Emigration Society to help populate the colony and are housed in miserable conditions below deck, and those, such as Charlotte and Harriet, who are of a higher class and are travelling in better accommodation aboard ship.

Yates Street, Victoria, 1862, after Richard Mayne. Library and Archives Canada
Stamp of Vancouver Island, 1865

It is not long before Charlotte’s compassion plus her scant knowledge of veterinary medicine, encourages her to assist the ship’s doctor with his work. By so doing, she comes into contact with the women below deck — particularly a woman named Sarah whose baby she helps deliver. Sarah’s husband had died and she was travelling to the new world to meet up with her father in Barkerville. The two women soon become friends. Charlotte also forms an undeniable attraction to the Reverend John Crossman who is travelling to Victoria with vaccine for Indigenous people afflicted with smallpox.

Harriett, however, has been brought up to believe she and her sister should only associate with their own class and it is hard for her to change her ways. Before long Charlotte also discovers that her sister has been taking potent medicine to help her endure her unhappy marriage — but the medicine is making her extremely sick.

Hurdy Gurdy girls at Barkerville, 1868. Photo by Frederick Dally, courtesy Langmann collection, UBC

The author manages to show Charlotte’s strength in how she copes with this problem by asking for help from the ship’s doctor. Charlotte has many other problems aboard ship not the least of which is trying to fight her growing attraction to John Crossman, who she knows will be returning to England soon after they reach their destination as he still has more research work into vaccines to complete before he can come back.

Never too far away from the evil reach of Charles Baldwin and George Chalmers, Charlotte also discovers alarming news from England as the SS Tynemouth makes stops along the way. She fears she will never be free even when the ship reaches Victoria. Charles has divorced Harriet, which news sends her back into a spiral of depression and eventual death, leaving Charlotte devastated.

Leslie Howard

Upon arrival in Victoria and fearing she will never be reconciled with John Crossman, Charlotte decides to travel to Barkerville with her friend Sarah where she is helped by Sarah’s father to make a new life for herself. But Charlotte’s problems are far from over as the author depicts life in the rough and ready days of early Barkerville.

Leslie Howard has obviously researched this topic for her novel extraordinarily well. It is a debut to be proud of. Howard now spends her time between Penticton and Vancouver where she and her husband grow cider apples.

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Valerie Green in her Saanich study with a few of her books. Photo by Travis Paterson, Saanich News

Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books.  She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie has recently reviewed books by D.B. Carew, Caroline AddersonDean UngerJody HedlundDora DueckTara Moss, and Heige Boehm.

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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The Brideship Wife in fine company, November 2020
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