“The Foster Sisters Of Montreal”

By Dr. Mary Lu MacDonald

June 2002

Elizabeth Lanesford Cushing and Harriet Vaughan Cheney are known today as owners and editors of The Snow Drop, Canada’s first children’s periodical, and as editors of the Literary Garland in the final years of its publication. Along with their sisters T.D. Foster and Hannah White Barrett, they participated actively in the literary, religious, and benevolent life of Montreal, beginning in the 1830s.

It was an era when few women “appeared before the public” as writers under their own names. Indeed they did not “appear before the public” for any reason. As an example, consider the annual meeting of the Montreal Ladies Benevolent Society on October 3, 1837: the meeting was chaired by a male, the Annual Report was read by a male, and the Treasurer’s Report was read by a male. Although the two reports were signed by the ladies who were the secretary and the treasurer, the reports were read by gentlemen – at the request of the ladies, who would have regarded it as unseemly for them to stand up and read their own reports to the members. Even the annual report itself is deferential. “The Institution moves tranquilly and silently on through its offices of mercy, offering, in the even tenor of its way, no excitement to the imagination, and no gratification to the demands of a cold curiosity.”1 The Officers and Managers elected that day were all women, and the Benevolent Society cared for indigent women and children. This is the world in which middle class, educated, women authors lived and wrote.

Some biographical information. The four were the daughters of Hannah Webster Foster, author of The Coquette, one of the earliest American novels, and the Reverend John Foster, a Unitarian theologian in Boston. Hannah, the eldest, was born in Boston in 1790, Elizabeth in 1794, and Harriett in 1796. They died in Montreal in 1833, 1886 and 1889, respectively. Information about T.D. Foster’s birth and death is difficult to establish.2 My interest in their lives and works was piqued by the discovery that they were members of the first Unitarian congregation in Montreal. Without going into denominational history in detail, the early life of a liberal protestant congregation in Montreal, with roots in England, Ireland, and the United States, suffered many ups and downs. Services, led by visiting clergymen, are recorded as early as 1828, and continue throughout the 1830s. At the time of the 1837 rebellions meetings came to a halt for several years, at least in part because three of the Unitarian men had been involved in the patriote cause. Records show that it was Elizabeth and Harriett, then Mesdames Cushing and Cheney, and their cousin Elizabeth Hedge, who were principally responsible for bringing the congregation together again in the early 1840s. The first settled minister arrived in 1842 and the congregation has remained strong in Montreal ever since. In addition to their theological distinctiveness, at a time when most of the public life of the community, and particularly its charity, was denominational in nature, the Unitarians were known for their insistence on helping the disadvantaged, regardless of religious affiliation. It was unusual for women to take leadership roles in public organizations – even churches – and I became, and remain, curious about the Foster sisters. Like many nineteenth century figures, we know very little about them as private individuals.

The eldest, Hannah White Barrett, was married to the American-born, hardware merchant Joseph T. Barrett who had arrived in Montreal sometime before 1819. A daughter was born in Montreal in 1826. In the same year, Mrs. Barrett was one of ten ladies who formed the “Ladies Society for Promoting Education and Industry in Canada”. Just how the ladies planned to do this is not known. Mrs. Barrett died in October 1833. Her death was not accompanied by the customary two-line obituary. Instead, a eulogy of almost two-column length appeared in two of the local newspapers, plus about a third of a column in one of the two. “Foremost in the ranks of benevolence, she stood the bright beacon which guided the tottering steps of age, poverty and weakness to the asylum of charity….In her, every public institution of benevolence within the city, will feel the loss of a kind and assiduous benefactress….”3 This sort of praise for a deceased woman is quite extraordinary in the Montreal of 1833. She must have been a remarkable person.

Elizabeth Lanesford Cushing had already published two historical novels in Boston before her marriage in 1828 to Dr. Frederick Cushing. Dr. Cushing, an American, was licensed to practice medicine in Montreal in 1833.4 Hannah Foster, his widowed mother-in-law, died at his residence in 1840. He served as physician at the Emigrants Hospital and died of typhus in 18475 after tending to the immigrants suffering in the epidemic of that year. The Cushings had a daughter, Harriett, who died in 1846 at the age of 10. All but four of Mrs. Cushing’s 706 contributions to the Literary Garland are dated before July 1846. They resume with two in 1848, then skip to one each in 1850 and ‘51.

Harriet Vaughan Cheney was married to Edward Cheney in Montreal in November 1830, at the home of her eldest sister, Hannah Barrett. Cheney, who may have been a native Montrealer, was a drygoods merchant with Boston connections. He died in Boston in 1845 at the age of 39. Mrs. Cheney published two books in Boston before her marriage and two more during the 1840s. There is a gap between 1843 and 1848 in her contributions to the Literary Garland, perhaps because she was busy with other duties, since the Cheneys had at least three daughters and one son, born in 1832, 34, 36 and 37. Harriet Cheney is listed as a communicant in Montreal Unitarian church records from the beginning in 1844 until 1858. The two widowed sisters lived together, off and on, in Montreal for the remainder of their lives. They also travelled frequently to Boston.

Theo [oti de ile] (the signature in the church records is indecipherable) Foster, who signed herself T.D.F., was described by Lovell as a sister of Mrs. Cushing. She does not appear in any Foster genealogy, so it has been suggested that she was a niece. She may have been. Miss Foster, spinster, who lived on Craig Street, was a communicant of the Unitarian church in 1848 and 1852, then is listed as having moved to the US when she married the author and lecturer, the Rev. Henry Giles, who had been Unitarian minister in Montreal for six months in 1842. Both T.D.F. and Rev. Giles contributed to the Literary Garland. She from 1841 to 1849, with one item each in 1850 and ‘51, and he in 1850 and ‘51 only. When he died in 1882, the obituary mentioned that “Mrs. Giles died a few years ago.”

As editors, Cushing and Cheney appear briefly in the Literary History of Canada and in the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. They both have entries in the Gale Dictionary of Literary Biography No. 997, and Cushing appears in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.8 The latter entry was written by an historian without much sympathy for nineteenth century attitudes, who characterized Cushing’s work as “moralizing sentimentality” without any awareness of the shades of morality and sentimentality which existed in the early nineteenth century. The Gale biography of Cushing discusses her dramatic sketches and plays as “the beginning of playwriting as a literary art form in English Canada.” (85)

Some background may be required for the Literary Garland and the Snow Drop which were their principal publishing media. The Garland is a bit of an icon in English-Canadian literary history. As the first literary periodical, published anywhere in what is now Canada, to run for more than three years it has been much studied. It first appeared in December 1838, and came to a conclusion in December 1851, with a complaint, frequently quoted by modern nationalists, about the competition of American periodicals. Throughout that time almost all the contents were written by residents of British North America. Some of whom were paid by the page – another first at a time when few periodical writers were paid. Like any periodical of its day, the contents varied in quality, but the standards – again for the time – were quite high. When comparisons were made between the Garland and other publications, it was generally agreed that the Montreal periodical was the equal of any provincial British work. The literary contents were considered the equal of American competitors, although the quality of the engravings was not. In its time the Garland, a monthly literary periodical, circulated widely among the elite of French-speaking readers, and its literary content was mentioned with approval in French-language journals, although its resolutely British editorial attitudes were deplored.

The Garland has been characterized as sentimental in tone, but that label, at least by my definition of sentimental, applies only to a fraction of the contents, and not to the works of Cushing and Cheney. The editor, John Gibson, was determined to plant British literary culture in British North America. His perception of that culture was that it was moral and genteel, – Christian and middle class. In many ways he continued the old objective of “amuse and instruct”. The accepted literary vocabulary of the 1830s and ‘40s reflected the ways in which emotion was formally handled in society and Cushing and Cheney were careful to remain within that respectable framework, both as writers and editors.

The Snow Drop, intended for young readers, was devoted to their moral education. What sets it apart from other works of the time, directed to the same readership, is the liberal Unitarian perception that children are essentially good, needing only a few kindly lessons to set them on the right path. The opposite point of view, again with religious implications, was that children were born in sin and could only be set on the path to righteousness by being punished for every transgression. The most common theme of stories in the Snow Drop is the importance of learning to be charitable to those who are less fortunate. Some of these stories are rather patronizing to the “less fortunate” (who eventually make good and devoted servants), but they are, of course, directed to a very narrow class of children who have been taught to read, and who will probably grow up to be business and professional men and their wives. Another common theme in stories is the serious consequences of telling a lie. Puzzles and conundrums, without overt moral overtones, were also included. Much of the text is given over to accounts of British and Canadian history, told as stories about individuals and significant events, from which the young readers could derive lessons in citizenship. In the Snow Drop, Mesdames Cushing and Cheney were assisted by a cousin, another Unitarian lady with an American background, Elizabeth Hedge.9

There was a third Montreal publication to which the Foster sisters contributed, along with Emma Donoghue, another Unitarian who, as EJD, published poetry in several newspapers and in the Garland, and who later, as Mrs. J.P. Grant, published a volume of her own poetry in Montreal.10 (There is evidence of a network of literary Unitarian women here, if we could just find papers or memoirs.) This publication was The Bible Christian (1845-48), a monthly periodical begun by the Rev. John Cordner, the first settled minister in Montreal, for the purpose of disseminating a Unitarian point-of-view throughout the community. It had a circulation of 750. The content tended to be inspirational, although there were theological disputes with some mainstream journals, and politics entered when the editor applauded in print the election of the reformers Holmes and LaFontaine in 1847. Benjamin Holmes was a Unitarian. The poems contributed by the ladies were of the inspirational variety, similar to the poems of Emerson, Whittier, M. F. Tupper and Sigourney with whom they shared the pages of The Bible Christian.

In addition to their periodical work in Montreal, Cushing and Cheney published in American periodicals and annuals and also produced books, which were published in Boston. Since they were obviously on good terms with John Lovell, the publisher of the Literary Garland and the most important printer in Montreal, their choice of Boston as a publishing locale probably indicates a shrewd sense of the location of markets for their work. Before her marriage Cheney published A Peep at the Pilgrims in sixteen hundred thirty six (1824) and The Rivals of Acadia (1827). The two sisters had collaborated in 1820 on The Sunday School, or Village Sketches, intended as Sabbath reading for children. In 1844 and ‘46, respectively, Cheney published Sketches from the Life of Christ and Confessions of an Early Martyr. Mrs. Cushing also published two books in Boston in the 1820s, Saratoga, a tale of the Revolution in 1824 and Yorktown, an historical romance in 1826. Esther, a Sacred Drama; with Judith, a poem, appeared in Boston in 1840; and Saratoga, a story of 1787 in 1856. Note in these titles the sisters’ consistent interest in historical events and personalities, and (with one exception) their concentration on books intended for children.

Whether their works were published anonymously, or over their initials, there was never any doubt, in their own day, as to the identity of the authors. In their later books their own names appeared on the title page. The question of anonymity is familiar to all students of nineteenth century literature. Anonymity had much to do with matters of social class since it was tied in with the perception that literature was a leisure occupation for ladies and gentlemen. Genteel writers were supposed to write only for the amusement of their friends, and not for the general public. As a literate middle class became ascendant the convention of anonymity was used by middle class individuals who wished to establish their claim to gentility. Nonetheless, towards the middle of the nineteenth century, with increasing literacy and an increasing number of printing presses producing cheap editions for new readers, the convention began to change. Named writers acquired devoted readers and, however small the remuneration, came to expect to be paid for their works. “ELC”, “HVC” and “TDF” were publishing during this period of transition, going from complete anonymity, to signing in initials, to having names on the title page.

Women, who were at home looking after families were most likely to use literary endeavours as a means of providing additional family income. This was socially acceptable, since women were also perceived as the guardians of social morality. A female name on a title page, or as the editor of a periodical, meant that the work was suitable for family reading. For literate widows with children to support, writing was sometimes the only way to escape indigence. An American scholar has stated that before 1830 a third of American fiction writers were female; by 1850 it was half; and by 1872 women wrote three-quarters of American fiction.11

Another factor which affected anonymity was the strongly held belief that fiction was a dangerous commodity. A fevered imagination was considered to be particularly harmful to females and the lower classes. In 1833, the author of an article “On the Immoral Tendency of Modern Novels” in the first Canadian periodical specifically directed to female readers, the Montreal Museum, inveighed against a formula in which “so many wicked women, and so many bad men, with a pretty young lady who does odd things, and a wild youth who reforms, make a novel.”12 Mothers, in particular, are called upon to protect their children from this evil by writing only moral fiction: “…if you would preserve the peach like bloom of your daughters minds untouched…keep from them as much as possible the knowledge of such grossness.”13 Anonymity helped to avoid hypocrisy.

Nevertheless, in Virginia Woolf’s famous words “anonymous was a woman” so it is of interest when nineteenth century ladies let themselves be known as writers. A social historian would note that many of their contemporaries would not have considered the Foster sisters to be “ladies”, like most of the other early Canadian female authors who were the daughters of prosperous merchants – when being “in trade” was not socially acceptable. The Foster sisters are, at least in part, an exception since they were raised by parents who held “advanced” views on the place of women in the world, and who saw that they were taught more than music, embroidery and household management. They had also been raised in America, which probably had the highest percentage of “advanced” women in the world. That their father was a clergyman would have given them some social status, but since he was a Unitarian clergyman Montreal society would have regarded that as a negative quality. It should be noted that two sisters married merchants and two married professionals.14

As writers, these were not naive colonial women. They were well educated. They understood the expectations of the social class to which their readers belonged with regard to form, subjects, rhyme and metre in literature. Within that framework, they wrote well. Inventing believable, multi-dimensional characters was not their forte. With one exception, their stories are narrated by a very distant third person omniscient. Although some of the stories in the Snow Drop are written in present time, their other works are all set in Biblical or historical time. These “true” subjects would have removed some of the stigma of writing fiction.

TDF’s contributions to the Literary Garland are notable for the European subjects, particularly of the Italian Renaissance, on which she focuses. Evidently fluent in both Italian and French, she published a translation of Balzac, “La Dernière Feé”, which took eleven numbers to complete in 1846. She also wrote a number of notices of new books, but published almost no poetry. She appears to have been the very model of a cultivated, well-travelled, gentlewoman.

Harriet Cheney was a sound, if unexciting, writer, more interested in describing events than with creating atmosphere or character. Moral precepts were important to her.

She also obviously believed in progress and human perfectibility. When writing about Canadian history she was sympathetic to native peoples, taking the view, enlightened for her time, that when they had absorbed the ways of Western European civilization they would take their place as equals in Canadian society. Her poetry is frequently devotional, metrically and morally correct, but unexceptional. It is difficult to understand why she has been ignored, when her sister’s works have been highlighted.

The best known of the Foster sisters is certainly Elizabeth Lanesford Cushing. After reading through her contributions to the Literary Garland it is easy to understand why Anton Wagner has drawn attention to her dramatic works in Canadian Writers Before 1890. Her poetry, while not necessarily rhyming, is nonetheless diminished by clauses organized more for metre than for sense, and her stories, often centred on contraried love, take too long to get to the moral conclusion. Occasionally the endings are happy, but in all cases those who have tried to thwart the lovers are punished. In contrast the poetry in the dramatic sketches flows more smoothly, creates some dramatic tension, and often reveals character in the dramatis personae. The principal roles are always female. Wagner considers “The Fatal Ring”15 to be her best work. Set in sixteenth century France, the individuals are complex characters, and the theme is the destruction of a woman by a corrupt society.

The Foster sisters merit further study, both as individuals and as writers. They have been neglected for many reasons: because they were American-born; because they were middle class women who wrote principally for women and children; because they are part of our early nineteenth century heritage and definitely not postmodern; and because their Unitarian theological and social point-of-view makes them “untypical” in the eyes of modern scholars. Even in Unitarian circles, our focus on nineteenth-century women as social reformers has left their pioneering work in obscurity.

1 Montreal Morning Courier, November 13, 1837. Since violence erupted less than two months later, the reference to tranquility assumes extra significance.
2 Her name does not appear in a family genealogy. John Lovell’s Catalogue of the Library of Parliament (1858), in describing The Literary Garland, referred to her as a sister of Mrs. Cushing. Lovell’s information has been queried by David Bentley and Sabine Nolke in Canadian Notes and Queries No. 28 (Autumn 1982) 11-12, who suggest that she may have been a niece. Mary Lu MacDonald in No. 29, replies that, while she may indeed have been a niece, their reasons for making the assumption are invalid. Census and church records do not give enough information to reach a conclusion. Since the only person who actually knew the sisters lists her as one of them, I retain that designation.
3 Canadian Courant, October 10, 1833. The longer eulogy appeared on October 16 and was copied from the Daily Advertiser, a journal which has not survived. Both papers served a Protestant, non-established, readership.
4 There were other Cushings in the Montreal merchant community, which may explain why he chose to practice medicine in Lower Canada.
5 The date is incorrectly given as 1846 in the DCB entry for Cushing.
6 Her work actually appeared 82 times. Some works extended over more than one number.
7 Cheney, pp. 71-2, written by Mary Lu MacDonald; Cushing pp. 85-6, written by Anton Wagner.
8 Volume XI, pp. 321-2, written by Susan Mann Trofimenkoff.
9 The numbers of the Snow Drop in the Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario are annotated by a previous owner, with the initials of the anonymous writers in the margin.
10 Stray Leaves. Montreal: Lovell, 1865. There is some evidence that her father was a Unitarian clergyman in England. She was married in the Unitarian church and in the 1861 census she and her husband listed themselves as Unitarians
11 Susan Coultrap-McQuinn. Doing Literary Business. American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, 12-15. At least four early Canadian women writers used literature as means of acquiring needed income. Margaret Blennerhassett in 1824, the Widow Fleck in 1833, M. E. Sawtell (later Mrs. Kitson) in 1840, and Mary Ann Madden (later Mrs. Sadleir) in 1845, all publicly acknowledged their need, while asserting amateurism and gentility.
12 The Montreal Museum, Vol. I, no. 2 (January 1833), 121.
13 Ibid., 122.
14 Emma Donaghue and Elizabeth Hedge also married merchants.
15 Literary Garland, July, August and September 1840.