November 19, 2008

Cromaboo, Part Two

As published in The Erin Advocate

In a 1948 letter to the Fergus News-Record, Baptist Johnston of Toronto said, “I am sending you a copy of ‘The Cromaboo Mail Carrier’, written by my great-aunt, Mary Leslie, in the 70’s, under the nom de plume of James Thomas Jones. … Some of the characters were so thinly disguised that my Aunt was threatened with a lawsuit for damages, and on that account the book was withdrawn from circulation.”

Last week’s column was about this 1878 novel, one of the first published in Wellington County, which used the name Cromaboo for the village of Erin. It can be read on-line at

It is not known who threatened the lawsuit. Many village residents are portrayed in a negative way, though never identified by their real names. There’s a “disreputable veterinary surgeon” who poisons our hero, Robert Smith. Could it be the doctor who avoids treating patients? Or perhaps the postmaster, said to be “obstinate as a jackass”?

Although it is fiction, almost any of the 700 inhabitants could have taken offence when a character says that the people of Cromaboo are “all of a lower class, and they are so dreadfully immoral; nearly everybody”.

When some well-to-do folks in the story invite the serving-class Robert to sit at the dining table with them, they are acutely aware of breaking a social taboo. Mary Paxton, the leading lady who resembles the author, is fond of Robert and uncomfortable with the shackles of class distinctions.

“It is the man after all, not his class or occupation, that makes the difference," she says. When Robert’s long-lost father returns and reveals that the family actually has upper class connections, it paves the way for Mary and Robert to wed. That was to occur in the sequel, but alas, it was never published.

The novel also provides a view of the times, as logging companies stripped Ontario of its forests. One character describes the newly-cleared land as “denuded of its beauty and scarred with ugly stumps and weeds.” She remembers an earlier time in the 1830s when she saw Niagara Falls “not as you see it now, but guarded by mighty forests”.

How did the author come up with the name Cromaboo? It could be from “Crom-a-boo”, the war cry of the prominent Fitzgerald clan of Ireland. Crom was the name of a castle that the Fitzgeralds acquired after helping in the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169-72 AD. It could be translated as “Crom forever”. Another source says the term Crom-a-boo was outlawed by King Henry VII, since it encouraged dissent.

Perhaps the choice of Cromaboo was simply a way for the author to put an obscure Irish label on Erin and show off her European education.

I heard about this novel through an extensive article written by Barb Mitchell, published by the Wellington County Historical Society in 1994, which provided some of my background information. She drew on research done by historian Hazel Mack, who published books on Wellington County in 1955 and 1977. Mary Leslie’s personal papers are stored in the Archives of Ontario.

Leslie worked exclusively as a writer, but was not successful. Strand magazine in England refused to publish the Cromaboo novel in installments, calling it “a little too outspoken”. She had many short stories published in newspapers, but two text books written for Ontario schools were rejected. When she borrowed $100 to publish a book of poetry in 1896, called The Rhymes of Kings and Queens in England, she was unable to repay it with receipts from book sales.

She lived on her family money until middle age, but lost her house during a recession and lived in poverty with her sister in Belwood, near Fergus. She published another book of poetry, Historic Sketches of Scotland, in 1905, and died in Toronto in 1921.

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