November 12, 2008

Novel outraged Erin residents

As published in The Erin Advocate

The term “blackguard” is rarely used these days, but if ever it is applied to you, be aware that it refers to a rude, unscrupulous, foul-mouthed scoundrel.

So when a book came out that called Erin “the most blackguard village in Canada”, residents became irate and attempted to have it banned.

Mary Leslie, an upper-class lady who lived on the road between Guelph and Erin, published “The Cromaboo Mail Carrier: A Canadian Love Story” in 1878. Not many copies were sold, but it holds a special place in Canadian literary history, as one of the earliest novels published in the western part of our newly-created country.

As was common for women writers at that time, she uses a masculine pen name (James Thomas Jones), to increase the chances that her work would be taken seriously by publishers and the public.

She gives the name Cromaboo to the village, and the name Gibbeline to Guelph, in an attempt to fictionalize the setting. Her style is dramatic and exaggerated, so there is no way to know whether her descriptions are based more on fact or fantasy. Still, scholars believe that this novel provides unique historical details about rural culture in that era.
Some Erin residents, apparently seeing too much of themselves in various unsavoury characters in the story, threatened to sue the author.

I examined the book at the Wellington County Archives, where they make you wear cotton gloves, so the oil on your skin will not harm the fragile pages. You can read all 296 pages on the Internet – just go to and search for “Cromaboo”. Here is the opening passage:

“Cromaboo is the most blackguard village in Canada, and is settled by the lowest class of Irish, Highland Scotch and Dutch. It consists of seven taverns, six churches, and about one hundred shabby frame houses built on little gravelly mounds. Fights are frequent, drunkenness flourishes, vice abounds; more tobacco is smoked there than in any village of the same size in the Dominion; swearing is so common that it passes unnoticed, and there is an illegitimate child in nearly every house – in some two, in others three, in one six – and the people think it no sin. Yet even in this Sodom, there was at the time of which I write, a Lot.”

She goes on to introduce the village postmaster, Owen Llewellyn, proprietor of the stagecoach that carried the mail from Gibbeline. The other main characters are the hero, Robert Smith, a lower-class 18-year-old stagecoach driver who is in love with the heroine, Mary Paxton, a 32-year-old upper-class lady who lived on the stagecoach route. Her life closely resembles that of the author.

The story notes the progress of the village: “Ah! Times are changed. Now the great Credit Valley Railway passes through Cromaboo, but at the period of which I write such a thing was not dreamt of; a rough uncovered waggon ran between that village and the great town of Gibbeline.”

In real life, that rail line was completed through Erin the year after this novel was published, followed by incorporation of the village.

Cromaboo turns out to be not such a bad place, but the plot evolves ever so slowly. Much of it is about the snobbery of upper class people, the influences of religion, and the evils of alcohol (Erin voted to ban its sale in 1915).

In one dramatic scene, the stagecoach is attacked by Yankee ruffians, who had been hiding in the swamp near the Sixth Line, intent upon raping Mary, who was a passenger. Robert knew the attack was likely, but was ready with his pistol to repel the villains.
“You have saved my life and my honour,” she says.

Leslie sometimes unexpectedly addresses her readers: “Do not be discouraged my reader, and give up the story…I promise to introduce you to the most fashionable people. I promise you romance, adventures, love-making in galore, and finally orange blossoms and wedding favours; kisses – blessings – only have patience.”

The story does not live up to these promises, since the main characters never get around to professing their love for one another. Much more was planned for a sequel called The Gibbeline Flower Seller (Robert’s new occupation), but it was never published.

So how do Mary and Robert bridge the gap between the upper and lower classes? How did the author survive after her novel was forced off the market and she lost her house? And just where did the name Cromaboo come from? The answers to these and many other burning questions will be revealed in the sequel to this column, to be published next week.