Sally Armstrong's The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor
- Why Should We Read and Study The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor?
- Literature & Analysis
- from The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor
- Analysis of The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Born in 1943 in Montreal, Sally Armstrong is an award-winning journalist, documentary filmmaker, editor, and author who is best known for her works on women in conflict zones such as Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. Her principal focus has been Afghanistan during the height of the Taliban regime and the Afghanistan War. Armstrong’s only fictional work is the historical novel The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (2007). The novel centers on the life of the titular character, one of the first English settlers in New Brunswick. Armstrong, a descendant of the real Taylor, mixes archival resources, regional histories, and fiction to create a compelling story of her wilful ancestor.
For a much more detailed biography of Armstrong, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- While observing that Armstrong’s novel has received little critical attention, critic Dana Schwab states that “it is noteworthy for its simultaneous presentation of Native, Loyalist, and Acadian historical roles and sentiment” and that “[i]ts publication as one of the first fictional treatments of the history of New Brunswick may help prepare the field for a future fictional reimagining – and, consequently, a regional ownership – that is long overdue” (New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia). Schwab’s point is especially germane to New Brunswick, for the province still does not have a comprehensive written history. The closest is W.S. MacNutt’s 1963 book (see Further Reading below), and that book only covers the period between 1784 and 1867. Popular and specialist histories do exist, but what is needed is a sustained work of scholarship that brings breadth, depth, and seriousness to the task. The work is long overdue, and perhaps the rise of a contemporary and speculative historical fiction in the province will inspire historians to undertake it.
- Schwab also notes that much like in her journalism and humanitarian work, Armstrong’s focus in The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor gives a voice to women, who in the era and place the novel depicts would have been silenced, at least in the official record. The novel is therefore important in pointing out how women asserted themselves in early New Brunswick society before the electoral franchise (before, that is, the right to vote). New Brunswick women won that franchise in April 1919. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia preceded New Brunswick in granting this right of citizenship.
- The subtleties of Armstrong’s novel also bear scrutiny. She creates vivid portraits of the hopes and vulnerabilities of pioneers, the hardships of building and sustaining settlement, and the many uncertainties, compromises, negotiations, conflicts, and terrors faced by settlers in New Brunswick’s dark and inhospitable woods. Through her many challenges, Charlotte Taylor becomes an iconic figure, the model of a stubborn republicanism that continues to energize New Brunswickers. If Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables represents the pastoral version of that stubbornness (PEI’s haughty redhead fighting for the right to pursue her middle-class dreams) then Armstrong’s Charlotte Taylor is the cruder version. Her fight is for survival more than agency, and to stay ahead of the perils of pioneer labouring. Though she knew leisure in infancy, that leisure ended when she landed on New Brunswick shores. All of which is to say that if we can detect something of our own provincial fibre in Charlotte, then we do so triumphantly.
from The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor
It’s just an hour after dawn on the first Monday in May 1775 when the Anton lurches its bulk away from the docks at Bristol and sets sail for the West Indies. Charlotte Taylor is at the rail, rivetted to the huge square sails puffing out like bullies in the wind and bucking the ship into the open sea. A tall woman with flame-red hair tied in a knot at her neck, she keeps her eye to the bow as if setting her own course and her back to the land she has left behind. Standing beside her at the rail is Pad Willisams, her lover and co-conspirator in the hurried exit from Charlotte’s family, Pad’s job as butler in the Taylor household and a truth they each had only a part of.
A hastily packed trunk is stowed with the cargo. The calico sack she’d prepared for the voyage, and now realizes is pathetically inadequate since the trunk cannot be opened again until they reach shore six to eight weeks from now, is slung over her back.
A scrofulous man of indiscriminate age eyes her repeatedly from his place by the forward capstan. He’s one of the woebegone collection of humanity she’s travelling with – mostly men in their twenties and thirties and one young boy with freckles on his nose who seems to be in the employ of the haughty Captain Skinner. They all stare shamelessly at the white woman and the black man by her side. Pad has pulled together all the stiff dignity of the butler he had been just days earlier, but she can feel the anxiety that thrums through him. She is somewhat surprised to realize that she isn’t daunted by the stares, the days ahead or the consequences of leaving her family’s country home outside of London. Standing in the brisk wind on the deck of a sailing ship just a week after her twentieth birthday, Charlotte Taylor is unafraid – maybe even elated.
She’s still leaning on the portside, watching the water, letting the wind blow on her face when she allows herself to cast her thoughts to what she has run away from. The terrible row with her father when he learned she’d been “consorting,” as he called it, with Pad. The endless rounds of tea, the suffocating rules and her mother’s predictable attacks of the vapours whenever there was a hint of excitement in the household. She smiles in anticipation of the life ahead. A marriage to the dashing Pad, a home in the tropics. She’s grinning at the prospects when Pad interrupts her reverie to suggest they go below and secure their living quarters.
The quarters are cramped; the ceiling is so low they have to duck their heads. The bunks are arranged in two rows, one on each side of the dreary lower deck with damp curtains hanging between them to lend an illusion of privacy. There are hooks on which to hang their possessions and a lopsided stove in the centre. The only light and fresh air is from the hatch to the upper deck; the quarters smell of mildew and rotten wood. Indeed, the black streaks of rot crawling up the legs of the cots speak of the months at sea, the flourishing business of carrying human and other cargo across the ocean as many times as the weather will allow between May and October, never stopping long enough to refit or repair.
They pick a bunk at the end of the row and tie their sacks to the hooks before exploring the rest of the lower deck. There are stalls toward the stern filled with animals – two steers, four sheep, a ragged flock of chickens and three fat pigs. Charlotte looks at each and lingers on the soft, uncomprehending eyes of the steers that will become meals for the passengers and crew. Tucked under the bow in a wedge-shaped hold are the ship’s stores – burlap sacks of flour, sugar and grain, cases of biscuits, salt and limes. Charlotte and Pad walk back to midship, where a wide hatch is battened shut on the deck.
“What’s down there?” Charlotte asks a stocky sailor who is hurrying aft.
“Cargo, madam,” he says. “Plenty a’ cotton cloth and wool. That’s what makes ’em rich, madam, shippin’ the likes a’ that.”
My trunk is down there too, Charlotte thinks ruefully.
The young lad who’d caught her eye when they left the dock is friendly, puppyish and not too shy to tell her his name is Tommy Yates when she finds him exploring the lower deck.
“Me dad was the one who got me on board,” the boy confides gravely. “He brought me to the dock and hired me out to the captain. He told him I was sixteen, an’ I’m but thirteen.”
“Thirteen?” Charlotte looks at him closely. “Are you even that?”
“Oh yes, madam. Honest, I am.”
She had thought him no more than a scrawny eleven.
When he is not scrambling up the rigging at the captain’s orders or crawling through the hold below the sleeping quarters to fetch something the captain needs from the cargo, Tommy finds his way to Charlotte’s side. In the first week at sea, she heard about his fourteen brothers and sisters, the drink that made his father what he was and the mother who was so sickly she could hardly manage to stagger from her bed.
Charlotte shares her own story with him – putting a more varnished spin on her departure than is the case. She tells Tommy that she and Pad are married and that her father, General Taylor, doesn’t approve of the relationship so they decided to leave home for the West Indies and start a new life.
She entertains the winsome boy with details of the world she left behind, imitating her nanny’s priggish etiquette. “She insisted I sit like this all day long,” says Charlotte, perching herself on a bench and exaggerating the pose – her back ramrod straight, her legs bent at the knee and turned slightly sideways and her hands folded together in her lap. She makes him laugh when she describes her antics in the straitlaced household – refusing to marry the man her mother had chosen for her, looking contrite when her father admonished her, galloping around the estate on her horse and lingering at the stable with Pad. Tommy thinks it’s a blissful life she’s left, but even this boy can see the rebel in the woman he has befriended.
Throughout those days Pad often lies marooned in his cot. The seasickness is terrible for him, while Charlotte hardly feels the transition from land to water. Sometimes she wonders if Pad’s real sickness is the knowledge of what he has done, leaving all he knew behind, and worry about what might lie ahead.
“They’re such little waves,” she pleads, but he only turns his head and is silent. At night, by a guttering candle, she makes entries in her diary with her best quill, dipping ink from the biggest bottle she’d dared carry.
I wonder what Papa and Mama are thinking. They must suspect that I have run off with Pad. Papa has always liked Pad – had hopes for him to become something more than a butler – and perhaps thought a stern speech to me might prevent any “foolishness” as he called it. But while he lectured me, I felt as though the ceiling in his study had dropped to inches over my head.
She flips back the pages of her diary to read the entry made that fateful night after her father had dismissed her and she’d bolted to her bedroom, then scribbles another line onto today’s entry…The pitched battle I’ve been in for as long as I can remember over the seemliness of my behaviour is behind me now... and closes the diary.
As one week stretches into two, then to three, then a month, Charlotte is determined to insulate her exhilaration from Pad’s continuing illness, the monotony of the voyage, the worry about the future. The rations begin to diminish in the fifth week and ambitious weevils and fuzzy blue mould appear in the flour and biscuits. She feels as grimy and bedraggled as the gloomy men around her, but her joy is dimmed only a little sitting by the ships rail where, wind and water offering refreshing relief, she takes her diary from her pocket and glances through the entries.
A black horizon. They’d had squalls and days of grey skies and rain, but Charlotte had seen nothing like the storm clouds that lie ahead, as though the sky is disfigured by bruises, black, yellow and purple. Standing at her usual spot at the rail she’s astonished by the sudden change. The jagged edges of storm clouds ahead meet the white-capped water as though one could become the other at any moment.
“Shorten sails!” the captain calls. “Stiggs, get below with three men and fasten loose cargo!”
“Aye, sir,” the first mate shouts.
“Have the passengers go below now!”
Salt spray stings her eyes and soaks her cloak as Charlotte struggles to the hatch and steps her way down the wet rungs. She hurries to Pad and is surprised to find him sitting up.
“It must be the little waves that bother me,” he says with a smile. “I feel right enough now.”
Charlotte stuffs their few possessions into her calico bag and ties it securely to the hook on the wall. The stomping of boots plays like a drumbeat on the deck overhead while the livestock squeal and mewl their terror. Anxiety is as thick as fog. She and Pad settle by the stovepipe in the centre of the double row of berths, rubbing their hands together for consoling warmth. She looks back to her berth as though there might be some comfort hanging there in the calico bag. Her keepsakes are so few – a volume of poetry, her well-worn copy of Clarissa, her diary, the combs she’d worn in her hair when she’d been presented to the county magistrate on her recent birthday, her sketch of the garden she could see from her childhood bedroom window – flotsam of a life far from the bowels of the creaking ship. A man vomits onto the floor beside her and the latrines tip as the ship rolls and their contents ease out accordingly. She gathers her skirts around her, trying to keep them out of the slop.
Half the night passes. She may have dozed. She opens her eyes to find Pad crouched beside her, his eyes wide. She places a hand on his brow: he’s not right enough now. There is a fever there perhaps. Small wonder. Confined to his bunk since they came aboard, and, with the vomit and night soil sloshing about, contagion might well spread to everyone. She wipes his brow with her kerchief, he leans his head on her shoulder gratefully. Pad is not himself, she knows. When she’d fallen in love with him, she saw him as a man who knew what to do in any circumstance, who calmed the household by his very presence.
The ship lurches forward. The wind grows louder. Tommy must have escaped his duty with the captain because he appears on the ladder, clutching at the rungs. At the bottom, he stumbles over and huddles on the other side of her for a time without speaking.
“Will we die?” he finally whispers.
“No, we will not.” Charlotte makes her voice sharp, impatient, but she is not entirely certain he is wrong. The permanent frown on Tommy’s brow reminds her of the stable boy, Jack, who helped with her father’s horses. Jack’s grimace disappeared when he was with the animals, and Charlotte would sometimes find him curled up against the haunches of a cow, asleep, his face as tranquil as that of a baby.
“Let’s go and visit the livestock,” she proposes to Tommy, then whispers to Pad, “I’m going to go with the boy, to see the cows. It may calm him.”
In the holding pen, they find trembling animals that look as if they might stampede into the raging sea if they weren’t confined by the barrier leading to the main deck. A sound comes from a heap of straw, hard to hear over the roar of water and the screech of the ship’s timbers – a litter of newborn kittens, meowing for their absent mother.
“Where’s Lucifer?” Charlotte shouts. She had believed the ship’s black cat to be a male, but this was not the case.
“She’s not here,” Tommy calls, kneeling beside the kittens.
“Look!” Charlotte kneels beside him. “Look. They’re as frightened as we are.”
She could imagine the captain would not look kindly on more cats. But here was a cause that could distract a frightened, lonely boy.
“Help me, Tommy! We must hide these kittens or the captain will surely toss them overboard.”
Together they carry the litter into a dark recess of the stalls, where their mother would easily find them later. Tommy would have to occupy his mind with finding a way to keep them out of the captain’s sight.
Charlotte returns to her post by the stove, leaving Tommy to tend to the kittens. Save for the few men whose job is to steer the vessel through the storm, the rest of the passengers and crew have taken refuge in the living quarters – a euphemism for this collection of stacked wooden cots, she thinks.
The rain is pounding the ship now, splashing into the lower deck through the leaky hatch and sending all the passengers to the centre where Charlotte has staked out her spot by the stove. The wind picks up, howling like nothing she had ever heard. Huddled by the stove with men she would rather not talk to, she takes her diary from her pocket, looks through her recent entries.
May 25 – I was awakened last night by the most awful noise. It sounded as though someone or something was crying for help outside the so-called living quarters. The wailing went on for several minutes. Then it was quiet, save the sound of a few men busy with a chore. When I got up this morning and went on deck, I found out it was the slaughter of a sheep – the poor thing bleated so pathetically. Pad thinks I’m being spoiled and dramatic.
June 2 – One can’t very well celebrate the halfway point when one doesn’t have a way of knowing where in the middle of all this water the ship is – but Captain Skinner says we’re moving very well.
Suddenly, as if an explosion had ripped across the bow, the storm strikes the ship and the souls on board with such punishment Charlotte wonders if they will survive. She certainly cannot write in the diary now – it’s all she can do to stay upright. The fire goes out in the stove. The oil lamps in the hold dim and die, leaving them all in darkness. She clings to the pole the stove is lashed to and Pad clings to her. The ship heaves and pitches. Someone near her vomits. Someone else is crying. Most of them are praying. This is as close to hell as she can imagine. The waiting feels like an eternity – hovering in the dark, clinging to anything that is tied down. Waiting, waiting for the abatement.
* * *
Charlotte is moved by the powerful beat of her life here on the river. She sits on the bank one afternoon while taking a break from her endless chores and notices sandpipers hopping along the shore, jittery little creatures that move as one when they take flight. She watches them soar over the river, their speckled bodies contrasting with the leaves that reflect in the water below and thinks this ever-changing river has become the rhythm of her life. Its morning mist rising like droplets, the sun’s rays turning them into sparkles like fairies playing in the haze. The dunes on the shore are forged and carved by the rising and falling tide. The river rolls and heaves, slips by her land, its waves winking in transit in summer, then freezing into a byway for laughing children snuggled in sleighs. It threatens and warns and sucks unsuspecting souls to its depths. It gives forth food and brings the far-flung world to its exiled shores. This Miramichi has seasons of stillness and vigour, of calm and commotion. It is enduring, suffering, timeless and sustaining.
She thinks back over the four years that have passed since she came here and how the seasons have shaped her.
When spring thawed the Miramichi, the fiddleheads would poke up along the banks of the creek and a new generation of blackflies would come out to torment the hapless harvesters eager for the first fruits of the year. The red-tailed hawks mated and made their nests in the pines and their chicks ate the mice that abandoned the settlers’ houses for the greater bounty of the fields and pastures. The bears woke up hungry and shambled to the river’s edge to gorge on salmon and stretched out on the grassy banks in the sun and watched their cubs like wardens. In the barns the cows’ ribs showed through their hides and their hollow eyes watched until the settlers led them at last to the pastures that sprouted shoots of sustenance.
In the spring of 1778, George Walker died and was buried in the Church of All Hollows, Barking-by-the-Tower. The news wound out from London via Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and on the distant Miramichi there was a woman who wept bitterly to receive it. After his return to England, Walker had always intended to look up General Taylor and plead reconciliation with his daughter but had never found the opportunity. His labours at Nepisiguit had gone largely unnoticed by the administrators in Halifax, and unrewarded by their loftier superiors in Whitehall. But like the proper pirate he was, he eluded his foes or took broadsides without sinking or found a treasure when all was lost and in the end succumbed to apoplexy and sailed off in his own bed.
That same spring, on a particularly soft evening, when John Blake was fishing off the bank, Charlotte had heard the sound of a whippoorwill in the woods above the cabin, and she had responded with her own best whippoorwill call and believed she heard the bird call back. But whippoorwills will do that, she thought.
When summer came to the Miramichi, it would bring a rush of growth that was the botanical equivalent of insanity. The stern geometry of trunks and twigs, the curve of hillsides and the sharp edges of riverbanks were swept to bedlam by a mad surge of rebirth. Charlotte would hoe around the hills of André Landry’s potatoes, the offspring of the seedlings he had shyly passed to her as she said goodbye to the People that June day in 1776 and passed a last time down the trail to George Walker’s now vanished house. She would undertake to hoe as early in the morning as she could, but a woman with two children – one still nursing – could count on interruptions. When the sun had passed the meridian, she would still be in the patch, her clothes soaked with sweat, the deer flies gathered from miles around to buzz her head and whir in her masses of tangled hair. They were good potatoes, as André had assured her they would be, and would have been better if he and his hoe could only have followed them.
In the summer of 1778, Charlotte Blake gave birth to a child she called Mary Ann, whose hair was a blaze of red like her mother’s and soon grew to frame blue eyes that were born looking into the distance and were still looking there well into the following century.
That summer, too, Blake built another room on the cabin. Young Peter and George Henderson came across the river to saw lumber and help raise the beam. When they were finished, it was a pretty snug little addition, perhaps more solidly made than the house itself, and would provide a bedroom for the children as they grew.
In the summers, American privateers resumed their customary raiding along the coast. The river traffic brought news of every pillaging and burning, actual or feared. Many families were fled now, following Davidson and Cort, who had gone first, having the most to lose. But Alexander and William Wishart had returned to resume fishing. In the summer of 1779, Mi’kmaq from far upriver, not so easily cowed as had been thought, burned the Wisharts out. The brothers boarded the Viper for Quebec, where they were to take commissions under General Haldimand.
Late that same summer, the frantic ringing of a Henderson bell brought the Blakes to the shore at midnight. There were flames across the river at their farm. Blake gathered his weapons and set out by boat. By moonlight, Charlotte could see the boats of the Murdochs crossing too. But the Hendersons, as it transpired, were too many and too alert to lose all and Blake was back before dawn.
“These were no privateers,” he said.
Autumns on the Miramichi had the poignancy of autumns in all the northerly colonies: bursting with a riot of colour, the fields a bountiful gift of harvest, the time before freeze-up ticking loudly like a warning. Charlotte often thought of the burnished seduction of late fall as a whispering lover who proposed a few more hours together before he was gone forever.
She stooked the dry hay in the field and carried it to the mound and stood with her husband when they were finished to assess whether it should keep a cow alive until Christmas. Inside the house, two casks of John Blake’s spruce beer sat bubbling in the larder and the shelves above them were heavy with tea and molasses and sugar loaves and flour and whale oil. Janet Murdoch had learned cheese making at St. John Island and she in turn taught Charlotte. A dozen hard cheeses joined the other provisions.
When the hay was in and the wood was cut in the autumn of 1779, John Blake made a last venture with Daniel Ross to Liverpool on the sea coast southwest of Halifax. The hull of Le Vairon was filled with the best oak and here was a last bounty for the year and, provided they did not cross paths with privateers, a chance to buy better tools.
Wioche had appeared at dusk one day as though he had materialized from the earth. Charlotte had run to where he stood at the forest edge, had taken his two hands in hers but had not invited him into the cabin. Behind the cover of tall timbers, they bad shared the events of their lives. She fingered the fresh braid of sweetgrass he had given her while he explained that the raids and attacks had been planned by the American privateers to rid the river of the settlers so they could claim the land for themselves. His people helped because they, too, had been attacked by the British and it was the wish of the grand council to even the score.
“There are many changes for the People,” he’d said. “The British are taking our land.” The moon was high over the river when he rose to leave and reminded her to watch for the signs – “the rabbit skin is thick, the air sacs on the fish are long, winter will be hard” – and then he’d added, “You won’t be alone.”
She’d watched the seaward stretch of the river anxiously in the days that followed. Then on the second of October, the little ketch had appeared, its boat in tow. And John Blake paddled triumphantly to shore with a nanny goat in the cargo. “We shall have milk even if we lose the cow,” he’d told her.
Winters on the Miramichi made a dignified arrival when the land had given up its growth and lay still to await its fate. The air would seem suspended, motionless, as quiet as a settler family at grace until, as the Mi’kmaq tale allowed, Summer fulfilled her end of the bargain and the first skiffs of snow settled on the fields under grey skies. Blake Brook was always first to freeze, then the salty waters of the river took refuge under a thin sheet of ice that thickened every night. Finally, usually in December but some years much earlier, the snows would come and cover the land and everything on it.
Winter was a respite from hard labour and an invitation to gather in houses, sample one another’s beer and talk by the warmth of the fire. In the winter of 1779, such talk turned to the rebel war to the south, to the raids now suspended on account of weather, and of course to the Indians. One Dougal Shank, whose claim was that he had been a preacher in Scotland, had constructed a rough shelter on the north bank of the river not far upstream of the Hendersons. He was a humourless man, not easy to warm to, who neither traded nor farmed. His high, beetling brow and thin line of a mouth lent credence to the strictness of his religious beliefs.
“The Indian will come again,” he said. “Like the pharaohs of Egypt, we have earned the plague he brings. The Indian is God’s instrument.”
“The instrument of the rebels, more like,” interjected Peter Brown, who lived upstream on the south shore.
“It is not for me to say,” Shank intoned, “who deals with God and who with the devil.”
Blake turned a black glare on the man.
“It’s not for you to say anything, sir, until you have lived among us a season more.”
John Murdoch hastily cleared his throat.
“I’m disposed to think the Americans will soon carry the day,” he said. At this, many present who might have spoken out in indignation two years before now grunted assent. They knew the frail status of their own holdings and the weak links that connected the banks of the Miramichi with their rulers in Halifax.
Winter offered time to ruminate on the season to follow, on plans to assure that the coming year’s crop would diminish the last by comparison. The greatest and most important crop of all was the forest itself. It had to be cleared to make way for the plough, and the trees that the clearing produced meant cash for tools and livestock. In the end, though, the winter provided more opportunity for thought than any settler reasonably required. What would begin as a respite from toil would become a prison in which men and women could only wait in patience for reprieve.
Analysis of The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor
The first section above comes from the opening pages of the novel. In those pages a twenty-year-old Charlotte Taylor has just set sail from Bristol, England in the hope of starting a new life in the West Indies. With her is the family butler, Pad Willisams, a man whose age, class, and colour made his “‘consorting’” (2) with Charlotte a terrible indiscretion in class-based British society. Yet she consorts anyway in defiance of her father, setting up both her escape from a suffocating society and her wilful demeanour. In a show of insolence on ship, she keeps “her back to the land she has left behind” (1), positioning herself stoically for what she thinks will be a romantic future in the tropics with the dashing Pad.
What makes her escape all the more remarkable is her difference from her shipmates. Most are vagrants and eccentrics, broken and desperate men running from debts and crime. She is from high society, the daughter of a General, and thus spoiled by wealth and privilege. Her leaving does not actually reject that privilege – she believes she will be able to recreate it in the tropics – but it does underline an innate obstinacy (seen here first as tempestuousness) that will fuel her in the New World. Armstrong makes it clear that Charlotte is more preoccupied with escape than entrance. She is running, having rejected her father’s values, her mother’s choice of a husband, and the many social codes that restrict her freedoms. As written, she is too modern, but the strengths of the novel are not to be found in the subtleties of craft. Rather, the strengths exist in how the story occasions New Brunswick history.
Important, for example, is the difficulty of the ocean journey that Armstrong describes, that difficulty reflected in the misery of conditions. Rations decline, “ambitious weevils and fuzzy blue mould appear in the flour and biscuits” (5). The horizon blackens in advance of a severe summer storm. Armstrong writes: “A man vomits onto the floor beside [Charlotte] and the latrines tip as the ship rolls and their contents ease out accordingly. She gathers her skirts around her, trying to keep them out of the slop” (6). Human and animal cargo suffer similarly: “[t]his is as close to hell as she can imagine” (9). Such demystification is essential for illustrating not just the conditions of exile but, more profoundly, the desperation of people who endured such conditions to seek a new life. This is where our history starts, where the Acadians, the Scots, the Irish, and other immigrations began. Those ancestors shared not just a common desperation, but also a common resolve that enabled them to proceed. The stubborn defiance that is the measure of Charlotte Taylor is thus a historical benchmark. It is the source of our common republicanism: our distrust of governments and imposed customs; our desire for independence and self-rule; and our belief in the absolutes of hard work, individualism, accountability, and personal redemption. As The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor proceeds, the privileges that the British-supported Loyalists demand become a source of conflict with that innate republicanism. Many characters bristle against it.
In the opening chapters of the novel, however, Charlotte’s will is supreme. She buries Pad a week after arriving in Jamaica (he dies of Yellow Fever), she survives the advances of a vile plantation manager, and she sets out alone (and pregnant) for “a place called Nepisiguit in British North America” (40). In the vast northern woods of what is not yet named New Brunswick, she imagines, “a woman can shed a past and seek obscurity” (41). That leap into the unknown is more palatable to her than a return to the comforts of home, for that return would signal defeat. Privilege turns to personal responsibility when Charlotte decides not to return to England, thus rejecting her birthright, choosing to make her own way in the world, and defying her father for a second time. She may trade on her father’s name to board the ship to Nepisiguit (near present-day Bathurst), but she boards, at least in her mind, as an equal with the men of the company.
Again, such treatments of New Brunswick’s pioneers are vital because they are so rare. They open history for speculation, even if from a present and therefore alternate perspective. In the early chapters of this novel, those openings show how the precariousness of settlement makes alliances so important. Bothered by the British attitude toward the Acadians and the native people, Charlotte gravitates to people who are more tolerant, eventually taking refuge in a Mi’kmaq community. There she learns how to live in the New World. Swirling all around her as she does so is the eighteenth-century land grab, the excitations of the 1775–1783 American Revolutionary War, and the displacement of First Peoples, all of which touch her life in critical ways.
Perhaps most significant is what Armstrong’s speculative history reveals about exile: that exile is a condition of history, one that humans deny in their need for permanence. Community is thus organic, rising and falling with the whims of power, economic opportunity, and personal need. Illustrating this fact are the many instances of impermanence in the novel. The only constant is the coming and going of people, the building and abandoning of community. Exile is habitual. New Brunswick, at least when considered in the long moment of history, is a way station. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries our ancestors came from elsewhere, and in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries they began to leave. Despite our need to stay, exile is bred into us, an important lesson to consider as we wrestle with the consequences of outmigration.
* * *
The second passage above appears half way through the novel and details events at Blake Brook (on the Miramichi) in the late 1770s. Charlotte has relocated there from Nepisiguit with John Blake, her new husband, a vehemently anti-French, anti-Mi’kmaq man who offers protection and land. “In truth,” he says to Charlotte when proposing, “a woman alone cannot survive here long without a man” (156). The wilful Charlotte knows that to be true, accepting his proposal to secure and advance her own cause.
Charlotte’s descriptions of the Miramichi that follow appear almost pastoral at times, an indication of how rooted she has become in the setting of the soon-to-be named New Brunswick. But rootedness does not translate to comfort, for the feared American privateers (aligned with the People and the French) continue to menace settlers up and down the coast. Just as reviled are the colonial land officials in Halifax, their distance from central New Brunswick offering no real protection from the pirates, privateers, squatters, and bullies who troll the northeast coastline. Even the Miramichi Scots William Davidson and John Cort, two of the original English-speaking settlers in the area, have moved their fishing and lumbering operations to the St. John River near Fredericton in order to avoid the American raiding parties. Charlotte’s affections for place are thus incubated in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
The native people she has befriended are themselves menaced, their territory slowly usurped by expansionist policies that offer land to newcomers (many of them Loyalists fleeing the new Republic of America) in a strategic effort to hasten settlement. In British North America, those groups aligned with the British thrive, while those aligned with the Americans and the French do not. The First Nations occupy the latter category. Displacement and disease become a condition of their lives. Charlotte’s struggle toward the end of the novel – though a modern reader should not extrapolate from the present to assume that it was the struggle of the majority of immigrants – is to accept the uneasy fact that she is a participant in their decline. Her land grab is at their expense, and she has the backing of a more powerful force to ensure that she and her fellow British citizens are successful. This tension unsettles her because her early survival was made possible by the people she is displacing. Again, a more experienced novelist would handle the contradiction more subtly, but Armstrong makes the point clearly: the success of one group often happens at the expense of another. This is another fact of history.
The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor is rich in such contradictions, blemishes, and historical truths. It places pre-Loyalist and early-Loyalist New Brunswick history in front of us, inviting us to consider some of the earliest episodes in our provincial becoming. Because a comprehensive history of New Brunswick does not yet exist, and because a contemporary tradition of historical fiction (speculative or otherwise) has yet to find traction in New Brunswick, Armstrong’s novel is an important instrument of provincial self-knowledge. We need more like it.
► Readers of Armstrong’s novel will want to compare her criticisms of the Loyalists with Jonathan Odell’s celebration of the Loyalists in “Our Thirty-Ninth Wedding Day” and “Ode for the New Year” (see Pre-Confederation Writers and Poets). How does Odell’s version of his present differ from Armstrong’s version of an imagined past? What has changed, and is it fair to judge Odell through the lens of that change? Is it even possible to consider him or any historical figure from the present? If not, what should that tell us about the imagined Charlotte Taylor?
► The challenge of interpreting the past, and the cognate problem of historical relativism, is not restricted to fiction. Rather, that problem is inherent in any speculative enterprise. When people interpret events, whether of the past or present, they invite challenge by others, who have alternate readings of those events and different points of view. With speculative fiction, however, the stakes seem to rise. When Newfoundland writer Wayne Johnston penned a historical novel about the life of former Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams ), CBC TV personality Rex Murphy attacked him in the Toronto press, claiming that no novel, however spirited, could contain Smallwood’s personality. A similar disagreement exists around the historical figure of Charlotte Taylor, who was first treated fictionally by Mary Lynn Smith. To read Smith’s response to Sally Armstrong’s fictional Charlotte Taylor, click here.
► Put simply, we are descendants of the vanquished. The majority of New Brunswick’s earliest immigrants were fleeing one thing or another: land clearances (in the case of the Scots), famine (in the case of the Irish), and wars of independence (in the case of the Loyalists). First settlers thrived but were eventually decimated by these immigrations. The First Nations were pushed off their lands and Acadians were formally expelled. The province is thus a place of exile from war and (mostly British) imperialism. Today, New Brunswickers still face exile, forced to move because of the failures of federalism. The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor explores this historical pattern, providing readers with the opportunity to reflect on the incidents of a checkered past.
Strategy 1: Historical Context (The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor)
As a pre-reading strategy, have students research some aspect of the historical context of this novel, summarizing their findings for the class. For example, groups might compile a timeline of significant New Brunswick events over Charlotte’s lifetime (1755 to 1841), research what ship travel was like in the period, examine the history of Mi’kmaq relations with settlers, read about the legal rights and social place of women in early colonial society, etc. Some of the books in the Further Reading section below will help students with this exercise. Did reading the excerpts from the novel expand their understanding of the era? Importantly, generate discussion about how fictionalized accounts (speculative fictions) are vital sources of historical knowledge. Work with students to enable them to understand how their identities as New Brunswickers are enhanced by a knowledge of history. Teachers will discover that students not only want more exposure to their own history, but that they are angry that there are not more opportunities to acquire it. This will be the ideal segue to inviting them to fill the provincial gap that exists – specifically, to invite them to write New Brunswick history, fictional and otherwise.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Access, select, and research, in systematic ways, specific information to meet personal and learning needs
Strategy 2: Taking the Measure of Greatness (The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor)
Ask students to contrast the opening image of Charlotte, resolutely looking forward at the bow of the ship like a larger-than-life figurehead, with the grim realities of the later journey, including mould-covered food and floors wet with the contents of latrines. How would it alter the story if Armstrong had included only the glamorous images of departure, focusing on Charlotte’s act of bravery while sanitizing the nauseating details of her journey? Would Charlotte seem more or less heroic? Does greatness come from our big choices, as popular media would have us believe, or from the way we respond to the many little trials and tribulations along the way? Is “greatness” a 100-metre dash or a long marathon to the finish?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements
Strategy 3: Woman on a Ship/Bus (The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor)
Both Charlotte Taylor and the speaker of Elizabeth Brewster’s “Woman on a Bus: New Brunswick Woods” (see Confessional Humanism) leave the familiar comforts of England for an unknown land, in each case following a love interest. However, upon arrival in New Brunswick, their experiences are different, a difference attributable to their personalities and to the eras in which they live. Ask students to consider what each woman would do if she were placed in the story of the other. How would Brewster’s speaker tolerate the discomforts of 18th-century sailing, and how would she cope if left alone and pregnant in Jamaica? Likewise, what would Charlotte Taylor’s thought process be as she drove through the New Brunswick woods? (The objective here is not to speculate about whether Brewster’s speaker has the pioneering wherewithal of Charlotte Taylor, but to provide an opportunity for students to think about how people, when faced with hardships, respond. What is in humans that allow us to rise to occasions, often in ways beyond what we think is possible? History is rich with such heroics, and the little we know about Brewster’s “woman on a bus” suggests that, if required, she might also rise to the occasion as other women before her did.)
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Make informed personal responses to increasingly challenging print and media texts and reflect on their responses
Strategy 4: Cueing Systems (The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor)
In the two excerpts above, students will likely encounter unfamiliar words. However, the context cues are often strong enough to make a reasonable guess at a synonym, so this would be an excellent opportunity to practice cueing system strategies. Ask students to underline unfamiliar words, marking a guess at their meanings in the margins. Demonstrate with a few examples of your own, modeling appropriate strategies for making meaning. Upon completion, students could be asked to share their words and predictions with a partner, using a dictionary to review accuracy. Are there words that many students found confusing? What do words like “scrofulous” add to the story? Do they establish the non-contemporary setting?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Use the cueing systems and a variety of strategies to construct meaning in reading and viewing complex and sophisticated print and media texts
Strategy 5: Book Jacket Redesign (The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor)
Challenge students to redesign the book jacket, altering the appearance of the title and the art. Students should strive for equivalency with the novel, as well as on engaging potential readers, each of those considerations the job of graphic artists who have only seconds to capture a reader’s eye.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Show the relationships among language, topic, purpose, context and audience
- Writing and Representing: Use writing and other ways of representing to explore, extend, and reflect on their experiences with and insights into challenging texts and issues
Armstrong, Sally. The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor. 2007. Toronto: Vintage, 2008.
---. Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan. Toronto: Viking, 2002.
Bailey, Alfred G. Culture and Nationality: Essays by A.G. Bailey. (The Carleton Library No. 58.) Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.
Conrad, Margaret R., and James K. Hiller. Atlantic Canada: A Concise History. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 2006.
Cooney, Robert. A Compendious History of the Northern Part of the Province of New Brunswick and of the District of Gaspé in Lower Canada. Halifax: Joseph Howe, 1832.
Denys, Nicolas. The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America. Trans. and ed. W.F. Ganong. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1908.
Fisher, Peter. Sketches of New Brunswick. Saint John: Chubb and Sears, 1825. [Rpt. The First History of New Brunswick. Saint John: New Brunswick Historical Society, 1921.]
Hannay, James. History of New Brunswick. Vols. 1&2. Saint John: John A. Bowes, 1909.
Hay, G.U. A History of New Brunswick. Toronto: W.J. Gage, 1903.
Hornsby, Stephen J., and John G. Reid, eds. New England and the Maritime Provinces: Connections and Comparisons. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP: 2005.
LeBlanc, Emery, Jean Daigle, and Père Anselme Chiasson. L’histoire du Nouveau-Brunswick. Toronto: Éditions Éducatives Gage Limitée, 1971.
LeClerq, Chrestien. New Relations of Gaspesia, with the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians. 1691. Trans. and Ed. W.F. Ganong. The Publications of the Champlain 5. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1910.
MacNutt, W.S. New Brunswick, A History: 1784-1867. Toronto: Macmillan, 1963.
Schwab, Dana. “Sally Armstrong.” The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Fredericton: New Brunswick Studies Centre, 2009. 15 July 2020 <https://nble.lib.unb.ca/browse/a/sally-armstrong>.
Tremblay, Tony. “Why New Brunswick Needs Charlotte Taylor: The Role of Historical Fiction in Identity Formation.” Antistasis: A New Brunswick Education Journal 1.2 (Spring 2011): 10-14.
Wilbur, Richard. The Rise of French New Brunswick. Halifax: Formac, 1989.
Wright, Ester C. The Loyalists of New Brunswick. Fredericton, NB: E.C. Wright, 1955.
Wynn, G. Timber Colony: A Historical Geography of Early Nineteenth Century New Brunswick. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1981.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Armstrong, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Sally Armstrong for allowing us to use the passages above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these passages, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
The passages above appear in Armstrong’s The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor. 2007. Toronto: Vintage, 2008. 1-9; 231-237.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.