A rambling country manor house built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Reydon Hall was once used as a smuggler hideout and, according to local legend, the attic was haunted by a ghost named Martin. It was a fantastic setting to inspire young imaginations but the Strickland children (six of whom later became published writers) left their own enduring mark on their childhood home. Today, over two centuries later, one of the attic windows still holds an original pane of glass on which the children etched their names.
The Strickland sisters received a broad education from their devoted parents. While Elizabeth instructed her daughters in traditionally female activities such as embroidery and music, Thomas oversaw a broad course of academic studies including subjects not usually taught to girls such as geography, history and mathematics. Thomas taught his girls the value of self reliance requiring them to first make their own toys and later their own opinions in debate. Deeply respected and loved by his family, Thomas’s sudden death in 1818 changed their lives forever. Recent reversals had wiped out Thomas’s fortune, leaving his bereaved family with Reydon Hall but without the money to maintain it, let alone themselves. If they managed to live on in genteel poverty, there was a more significant concern. WIthout money for dowries, the girls’ chances of marriage were now quite slim. So how were they supposed to support themselves when women of their class did not work for a living? It was Catherine who first demonstrated the real meaning of self reliance using her skills at what was formerly a pastime and writing a story for publication and selling it that same year. This offered real hope and marked the beginning of a deluge of literary material from the scribbling Strickland sisters all but one of the whom went on to become published writers.
A rural, writing family, the Stricklands were not unlike the better known Bronte clan. Eliza, the eldest was Editor of the Lady’s Magazine. Agnes became the most famous as co-author (with silent partner Eliza) of the histories, The Lives of the Queens of England. Jane Margaret in turn was Agnes’s biographer. Noteworthy among the biographies, novels, poems, and numerous contributions for annuals and magazines written by the sisters was a children’s novel about emigration by Catherine published in 1826 . In The Young Emigrants or Pictures of Life in Canada, Catherine imagined an idyllic life in the New World that would later prove to be highly imaginative and delusionally optimistic when contrasted by the real life struggles that she and Susanna would encounter as settlers in the backwoods. Three of the youngest four Stricklands – Catherine, Susanna and brother Sam would all go on to write important works about pioneer life in Canada, becoming in the process, pioneers of the pen as well as key figures in the literature of Canada.
An ambitious and outgoing person, Susanna was always eager to mix in literary circles. She even had the confidence to establish an ongoing correspondence with the famous author Mary Russell Mitford (1787 – 1855) celebrated for “Our Village”, a series of sketches of rural people and village life. Susanna’s most famous book reflects the influence of Miss Mitford’s writing Susanna wrote the following letter to her literary idol around 1829 in which she describes her deep attachment to Catherine and speculates on emigration to Canada, making clear such plans were in her mind quite likely before ever meeting John Moodie.
To Mary Russell Mitford
In your delightful sketch of Grace Nugent, [sic. Grace Neville, Forget-Me-Not (1827)], I was much amused by the donkey messengers. Such mercuries are common in Suffolk and I greeted your boys as old acquaintances. My eldest brother who is settled in Upper Canada, was a famous cricket-player, and I used often by his earnest solicitations to walk across Southwold Common, to witness his dexterity, and I felt no small degree of interest in his eclat. He was a fine handsome fellow, and promises to do something for himself in the country to which he has emigrated, and to which I often feel strongly induced to follow him, having many dear friends in that land ‘of the mountain and the flood.’ He gives me such superb descriptions of Canadian scenery that I often long to accept his invitation to join him and to traverse the country with him in his journeys for the Government [Sam Strickland worked for the Canada Company from 1828 to 1831 in Guelph and Goderich]. But I fear my heart would fail me when the moment of separation came and my native land would appear more beautiful than any other spot in the world, when I was called upon to leave it. Yes, I do agree with you that a woman would miss the smile of affection more than all the applause of the world. I know I would rather give up the pen than lose the affection of my beloved sister Catherine, who is dearer to me than all the world – my monitress, my dear and faithful friend. She is the author of of several popular works for children: The Step-brothers, Young Emigrants, Juvenile Forget-me-not (the first series) and many other works of the same nature. But it is not for her talents that I love my Kate; it is for herself. She is absent now for a few days, and I feel lost and lonely without her; she is the youngest of the six girls, next to me. We are all authoresses but Sara, the third, but she is a beauty and such a sweet girl withal that everybody loves her, and I often think she is the best off, for she has elegant tastes and pursuits, and no clashing interests to interfere with the love her sisters bear to her. I am writing a sad, egotistical letter; my tongue and my pen never know when to lie still and I quite forget your dignity as a celebrated writer when I am scribbling to you as a friend. Mr. Pringle will, I know, kindly enclose this in the next packet he transmits to you. In the meantime, believe me, dear Miss Mitford, to remain,
Your grateful sincere friend,