Jane Elizabeth MacDonald

J. Elizabeth Roberts MacDonaldPhoto: Penn Libraries
J. Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald
Photo: Penn Libraries

Jane Elizabeth Gostwycke (Roberts) MacDonald was born 17 February 1864 in Westcock, New Brunswick, which is located near Sackville. Elizabeth had one sister and four brothers, one of whom was the well known poet Charles G.D. Roberts. Her parents were Emma Wetmore Bliss and Reverend George Goodridge Roberts. Elizabeth was educated at the Collegiate School and the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Although she and her siblings were formally educated, the Roberts children were also educated at home by reading to each other. According to C.F. Fraser, they spent winter nights sharing poems and telling stories. During the warmer months, the family would share literary readings in the garden area, surrounded by floral scents and the magical singing of birds (qtd. in Garvin 222).

Many of her poems and stories reflect this romantic setting. In the poem, “The Whispering Poplars,” published in Canadian Poets (1916), she demonstrates her ability to make words come alive:

I hear the whispering poplars
In the hollow by my door;
They sound like fairy waters
Beside a magic shore. (1-4)

MacDonald published some of her poems in literary periodicals, including The Century, The Independent, and Outing Magazine. She also taught at the School for the Blind in Halifax, Nova Scotia, resigning after she married her cousin Samuel Archibald Roberts MacDonald in 1896. Elizabeth and Samuel had three children: Archibald G., Cuthbert Goodridge, and Hilary. Their daughter Hilary tragically died before her first birthday, an event that would shape MacDonald’s later work.

According to Hilary Thompson, MacDonald’s early writing was directed by her famous literary family (354). Her father, a nurturing figure, assisted by privately publishing her poems in a book called Poems (1885). He also provided her with an early home-schooled education and raised her in a creative household that exposed her to a world of great literary thinkers. Her later recollection of this environment inspired Our Little Canadian Cousin (1904), which she based on her own upbringing.

Her famous brother Charles also assisted in her career, submitting her poetry to the important anthology Songs of the Great Dominion (1889) and including her work in the family collection of poems called Northland Lyrics (1899).

In 1906 her second book of poetry, Dream Verses and Others, was published and well received by critics. Garvin wrote: “It is of this scented garden that Elizabeth, the sister...sings so beautifully in her book” (222). Garvin also praised her “instinctive knowledge and love of nature and the exquisite fancy and touch, so characteristic of this family” (221). While Garvin attributed her talents to her accomplished literary family, Thompson concluded that “her new poetic voices were more authentic and accessible but more personal than her brother [Charles] may have liked, or than he may have realized” (354-55).

MacDonald also had short stories published in New York Churchman and Peterson’s, American magazines with a wide circulation. Her children’s book, Our Little Canadian Cousin, was published in 1904 and reprinted several times; it provides detailed descriptions of Fredericton:

Near the town the river was very broad; as they forged upward, it gradually narrowed, and was thickly studded with islands. They passed Government House, left the ruined Hermitage behind, and then began to feel that they were at last out of civilization... the tree-clad shores wore a fairy glamour, and the islands, where masses of grape-vine and clematis were tangled over the bushes, might have been each the home of an enchanted princess, a dryad, or any of the many ‘fair forms of old romance.’ (46-47)

In 1912, MacDonald and her family moved from Fredericton to Nelson, British Columbia; then, two years later, they moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. According to Thompson, there is evidence that her extended family was concerned about her welfare, possibly because her husband had a problem with alcohol (355). When her marriage ended in 1915, she and her sons moved to Ottawa, Ontario, where they remained.

Although Dream Verses and Others was her last published book of poetry, a trickling of new poems followed in 1916. Later on, she wrote “essays on feminism and worked for women’s suffrage” (Thompson 364). She died suddenly at her Ottawa home in 1922.

As her poem “Poppies” suggests, her preferred rhythms were simple and rhyming: “When all the world was white with snow/ I dreamed of poppies, row on row” (1-2). Likewise, she was always most comfortable with the familiar. In the preface to Our Little Canadian Cousin, she speaks of home: “the great outdoor life—sleighing, skating, snow-shoeing, hunting, canoeing, and, above all, ‘camping out’—the joys that belong to a vast, uncrowded country, where there is ‘room to play.’” For critic Hilary Thompson, home and nature as captured in the Fredericton poem “Gray Days” become a “mirror of her feelings” (360). “Because of a philosophy that early childhood holds the ‘dream’ world from which poetic inspiration and a sense of immortality emanate” (356), continues Thompson, Elizabeth chose to superimpose the comforting feeling associated with youthful fancy on present events in her life.

Her work became increasingly more morbid as her life progressed and as more instances of death, grief, and pain surrounded her. Even when she dealt with grief, she relied on the fantasy world of her youth as solace. “Voices” from Dream Verses and Others is an example, a poem in which she creates a happy place for her dead daughter:

What do the little leaves say to my daughter?
Beautiful, wonderful words
Stories and stories the dryads have taught them
Songs they have learned from the birds. (1-4)

Elizabeth MacDonald’s poems reveal the delicate touch of a real poetic sensibility.

Nigel Alexander Bone and Laura Hennebury, Winter 2009
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Lighthall, William Douw, comp. and ed. Songs of the Great Dominion: Voices from the Forests and Waters, the Settlements and Cities of Canada. London, Eng.: Walter Scott, 1889.

MacDonald, Elizabeth Roberts. Dream Verses and Others. Toronto, ON: Copp, Clark, Co., 1906.

---. Our Little Canadian Cousin. Boston, MA: L.C. Page, 1904.

---. Poems. Fredericton, NB: E.R. MacDonald, 1885.

MacDonald, Elizabeth Roberts, William Carman Roberts, and Theodore Roberts. Northland Lyrics. Ed. Charles G.D. Roberts. Boston, MA: Small Maynard, 1899.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Adams, John Coldwell. Sir Charles God Damn: The Life of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 1986.

“Biographical Sketch.” Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald Fonds. UNB Archives & Special Collections. 1999. U of New Brunswick. 29 Nov 2009

“Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald.” John W. Garvin, comp. and ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, ON: McClelland, Goodchild, & Stewart, 1916. 222-226.

Garvin, W. John. "Introduction." “Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald.” John W. Garvin, comp. and ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, ON: McClelland, Goodchild, & Stewart, 1916. 221.

“MacDonald, Mrs. Jane Elizabeth Gostwycke, nee Roberts.” The Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography. W. Stewart Wallace, comp. 3rd ed. Toronto, ON: Macmillan, 1963.

Roberts, Lloyd. The Book of Roberts. Toronto, ON: Ryerson, 1923.

Thompson, Hilary. “The Unexamined Voices of the Poet Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald.” Dalhousie Review 73.3 (1993): 354-366.