Lilian M.B. Maxwell

Lilian M.B. MaxwellPhoto: UNB Archives Photograph Collection
Lilian M.B. Maxwell
Photo: UNB Archives Photograph Collection

Dr. Lilian Mary (Beckwith) Maxwell (historian, non-fiction author, and cultural worker) devoted much of her life to uncovering and sharing the history of New Brunswick. Maxwell was born on 25 March 1877 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where she also died on 13 June 1956 (“Noted N.B. Historian” 20).

Maxwell was the middle child of Charles Beckwith, a lawyer, and Mary Helen (Glasier) Beckwith, as well as a sister to two brothers, John and Charles. She was raised in Fredericton under the teachings of the Church of England (Census of Canada, 1881 18). She belonged to a well-established family in the province, one “dating back to pre-loyalist days,” and one that “boasted several prominent citizens who [made] their presence felt on both the provincial and national scene in politics and commerce” (“NB Historian Dies at Capital” 2). One notable relative was Maxwell’s great aunt Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart. Maxwell wrote with justifiable pride about Hart’s accomplishment of penning St. Ursula’s Convent, the “first novel to be written by a native Canadian” (“The First Canadian Born Novelist” 59).

In 1898, Maxwell earned a Bachelor of Arts degree (Hons. English) at the University of New Brunswick (“Noted N.B. Historian” 20). Afterwards, she attended both the Wellington Teachers’ Training School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Provincial Normal School in Fredericton, where she earned her teaching qualifications (“Garrison Ghosts” 19).

Maxwell moved to Saint John, New Brunswick where she supply taught for a brief period (Maxwell, “Lilian M. Beckwith Maxwell” 1). While residing in Saint John, she married James Brown Maxwell, a civil engineer, on 19 February 1903 (Registration Division 1). The couple then moved to the United States (“Garrison Ghosts” 19), where they started their family of three children: Charles, Gladys, and James (Census of Canada, 1921 9). Once the children reached school age, the family returned from the United States to settle in Fredericton. Maxwell would remain there to trace the history of her hometown for the duration of her life (“Garrison Ghosts” 19).

Over the course of her career as a historian, she published a number of non-fiction works, including An Outline of the History of Central New Brunswick to the Time of Confederation (1937, history), How New Brunswick Grew (1943, history), and ‘Round New Brunswick Roads (1951, travelogue), in addition to The River St. John and Its Poets (1947, poetry anthology). Much of Maxwell’s historical work was done in conjunction with the York-Sunbury Historical Society, established in 1932 (Phillips 10).

In the early years of the Society, Maxwell was a recording secretary before conducting her own research and becoming a prolific author in her own right (“Garrison Ghosts” 19). Remarkably, she produced her histories of New Brunswick at a time when men had almost sole authority over the writing and teaching of history. As both a woman and celebrated local historian, she thus paved the way for future female historians and cultural workers while sharing the story of her beloved province.

Maxwell’s An Outline of the History of Central New Brunswick to the Time of Confederation is a collection of articles originally written for the Fredericton Daily Gleaner newspaper. The book traces the history of central New Brunswick by focussing on the groups living in the province, particularly the Indigenous, Acadian, and Loyalist populations. In doing so it models an understanding of the province as a diversity of languages and ethnicities.

The book’s reception was largely positive. Fred H. Phillips wrote in the Daily Gleaner that, though the work informs more than it entertains, “it is an inexhaustible mine of information, especially as regards families and land grants” (10). Harold E. Conrad’s review in the Canadian Historical Review also praises the book’s abundance of information; however, he criticizes Maxwell’s “little attempt to weave her material into a well-rounded thesis” (211). Ultimately, Conrad lauds the educational value of the book and commends Maxwell’s passion for local history: “her enthusiasm for her subject carries the reader over many weaknesses in organization. This book is definitely a contribution to New Brunswick history” (211). Without doubt, An Outline of the History of Central New Brunswick established Maxwell as a leading authority on the province’s history.

In addition to remedying the dearth of historical accounts of New Brunswick (Maxwell, How New Brunswick Grew 1), Maxwell sought to highlight the poetic talent originating from the province. In her travelogue ‘Round New Brunswick Roads, she included a poem by a New Brunswick poet in each chapter’s epigraph. Those poems—often by her favourite Confederation and pre-Confederation poets—served to elevate the grandeur of her local surroundings, as the work of Charles G.D. Roberts (“To Fredericton in May Time”) and others did. Her 1947 poetry anthology, The River St. John and Its Poets, extends this feeling for literary heritage, showcasing the verse of notable New Brunswickers such as Bliss Carman, Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey, and Jonathan Odell. She opens that anthology by historicizing provincial poetry while simultaneously addressing the major themes and preoccupations of local poets: though a mix of the “indifferent” and “the best in the world,” New Brunswick verse, she observes, foregrounds “an appreciation of the beauty and nature” and has “been written by the people of the river for the last one hundred and fifty years” (River St. John 9).

Her efforts to raise provincial authors to the status of celebrated Canadian artists was an important gesture, for New Brunswick poets, in particular, had suffered significant decline in mid-century. Her work endeavoured to correct that fault. When writing about Bliss Carman, for instance, she reminded local readers that this one-time “Poet Laureate of Canada” had not just roots in New Brunswick but also sourced much of his literary inspiration in the province (River St. John 66). She lauds Carman as a poet who produced a wealth of lasting material over his career, asserting that “one is amazed that a man could sing so long, so continuously, and so beautifully. Carman, unlike the majority of the poets on the Saint John who composed only during the idealistic period of youth, made poetry his avocation” (67). Maxwell importantly affixes her literary subjects, such as Carman, to deep connections to the province that inspired their art: “Carman never forgot New Brunswick nor the place of his birth but returned again and again” (67-68). An unapologetic and pioneering localist, she writes as much about the provincial connections of these writers as she does their achievements.

Perhaps that is why the Saint John River is a recurring motif throughout her work. In An Outline of the History of Central New Brunswick, she links the river to the survival of both New Brunswick’s Indigenous populations and early settlers (1). She further extends the river’s significance in The River St. John and Its Poets, linking it to New Brunswick’s vibrant poetry and even identity:

From the time the English people first settled along the Saint John, there has been something about the river itself, its clear running waters, its green valley of vegetation, the variety of scenery with the sombreness of the lower river, the sunbathed rolling farmlands of the middle river and the wildness of its twistings among the ever-green hills of its upper reaches, that has inspired the people living along its banks to burst into song. (9)

In describing the river’s beauty in lyric and idyllic detail, Maxwell places herself in a centuries-long literary tradition with David Palmer, James Hannay, and other provincial poets, all of whom gave aesthetic texture to the river’s transfixing qualities. Later work by Esther Clark Wright (The Saint John River, 1949; The St. John River and Its Tributaries, 1966) and George Frederick Clarke (Six Salmon Rivers and Another, 1960) would be indebted to Maxwell’s sense of how New Brunswickers placed rivers at the heart of their identity.

Maxwell’s life-long passion for New Brunswick history, literature, and landscape brought to light the story of New Brunswick for both New Brunswickers and Canadians in general. She devoted much of her energies to recounting provincial stories that were often forgotten, and, in so doing, she “bequeathed a rich heritage to generations yet to come” (Phillips 15). In 1946, the University of New Brunswick, her alma mater, recognized her achievements by awarding her an honorary LLD (Phillips 10). Her legacy lives on today through the York-Sunbury Historical Society that she helped found.

Kate MacEwen, Winter 2020
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Maxwell, L.M.B. “The First Canadian Born Novelist.” The Dalhousie Review 31.1 (1951): 59-64.

---. How New Brunswick Grew. Sackville, NB: The Tribune Press, 1943.

---. “Lilian M. Beckwith Maxwell.” Item 2725 of Lilian Mary Maxwell Collection. UNB Archives & Special Collections, Fredericton, NB.

---. An Outline of the History of Central New Brunswick to the Time of Confederation. Sackville, NB: The Tribune Press, 1937.

---. The River St. John and Its Poets. Sackville, NB: The Tribune Press, 1947.

---. ‘Round New Brunswick Roads. Toronto, ON: The Ryerson Press, 1951.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Census of Canada, 1881, York County. Canada Department of Agriculture. Ottawa, ON: Library and Archives Canada, 2020.

Census of Canada, 1921, Kings County. Canada Department of Agriculture. Ottawa, ON: Library and Archives Canada, 2020.

Clarke, George Frederick. Six Salmon Rivers and Another. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press, 1960.

Conrad, Harold E. Rev. of An Outline of the History of Central New Brunswick to the Time of Confederation, by Lilian M. Beckwith Maxwell. The Canadian Historical Review 19.2 (1938): 211.

“Garrison Ghosts.” The Officer’s Quarterly 13.3 (1997): 19.

“NB Historian Dies at Capital.” Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 15 June 1956: 2.

“Noted N.B. Historian, Dr. Lillian Maxwell Dies at Residence.” Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, NB] 14 June 1956: 20.

Phillips, Fred H. “‘History of Central New Brunswick’ Re-Issued.” Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, NB] 16 May 1984: 10, 15.

Registration Division of Saint John City and County. Marriage. Vital Statistics from Government Records (RS141). RS141B7. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB. 2020

Wright, Esther Clark. The Saint John River. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1949.

---. The St. John River and Its Tributaries. Wolfville, NS: E.C. Wright, 1966.