Thinking about Bell

I’ve been thinking about Bell. Isabel (“Bell”) McLennan (1826-1883) married James Barry (1818-1906) in the fall of 1859. They raised two girls, and operated a successful grist and sawmill in Six Mile Brook, Nova Scotia. Most of what we know about Bell is from her husband’s 56-year-long daily diary. Barry was a remarkable, complex, and thus interesting man. I wish I could say the same for Bell, but I can’t. I wish I could then tell you that James Barry offered lovely intimate details of their lives together, details that would allow us to offer something of a biography – perhaps not as detailed as his, but something. But I can’t because Barry’s diary is almost completely focused on his own world: the mill, his books, and the public world of rural men.

For all that Barry wrote, and for all the many times he mentioned her, he didn’t say a lot about her. There were a few exceptions, most notably their courtship in the spring of 1859, but for the most part she appears only in passing. Barry was seldom cheerful, but there was in those months of courting a lovely lightness to his writing. One can feel his excitement, a brightness and enthusiasm of speech that must have been equally evident in his step. They were, for that time, a couple; they attended sprees, travelled West River roads, and took the train to Truro for a night out. There was promise.

It’s hard to say when it began to unravel. There’s some hints fairly early, but nothing obvious. They produced a child in 1860, not long after marrying, indicating some level of intimate fulfillment. But a year after Josephine’s birth, they seem to be sleeping apart (perhaps even in separate rooms – again, hints, but not clear). What is clear is that from about 1864 on, Bell spent increasingly more time at her parents than with her husband; indeed, there are months from the mid-1860s to the early 70s when she might spend no more than two or three nights in their home. Numerous evenings (when Barry usually wrote), he professed to be ignorant of her whereabouts. They led almost completely separate lives, and by 1867 they were barely speaking. They were certainly speaking, angrily, in June of 1868 when in the midst of an argument about cattle gates Barry struck Bell. He defended himself at length in an entry he labelled the “History of the late Row”. In his account, there was no violence (except “a blow” to one of the cows). But the Sheriff’s issuing of a peace bond requiring Barry to be civil for two years indicates the evidence was clear. Given the state of protection for women in Nova Scotia at the time, there must have been a real threat.

There’s lots to be said about Barry’s attitudes to women, and something too on his sexuality. Or perhaps we should term it his sexual morality because while he wrote very little that was obviously sexual, there’s a fair bit pointing to his attitude on sexual matters. What’s most obvious is a kind of prurient titillation about women. There are numerous hints. He was fiercely critical of James Smith, one of his employees through the 1860s and 70s, for this “drinking and whoring”. And yet at times the criticism borders on envy for Smith’s freedom and apparently his happiness. In the months after the peace bond, Barry attended several male social events in Pictou where there was drinking and women – perhaps, though not clearly, prostitutes, and Barry seemed to enjoy the spectacle. He also went through many housekeepers, and there’s a clear pattern to their service: the initial meeting was typically positive, noting she was “smart” or “knew her duty”, and almost always included some kind of reference to her appearances. But within weeks, sometimes days, he would have soured on the young woman’s talents. Often within a month he was lamenting her poor work, calling her a “bitch”, or a “whore”, and planning to fire her. When he caught one of them in bed with one of his workers, he flew into a rage, and chased her out of the house. She was fired in that moment; the young man was chastised, but not fired. A double standard, to be sure, but a sense too that what the boy did was not just tolerable but good.

Barry loved women from afar, but seldom up close. A pretty face could charm him, but a spark of independence could enrage him. He was, in short, deeply insecure, and deeply misogynist. But that’s another chapter. Writing a chapter about Bell won’t be easy. It’s hard to see a person in her misogynistic, occasionally abusive, and always defensive husband’s diary. Can the subaltern speak? asks Gayatri Spivak. There are, as the subaltern writers insist, always traces of the colonized voice, even in the colonizers’ texts. How much of Bell can we find?

One Reply to “Thinking about Bell”

  1. This rings true with mid-1800s journals that I’m transcribing right now from Sable Island, a frustrating trend. The women of the Island are only vaguely mentioned, their contributions to daily life largely ignored, though occasional hints reveal that they did a great deal around the life saving establishment in this period. My journals have the (somewhat flimsy, as they deviate in other ways) excuse of being required to cover the “winds, weather, and employment” on the Island. But then in a contemporary case, my family discovered that my grandfather’s journals (after his death) never made any mention of my grandmother, but always recorded the wind/weather. So perhaps several things at work here in all our case studies – standardized logbook format, ingrained misogyny, or just a specific habit of Maritimers? Thanks for the great post, I’m enjoying reading your tweets as well!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *