1455 Settlers at the edge of empire

Providence: A Novel. The McBride Chronicles, Book One
by Valerie Green

Surrey: Hancock House, 2022
$26.95 / 9780888397393

Reviewed by Vanessa Winn

*

Historian Valerie Green’s debut novel, Providence, is the first of a family saga trilogy. The engaging story is told from the perspective of two protagonists, settlers who make the arduous journey to North America in search of better lives than the ones they left behind. Vividly created characters, they both emerge from impoverished backgrounds, but their different motivations take them on separate paths to a shared destiny. Part One, the first half of the novel, portrays the perilous experiences that compel them to leave mid-19th-century Britain.

Jane Hopkins is an English orphan, left as a newborn at an orphanage by her mother. The prologue sets the stage for the mystery of Jane’s birth origins and the identity of her lost mother. Like many of its ilk in the Victorian era, Field House is a grim institution modelled on the workhouse, with a matron cruel enough to be worthy of a Dickens novel. Her bitterness extends to deception and denying the letter entrusted for Jane by her departed mother.

Vancouver Island stamp, 1860s

Helping her endure, Jane has an innate sense of justice reminiscent of another Jane rising above an oppressive school — Jane Eyre. Unlike Eyre’s compulsive adherence to honesty regardless of its dire personal cost, Hopkins learns deceit is sometimes necessary for survival. Affectionately dubbed “Scrap” for her diminutive stature by one of her few friends, Jane Hopkins also discovers a lifeline from her bleak existence. The resident minister offers her the piano lessons which become pivotal to her life and provide her with a glimpse of salvation.

Entering service at the nearby landed estate, Jane’s musical gift, once brutally punished at the orphanage, brings her to the more appreciative attention of the lady of the manor. Valuing Jane’s talent, Lady Sinclair elevates her from scullery maid. Unfortunately, her attributes also draw the unwelcome attention of Sinclair’s predatory son, who had already got one maid “in the family way.”

Banking heiress Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts, “the Great Philanthropist.” Cigarette card courtesy Clan Coutts Society

They talked about me as though I weren’t there. I turned back to the piano, uncertain what to do, a chill running down my spine. Captain Philip was a tall, handsome man, but his lazy smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Faced with his assaults, Jane grasps an escape through Lady Sinclair’s charity work with the Columbia Emigration Society. Here the real historical figure of heiress and philanthropist Miss [Angela Burdett] Coutts appears. Encouraged by Charles Dickens, her mission assisted destitute young British women, some barely teens, to emigrate to the far west, “where women were needed to help populate the colony.” But Jane isn’t interested in marriage. She wants to reinvent herself as an independent governess in a place where no one will recognize her past.

Guilt-ridden by her son’s violation, Lady Sinclair arranges Jane’s passage on the SS Tynemouth. Seamlessly blending fiction and fact, Green includes the real supervisors of the bride ship “cargo”: chaperones Mrs. Robb and Reverend Scott, both stern and unsympathetic to the dismal conditions the young women must endure below deck on the long voyage to North America.

Jane’s parallel counterpart, Gideon McBride, has a more secure start in life, as part of a poor, but loving, family in a Scottish fishing village on the harsh North Sea. But another life beckons to him than the one to which he was born. He has an amusing quirk that makes him chafe against his lot in life: though he loves the sea, he hates fish. A devastating storm confirms his desire to leave his traditional way of life, while making it more difficult to do so.

Cooking on the deck of an Irish immigrant ship, nineteenth century. Painting by Rodney Charman

At 14, Gideon takes his first step toward seeing the world by signing on with the Hudson’s Bay Company on a ship setting sail for Rupert’s Land. Green deftly conveys the youth and naivety of the cabin boys amid gruelling conditions that few 21st-century teens would dream of enduring. Her depiction of their vulnerability to bullying and abuse is arresting.

Through courage and endurance, Gideon gains the respect of the jaded crew on the rough cross-Atlantic voyage. As a questionable but profitable bonus, he learns to gamble. Having the more reliable and unusual advantage of literacy, he rises to the position of apprentice clerk at a trading post. Becoming a trader at York Factory and other forts, he experiences another personal loss and seizes an opportunity to sail on a trading voyage to San Francisco, beginning his adventures in the Far West.

Providence is a fast-paced, absorbing read. In Part Two, the dual protagonists’ paths converge in Victoria, the burgeoning gold-rush city of the Colony of Vancouver Island. These chapters alternate more frequently between their viewpoints, while their lives become more entwined. Haunted by their pasts, they must navigate their own new identities while their growing attraction to one another complicates their plans.

As an author of over 20 non-fiction books, Green’s extensive historical knowledge is evident. Occasionally, conveying historical details within the dialogue is a little too apparent, while the vibrantly portrayed setting speaks for itself. Alongside the principal fictitious characters, the novel is peppered with real historical figures and events.

Letter from Vancouver Island, 1868

Like others, Gideon uses his Hudson’s Bay Company connections to make a start in the colony. Stalwart fur trader James Douglas makes a cameo appearance as the Governor of Vancouver Island facing the incursion of gold seekers. Perhaps taking inspiration from her own history books, Green has given less prominent but memorable minor characters historically suggested names, such as Chinese servant Ah Foo and Italian painter Signor Raggozini, who reflect the multi-cultural atmosphere of gold-rush era British Columbia.

The bride ships supply not only young women to the colony, but also provide a striking and gritty introduction to colonial Victoria. In contrast, Providence, the home of the title, is set on the Gorge waterway near Point Ellice, a wealthy neighbourhood in the 1860s. The shipping industry is a double-edged provider, and growing wealth offers the McBride family limited protection against the scourge of smallpox epidemics entering the port city.

Yates Street, Victoria, October 1860, by Sarah Crease, looking northwest to the Sooke Hills. BC Archives PDP2894
Valerie Green

The novel is aptly named, as the story is replete with providential coincidences that lend Victorian-era twists to its plot. Gideon discovers a penchant for gambling and high-risk yields that boost him up the shaky ladder of success. Jane embraces the colonial expedient of presenting herself to be more than she was at home. People reappear from their past lives. While the characters strive to better themselves, they face the corruption that shadows material gain, and are confronted by their own choices.

Green has given a distinct voice to the many settlers escaping poverty in their homeland, most of whom left behind few firsthand accounts. With their troubled backgrounds, the central characters are sympathetic to the plight of others, including Indigenous Peoples. On their journey they gather a diverse supporting cast, including a San Francisco brothel madam from Paris with a soft heart under her heavily painted exterior, and a Black American crew member who becomes one of McBride’s closest friends.

I particularly appreciate the author’s faithfulness to historical details, which gives the novel an authentic grounding. Providence is a far-reaching story that captures the spirit of hope and desperation propelling settlers to the edge of the British Empire.

*

Vanessa Winn

Born in London, UK, Vanessa Winn lives in Victoria, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature at the University of Victoria. Her second novel, Trappings (Oakheart Press, 2020), depicts real people and events in mid-19th-century British Columbia, during the aftermath of the gold rushes. It was included as a course textbook in a Public History graduate seminar at UVic. Her debut novel, The Chief Factor’s Daughter (Touchwood Editions, 2009) similarly portrays factually based social history during the Fraser River gold rush and was studied at universities in British Columbia. Her poetry has been published in various journals and she also writes non-fiction. Beyond her passion for the written word and historical research, she also teaches Argentine tango. Please visit her website. Editor’s note: Vanessa Winn’s recent book Trappings is reviewed here by Valerie Green.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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