Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Day Fourteen - Flourishing Under The Circumstances

One of Aunt Fan's letters

"Really I am flourishing as well as can be expected under the circumstances, I give this lump every chance to go away..." reports Aunt Fanny from Rye, Sussex in the 1890's. 
What a character! Aunt Fanny supports her nephews, the five Collyer brothers, as they try to make new lives for themselves in the colonies. She encourages them and is proud of them, but not too much, after all it's the Victorian era. 

"As you know they both said such pretty things about you and Alf — of course we take their words very much, while as I know you wish—we of course remember their kindness must warn us not to be too proud of you both, but make a little allowance. This is very private, but I did not want to make you conceited."   

I've come to know Fanny and her nephews in the body of fifteen original letters, written between 1989 and 1895, that were donated last weekend. ORIGINALS!!! And in fine condition, flourishing under the circumstances even.

All fifteen are written to Gerald Collyer so we don't learn much about him, other than that he lives in a boarding house in London, Ontario. It's a pity really, I grew up in London and should have liked to have learned  a bit of life back then.

There are a few letters from  brothers Frank and Herbert who both raise  cattle in Missomin, Assa, NWT. Wondering where that might be, I did a quick google search and narrowed it to either present day Saskatchewan or Manitoba. (Anyone reading this knowing a more exact location please advise.) Herbert mentions getting his feet wet in the stables and laments having to travel so very far to Winnipeg to buy rubbers, but that is as close as we come to pinpointing his location.

 Life is harsh and not much fun in the "territories" as another brother Harold, also living in Assa, reports:

"The times are very quiet up here now nothing going on at all just the same old thing from one year's end to another, now and then the commons dance and that is all."
And you can see by their letters, particularly Herbert's, that mod cons like paper were scarce. Although challenging to decipher, I find his letters exquisite!


Another brother, Alfred, in Montreal writes the newsiest and warmest letters —consistently closing with  "I Remain Your Affectionate Brother, Alfred Collyer", or a less formal version "I Remain Your Affec. Bros." The contrast of this to "Skype me, Susie",  from a  recent submission, delights me.

Aunt Fan is a constant, sending words of encouragement and lots of news from home including flyers advertising the latest inventions. In one letter she says:
 "I do hope that the darkest days  for all you "dear old chaps" are over. I don't mean that all is smooth sailing as you know, but with steady steering you do seem each to be making his way"
Another is to introduce the Magic Lantern Lamp. Light seems a big concern for Fanny:
"We have got back in our sitting room, it is much more comfortable, but it seems very dark after the other side of the house for a whole month. I much enjoyed having breakfast in the kitchen..."  
All that moving around sounds like a home reno to me and perhaps with it came a desire to upgrade the  Victorian lighting? Perhaps Fanny was ready for "a very bright steady white light such as the Magic Lantern Lamp projected"? It's a cumbersome looking thing , a bit like a photographers enlarger. I wonder if it ever took off? (Anyone out there know?)

Alfred, seems the best-off of the Collyer boys. He leads an active social life, finds lodging in a private home rather than a boarding house and starts attending lectures at McGill. He even has time for team sports and swims regularly at a pool, albeit for a bath ,which he reports, makes him feel rather privileged. Aunt Fanny and Gerald certainly help him along his way. There is a lot of talk about the exchange of money and seizing opportunities and with Alfred it really seems to pay off.

In 1890 he speaks of securing a gown for his studies.

"I could not get a old gown from the janitors so have had to get a new one and give five dollars for it. I shall try to do without a mortar board as that means two and a half more."

A year later he tells Gerald about a place in the Edison Electric Company "that if  I could get it through , I think I could take lectures at McGill ...and go into management." but  cautions "I don't think there is much chance for me so please do not say anything about it unless something comes of it."

Something does. By the final letter of this series when Alfred writes to Gerald debating the relative merits of water and wind power, he has his name on the letterhead of "Collyer and Brock Electrical Engineers and Contractors"  The year is 1895.

 How times have changed and how they haven't!



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