JONES, Jo Fraser

Author Tags: Women

Jo Fraser Jones of Vernon has edited Hobnobbing with a Countess and Other Okanagan Adventures: The Diaries of Alice Barrett Parke, 1891-1900 (UBC Press, 2001).

Born in 1861, Alice Parke came to the Okanagan in 1889 from Port Dover, Ontario to keep house for a year for her brother and uncle. She was 29 years old and reconciled to “spinsterhood.” However, she was courted by a 43-year-old widower named Harold Parke from nearby Vernon, married, and remained in the Okanagan for the next decade. The diaries she sent back to her family in the East provided rich descriptions of her own domestic routine and of life in Vernon at that time.

Hobnobbing With A Countess and Other Okanagan Adventures: The Diaries of Alice Barrett Parke, 1891-1900, edited by Jo Fraser Jones (UBC Press $85), recalls the countess in question, Ishbel, Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor-General, a staunch feminist and suffragist whose activities earned her the name “Canada’s Governess-General.” One of the transformative events in Alice Parke’s diaries was her meeting with this larger-than-life character. The Earl and Countess of Aberdeen had come to the region because they had acquired two ranches there, one in Kelowna and the other east of Vernon. Although they spent only four months in total in the Okanagan, they made an indelible impression, mainly by leading the effort to establish orchards and hop-fields.
Lady Aberdeen, who was president of the International Council of Women, established the National Council of Women in Canada, and immediately set about organizing a Vernon chapter of the organization. (She might have been expected to support the Women’s Christian Temperance Union but she didn’t because she was not herself an abstainer). She also called public meetings to persuade the citizens to establish a public library and to found Vernon’s first hospital.

Reasonable as Lady Aberdeen’s community work seems, it was profoundly unsettling to Alice Parke. For her, the woman’s sphere was in the home, and good deeds were to be conducted informally and behind the scenes. She was horrified by the idea of women forming groups, attending meetings, and unsexing themselves by speaking out in public. She didn’t believe in votes for women, saying that instead of giving votes to more people she’d “take the franchise away from a good many who now possess it.” Paradoxically, she took a great interest in local and provincial politics and was well informed and opinionated. At one point she wrote that “if she were a man,” she thought she’d like to go into politics, but “if” was the operative word. It should be noted in passing that her devoted and unconventional husband (as a young man he ran away from Upper Canada College to join the American Civil War) had no problem with her joining activist groups. On the other hand, her mother back in Port Dover did. The maternal arm reached out all the way to Vernon to restrain her daughter. “Mother is distressed over my belonging to the Women’s Council,” Alice wrote.

In spite of Mother’s disapproval and her own better judgement Alice became involved through the personal intervention of Lady Aberdeen. This persistent and august personage descended with her entourage on the Parke household and prevailed upon Alice to become a founding member of the Vernon chapter of the Council of Women. How could Alice resist someone whose elevated position gave her unquestionable moral stature? She recorded her impressions: “She drove up in great style, with her coachman and footman, and paid me quite a long visit. Of course it was all about the Women’s Council, but Hal laughs at me & says I’ll be very puffed up after ‘hob nobbing’ with a Countess. It really is a pleasure & a privilege to be associated with a woman like she is—but oh! she is large! I felt like a pigmy beside her. She is so tall & stout as well.”

The diaries show Alice becoming less suspicious of feminists as she met more of them. When she met a visitor who was the first woman ever elected to the office of Court Crier in Portland, she observed that she wasn’t a bit masculine looking.

An equally transformative encounter took place between Alice and the Chinese cook at the BX ranch that Harold Parke managed for a year and a half. She was dismayed when she first found herself in close contact with Gou-ee, but her suspicion was quickly changed to respect by his intelligence, kindness, and sense of humour: Before long she was giving Gou-ee daily English lessons, becoming perhaps the first teacher of ESL in the region. Although she never got over thinking of him as “a heathen” she did recognize that “Chinamen have the same feelings and natures that other men have: I am beginning, though, to think that perhaps Chinamen are not as bad as they are painted & probably the reason they act so little like other citizens is because they are treated unlike them.”

In the introduction Alice is characterized as “very much a product of the Victorian era.” I think that designation needs to be qualified since the Victorian era does not entirely explain her attitudes. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw many social changes. Women were seeking the vote, demanding higher education, and entering the professions. Alice Parke deplored the “New Woman” and was opposed to all those feminist initiatives. Accordingly, she might more accurately be described as “a conservative woman of her time.”

The most tantalizing feature of the diary is its abrupt and unexplained ending in mid-sentence, in the middle of a page in which the handwriting has developed “a steeper slope” and becomes “more careless.” The prosaic nature of the last sentence provides no clue to the immediate cause of the interruption. However, the diligent editor has calculated that the end of the diaries coincided with the thirty-eight year old Alice’s conception (assuming that she experienced a normal nine-month pregnancy) of her only child.

However, the mores of the time, plus the fact that Alice wrote her diary downstairs in the Vernon Post Office where her husband was employed as postmaster, make it unlikely that the two events occurred simultaneously. And so the mystery of that sentence fragment remains, reminding us that even the most faithful diarists provide incomplete accounts of their lives and times. Alice Barrett Parke died in 1952. 0-7748-0852-7

[Joan Givner / BCBW 2001] "Women"