Julie Wheelwright: Blood lines
In honour of Women's History Month, we chat with the author of Esther about her ancestor's amazing life story - from Abenaki captive to Mother Superior.
by Valerie Howes
Julie Wheelwright is no stranger to a thrilling true story with a woman at its centre - she previously authored a biography of Mata Hari, The Fatal Lover, as well as a history of female military heroines in British literature. But her latest biography, Esther, finds the thrills closer to home, retracing the footsteps of her ancestor, Esther Wheelwright. We talked to Julie about how Esther's life story is inextricably linked to her own.
Many details of Esther's life were tricky to unearth; what obstacles did you face?
The Abenaki had nothing written down, but I read other captive accounts of being with the Indians. Mostly, I had to rely on things like the reports sent back to Paris in the 18th century [as Esther's parents fought to have her returned home].
And there was so little of Esther's writing, especially from the early years. She wrote a lot when she was Mother Superior, but everything is framed in a French, Catholic language of the 18th century. In the last years of her being Mother Superior, all the dissension in the ranks that was recorded did give me insight into her personality.
Did you feel you got close to Esther, nonetheless?
Because you're so wrapped up in someone else's world, often you get a kind of gut feeling of how they would have responded in various situations. It's like the way you get to know a friend.
How did her experiences resonate for you?
One thing is that there was this uncanny parallel with my mother's story. She was sent to Canada at the age of seven - the same age as Esther when she was taken from her family - and she stayed with a family in Etobicoke during World War II. At the end of that time, she didn't want to go home again either.
What prompted you to intertwine the story of your travels in search of information with the story of Esther's life?
Partly it was a way of dealing with those lacks. And partly, I did that because I'm descended from Esther's elder brother, and this is a family story. I felt there was wonderful continuity in my journey. Relatives of mine have made pilgrimages to the convent in Quebec since the 18th century and were still writing to the convent during WWII, which is curious because they were all Protestants. It obviously had meaning in the family. For me, going there as a feminist, a historian, and a 21st-century woman, I bring something else to the story.
You finish by saying your two daughters "are the true inheritors of Esther's story." What do you feel you have given them through this book?
I think my daughters have grown up with such a different understanding of what it means to be a woman. They will have careers; they will have lives that will be much more independent. I like to think I've been a role model, but there are these other women in our family who are role models too, and I think we should celebrate them. I feel it's an accomplishment that I uncovered Esther and showed this woman who had power, made decisions, helped set up institutions and helped define our nation.