Roughing It In The Bush is about as Canadian a term as one can imagine. It’s not “Exhilarating Life in the Forest” or some such, which has a more genteel ring to it. The bush is the bush, with tangled trees, voracious blackflies and slithery things in the swamp. When Susanna Moodie, one of Canada’s most pre-eminent pioneer writers, wanted to get the point across to her middle-class friends in England, she wrote a book bluntly titled Roughing It In the Bush. Her popular book, first published in England in 1852, was a painful counterpoint to all the land agents’ persuasive bumph about Canada being a land of glorious opportunity.
By the time Moodie had written about the bush, she had moved to a sunnier spot in one of “the clearings”, as she called it. Belleville. A clearing was an apt description, for if you can visualize the North America of the 1830s through a writer’s imagination, you would see a vast endless carpet of forest, with occasional holes eaten in it as if by hungry moths. Those ragged spaces were created by settlements, such as Belleville at the mouth of the Moira River.
Farming was desperately hard work for a family with the soft hands of the middle class. Life on the Moodie farm was a dismal failure. Fortunately, Susanna’s husband John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie was rewarded for his loyalty to the Crown. In the Rebellion of 1837 John was appointed paymaster to the militia at Belleville. Out of the bush! Into a clearing! From their backwoods home in the bush near Peterborough the Moodies moved to a substantial stone cottage on the West Hill of Belleville. Later John was appointed sheriff of Hastings County. This should have provided the Moodies with a stable income and a secure job, but the sheriff’s position was fraught with political liabilities. Eventually John was dismissed because of political pressures from his enemies.
Before emigrating to Canada in 1832, Moodie had established herself as a writer in England. Her publishing connections served her well when she embarked on her Canadian literary career in the 1850s. Her books were published successfully in Britain long before they appeared in Canada. In fact, Life in the Clearings was not published in Canada until 1959, more than a century after it was written. John, too, wrote about his exploits as a soldier and a settler.
Both Roughing It In the Bush and its sequel, Life in the Clearings, now Canadian classics of the pre-Confederation era, were written from the relative security of the Moodie home in Belleville. In all, Susanna wrote a series of six books plus a number of literary articles for magazines.
Although Belleville had its comforts, life in the clearing was also rough. One of their young sons drowned in the Moira River which ran beneath the hill not far from their home. Another was lost in childbirth. Later John and Susanna became spiritualists and John claimed he had once contacted the spirit of his drowned son.
The Moodie cottage is marked with a heritage plaque at 114 Bridge Street West at Sinclair Street in Belleville.