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Cold Pastoral by Margaret Duley

Cold Pastoral by Margaret Duley was recommended to me by a new Newfoundland friend – a woman descended from generations of Newfoundlanders. Written in 1939 Cold Pastoral became a bestseller at the time and was re-issued in 2014 as a Breakwater Mainstay.

Writing was different in 1939 – much more wordy for want of a better word. So, reading is different as well. It has been a long time since I have read a book from this time and I found once I got into the story I was enchanted by both the tale and the way in which it is written.

Margaret Duley writes about the world in which she lived, but one that is mostly gone, except in the memories of our parents and grandparents. The story begins in a Cove, a small harbour where the men fish and the women keep house, care for the children, and help with the processing of the fish. It is a place where life is harsh and death is a frequent visitor - where two breadwinners did not go out in the same boat. It was the same life once lived in the little harbour where I spend time, the next little harbour only two kilometres away by road, or just one if you take the path beyond the cemetery.

The heroine of the story is Mary Immaculate, the only daughter in a family of big boys. She was born in a skiff but does not like the sea. Mary is smart as a whip and imaginative, believing not only the stories in the Bible but the tales of fairies and the little people who might take you if you ventured too far into the woods. Which is exactly what happens to the twelve year old Mary when she is lost in the winter woods and found many days later with frostbite so severe she is taken to hospital in St. John’s for treatment.

Mary’s treatment is a long ordeal but successful, and it is decided between her parents and the family of Doctor Fitz Henry, who saved her life, that Mary Immaculate will be adopted by the Fitz Henry’s and become their child. For Mrs Fitz Henry, who lost two sons in the Great War, Mary becomes the daughter she never had, and Mary’s mother believes she will be provided with a better life than what is offered in the Cove, though it breaks her heart.


What follows is the story of the Fitz Henry family, the two remaining sons, and Mary who comes of age as the cloistered child of a prestigious family. Cold Pastoral is a story of nature versus nurture, of the conflict between what one is born into and the influence of a completely different upbringing. Mary is very much her own person, delighting all who know her. She is vivacious and wise far beyond her years. She grows into a beautiful and self-possessed young woman. But who is she really – a child of the outport or of the city? A novel of its time Cold Pastoral is a story of good versus evil – rational thought over folklore and fairies. It is moralistic but certainly forward thinking for it’s time.

Margaret Duley is considered Newfoundland’s “first novelist”.  She was born in St. John’s, graduated from the Methodist College in 1910, and went on to attend college in England, as many Newfoundlanders did. After a decade in England she was ordered home at the beginning of the First World War. Her niece, Margot Duley, who is also an author, describes her aunt as"a free thinking, free spirited, outspoken and charismatic personality in a society where this was not encouraged." Back in Newfoundland she became a suffragette and was active in the early days of the feminist movement. She inherited wealth and was able to travel widely and independently. After a long illness she died on March 22, 1968.

And for bird watchers you might like to know that in Newfoundland the song sparrow does not sing Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada - but Good-luck friend fisherman, fisherman, fisherman!




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