Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
Not unlike celebrated Canadian author Genevieve Graham, Maxanne Ezer chooses to bring little know history to life. It was when she was appointed to the Board of the Historical Homes of Toronto, that Ezer became intrigued with Jemima Howard, wife of architect John Howard, who donated their country estate to the city of Toronto as High Park.
Who was Jemima and what part did she play in this endowment? A long journey of discovery has yielded this impeccably researched and richly imagined story. Ezer draws a sensitive portrayal, breathing life into Jemima, quite literally giving her voice. It reads like a memoir as Jemima narrates her life, starting with working alongside her surveyor father in London England where she meets John. Being taken with his optimism, this upper-middle-class London lady embraces his dreams; spending two long months at sea to arrive at an outpost known as “Muddy York” with dusty dirt roads in summer, muddy in spring and fall. She survives a brutally frigid winter in their attic garret getting chill blains in her fingers until John becomes established and they move to a better situation.
Fluid prose, attention to detail, fascinating characters, most of whom are real historical characters add to the relevance and authenticity. Fictional Jennie Gray, the innkeeper’s daughter and Jemima’s first friend, gives our heroine a tour of downtown York (Toronto) along with the reader. This is especially appealing if you live in Toronto or have visited and recognize street names and buildings e.g. Upper Canada College.
We are privy to Jemima’s perseverance, quiet strength and great love for her ambitious husband. We glean insight into the lives of women at this time in the early history of Canada. Working alongside her husband, she is ahead of her time.
The build-up to Mackenzie’s failed Rebellion of 1837 highlights the tension the townspeople experienced. We discover Upper Canada College (a privileged boys’ school) where Howard taught and King’s College, one of the first colleges to form the renowned University of Toronto. I’m tempted to visit Colborne Lodge Museum in High Park their dream home and vast estate – a long, cold carriage ride from his downtown office - now the delight of thousands in cherry blossom time.
Ezer creates sympathy for this woman longing for a child, struggling with miscarriage and fertility issues. Although she nurtures her nieces and nephew; Jemima can never fill the emptiness. Was childlessness the reason Howard took Mary Williams as his mistress, and had three children with her? Ezer describes one particularly poignant scene when Jemima encounters John’s son, George, on the street. He is the spitting image of her husband. Did the ongoing affair, coupled with social isolation living far from her friends on the remote estate lead to depression and eventual dementia? Jemima was referred to as the “mad woman in the attic”. Ironically, Howard designed The Asylum on 999 Queen Street West, airy and modern for its day; yet never had his wife admitted, providing private nursing care in an attic room.
Ezer arranges chapters chronologically depicting the growth of Toronto alongside the life of our heroine. Some chapters end with moving fictional journal entries in italics as we are privy to Jemima’s thoughts and fears. Aware she is fading and forgetting, she records her thoughts. In this heart-breaking entry; she feels worthless:
I’m alone here at the top of the house in a solitary room. No one comes here. For years,until they made a space for me, a solitary bed, an old sofa a scratched table-it was only a space where we discarded things for which we no longer had any use. (p205)
With John beside her sketching, we bid adieu to Jemima.
Jemima’s Legacy is published by Stone's Throw Publications.