Marion canoeing circa 1907
Marion Nicholson, first year teacher at Sherbrooke High School in 1906-07, is serious about having a career. She is not focused, like so many of her colleagues, on finding a husband or ‘a pupil of one’ as soon possible. Or so she says in her letters home to her mom.
However, Marion’s “strictly private’ pocket diary from 1907 suggests something else: that the young Richmond-born woman is very much torn between her biology and her ambition. In this little brown journal, eighteen year old Marion often comes off like a flighty Scarlett O’Hara type.
January 12: “Went to a card party and dance at Mrs. Griggs’. Had a grand time. Played cards with Mr. Watson, danced with Mr. Avery, had supper with Mr. Davidson and Mr. Sampson came home with me.” Marion even reflects on this coquettish behavior in a February 19th entry: “I believe I think too much of boys and am a flirt.”
Marion’s busy social life centers around skating parties at a Sherbrooke rink where she obliges many potential suitors – and turns down some others.
That Edwardian winter there are two young men fighting over the ultimate privilege to take Marion home from the ice rink, or the snow shoe club or the local youth hangout: Monty and Gordon. It does get complicated.
Here’s the entry for January 28: “I slighted Monty by taking off my skates before his turn. He was quite huffy. I guess I will have to go skating with him tomorrow instead of driving with Gordon.”
For Feb 3: “Went to the theatre with Monty. I did not tell Gordon. Gordon was there by himself. He did not look our way the whole time.”
Eventually, this juggling act becomes too much for Marion. “I have decided who I like best and G is the one. I am tired of having two.”
In the spring of 1907, Gordon takes Marion canoeing. The couple gets caught in a storm on the river and has to take shelter on shore. How romantic! How promising!
By the time June rolls around, Marion is getting anxious for the school year to end. It isn’t her work. She is exhausted from all the late nights and ‘dissipation’, as she refers to it in her diary. She returns to Richmond, 30 miles away, to spend the summer with her Mom and sisters. Here, her social activities center on family friends: the Pepplars, the Clevelands, the McCoys, the Sutherlands and the Crombies. In 1907, Richmond is a town without any eligible young men. They have all moved away to find jobs.
Marion helps support the family, so she isn’t expected to do work around the house. Most days she is bored silly. She often sleeps in until noon. She sometimes spends afternoons taking ‘crazy’ photos with her Kodak.
Marion gets down on herself for this: “I think I am about the laziest person alive. All I have the gumption to do is sit and dream of what I would do if I tried. I have wasted two weeks of my vacation doing nothing, when I could have been practicing music or sewing. I hope I improve.”
In Richmond, Marion can go to church, twice a day if she wants. There are frequent afternoon teas hosted by society matrons, daily walks downtown to the mail to see if Gordon has written her, ice cream socials, croquet, tennis, strawberrying and country drives to places like Windsor and Kingsbury by horse drawn carriage.
Town tycoon Mr. Wales is the only Richmond citizen who has an automobile, but that will soon change.
Yes, it is the summer of 1907 (a year on the cusp of some game-changing technological changes) and the living is far too easy for Miss Marion Annie Nicholson, an energetic young woman who, one day, will lead the PAPT teachers union while supporting four children as a single mom.
According to Marion’s 1907 diary, the most interesting thing to happen to her that summer is when some kittens get into the barn.
Oh, and there’s this entry for July 13th :“Lily Lyper nearly murdered. Great excitement.”
Even sleepy Richmond, Quebec had its share of scandals 100 plus years ago.
Marion, seated bottom and other Sherbrooke High Teachers 1906
Marion and beau in front of Tighsolas, their house in Richmond, Quebec
Afterward: (added March 14)
Marion did not see much more of Gordon, the son of a wealthy Sherbrooke merchant who would be making a very good salary, 3,000 a year, in 1911 at the age of 26, this according to the Census.
Gordon married a friend of Marion’s, it seems. In 1913, Marion married Hugh Blair, the son of a prosperous Three Rivers lumber merchant, although his parents did not favour the marriage because by that time the Nicholsons were broke.
Marion’s in-laws did not attend the October wedding at the Nicholson residence on Dufferin in Richmond. Marion’s marriage contract was a nasty piece of work saying she got nothing but the furniture should the marriage break up FOR ANY REASON.
As it happens, Hugh died in 1927. Marion was left high and dry cut out of the Blair family business, so she rolled up her sleeves and went back to work becoming a Master Teacher and WWII era President of the Provincial Association of Protestant teachers in Quebec.
She never re-married, despite having many suitors, such was her sex appeal even in old age. She died of a heart attack in 1948, a few months after representing the Canadian Teachers Association at an UNICEF education conference in Sevres, France. The Editor of the Montreal Gazette (another admirer apparently) wrote her an editorial page eulogy: “With the death of Marian A N Blair, education in Quebec, indeed the entire nation, has suffered a serious loss. ”
In the end, Marion did have it all, love, work and family. It just came with some major trials and tribulations. Apparently, she never complained.
2 thoughts on “Biology and Ambition”
Ah! I need to know whom she married! Very curious.
She didn’t marry the boy who took her canoeing (I’m not 100 percent sure, but from family letters I read I think he married one of her girlfriends.) She married Hugh Christian Blair from Three Rivers in 1914 after working for 6 years as a teacher in Montreal.. She was widowed in 1927, with four children and she went back to work rather than remarry. She died in 1947 of a heart attack.