For Elise: Unveiling the Forgotten Woman on the Criddle Homestead
Elise Harrer, a well-educated, talented artist, and musical young woman in Heidelberg, became engaged in 1863 to a young English music student. His desperate mother had sent her only son, 16 year old Percy Criddle abroad in 1861.He was supposed to study music and took piano from a teacher at his main street studio in Heidelberg. Soon in trouble, his young companion was recalled to London where he studied law at Oxford. Percy promised to reform and remained in Heidelberg until he won Elise’s love and promise to marry. Shortly after the engagement Percy returned to his mother’s home in Addelstone, near London. Occasionally, on the pretense of obtaining German instruments ordered by his cousin Henry in Siam, Percy visited his fiancée. In September, 1866, having received his grandmother’s legacy, Percy, now a gentleman of means, took a health break to Heidelberg. Following that six week stay Elise found herself with child and when Percy returned at Christmas the family expected them to marry. German authorities required a groom to have his parent’s permission, a profession, a position with the employer’s signature, and proof he had a home for a family. Not able to satisfy the requirements, Percy promised to marry Elise in London and took her there in January of 1866. Her family thought they had married and never learned otherwise.
The couple had five children before Percy married Alice Nicol in 1874. Both women gave birth to his sons the following spring. By 1878 Percy’s business failed, and three years later his mother died. Percy faced bankruptcy without his mother’s support from the sale of her paintings. Fortunately for him, his wife’s brother died leaving her 1500 pounds. Percy decided to use the legacy to set himself up as a gentleman farmer in the British colony of Manitoba. Alice, however, had always had servants to care for her and her children, and wisely refused to go without a servant which apparently delayed their departure several months. Finally in July, Percy, desperate to get away, sought Elise Criddle and won her consent to fulfill Alice’s requirement. Before the two Criddle families boarded the ship, however, Elise and her five children had their name changed to Vane, and as servants, travelled below deck in steerage.
For Elise was written from the perspective of Elise, the betrayed woman, the author’s great-grandmother. It tells of Elise’s remarkable contribution, 1882-1903, to the English family’s survival on Percy Criddle’s homestead south of Shilo, Manitoba.
Because the Vanes did the work, Alice and her children, especially her firstborn, Norman, were able to enjoy an upper class lifestyle. Norman began using his grandmother’s paints to capture the simple beauty of prairie plants. Elise, with her artistic training, evident on the book’s cover, must surely have guided Norman as his skill developed. His paintings opened a path for his escape from the farm, and step by step, he became a well known naturalist, and the first Dominion of Canada entomologist.
Self-published books are not reviewed by mainstream media, but fortunately For Elise has many enthusiastic readers who advertise the story. With 2700 copies sold, my father’s grandmother is no longer forgotten. Although her talents went unrecognized, and she was cruelly cheated of her hopes for herself and her children, her sacrificial loving service is now inspiring, not only her descendants, but countless readers. This seemingly simple book actually contains a multi-layered, complex story that touches many aspects of our pioneering history and raises questions not easily answered.
For Elise was awarded the Margaret McWilliams Award in local history by The Manitoba Historical Society. The book was also a finalist in the 2016, inaugural Whistler Independent Book Award for non-fiction.