Retired entomologist Charles Bird, was born on the Criddle Homestead when his father Dr. Ralph Bird worked for Norman Criddle. Charles appreciated my book’s account of Norman Criddle’s early life so much he passed the book on to Greg Pohl. Greg then read the book and wrote this review to alert other entomologists of the book, For Elise, and it’s documented account of Norman’s early life. It is very worthwhile to read the carefully thought out insights of a scientist.
For Elise – Unveiling the Forgotten Woman of the Criddle Homestead
Oriole A. Vane Veldhuis. 2012, published by the author. 495pp.
ISBN 978-1-896150-72-7. $29.95.
Most entomologists in western Canada who have at least a passing interest in history, will eventually become acquainted with the legacy of Norman Criddle and the Criddle/Vane family of southern Manitoba. Norman came to Canada from England as a seven year old boy, as part of a rather complicated family. Norman’s father, Percy Criddle, emigrated with his wife (Alice Criddle) and their four children, and his former common-law wife (Elise Vane) and their five children, to homestead southeast of Brandon in 1882. While enduring the hardships and challenges of prairie life, they created a small bastion of British culture on the newly tilled prairie, setting up tennis courts and a golf course, hosting concerts and dances, and making meteorological, astronomical and biological observations in the spirit of the Victorian England they had left far behind. Norman’s early interest in insects and pest control blossomed into an entomological career; he came to the attention of the entomologist Dr James Fletcher, and after some contracts and part-time work he was appointed in 1913 as the first Dominion Entomologist in western Canada. Norman Criddle left a legacy of research on crop entomology, and a vast collection of specimens from which new species continue to be described.
Until recently, most of the information available to us was derived from the diary of Percy Criddle. Percy, an unsuccessful businessman in England, wasn’t much of a farmer, but believed he could make money publishing an account of his homesteading life. To this end he faithfully kept a diary. His book plans didn’t come to fruition in his lifetime, but long after his death, his daughter Alma Criddle published in 1973 Criddle-de-diddle-ensis, a detailed account of their life on the Manitoba prairie. In that book, the complicated marital triangle is presented as an English gentleman, his wife, and the “other woman”, all living in relative harmony as they battle the elements and carve a piece of civilization out of their adopted homeland. It deals primarily with the Criddle side of the family, without many details about Elise Vane.
Thus, the popular interpretation of the Criddle/Vane history is that Percy set up his wife and mistress on adjacent homesteads, and we imagined him spending his time happily sauntering between the two. Oriole Vane Veldhuis presents here a rather different take on the family history. It’s clear from her work that the story is less salacious, and much more complicated and heartbreaking than that. A descendant of the Vane side of the family, her book is the result of a 10-year quest to learn more about her great-grandmother, the “forgotten woman of the Criddle homestead”. Besides the well-known diaries of her great grandfather, she uncovered many old letters sent to and from the Manitoba homestead, and delved into archives in Canada and elsewhere, to piece together an alternative history of the family.
For Elise is billed as a work of creative non-fiction. Rather than just presenting the raw facts, Veldhuis has fleshed them out with hypothetical details, dialogue and thoughts of the main characters. Thus, a rich and compelling story is told rather than a dry listing of events and dates. This may not fit the expectations for the reader expecting a purely conventional history book, but it makes for a much more engaging and vivid read. To support the creative additions of details, it is liberally sprinkled with quotes from diaries and letters, and contains extensive footnotes indicating information sources. Even such things as details about the weather are supported by sources listed in the footnotes.
Veldhuis has done a remarkable job of bringing the story to life, with a minimum of assumptions on the important historical details. However, there are still places where unknowable details have been filled in with reasonable conjecture. The early years in Europe were not well documented, so many questions remain. How did it come to be that Percy had six children with Elise, yet never felt obliged to marry her? Before they emigrated, did Percy’s legal wife Alice know about Elise and their children? Did Elise know about Alice and her children? There are no direct answers, but there are some clues here. It is clear that for several years Elise was Percy’s common-law wife, and at least some of their children have the name Criddle on their birth certificates. They were engaged in 1863 but never married, probably because at the time of their engagement Percy was under the age of 25 and did not have his parents’ consent. Their last child together, Cecil, was born seven months after Percy and Alice were married, and just one month before Percy and Alice’s first child Norman was born. Clearly, Percy had become enamoured with a new woman, but it appears that he still felt some obligation to his existing family and he maintained contact with them.
Also largely undocumented are the circumstances around Elise agreeing to come to Canada with Percy. Veldhuis fills in the gaps here with a plausible sequence of events, supported as much as possible by old documents. She theorises that on very short notice, Percy announced to Elise that he was moving to Canada with his new family, and that he made an offer for Elise to join them in Canada as their housekeeper. Veldhuis does an excellent job of fleshing out the likely thoughts and reactions of Elise and her family to their situation, while not quite presuming exactly what had transpired. While it is frustrating not to know the answers to some of the questions posed above, Veldhuis is careful not to fabricate any of those unknowable details. Although we don’t know exactly how it was decided, it is clear that Elise did indeed become the servant, beginning with the voyage over. Elise and her children travelled in steerage, as was customary for servants. Meanwhile, Percy, Alice and their children travelled second class, like proper English folk. Percy wrote in his diary that he “visited the emigrant quarters – horrified – smell enough to poison a rat – could only stand them a few moments at a time and then rush on deck for sweet air – or lie down sick.”
We’ll never know if Elise knew what she was getting into when she agreed to emigrate to Canada. She probably felt she didn’t have much choice – either a highly uncertain future, completely abandoned by the father of her children, or the certain drudgery and humiliation of becoming his housekeeper. At least the latter held the promise of a bit of support from Percy, and a future of opportunity for her children.
After the journey to Canada and the early challenges of setting up a viable homestead, the book traces through events such as Elise’s difficulties attempting to register a homestead in her own name, various interactions in the community, and her children growing up, getting married and taking steps to start independent lives. There are also details of some difficulties when paperwork arrived informing her of an inheritance to “Elise Criddle”, who of course did not legally exist in Canada.
It’s abundantly clear that Elise’s life at Aweme was very hard, and that Percy gave her very little freedom. He was regularly hosting choir practices and parties, while she was expected to put together food for the guests from their meagre resources. While he was off socializing and getting involved in local politics, she (and to some extent Alice) remained isolated on the farm. He didn’t even permit Elise to attend the wedding of her daughter. Although Percy assisted Elise with her homestead application, it involved the deception that she was a widow, and he essentially rolled her land into the family farm.
Percy never openly admitted that the Vane children were his. From the time they travelled to Canada, all documents portrayed Elise as a widow, with her children who were of no relation to Percy. Even the name Vane was borrowed, apparently from a family near Percy’s boyhood home. According to Vane family lore, on the day they left England, the children were shocked that their name had become “Vane” and that they had to refer to their papa as “Mr. Criddle”. He even stated in his will that they were of no relation to him. Meanwhile, Elise perpetuated a very different lie in her letters to relatives back home, always intimating that she and Percy were living as husband and wife, with no mention of the existence of Alice and her family.
The story comes to an end with the death of Elise, a worn-out woman at the age of 62, in 1903. A postlude provides information on her descendants in the following years, and an outline of Veldhuis’ sources and some thoughts on the writing process. Several appendices provide a family tree, maps, and copies of some important documents such as homestead applications and wills. The forthcoming third edition of the book will also include an index.
This book is clearly a labour of love that has been meticulously researched. I found it to be thoroughly captivating through almost all of its 495 pages. The text is liberally sprinkled with photographs and the occasional line drawing. Veldhuis’ motivation to “set the story straight” interferes very little with the telling of a very interesting life story. It is well written and very professionally put together, and has been so well received that it is going into a third printing shortly.
One potential criticism is that the book is a bit hard on Percy, and that perhaps it applies 21st century morality to a man of the 19th century. However, Percy was pompous and dictatorial by any century’s standards. His diary reveals a scathing opinion of most of those around him, and his behavior was so poor in so many instances, that he begs criticism. Where Criddle-de-diddle-ensis was overly deferential to him, For Elise provides a welcome counterpoint, to show us the other side of this man. I highly recommend that anyone interested in the Criddle/Vane story read both books. Criddle-de-diddle-ensis focuses on the Criddles, and contains many details about Norman’s early entomological career. For Elise is about Elise, and her major role in this most interesting family.
Oriole Vane Veldhuis is the great grand-daughter of Percy Criddle and Elise Harrer Vane. She grew up in rural Manitoba, and is a retired school teacher and minister.
For Elise is available at several local book stores in Manitoba, and can be ordered online from McNally Robinson booksellers, at:
Natural Resources Canada, Edmonton