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Patricia Phenix's Private Demons The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald (2006)

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I found it a captivating read, at times touching, at times salacious, and at times derisive to the point of offense.

Before reading this, the limited impressions I have of John A. Macdonald and Isabella Clark's marriage was that of a tragic romance, after reading Private Demons, the impression I came away with was that it was like something out of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, "Even now, I wake up and I think, is Zelda dead yet? Is she?". Still, I don't believe that Isabella Clark's illness belonged within quotations, a mental condition is still an illness, as is the unfortunate opium addiction she has unfortunately enter into.

Ms. Phenix also rose my eyebrows when she referred to Native Canadians first as Indians, and then as Native Indians, this book was published in 2006. I also find offensive her derision of Riel having legitimacy as a representative of his region, "government", Queen Vic did not approve of Riel, but that time that region was in a limbo between being legally owned by Canada and the Hudson Bay, who was granted the rights to that area in spite of that people already having lived there.

In whole, though it was a captivating read, and I will certainly track down the books listed in her sources, I don't find it very respectable at all. The fangirl part of me was most amused when in her Author's Note at the very beginning, Ms. Phenix advertised that she had "uncovered a series of startlingly passionate love letters from Frank Muttart, the teenaged son of Dr.Ephraim Muttart, Conservative member of Parliament from Nova Scotia, to an elderly John A."...in the book, that account amounted to less than two pages in Chapter X: His Final Race, pages 279-280. No mention was made of where she has uncovered those letters in her source notes for that chapter, who kept those letters and was the last one with the disturbing threat even sent?
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On January 31st, 2009 04:45 am (UTC), smiley_cow commented:
I think you've made me want to read that book. It doesn't sound horribly politically correct (not in the good way either, unfortunately) or completely accurate (well at least not scholarly), but it sounds entertaining nonetheless.

I've got this strange obsession with the Prime Ministers, and I actually have a biography of John A. Macdonald sitting on my bedside table waiting patiently for my classes to end. But John A. Macdonald I think had one of the more interesting lives. Probably second only Mackenzie King, but he's hard to beat :)

Anyways, I've said much more than I meant to, so I'm going to stop typing now. Thanks for the post!
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On January 31st, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC), hohaiyee replied:
Oh I think you'll like this book
It was definitely entertaining, though at times, the author reminded me a bit of one of those "Snape Wives", I credit her diligence in digging up so many delightful details about John A's very interesting his life.

Just take what you read with a grain of salt. As much as I giggle about the Frank Muttart detail, until it got to the part where Frank threatened to harm JAM at least, I'll need to see the sauce. Won't be the first time someone made something up to spice up a historical account.
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On January 31st, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC), smiley_cow replied:
Re: Oh I think you'll like this book
I've already got it on my birthday wishlist :)

You'll have to let us know what you find about Frank Muttart too. It does sound unbelievable, but you never know.
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On January 31st, 2009 09:05 pm (UTC), hohaiyee replied:
Re: Oh I think you'll like this book
So far Google has FAILED me. I have nothing to go on other than his name. If it's true, I find it somewhat curious that John A would have kept the letters, or that Dr.Muttart would have, as incriminating as they are (homosexuality being illegal at the time).

It occurs to me that I MIGHT ask one of those research librarians at Toronto Reference Library...but how would I go about voicing my request? "Oh hai, so I want to look up this Frank Muttart, who's the son of Nova Scotian MP Dr.Muttart...and oh, if he wrote any lewd love letters to John A. Macdonald!"
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On February 1st, 2009 11:04 pm (UTC), smiley_cow replied:
Re: Oh I think you'll like this book
Wow, you live near a real library (tries not to drool). I live a few hours from Winnipeg, but for some strange reason no one ever wants to spend their afternoons there whenever we drive in.

Yeah, I can see that conversation being a little awkward. Maybe you can just ask about any letters he may have sent to Macdonald. Otherwise, does Phenix list her sources?

Anyways, good luck!

Edited at 2009-02-01 11:05 pm (UTC)
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On February 2nd, 2009 01:00 am (UTC), hohaiyee replied:
Re: Oh I think you'll like this book
Of course, it takes me an hour to get to that library, and two in the current weather, but all in all, as a total nerd I am totally willing to tolerate hog town numerous ugliness when we have the world's largest or third largest library system.

Yeah, many I'll just ask her to check if there are any letters Frank Muttart sent to Macdonald within mentioning the context...
On July 25th, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) replied:
Re: Oh I think you'll like this book
Hello there, I'm Patricia Phenix and I can assure you that I was quite struck by the presence of Frank Muttart's letters containing his affection, indeed obsession, with John A. I found these letters on microfilm at Library and Archives Canada. You might also ask Helen Home, an archivist at Kingston Unversity Archives. Her email is Heather Home home@post.queensu.ca. I have worked with her several times in Kington. I believe she may know of the exact location of these letters. In the meantime, If I find them amidst my storage boxes, I'll certainly send them along. By the way, if one goes to the North York Public Library, one can order the Macdonald Microfilm reels, and go through them. You will find the letters there.--Pat Phenix
On July 25th, 2009 08:13 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) replied:
Re: Oh I think you'll like this book
Here is the exact reference to where the Frank Muttart letters may be found at the Kingston Library. All of these letters are from the Sir John A. Macdonald Papers MG26 (Originals at the LAC)
253818 and 253511 are out of the Personal Papers/Correspondence, Vol. 537/538, microfilm C-1809
230497 is out of the Political Papers/General Letters, Vol. 464, microfilm C-1793

You will see the letters that I am not a fabulist.

Patricia Phenix
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On July 29th, 2009 12:17 am (UTC), hohaiyee replied:
Re: Frank Muttart
Hello, Ms Phenix? I've meant to get back to you after I have time to get down to the North York library, is it there? Unfortunately I definitely don't have time to leave Toronto for Kingston.

Mostly, I'm curious as to who kept the letters.
On July 29th, 2009 09:37 am (UTC), (Anonymous) replied:
Re: Frank Muttart
Hi, you can ask the archivist in the Canadiana section on the sixth floor of the NY library to order the reels I've mentioned in an earlier post. They will import them from Kington to the NY library for you to examine. Frank Muttart was eventually institutionalized, as he suffered from mental illness. I was surprised the letters existed and unfortunately have no idea of who kept the letters for posterity. But since they're in the John A collection, I would assume they were part of his estate; why he kept them is strange indeed, especially considering that Agnes had most of HER letters ordered destroyed upon her death.

By the way, I don't know what a snape wife is, but I find it amusing that the media accused me of being too HARD on John A in my book.

As for members of the First Nations. My personal opinion is that the railway destroyed their entire way of life, and that John A. marginalized them egregiously. If I failed to communicate that opinion in my book, then it is truly my fault.

Good luck!
On July 29th, 2009 10:28 am (UTC), (Anonymous) replied:
Re: Frank Muttart
Actually, it also occurs to me that the letters may have been kept for potential evidence in the case of lawsuits, or other legal proceedings. As I'm sure you know, every letter sent to the PM today is recorded and filed; that includes emails, as well as voice messages. I would not be surprised if this was the policy re letters in John A.'s days as well.

One last point. I was opposed to writing an introduction to my book, especially playing up the Muttart letters, but publishers have other ideas, and can apply considerable pressure, believe me, to persuade authors to comply with their wishes. Publishing is a miserable business.

I was particularly opposed to the idea, since until this year a member of the Muttart family worked for the Harper government.

Hope all this helps.

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On January 31st, 2009 05:54 am (UTC), pyroclasticgrub commented:
Was she referring to First Nations as Indians within the context of Status Indians or the Indian Act? If so, then it's appropriate, albeit still mildly offensive.

And, sigh, yes. It's irritating that people still think that Riel was a traitor, but it's not surprising, coming from an author who seems to be fangirling over Sir. John A. It does seem to deserve a read though.
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On January 31st, 2009 03:04 pm (UTC), hohaiyee replied:
Definitely a fangirl
Nope, the Status Indians or the Indian Act wasn't mention at all, I got a very patronizing feeling from her. Particularly that account from the Natives asking John A when the government promised rations would arrive, and John A told them that the government only promised them seeds, because the government expected them to work for their food like white man. From the context of the entire book, it seemed like the natives were portrayed as a Silly People. Dude, it's not unreasonable for the Natives to expect rations instead of just seeds, farming take adjustable and is prone to failure in the beginning, and if we were to do this whole thing all over again, helpful whiteys should have been sent over to help them farm at first, much like how the Natives sent their people over to make sure that Cartier's settlement didn't die of scurvy.

Author was totally a fangirl, to the level of "Snape Wives" even... In her defense, in the context of the time, he sure is fangirlworthy. John A seem like the most adorable PM of them all.

p 14 & 15 (I: Escaping the Past)

John A. made a favourable impression on the female members of the school such as Allison, because he was already a tall, slim, striking boy, with thick black hair that exploded into a glistening halo of matted curls if it was humid or raining. His skin was white, almost translucent, unless he laughed hard, or after a run, when bright red blotches appeared on each cheek. Extraordinarily sparking blue eyes offset a large potato-shaped nose that earned him the nickname "ugly John Macdonald." Even as a pre-adolescent, he was something of a dandy, preferring silk vests and velvet jackets, although in summer he had a propensity to forsake shoes to walk barefoot into class. He loved to read verse, Byron being one of his favourites, but he established his academic excellence with his superior mathematical skills. - Private Demons, Patricia Phenix

Yeah, it is worth a read, clinge-worthy narrative at times aside. There were a lot of tragic stuff, but the important thing is, Confederation didn't crash and burn, and in the end he died in bed surrounded by his love ones.
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On January 31st, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC), pyroclasticgrub replied:
Re: Definitely a fangirl
it seemed like the natives were portrayed as a Silly People

Considering the current political climate in which marginalized and disenfranchised people (people of colour, women, etc...) are being blamed for their own misfortune, this is also not surprising. And it's unfortunate because I'm fairly certain I have an entire library of textbooks that suggests that Aboriginal peoples in the Americas were anything but silly. It's too bad that someone publishing in 2006 hasn't read them.
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