Progress on the Story of Great Great Grandma Fenner
I think I might have mentioned somewhere in a previous post that my big project right now is writing the story of Great Great Grandma Maria Elizabeth Dietrich Fenner.
It’s really exciting to experience a story taking shape … in some ways, I’m shaping it and creating it, and in other ways it’s creating itself. It creates itself every time I find another bit of historic information that fills out the story of who she was, who Great Great Grandpa Fenner was, and what the social conditions of the time that influenced them were.
The part that I shape is filling in all those gaps that I will never know. I don’t think I’ll be able to find enough historical facts to write the whole story, so that’s where my imagination comes in.
In the end, the story is going to be an amalgam of fact and fiction. It’s probably going to start as a stage play. Eventually, I want to do it as an e-book — not just the kind where you read words on a Kindle. More like an IPad book where there will be links to related content, interviews, videos, clips from the stage play. What I really want it to be is a blend of documentary and fiction.
It’s a lot of work but I’m loving it. So many great characters and rich settings. To recap, for those of you who don’t know the story, my great great grandmother was one of the earliest residents of 3 of Ontario’s first mental hospitals (Toronto – 1958 – 1861, which was Ontario’s only at the time; then the makeshift asylum at the former Fort Malden in Amherstburg off and on between 1861 and 1870; and then in 1870, she was moved to the newly opened, vast London Insane Asylum where she lived until she died in 1901).
The story is compelling, as is the story of Victorian attitudes towards mental illness in rural Upper Canada.
I’ve found enough about her in the Provincial Archives to get a sense of who she was. Now I’m researching what the social, medical and legal conditions would have been in Rochester Township between 1850 and 1860.
So many of our ideas about madness in the 19th century have come from the description of Mrs. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I see some similarities between Mr. and Mrs. Rochester; and Mr. and Mrs. Fenner. And the Fenners lived in Rochester Township.
So my work is going to be called “Mrs. Rochester of the Bush”.