Letters Domestic and International
Museums tend to have better collections of wedding dresses than work clothes. Archives are likewise often filled with papers that are unrepresentative of peoples’ lives, but are the kinds of papers people keep. MB Williams’ archival papers suffer somewhat from that affliction: she was more likely to hold onto letters from famous folk such as Marius Barbeau or J.B. Harkin or Jean Chretien then from her own family. But to her family, she was the famous one, or at least the exotic one, so they retained a lovely collection of her letters – 37 of which are here, dating from 1899 to 1972. Whether written in Ottawa or London, England, on cruise ship or hotel stationery, these letters offer a blend of everyday life – toothaches and nylons, friendships and feuds – with social commentary, and the occasional insight into well-known historical figures.
MB’s proximity to Prime Minister RB Bennett and his family dramatically shaped her life in the 1930s, in terms both domestic and professional, not to mention domestic and international. She was a longtime friend and companion of Mary Bird ("Zoe") Herridge, the stepmother of William Duncan Herridge, Bennett’s policy advisor and husband to his beloved sister Mildred. This drew her into the Bennett orbit, which must have made her last days in the Parks Branch more difficult. In a 1930 letter, she tells family of attending the opening of Parliament with Bennett’s sister, watching as the Prime Minister “perspired in gold lace & white satin trousers, cocked hat with the same grim determination with which he raises the tariff & cuts down the Civil Service.” Bennett’s cuts helped end MB’s career, but it may well have been his wealth that then subsidized her travel to Europe with Mary Bird Herridge in late 1931, and their setting up a home base in London, England.
The 16 letters from MB to family between 1931 and 1935 paint a picture of a woman experiencing life on her own terms. Her very first London letter tells of seeing “the Lord Mayor’s Show” from their window at the Palace Strand Hotel, then going to the opening of the British Parliament, and then off to the Armistice Celebration. By her second London letter, she is convinced that whereas one soon tires of New York, “London goes on and on.” She tells of her role in writing, with Herridge, the King's first Empire radio broadcast for Christmas morning, 1932. There are recommendations of authors, descriptions of fashions, updates about health. We hear lots about her dog, Wuffie, and the car, Dolly, that she drives on returns to Ottawa. And there are also the first rumbles of unease in Europe. In 1933, “Hitler … talks like a madman – the same kind of madness that led to war before,” and by 1935, “been listening to Rudyard Kipling who evidently thinks we should stop talking of peace and get ready for war.”
In one letter, we hear that Ottawa mayor and friend Charlotte Whitton visited Williams and Herridge at a seaside hotel, “fresh from an exciting tête-a-tête with H.R.H. the Pr. of Wales. I don’t know whether this will start a new news story – ‘P of W. to marry a Canadian’ – or not.” Considering that Whitton had a longtime female companion, and there were longtime rumours she was homosexual, it is hard to know to what degree, if any, this was written tongue in cheek. Of course, MB had a longtime female companion of her own. In part for that reason, two of the most compelling items here are love letters to and from Canadian journalist and one-time Parks Branch staffer Alfred B Buckley, in which he and MB speak passionately of wasted years and might-have-beens. We learn much about Williams’ life from her correspondence, but we don’t learn everything.
Many of MB’s letters from this period are to her niece, “Rufus” (Ruth). In a Feb 1934 letter, she responds to a question as to whether modern life is bad for women. Rather than answering directly, she tells of having recently read John Cowper Powys’ A Philosophy of Solitude (she gets the name wrong). She talks of the differences between extroverts who experience things outside themselves and introverts who experience within – and that everyone who has experienced both knows the inner seems somehow more real. Williams in the early ‘30s was still very active, but more so than in previous decades she was watching the world go by – and seemed at peace with that. Her answer to Rufus seems to be that modern life gives women some opportunities to cultivate the inner self. She then tells Rufus to get Powys’ book and see what she thinks for herself.