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d. 18 June 1886 at Hamilton, Canada West


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Original title:  Jean N. McIlwraith. Image from W.T. Allison, "Heavier Canadian Books of 1912," Canadian Courier 13.1 (1912): 10.

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McILWRAITH, JEAN NEWTON, author, journalist, and editor, b. 29 Dec. 1858 in Hamilton, Upper Canada, daughter of Thomas McIlwraith*, a coal merchant and naturalist, and Mary Park; d. unmarried 17 Nov. 1938 in Burlington, Ont.

Jean McIlwraith, also known as Jane to her family, grew up in Cairnbrae, a large house that overlooked their father’s dock on Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour) on Lake Ontario. She was the second of four daughters (one died in infancy) and had four brothers. Their father, Thomas McIlwraith, would become a published author in 1886 with his acclaimed Birds of Ontario, and the children were encouraged to record their impressions in journals. They reported on news events such as exhibitions at Hamilton’s Crystal Palace and the assassination of politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee*. The busy traffic on the lake, their travels through nearby canals and locks, their vigorous outdoor sports, and their careful observations of animals and plants were all described in detail according to their father’s instructions. In her thirties, McIlwraith reminisced about summer mornings during which she and her siblings made “many a rough scramble along the side of our famous Hamilton Mountain, at which envious Torontonians jeer.” The children wrote compositions for juvenile magazines, such as Our Young Folks, based on their expeditions, and McIlwraith later honed her literary skills by participating in the activities of the Wesleyan Ladies’ College Alumnae Association and writing for the Portfolio, the magazine of the college’s literary society. In an autobiographical article published in the Daily Mail and Empire in 1901, she explained fondly that keeping the diary from which these stories were derived helped “open our eyes the wider when off on an outing, and in learning to love the country and the open air we stored up a reserve fund of health and energy sufficient to carry through whatever was undertaken in later life.”

The family hailed from Ayrshire and maintained close connections to Scotland. As a matter of course, they assisted newly arrived Scottish immigrants and expected similar help when they travelled in North America or the United Kingdom; the McIlwraiths frequently crossed the Atlantic for family reasons, business, or education. This transnational network was impressive: for example, William Stone Booth, a literary adviser at the Houghton Mifflin Company in New York, when proposing that one of McIlwraith’s manuscripts be rejected, urged that she be treated gently because she was a friend of his brother Edward Abraham, a prominent businessman, and William Allan Neilson, a well-known academic.

After attending local public schools and the Wesleyan Female College (Wesleyan Ladies’ College after 1882) in Hamilton, McIlwraith taught working-class boys in her parents’ house. She then travelled repeatedly to Europe between the early 1880s and the mid 1890s, a period that included an influential stay with an aunt in Glasgow. There she was introduced to Queen Margaret College, a women’s college associated with the city’s university, from which she would take correspondence classes; the curriculum included works by Milton, the Romantic poets, and authors such as George Meredith. Her dream occupation was that of critic. “I prefer literary criticism so strongly,” she explained to journalist Faith Fenton [Freeman] in a Canadian Home Journal article reproduced in the Globe (1895), “that, if I could find a market for this line of literary work, I should never pen another line of fiction.”

During her European travels, and before turning to writing and editing as her profession, McIlwraith attended London’s National Training School for Cookery. At the time, domestic or household science was being developed as a means of improving women’s education in Europe and North America [see Adelaide Sophia Hunter*], and the school was a pioneering institution in the field. While in London, McIlwraith also found time to study singing with a member of the Royal Academy of Music. She was not impressed by her professor, who had the unlikely name of William Shakespeare and whom she thinly disguised as “Francis Bacon” in the story “A singing-student in London,” published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1894. Her depiction of his teaching methods roused Shakespeare’s ire, the first of several instances when her injudicious use of autobiographical material received disapproval within her family and beyond. The chief character, McIlwraith explained to Fenton, “was instantly recognized as that of a celebrated singing master in London, and the sketch raised a storm of criticism that fairly frightened me. I was awfully blue about it at first, and didn’t venture to touch my pen again for some time; but I’ve gotten over it now.”

After returning home from her travels in Europe to care for her invalid mother (who suffered a debilitating stroke in 1897), McIlwraith continued to write steadily, placing stories and essays in Canadian, American, and British magazines. Several were published under the pseudonym Jean Forsyth, the nom de plume she used for her first novel, The making of Mary; later work appeared under her own name. The mid 1890s were productive, a period in which she completed a libretto for the comic opera Ptarmigan by composer John Edmund Paul Aldous. The temple of fame, a play first performed in 1892, found great success; it travelled through Ontario in the late 1890s and, after revisions that included allusions to recent events, in the early 1900s. Books for the juvenile market about Canada and the writers Shakespeare and Longfellow soon followed, as well as an acclaimed biography of Sir Frederick Haldimand* for George Nathaniel Morang’s Makers of Canada series.

Family was important to McIlwraith. Most of her siblings married, including her sister Helen Adair, who wed John Henderson Holt, the principal business partner of George Richard Renfrew*, and McIlwraith was devoted to her nephews and nieces. After her mother died, McIlwraith, who remained unmarried, reminded herself “How to be happy though single.” The piece, published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1902, noted that although she did not have “the constant, daily, loving sympathy” of a husband, she was also spared marriage with “a very ordinary man, who could not in the least sympathize with my finer tastes or higher aspirations.” With her characteristic wit she reminded her readers that “the minds of the masters in literature, art, and music are not barred against old maids.” More poignant lines, such as “I am first with nobody; it will be a crowning grief to nobody when my death occurs,” suggest that McIlwraith felt completely de trop at Cairnbrae without her mother; she left Hamilton for New York that same year.

McIlwraith’s experience and talents soon led to work in publishing. In the diary entries about her first impressions of New York, she described systematically applying to all the major publishers in the city. The journal demonstrates an aptitude for precise and amusing observations of the contemporary urban scene. After meeting Henry Wysham Lanier of Doubleday, Page and Company (“a bit of a masher with … a well developed funny bone”), she left a note of introduction for publisher Walter Hines Page and asked Lanier to tell him that “though I looked large, I could be compressed into a very small hole, like an eider down quilt.” McIlwraith carried with her a sheaf of introductions from people such as William McLennan*, her co-author of The span o’ life, and William Belmont Parker of Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of another of her novels, The curious career of Roderick Campbell. While searching for work, she may have taught in the city’s Italian settlement (her novel about the experience remains unpublished) before joining Dodd, Mead and Company for a brief period. The publisher was preparing the New international encyclopaedia, and McIlwraith prevented the article on Canadian author James De Mille* from being omitted.

Hired by Doubleday in 1903, McIlwraith began as an editor and then became a reader, a position she would occupy until her retirement around the end of the war. When the company moved its headquarters to Garden City in 1910, McIlwraith followed, taking up residence in one of the houses built for employees on the publisher’s estate. There she began to collect antique furniture. It would become an enduring passion, and she quipped to Saturday Night magazine’s Gertrude Edwina Seton Pringle [Thompson*] that “no man I ever loved, no book I ever wrote, gave me the joy that acquiring old furniture did.”

Jean McIlwraith was respected and at times feared as a Doubleday reader. Walter Page, a partner in the firm, a publisher and editor of news magazines, and a future ambassador to the Court of St James’s, routinely included her in discussions. She appeared in an article in the New York Times (16 Feb. 1913) as the “cruel lady” who had rejected the manuscript of John Cave by William Budd Trites. According to Trites, she was supercilious: “I have no recollection whatever of you and your book. Publishing houses aim at supplying the public demands. They lay no claim to being benevolent institutions. Please remember that.” He published the novel himself.

Whatever Trites’s misgivings, they were not shared by Walter Page or his wife, Willia Alice, whose family was from Scotland, and they befriended McIlwraith after her arrival at the firm. As she later explained to Pringle, McIlwraith was grateful to her mother, Mary, for having “loaded” her up with Scottish yarns that were “highly appreciated in the Pages’ and other circles.” She was proud of having published in his Atlantic Monthly and the World’s Work. After his premature death in 1918, she and two other Canadians, Ernest Thompson Seton* and Sir Horatio Gilbert George Parker, provided tributes for editor Burton Jesse Hendrick’s two volumes about Page, but Hendrick decided against using their contributions.

During her years in the United States, McIlwraith’s literary network included expatriate Canadian friends Sara Jeannette Duncan* in India as well as Agnes Christina Laut in New York City and Louise Duffield Cummings*, a mathematician at Vassar College; it expanded to encompass contemporary American writers such as Christopher Morley, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, Charles Gilman Smith Norris, and Isaac Frederick Marcosson, and also English author Rudyard Kipling and his wife, Caroline Starr. In addition to cultivating these relationships, McIlwraith continued to write. Some of her work was published, such as a report on the tercentenary of Quebec City in 1908 [see Albert Henry George Grey*], by the World’s Work. Other material never saw print. One novel, “Casual Camilla,” was based on observations she collected from the publishing world. Her intention was to release it after she left Doubleday, but friends dissuaded her from pursuing the project, pointing out that the manuscript failed to capture the speech and mores of a modern working girl. They also advised that her Canadian criticism of the American failure to join the First World War before 1917 was ungracious and would not sit well with readers in the United States.

It is for the historical novel that McIlwraith remains best remembered. The span o’ life, her collaboration with McLennan set in 18th-century Quebec City, appeared in 1899. Other notable titles included A Diana of Quebec; The little admiral, released in 1924, which won $500 in the Canadian Contest for Juvenile Fiction, held by the publishing house Hodder and Stoughton and the Musson Book Company in the previous year; and Kinsmen at war. Her historical fiction was thoroughly researched; The curious career of Roderick Campbell was based on the memoirs of the Chevalier de Johnstone [James Johnstone*]. McIlwraith’s books showcase characters such as Roman Catholic and French-speaking Jacobite Scots, subjects not easily captured by Canadian history’s traditional categories of the English and the French. Her work often draws sympathetic and witty attention to complex transnational perspectives like that of the Swiss-born governor of Quebec, Sir Frederick Haldimand, and her writing is characterized by close attention to Canadian diversity as it was understood at that time.

McIlwraith paved the way in the publishing world for her niece Dorothy Stevens McIlwraith*, who embarked on her own editorial career at Doubleday, followed by magazine publication; she eventually headed the science-fiction periodical Weird Tales (New York). Despite their successful careers in the United States, both women were fiercely loyal British imperialists and quick to criticize aspects of their adopted country. In a letter of 30 June 1902 to the American writer Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, Jean McIlwraith referred to Boston as an “intellectual snob-centre,” one “travelling on its past reputation” that did not impress anyone who had lived in London. The chief reason for her dislike of the city was “all the revolutionary relics” on display that irritated the imperialist “Britisher” in her.

After the end of the war, McIlwraith retired to Burlington following a period of travel in Europe and the United States. She set up house with her widowed brother Thomas Forsyth, cultivated her garden, and began a new collection of antique silver and furniture, having sold most of her previous collection when she returned to Canada. Her extended travels included attending her nephew Thomas Forsyth McIlwraith*’s graduation in anthropology from the University of Cambridge in 1921. She edited his first conference paper, “Egyptian influence on African death-rites.” Other editorial projects were hampered by worsening health. Her former athleticism had escaped her and her once-sharp mind declined rapidly. She died in 1938. Jean McIlwraith is buried with her parents, a sister, and a brother in Hamilton.

Eva-Marie Kröller

The author’s Writing the empire: the McIlwraiths, 1853–1948 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 2021), deals extensively with Jean Newton McIlwraith’s life, family, and career. The author wishes to acknowledge the generous assistance of T. F. McIlwraith of Mississauga, Ont., Connie Brian, and her late parents, Mary Brian (McIlwraith) and Michael Brian.

Any evaluation of Jean McIlwraith’s writing must consider her ten books: The making of Mary (New York, 1895); A book about Shakespeare: written for young people (London and Edinburgh, 1898); Canada (Toronto, 1899); The span o’ life: a tale of Louisbourg & Quebec (New York and Toronto, 1899), with William McLennan as co-author; A book about Longfellow (London and Edinburgh, 1900); The curious career of Roderick Campbell (Boston and New York, 1901); Sir Frederick Haldimand (1904), part of the Makers of Canada … series (12v., Toronto, 1903–8); A Diana of Quebec (Toronto, 1912); The little admiral (London, [1924]); and Kinsmen at war (Ottawa, 1927). She also authored many articles and stories. These include her teenage writing as “Jeannie Newton” for children’s magazines such as Our Young Folks (Boston) and Kind Words for Boys and Girls (London). For later magazine publications, she used the pseudonym “Jean Forsyth” or her own name, “Jean N. McIlwraith.” Her first story as an adult writer, published under Jean Forsyth, was “In the earthquake region,” Harper’s Bazaar (New York), 23 (1890): 730–31, indicating a life-long interest in Quebec. In 1895 she was the librettist for the opera Ptarmigan, or a Canadian carnival (Hamilton, Ont.), and she also wrote two unpublished plays: “The days of the year, or the masque of the months” and “The temple of fame: spectacular play,” which premiered in 1891 and 1892 in Hamilton.

Several publications reflect McIlwraith’s interest in literary criticism provoked by her studies at Queen Margaret College, Glasgow, including “A dialogue in Hades: Omar Khayyám and Walt Whitman,” Atlantic Monthly (Boston), 89 (January–June 1902): 808–12. Autobiographical experience, including travel and sports, is captured in a series of stories and articles. These include: “A singing-student in London,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (New York), 88 (December 1893–May 1894): 385–91; “On Georgian Bay,” Cornhill Magazine (London), new ser., 9 (July–December 1900): 179–95; “How to be happy though single,” Harper’s Bazaar, 36 (1902): 454–55; “Household budgets abroad,” Cornhill Magazine, new ser., 17 (July–December 1904): 806–21; “Winter sports, old and new,” Country Life in America (New York), 9 (November 1905–April 1906): 175–80; “Re-enacting 300 years of Quebec’s history,” World’s Work (New York), 16 (May–October 1908): 10371–73; “The assimilation of Christina,” Canadian Magazine, 41 (May–October 1913): 607–14; and “Robbing the Clydesdales,” Canadian Magazine, 62 (November 1923–April 1924): 373–81.

Correspondence with William McLennan regarding their jointly authored novel, The span o’ life …, is held at Rare Books and Special Coll., Univ. of B.C. Library (Vancouver), RBSC-ARC-1717 (McLennan family fonds), 1896?–97, William McLennan writing, research, and publications, corr. with J. N. McIlwraith. Correspondence with Fannie Hardy Eckstorm can be found at the Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Coll., Univ. of Maine (Orono), SpC MS 0158 (Fannie Hardy Eckstorm papers), 1901?–2, ser.1, subser.1, box 1, folder 65 (incoming corr., McIlwraith, Jean Newton). Correspondence with Elizabeth Smith Shortt is located at the Special Coll. & Arch., Univ. of Waterloo Library (Ont.), WA 10 (Elizabeth Smith Shortt fonds), ser.3, file 280. The letters of McIlwraith’s nephew Thomas F. McIlwraith (1899–1964) written during and after the First World War (1917–21) are held by the Canadian War Museum (CWMMCG ARCH DOCSMANU 58A 1 300.1-11). Individual letters by and items concerning Jean McIlwraith are in several other Canadian, British, and American archival collections. T. F. McIlwraith’s letters from Cambridge (1919–22) are held in the Thomas Forsyth McIlwraith fonds at UTARMS. The largest collection of McIlwraith’s papers, including correspondence, a diary, scripts, drafts, and unpublished manuscripts, is privately held. The author’s research papers related to Jean McIlwraith have been transferred to the Eva-Marie Kröller fonds at the Univ. of B.C. Arch.

Andrew McIlwraith’s More of a man: diaries of a Scottish craftsman in mid-nineteenth-century North America, ed. A. C. Holman and R. B. Kristofferson (Toronto and Buffalo, 2013), contains references to Jean McIlwraith (Janey) as a young child, and T. F. McIlwraith’s At home with the Bella Coola Indians: T. F. McIlwraith’s field letters, 1922–4, ed. John Barker and Douglas Cole (Vancouver and Toronto, 2003), has information about her life after she returned from New York. For critical readings, see: DHB, vol.3; Dictionary of literary biography (375v. to date, Detroit, 1978–    ), 92 (Canadian writers, 1890–1920, ed. W. H. New, 1990), 239–42; the introduction to “‘The assimilation of Christina,’” in New women: short stories by Canadian women, 1900–1920, ed. Sandra Campbell and Lorraine McMullen (Ottawa and Paris, 1991), 291–92; E.‑M. Kröller, “Jacobites in Canadian literature,” Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 94 (autumn 1982): 169–72; and Wendy Ratkowski Huyck’s two works, “Adapting through compromise: Jean Newton McIlwraith and her major novels” (ma thesis, Univ. of Guelph, Ont., 1989), and “Jean McIlwraith and The little admiral,” Canadian Children’s Literature (Guelph), 59 (1990): 17–22.

Globe, 5 Oct. 1895. Liberal (Richmond Hill, Ont.), 22 March 1923. Daily Mail and Empire, 6 April, 29 June 1901. “Jean McIlwraith, Canadian authoress,” Saturday Night, 30 Jan. 1926: 21–23, 28. “Jean Newton McIlwraith (1858–1938),” in Canada’s early women writers: cwrc.ca/islandora/object/ceww%3A60ea580e-2634-4e45-a9ae-afd2d8659e2f (consulted 15 Feb. 2022). T. F. McIlwraith, “Egyptian influence on African death-rites” (Edinburgh, 1921; paper delivered at the eighty-ninth meeting of the British Assoc. for the Advancement of Science; ms held by UTARMS). Thomas McIlwraith, Birds of Ontario, being a list of birds observed in the province … (Hamilton, 1886; 2nd rev. ed., Toronto, 1894). New international encyclopaedia, ed. D. C. Gilman et al. (20v., New York, 1903–5). W. B. Trites, John Cave (London, 1909). A. E. Wilson, “Beloved friend,” Saturday Night, 17 Dec. 1938: 28.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Eva-Marie Kröller, “McILWRAITH, JEAN NEWTON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcilwraith_jean_newton_16E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcilwraith_jean_newton_16E.html
Author of Article:   Eva-Marie Kröller
Title of Article:   McILWRAITH, JEAN NEWTON
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2023
Year of revision:   2023
Access Date:   June 18, 2024