June 12, 2012 by Vicki
Jane Robinson’s Parrot Pie for Breakfast: an Anthology of Women Pioneers is a fantastic read for anyone interested in the history of women. Jane Robinson has compiled excerpts from a wide variety of women pioneers over period of 100 years of immigration. They left their homes in eitherBritain orIreland and travelled to another country to begin a new life for themselves and their families. They travelled to the heat ofAfrica and the freezing cold ofNorthern Canada. Society told them that they had to smile and support their husbands while they lost their homes and family, watched their children die, and watched themselves triumph or fail in this new land.
Parrot Pie for Breakfast begins and ends with the government issued propaganda regarding the process of immigrating to a new colony. Both describe the perfect “Jenny”, which is the government’s name for a female colonialist. A Jenny works hard but always has a smile for her husband and a delicious meal to serve him. The reality women found was that they did work hard but that did not guarantee them enough food for their family. Also, in many places, women did not have a role to play. The men had their work, their clubs, and their staff to look after them. Consequently, a common complaint among the higher classes was boredom and ennui.
The working classes, of course, had other complaints. On board ship, they were given barely enough room to move and no real ventilation was available for them. Captains made it a habit to smoke out the “steerage” on clear days to force them out onto deck. Meanwhile, they were fighting various diseases from lack of clean air and nutrition. Some of the figures about the number of survivors versus the number of colonialists are absolutely staggering. Yet, they kept coming for the hope of a better world for both themselves and their children dragged them onward.
Depending on where they were bound and when they left, their chance of success varied. Many of the later entries speak of the high wages offered to British servants. A young woman could come over and make a much higher wage than what was available at home. Several entries also commented on the availability of husbands. A common complaint of the upper class was every time they brought a girl over fromBritain, she would be married within six months. However, earlier entries explore the dangers and loneliness of being alone in virgin territory. Many women broke their hearts and bodies trying to build a life.
I enjoyed reading Parrot Pie for Breakfast however, I did have some complaints. My biggest complaint stemmed from the organization of the anthology. Jane Robinson organized her book according to themes such as “Taking Leave” and “Settling In”. The themes worked very well but there was no allowance for the differences in geography. She would have an excerpt fromNorthern Ontario next to an excerpt fromIndia. The differences between the two locations occasionally confused me. It didn’t help that the labels identifying the author and title were placed at the end of each excerpt. For the same reasons, I would have appreciated having the excerpts in a chronological order within each theme.
Personally, I think I would have enjoyed being one of the early pioneers to Northern Ontario. I would not have wanted to do so with children, however, the dangers were just too great. Would you have enjoyed being a pioneer? If you were, where would you have wanted to go: Canada, India, Egyptor Africa? Please let me know in the comments below or just fill out the poll. If there is a particular issue you would like me to address, please let me know and I will discuss it in Friday’s post. Next Tuesday, I will be reviewing another historical work, Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s Boudica Britannia. It explores the history of Queen Boudica and also asks questions about female power. I’m really forward to sharing it with you.