Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

The Maxwells of Montreal: Early Years 1870-1922/the Maxwells of Montreal: Middle Years 1923-1937

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

The Maxwells of Montreal: Early Years 1870-1922/the Maxwells of Montreal: Middle Years 1923-1937

Article excerpt

The Maxwells of Montreal: Early Tears 1870-1922, by Violette Nakhjavani, with the assistance of Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, George Ronald, Oxford, 2011, xx + 422 pp.

The Maxwells of Montreal: Middle Tears 1923-1937, Late Tears 1937-1952, by Violette Nakhjavani, with the assistance of Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, George Ronald, Oxford, 2012, 442 pp.

When only seventeen years old, Mary Maxwell made an extraordinary promise to her mother. Unprompted, she volunteered to write her mother's biography (Nakhjavani, vol. I, viii, 23). This was not simply the pledge of a daughter who intensely adored her mother, nor the naïve vow of an aspiring writer, for Mary had recognized at that early age that her mother, Mary "May" Ellis Bolles Maxwell, had already won a prominent place in Bahai history, not only as one of the first members of the Cause in the West but also as midwife to the birth of the Faith in Europe and as its tireless proponent in Canada and the United States during its first decades in those countries. Young Mary's assessment of her mother's merit was affirmed years later when Shoghi Effendi designated May a "martyr" in his cable at the time of her passing in 1940: "to sacred tie her signal services had forged priceless honour martyrs death now added double crown deservedly won" (qtd. in vol. II, 367) . A decade after the promise was given, Mary became Madame Rabbani, better known to Bahá'ís as Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, wife of and helpmate to Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahai Faith-the "sacred tie" referred to in the above cable. From that point forward, her public and administrative duties consumed her attention to the end of her life, so the girlhood promise remained unfulfilled-although it was seldom far from her thoughts. Ultimately, she was never able to complete the biography, though she chose its title: "The Maxwells of Montreal," and made a start by drafting a beginning shortly after her mother's passing; years later she penned an introduction. Those two works constitute the opening pages of The Maxwells of Montreal,1 She also filled leather-bound notebooks with memories, notes, and lists of topics to include in the work. Over time, the realization came to her that, because she was part of a close-knit family, any biography of her mother must also be a biography of her father, the celebrated architect and Hand of the Cause of God, William Sutherland Maxwell, as well as a recounting of her own childhood and youth. Her research expanded as she sorted through her parents' papers, choosing letters, notes, and journal entries. Years passed, and as she entered her twilight years, Rúhíyyih Khánum made one last attempt to fulfill the commitment of her youth by tracing family papers held by relatives (vol. I, viii, x). Finally, after her passing in 2000, her younger, devoted friend and travel companion, Violette Nakhjavani, with the aid of a team of others who were devoted to her memory, took up the unfinished task (vol. I, xi). The two volumes: The Maxwells of Montreal: Early Tears 1870-1922, Vol. I and The Maxwells of Montreal: Middle Tears 1923-1937, Late Tears 1937-1952, Vol. II, are the realization of the promise made by young Mary Maxwell more than eighty years earlier.

Violette Nakhjavani did not conceive of the work as a proper biography but as a selected collection of correspondence from the Maxwell papers. She envisioned herself more as editor than author and allowed May, Sutherland, and Mary to tell their stories in their own authentic voices (vol. I, xii). Her narrative guides the reader as well as provides background. Rúhíyyih Khánum had initiated the process of researching, sorting, typing, and cataloging her family papers with the assistance of her long-time, devoted secretary, Miss Nell Golden. Despite that groundwork, Mrs. Nakhjavani faced a daunting task. The Maxwell archives included more than 60,000 items of correspondence, of which at least 4,100 were letters between the family members (vol. …

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