Barbara Roberts' biography of peace activist and feminist Gertrude Richardson is more than a biography. Roberts does indeed reconstruct the world, not simply the life, of Gertrude Richardson. She successfully contextualizes both the triumphs and the trials of Richardson's long life which spanned 71 years in two countries. Raised in a working class family in Leicester, England, Richardson was exposed early to peace activism by her parents and siblings. She continued her pacifist and suffrage work even after her immigration to Manitoba and her marriage to a farmer in 1912. Plagued by both physical and mental illness, Richardson never achieved the lasting fame of her contemporaries, such as Nellie McClung and Violet McNaughton. She was, however, well known among her peers in both England and Canada through her writings in pacifist and feminist newspapers and journals.
Gertrude Richardson's life is examined chronologically from her birth in 1875 in Leicester, England, to her death in Canada in 1946 after 25 years in a psychiatric hospital. Roberts' multi-layered discussion and analysis integrates Richardson's personal history with the stories of members of her family, and places the narrative in national and international contexts. The narrative is made much richer by the inclusion of the wide-ranging and overlapping stories of the people and events that touched Richardson's life. The description and analysis of Richardson's early years, for example, evokes a clear picture of the daily life of a working class family in England in the late 1800s. The importance of religion within the family is also clear. It was Richardson's life-long religious faith that sustained her commitment to the pacifist movement. Ultimately, however, Richardson's disillusionment with the established churches' support of World War One and the lack of understanding by women for the pacifist movement contributed to her final mental breakdown in 1921. Roberts explores the various stories told by family members, and the different possibilities for the cause or causes of her illness, taking into consideration the literature on feminist psychiatric history of the Victorian period. She also uses Richardson's poetry to try to gain some insights into Richardson's two breakdowns, but does not rely on it even though documentary evidence is sketchy.
Richardson had a significant impact on the social development of the region in which she settled. She was quickly integrated into the social and political life of northern Manitoba even as a single woman. But Richardson's second, later discovered to be bigamous, marriage to a local farmer probably confirmed her respectability in her new home and allowed her to continue her activism. Richardson's prominent role in the suffrage and peace movements certainly reinforces Susan Jackel's contention that the immigration of large numbers of British women to the west influenced western consciousness of social issues of the period (pp. 96-97).
Roberts began her research on the history of peace activism and the pacifist movement in order to provide inspiration and context for her own activism. As her project evolved into a biography of one woman, Roberts consciously attempted, in her words, to "reconstruct Gertrude's world, in hopes that understanding her world [would] help us to understand and reconstruct our own" (p. xviii). Her strategy was to construct "an old-fashioned narrative" with the understanding that any biographer or historian really only knows a part of the story (p. xviii). Roberts takes time in the introduction to reflect on the nature of biography. She moved from planning a strictly objective telling of the story, to a more feminist methodology which allows the biographer herself to intrude on the story.(f.1) Yet, Roberts does this with care. The majority of her reflections occur in the introduction, but she periodically interrupts her narrative to describe relevant aspects of the research process and to analyze Richardson's involvement in the peace movement in terms of subsequent events. …