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Nell Harley: A Backwoods Mystery by Theodore Goodridge Roberts

Nell Harley: A Backwoods Mystery, Theodore Goodridge Roberts

Theodore Goodridge Roberts

George Edward Theodore Goodridge "T.G." Roberts (poet, novelist, and journalist) was born 7 July 1877 in the rectory of St. Anne’s Parish in Fredericton, NB. He was the fifth and youngest child of Reverend George Goodridge Roberts and Emma Wetmore (Bliss) Roberts. He married Frances Seymour Allan in 1903, and they had four children, the first of whom was Goodridge Roberts, the Canadian painter. Theodore Goodridge died 24 February 1953 in Digby, NS, and is buried next to his brother, Charles G.D. Roberts, and his cousin, Bliss Carman, in Forest Hill Cemetery, Fredericton, NB.

The youngest child in one of Canada’s foremost families of letters, Roberts had a good deal to live up to. The Roberts patriarch, George Goodridge, was an educator and Anglican minister who brought his children up in the faith. One cannot understate his impact on Theodore’s literary work, particularly his poetry. Three years after Theodore was born, his elder brother, Charles G.D. Roberts (1860-1943), published Orion, and Other Poems (1880), a collection that made him one of the most pivotal figures in Canadian literature. Charles was seventeen years older than Theodore and closer in age to their cousin, the equally prolific and influential poet Bliss Carman (1861-1929).

Growing up in a dynamic household full of literature, art, music, religion, and politics, Theodore set out at an early age to prove himself as a writer. He published his first poem at the age of eleven (in 1889) in The Independent, a New York weekly where Carman was editor-in-chief, and published his first non-fiction piece about the similarities between the Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Waterloo for Century magazine in June 1891.

Roberts grew up in Fredericton and attended the Fredericton Collegiate School. The school’s records were lost in a fire, so we have no knowledge of when he completed his studies there, nor do we know what courses he took subsequently as an undergraduate at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). By all accounts, including his own, we do know that he left UNB before completing his degree. Years later, in 1930, UNB would bestow upon him a Doctorate of Literature in recognition of his contribution to Canadian letters; he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada four years after that.

In the summer of 1897, Roberts moved to New York City and took a position as sub-editor at The Independent. His brothers Charles and William both worked at The Illustrated American, and the three Roberts boys lived together on East 58th Street until Theodore was sent as a special correspondent to Tampa, Florida, in May 1898 to cover the Spanish-American war. Seconded to General William Rufus Shafter’s regiment, Roberts contracted malaria aboard ship on the way to Cuba and returned to Fredericton as soon as he was well enough to travel from his US army hospital bed.

After a one-year convalescence at home, Roberts travelled to Newfoundland and stayed for more than three years, during which time he helped found and edit The Newfoundland Magazine and published Northland Lyrics (1899), his first poetry collection, and The House of Isstens (1900), a quest-romance novel. In this period, Roberts amassed a wealth of knowledge about outport life and local history that would eventually inform his Newfoundland novels and his tales of the Beothuk people. He also went to sea for five months, working his way to the Caribbean and South America on a barkentine; the voyages would become inspiration for numerous Caribbean seascape poems, short stories, and his novel The Wasp (1914). Shortly after his return, Roberts had a relapse of malaria while living with Charles in New York and had to be hospitalized for several weeks until he was taken home to Fredericton. He fell in love with his nurse, Frances Seymour Allen, and the two married in November 1903. They extended their honeymoon in Barbados into a two-year stay, and the first of their four children, the painter Goodridge Roberts, was born there on 24 September 1904.

The couple travelled extensively over the next twenty-five years, living in France, England, Toronto, Ottawa, and other parts of Canada. They returned to Fredericton periodically, and Roberts’s inability to stay away from his beloved home province became a prevalent theme in his poetry. Roberts averaged three novels a year from 1908 until 1914, at which time he enlisted in the army and went off to war. In the summer of 1915, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 12th Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Harry Fulton MacLeod. Roberts wrote official reports and battlefield accounts and published three works in collaboration with others: Patrols and Trench Raids (1916), Battalion Histories (1918), and Thirty Canadian V.C.’s (1918).

By any standard of evaluation, Roberts was a prolific writer. He published thirty-four novels and more than one hundred poems and short stories in periodicals such as Acadie, Blackwood’s Magazine, Canadian Author and Bookman, Century, Esquire, Maclean’s, National Monthly, Saturday Night, and Scribner’s. He also published three volumes of poetry, including The Leather Bottle (1934) and an anthology of verse entitled Northland Lyrics (1899) along with his siblings William and Elizabeth. Roberts’s novels encompass a variety of genres, including historical romances such as Captain Love (1908); war fiction like Hemming the Adventurer (1904) and The Fighting Starkleys (1922), which are based on his military service in the Spanish American War and World War I, respectively; Newfoundland tales such as his best-known novel, The Harbor Master (1913), which was first published in England as The Toll of the Tides; and Native tales like The Red Feathers (1907) or Brothers in Peril (1905), a story collection about sixteenth-century Beothuk life.

Roberts’s influence on Canadian literature generally, and on New Brunswick literature specifically, was not discussed in public scholarly discourse until literary critic Martin Ware edited a volume of Roberts’s selected poetry entitled That Far River (1998). In his introduction to the 1976 New Canadian Library edition of The Red Feathers, Ware argues that Roberts was a forgotten Canadian writer because he fell between two major literary movements in Canada: he was “too young to have been carried on the crest of first wave Canadian romanticism,” yet too old to have the “natural rebelliousness (even cynicism)” of the young Canadian modernists claiming fame after World War I (vii). Most critics agree that Roberts’s fiction is light fare that makes for fun and interesting reading; however, his most serious and valued contribution to Canadian literature is his treatment of place and landscape in his poetry, particularly in his most celebrated collection, The Leather Bottle (1934). In the preface to this anthology entitled “Vintages of My Own Country: A Note on Poetry,” Roberts gives his poetic manifesto. Like his brother Charles and cousin Bliss, Roberts’s poetics were deeply influenced by the English Romantic poets and the American Transcendentalists. Indeed, much like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators” maxim from A Defence of Poetry (1840), Roberts believed that poets have the “authority of a sacred office” to use their “peculiar gifts of vision and expression” to disclose the “Spirit of Beauty” to all humanity.

Nicola A. Faieta, Spring 2009
University of New Brunswick

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Roberts, Theodore Goodridge. Battalion Histories. N.p.: n.p., 1918.

---. Blessington’s Folly. London: John Long, 1914.

---. Brothers in Peril: A Story of Old Newfoundland, 1905. Illus. H.C. Edwards. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1905.

---. Captain Love. Illus. Louis D. Gowing. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1908.

---. A Captain of Raleigh’s: A Romance. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1911.

---. A Cavalier of Virginia: A Romance. Illus. Louis D. Gowing. Chicago: M.A. Donohue, 1910.

---. The Merriest Knight: The Collected Arthurian Tales of Theodore Goodridge Roberts. Illus. Shane A. Holloway. Ed. Mike Ashley. Oakland, California: Green Knight, 2001.

---. Comrades of the Trails. Illus. Charles Livingston Bull. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1910.

---. The Exiled Lover. London: J. Long, 1919.

---. The Fighting Starkleys; or, The Test of Courage. Illus. George Varian. Boston: The Page Company, 1922.

---. Flying Plover: His Stories, Told Him by Squat-by-the-Fire. Boston: L.C. Page, 1909.

---. Forest Fugitives. Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1917.

---. Foreword. The Gleaming Edge. By Charles Tupper. Tweed, ON: Valley, 1947.

---. The Golden Highlanders; or, The Romantic Adventures of Alastair MacIver. Boston: L.C. Page, 1929.

---. Green Timber Thoroughbreds. New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1924.

---. The Harbor Master. Chicago: M.A. Donohue, 1913.

---. Hemming the Adventurer. Illus. A.G. Learned. Boston: L. C. Page & Company, 1904.

---. Honest Fool. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925.

---. The House of Isstens. Boston: Page, 1900.

---. In the High Woods. London: J. Long, 1916.

---. The Islands of Adventure. London; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1918.

---. Jess of the River. Toronto: Bell, 1914.

---. The Leather Bottle. Toronto: Ryerson, 1934.

---. The Lost Shipmate. Toronto: Ryerson, 1926.

---. Love on a Smoky River. London: J. Long, 1913.

---. Loyalists: A Compilation of Histories, Biographies and Genealogies of United Empire Loyalists and Their Descendants. Toronto: T. Goodridge Roberts, 1937.

---. The Lure of Piper’s Glen. Garden City, NY: Garden City, 1923.

---. The Master of the Moose Horn: And Other Backcountry Stories. London; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919.

---. Moonshine. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920(?).

---. Musket House. Garden City: Garden City Publishing Co., 1923.

---. The Oxford Wizard. Garden City, NY: Garden City Pub., 1924.

---. Patrols and Trench Raids. N.p.: n.p., 1916.

---. Rayton: A Backwoods Mystery. Illus. John Goss. Boston: L.C. Page, 1912.

---. The Red Feathers: A Story of Remarkable Adventures When the World Was Young. Illus. Charles Livingston Bull. Boston: L. C. Page, 1907.

---. The Red Pirogue: A Tale of Adventure in the Canadian Wilds.Illus. Frank T. Merrill. Boston: L. C. Page, 1924.

---. Seven Poems. N.p.: n.p., 1925.

---. That Far River: Selected Poems of Theodore Goodridge Roberts. Ed. Martin Ware. Post-Confederation Poetry. London, ON: Canadian Poetry Press, 1998.

---. The Stranger from Up-Along. Illus. Rodney Tomson. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1924.

---. Tom Akerley: His Adventures in the Tall Timber and at Gaspard's Clearing on the Indian River. Illus. Ernest Fuhr. Boston: L.C. Page, 1923.

---. Two Shall Be Born. New York: Cassell, 1913.

---. The Wasp. Illus. E.M. Ashe. Toronto: Bell & Cockburn, 1913.

Roberts, Theodore Goodridge and Robert Neilson Stephens. A Soldiers of Valley Forge: A Romance of the American Revolution. Boston: L.C. Page, 1911.

Theodore Goodridge, Robin Richards and Stuart Martin. Comp. Canadian War Records Office. Thirty Canadian V.Cs: 23rd April 1915 to 30th March 1918. London: Skeffington, 1918.

Roberts, Theodore Goodridge, William Carman Roberts, and Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald. Northland Lyrics. Ed. Charles G.D. Roberts. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1899.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Bailey, A.G. “T.G. Roberts.” Fiddlehead 18 (1953): 3.

Besner, Neil K. “Theodore Goodridge Roberts.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 92: Canadian Writers, 1890-1920. Detroit: Gale, 1990. 309-13.

Heaney, Frances Gale. “Theodore Goodridge Roberts.” MA thesis. University of New Brunswick, 1960.

Moritz, Albert and Theresa, eds. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to Canada. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987.

Mount, Nick. When Canadian Literature Moved to New York. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005.

Seaman, Andrew. “Roberts, Theodore Goodridge.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. William Toye. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1997. 1010-11.

Smith, A.J.M., ed. and intro. The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1960. 116-18.

Ware, Martin. Introduction. The Red Feathers. By Theodore Goodridge Roberts. New Canadian Library ed. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976. i-xiv.

---. “Theodore Goodridge Roberts, Poet: A Neglected Voice.” Essays on Canadian Writing 31 (Spring 1985): 75-92.