Unfinished Austen: Sanditon

Sanditon is one of two novels Jane Austen never finished. Since her death, this fragment of writing has undergone a long journey of alternate interpretations. For better or for worse, everyone who interacts with Sanditon must make their own interpretive choices.

By Sadie MacDonald

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen fan in possession of six full-length novels must be in want of even more Austen stories.

Luckily for us greedy fans, more writing is available! There are several works of juvenilia as well as unfinished fragments The Watsons and Sanditon. Today I’ll focus on Sanditon, which you can read online. As an unfinished novel, it’s been subject to a lot of interpretation and conjecture over time.

First, Sanditon‘s publishing history: it wasn’t a given that it would be widely shared with readers. Jane Austen was a private person who cared deeply about her work, heavily revising manuscripts before publishing them anonymously. After Austen died, her sister Cassandra safeguarded her writing by destroying some of Jane’s letters and preserving unpublished manuscripts, which were distributed among family members after Cassandra’s death. Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh included extracts of Sanditon in A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1871. Some of the Austen family had doubts about publishing Jane’s unfinished works, but Austen-Leigh felt that the public should read them. R.W. Chapman published the full text for the first time in 1925. There are pressing questions here regarding the ethics of publishing posthumously, which is beyond the scope of this post (fortunately, Serena will discuss this topic in an upcoming article!).

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A watercolour of Jane Austen painted by her sister Cassandra in 1804. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sanditon tells the story of the Parker family and their speculative attempts to make the titular seaside town a resort destination for tourists. The Parkers invite Charlotte Heywood to experience Sanditon’s charms for herself. The sensible, wry Charlotte meets many characters who vary in ridiculousness. Lady Denham, for example, is a rude, tightfisted gentlewoman who delights in having her relatives compete for her favour. There’s also Mr. Parker’s three hypochondriac siblings, who have teeth pulled on the merest suspicion of gum issues, and his charming unmarried brother, Sidney Parker. The stage is set – but the story didn’t have the chance to play out.

Austen started writing Sanditon in the last months of her life, but she was forced to abandon it when she became too ill. The fragment consists of twelve chapters, ending abruptly after Charlotte compares the portraits of Lady Denham’s deceased husbands: one has a “whole-length portrait” over the mantelpiece, while the other gets an inconspicuous miniature. It’s an innocuous moment to end on – but it’s fitting for Austen’s career to end with a witty observation. What little we have of Sanditon is tantalizing, and Austen presents it with characteristic irony and snideness. Sanditon is most intriguing, however, for what we don’t get to see, and for what we must interpret ourselves.

In her introduction to the Penguin edition of Sanditon, Margaret Drabble notes that “one cannot predict with any certainty the ways in which the plot would have developed.” The biggest questions surround the speculative venture; Mr. Parker’s naïvety left me pessimistic about its success. There’s also Sidney Parker to consider – is he another rakish red herring of a love interest like Wickham and Willoughby, a jovial beau like Mr. Tilney, or something else entirely? One interesting character, discussed but not seen, is Miss Lambe, “a young West Indian of large fortune” who is “about seventeen, half mulatto,* chilly and tender” and the “most important and precious” charge of her guardian. Austen novels can be insular, as they focus on the rural English upper-class; Mansfield Park is one exception, as it mentions that the Bertrams acquired their wealth through slave plantations. Sanditon could have been another chance to broaden horizons.

Unsurprisingly, others have tried to finish Sanditon. Some adaptations have questionable literary merits, but the blanks must be filled in. Prominent continuations include Marie Dobbs’s 1975 version and an attempted completion by Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy. There is also an upcoming television series. What choices will it make?

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The attribution of Marie Dobbs’s continuation makes reference to how Sense and Sensibility was originally promoted as “A New Novel by a Lady.” Photo: Amazon

We all must guess when it comes to Sanditon. By necessity, reading it is an exercise in making one’s own interpretations. In many respects this is nerve-wracking and unsatisfying. Can our own imaginations match up to Austen’s? Should they? Sanditon, perhaps, can be seen as a gift: a Jane Austen story we can make our own.

*The archaic term “mulatto” refers to people of mixed Black and white heritage and came into use during the period of Trans-Atlantic slavery. Considered offensive to English-speakers today, it is not a word that should be used casually in 2019!

“The box for this one said ‘Ages 8-14’!”

Lego products appeal to children (and adults) of all ages. Now, some advanced sets attempt to capture the look of iconic movie moments, eschewing playability for an “authentic” appearance.  

By Daniel Rose

As a child, I devoured the Lego catalogue from the moment it hit my mailbox. Leafing through the pages, I fantasized about adding each set to my collection. Facing the writing prompt “If I were…” in Grade 2 English class, I wrote a short story about being a Lego brick in my own collection – a very meta thought for a seven-year-old, but understandable given how much Lego was on my mind. Every time a new, expensive collection was released, I vowed that I would continue to buy Lego as an adult. Unlike most childhood dreams, oddly, this one came true.

My Lego short story was published as part of Staples’ “If I Were” story collection in 2002. I was pretty thrilled. Photo: Daniel Rose

Since the Lego Company’s famous plastic interlocking bricks were introduced in 1947, the company’s motto of “play well” (or leg godt in the native Danish) has inspired people of all ages to use their imagination to create and to recreate.  From movies and books to real places and things, Lego’s sets have used familiar places and themes as a frame for play. Play can take many forms, from the basic level of building the setting and characters to interactive elements (including projectile shooters and complex motors). For the most part, sets are inspired by their subject matter without being overly detailed, encouraging builders to use their imaginations to complete a scenario rather than providing a faithful recreation.

Spurred on by Lego’s official releases, communities of adult fans of Lego (or AFOLs) have created complex constructs based on popular culture, history and even existing Lego sets that attempt to perfectly capture the look of a particular place or thing.  Ranging in size and scale (and price!), these designs incorporate minute details – from the shape of a lighting fixture to custom-printing a sticker for a particular section of a wall – to build an authentic-looking creation. Recognizing the unique demands of these consumers, Lego has worked with these “master builders” to offer “advanced” sets that feature greater detail at a higher price range. Whether designed to fit the company’s iconic minifigures or at a more precise scale, these sets appeal to the desire of AFOLs and other builders to have “perfect-looking” recreated spaces while maintaining the tactile building element that has made Lego so popular. Interestingly, these constructs often sacrifice the greater “playability” of Lego in favour of “looking the part”, something which was lampooned in The Lego Movie through the character of The Man Upstairs.  Played by an indignant Will Ferrell, the character alleges that the way he uses Lego “makes it an adult thing”, rather than the toy it rightly is. I had never felt more represented, or hilariously caricatured, by a movie before, much to my own amusement.

Model 75192, configured in the classic Empire Strikes Back setup, takes up an entire table in my basement. Photo: Daniel Rose

Nowhere is the desire for accuracy more evident than in Lego model 75192 – the Millennium Falcon. Lego pulled out all the stops for Star Wars fans, who are notoriously fastidious in their demands for accuracy, to create a model that is nearly four feet long and three feet wide.  Released in 2017, the model incorporates information from official movie guides as well as the six films the ship makes an appearance in. With 7541 pieces (and retailing for an eye-watering $899.99 – before tax!), it is the largest Lego set commercially produced.* While the set features cross-sections of two of the ship’s classic rooms, allowing builders to use the eight included minifigures to act out scenes from the movies, more attention is paid to minute design elements.  Builders can swap out parts, such as the ship’s radar dish, depending on their preference for the original trilogy or the sequel trilogy. The set is the zenith of “authentic” official releases, demonstrating the extreme lengths builders can go to reproduce space. 

The scale of the model is gobsmacking – each of the six “vents” has the
same circumference as my fist. Photo: Daniel Rose

Model 75192 reveals the absurdity of the pursuit of authenticity. It replaced Model 10179, released in 2007 with a paltry 5 195 pieces (and 5 minifigures) in comparison. The intervening decade saw Lego design new parts and Disney release new Star Wars films; that is to say, that which was authentic previously is no longer a perfect recreation today. The same goes for unofficial constructions – the introduction of new design elements can make what was a faithful interpretation of a place or thing into an outdated caricature. This speaks to the importance of the imagination in filling the gaps better than an interlocking brick. Each recreation embodies the spirit of what the builder considers an essential part of the design. Even if the results never quite measure up, the pursuit of perfection is revealing.

Author’s Note: In the interest of clarity, I would like to note that I was one of the folks who purchased Model 75192, much to the chagrin of my savings and my common sense.

Ambulo x The Mindful Rambler: A Conversation Between Wanderers

Created by Matt Helders and James O’Hara, Ambulo is an all day café blurring the boundaries between cultural space and relaxed community hangout.

By Serena Ypelaar

Here at The Mindful Rambler, we talk a lot about interpretation, storytelling, and sharing experiences, often through cultural lenses. So naturally, as a museum/arts professional who cares a lot about engaging the public, I’m always thinking about more ways to explore the theme of visitor experiences. Last month, all day café Ambulo opened its first location in Sheffield, UK, and in following the café’s updates on social media, I was impressed by how successfully they’ve been sharing their story. Each of their Instagram posts is an invitation to the public – to everyone – to join them in the space and enjoy their visit.

Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders and The Rockingham Group co-founder James O’Hara, who have been friends for years, conceptualized Ambulo and have seen it through to its opening. They collaborated with Museums Sheffield to launch two locations; the first at the Millennium Gallery, and the second opening soon at Weston Park Museum. Alongside its setting in a cultural space, Ambulo’s welcoming vibe makes it an ideal example of visitor engagement done right.


James O’Hara and Matt Helders at Ambulo.
Photo: India Hobson, courtesy of Ambulo

Interestingly, “ambulo” means “to wander” in Latin, just like “ramble” means “to wander” in Middle English/Dutch. Ambulo and The Mindful Rambler seem to have an inquisitive outlook in common, and I was eager to explore this idea of learning and sharing in more depth. I recently spoke with James O’Hara, one half of the Ambulo duo, to hear more about the vision behind Ambulo, the significance of its location in museum/gallery sites, and how they’ve opened a café with inclusion as their priority.

A selection of items on the Ambulo menu.
Photo: India Hobson, courtesy of Ambulo.

Serena Ypelaar: What kind of visitor experience did you envision when you created Ambulo? Who is the space for? 

James O’Hara: Our background with our previous ventures was very much more bar orientated and more focused on a late night offering. It was a very conscious decision with Ambulo to make a really light, open, inclusive space. There’s a definite feeling of responsibility that comes with providing a multi-faceted café in what is essentially the ground floor of a gallery. 

Photo: India Hobson, courtesy of Ambulo.

SVY: Can you tell us about the partnership with Museums Sheffield and how Ambulo ended up in the Millennium Gallery?

JO: Essentially via a tender process. We were the only local independent to make it to the final 5, the rest were national operators with a much more experienced background in these sorts of spaces. However, I think our history of cultural engagement in the city (I’m the co-founder of Tramlines music festival) and our track record of transforming interesting, somewhat derelict buildings (Public is located in a former gents toilet) excited Museums Sheffield and our enthusiasm for the project balanced out the obvious risk element associated with choosing a smaller company like ours. 

SVY: You and Matt spent a couple of years wandering and testing food and drink to inform the creation of Ambulo’s menu. How was that creative process, and what did you learn?

JO: The idea for Ambulo started over 3 years ago – or at least the concept did – Ambulo means ‘to wander’ in Latin, and mine and Matt’s travels have formed a big part of the inspiration for the food and the brand. The main takeaway is that our favourite places and experiences don’t disguise themselves in pretension or opaque terminology. Our aim is to democratise the dining experience and provide great produce across our food and drink without all the associated nonsense that can often come with it. 

Ambulo’s kids selections ensure that all audiences can enjoy the space together.
Photo: India Hobson, courtesy of Ambulo.

SVY: From food/drink to music to decor, there are many aspects to creating Ambulo as it exists now. Can you tell us about your collaborations with friends and local businesses?

JO: We have a core group of collaborators who we have worked with on almost all our projects. Rocket Design (Ben Pickup) make and build all our interiors, Totally Okay (Nick Deakin) has designed all the branding and associated imagery of this project and all our previous businesses, India Hobson takes all the photos, Swallows and Damsons have done all the beautiful floral displays and New Phase LED do all our lighting design. We’ve done so much together that we all have a real shorthand and understand how each party works. They’re an amazing group of people. 

SVY: What’s your favourite dish on the menu, and why?

JO: I would say the Kedgeree Soldiers. It feels like a very Ambulo dish – originally an imported breakfast dish from Victorian times, Exec Sheff has put this through a prism of modernity to come up with a really delicious and simple reinterpretation. 

SVY: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us! I’m looking forward to following Ambulo’s future programming, and I can’t wait to check it out in person one day soon.

Ambulo is now open in the Millennium Gallery, 48 Arundel Gate, Sheffield, UK. The café’s second location is slated to open at Weston Park Museum, Western Bank, Sheffield.

Pies Are Just Sweet Calzones

Considering that even pies can be understood in different ways, interpreting history can seem a lost cause. But it is having a multiplicity of voices that leads to a balanced historical narrative.

By Lilia Lockwood

In 1977, NASA launched the Golden Record into outer space aboard Voyagers 1 and 2. The two copies of the record had images and sounds of life on earth, including nature sounds, greetings in 55 languages, and music from different eras and cultures. This is easily the most ambitious time capsule, as it seeks to convey the entirety of human experience on our planet over millennia. We may never know if it reaches extraterrestrials, but it does raise another question: is it possible to capture a place and moment in time?

I’ve been thinking about this since watching an episode of one of my favourite television shows, Parks and Recreation. The satirical sitcom follows the trials and triumphs of determined public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her team at the small-town parks and rec department of Pawnee, Indiana. Be warned: this blog post contains spoilers for season 3, episode 3. And gifs. Lots of gifs.

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When you realize you can write about history AND Parks and Rec. Photo: Reaction Gifs

The premise for the episode is that Leslie has decided to make a time capsule that represents life in Pawnee. She soon finds, however, that there are different understandings of what exactly constitutes “life in Pawnee.” The episode starts with Jerry, one of the department’s employees, saying that he has brought his mother’s diaries to put in the time capsule. Leslie thinks this idea is perfect. Amen, Leslie! Discovering a historical diary of daily life is every historian’s dream.

Events take a turn when word gets out about the department’s time capsule project, bringing Pawnee citizen Mr. Kelly Larson to Leslie’s office. He demands that the book Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, be included in the capsule. At first, Leslie is dead set against this. What, she wonders (as most viewers likely do), does a teen vampire romance have to do with Pawnee?

But then, Leslie has an epiphany:

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and his daughter reading that book
Photo: Gifglobe

Leslie thought the time capsule should include what are traditionally considered historical items, such as her book A brief history of everything that has ever happened since Pawnee was founded. But she realizes that each person is experiencing life in Pawnee differently, and the time capsule has to reflect that. She organizes a public forum to hear ideas for what additional items to add, where everyone starts arguing over suggestions. Twilight is too Christian! Twilight is not Christian enough!

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There are always different perspectives to consider. Photo: Giphy

There aren’t necessarily right and wrong sides to these arguments (though of course extremes must be carefully weighed). Rather, considering many subjective accounts allows us to arrive at a closer approximation of objective reality.

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It is vital to acknowledge other points of view. Don’t follow Ron’s example. Photo: Gfycat

Ultimately, Leslie finds an elegant solution. The capsule will include everyone’s perspectives by preserving a video of the forum. As she has discovered, the only way to capture a place and moment in time is to include multiple voices in dialogue with each other. And the task of the historian is to seek those voices and make them heard.

Frontier: As Intersectional as Feminism Can Be in the 1770s

Netflix and Discovery series Frontier explores the pluralistic conflicts defining Canada’s fur trade in the late 18th century. How does Frontier treat women’s history in a time where their social roles were especially limited?

Warning: this article contains light spoilers about character development and thematic events depicted in Frontier

By Serena Ypelaar

Last week we discussed how Netflix and Discovery series Frontier interprets the history of the fur trade in Canada during the late 18th century. Since it’s International Women’s Day, I’m back with Part II of the Frontier series, this time to talk about women’s roles in the show.

As you probably know if you’re into history or women’s studies (or if you’re aware of women’s rights movements such as intersectional feminism), women’s social roles were extremely restricted. Women couldn’t usually hold property and were usually made to marry to secure their future. With Indigenous women in North America, things were a bit different – certain Indigenous communities are matrilineal, meaning that women hold leadership positions rather than men. Indigenous groups still had/have gender-specific roles, but colonization marked a grim turn for women. Indigenous women were in many cases sold or “offered” to settlers as “country wives”, many being forced into non-consensual marriages.

Sokanon (Jessica Matten) dedicates her time to helping other women fight the effects of colonialism, such as forced marriages. The show tacitly parallels today’s ongoing issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Photo: Hypable

So with these often traumatic complexities in mind, how does Frontier interpret women’s history? With a great degree of respect and nuance, I’m happy to say.

Chaulk (Kathryn Wilder) poses as a man to survive on her own. Photo: TVMaze

Frontier explores new world realities for women in the 1770s without disempowering them. Characters with no income such as Clenna Dolan (Lyla Porter-Follows) and Chaulk (Kathryn Wilder) must adapt to survive, latching onto benefactors who prove to be manipulative; but they both demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness. I won’t drop a big spoiler, but there is one particular character whom I was indignant to see killed off before all her potential had been exercised. Yet for the most part in Frontier, we’re shown so many unique women with examples of strength and vulnerability (which are not mutually exclusive traits, I might add).

Prolific Indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal plays Kamenna, chief of the Cree Lake Walkers who are integral trade partners to some of the fur traders. Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) runs her own company after the death of her husband, and she is a shrewd and calculating businesswoman. Josephette (Karen LeBlanc) steers the Brown Bros.’ company better than they do.

Clockwise from left: Kamenna (Tantoo Cardinal), Josephette (Karen LeBlanc), Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath), Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle).

Likewise, Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle) owns a Fort James tavern and uses intelligence as a form of power; she also literally wears the pants. I admit I underestimated her barmaid, Mary (Breanne Hill), thinking she’d be vapid as is often the case, but she proves to be fierce as heck, going so far as to attack and kill rapists who try to sexually assault women and girls in the tavern. Sokanon (Jessica Matten) also goes on a personal quest to save Indigenous women from being forcibly married off, and she and Mary join ranks (sisterhood!) to achieve their honourable cause.

Mary (Breanne Hill) and Sokanon (Matten) fight to escape a Christian convent preparing North American women, many of them Indigenous, to marry European settlers. Photo: FatherSonHolyGore

Some viewers might say “how are these roles accurate?” but if you honestly believe that women have taken centuries of oppression lying down and didn’t fight back, you’re mistaken. Frontier could go even further to establish their female characters’ nuanced experiences, but to the show’s credit it portrays women’s entrepreneurial talent, compassion, integrity, and ambition.

I said this last week and I’ll say it again – Frontier is by no means perfect. Nor is any interpretation of history, when you think about it, but the bigger question to consider is: does it treat the subject matter responsibly? As a woman who loves history, I feel that Frontier does.

Frontier: Harping on about Canadian History

Starring Jason Momoa, Frontier explores the pluralistic conflicts defining Canada’s fur trade in the late 18th century. From a historical and ethical perspective, how does Frontier’s cultural authenticity stack up?

Warning: this article contains light spoilers about events depicted in Frontier

By Serena Ypelaar

It’s often said that there are two sides to a story.

But that’s not true: there are many sides to a story, and Frontier proves it’s possible (though difficult) to tell them.

I’ve been waiting to write about Frontier since before The Mindful Rambler was founded. Anyone who knows me knows I have an enduring love for early Canadian history … and in 2016, Discovery Channel and Netflix miraculously created a television show about it! This is Part I of your Frontier article series.

Set in the late 18th century in what is now Canada, Frontier centres on locations such as Hudson Bay, James Bay, Montréal, Fort James, and the wilderness. Indigenous peoples have lived on the land since time immemorial, long before European settlers arrived – a fact which is starkly portrayed in the series. The show stars Jason Momoa (also Executive Producer) as Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish trader who, for deeply personal reasons, seeks to destroy the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)’s oppressive monopoly on the fur trade.

Jason Momoa plays Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish fur trader on a mission to topple the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly. Photo: ScreenerTV

There’s a plethora of “New World” films/shows out there, many of which are inevitably framed from the perspective of newly arrived colonial settlers. But it’s not inevitable to tell the story that way. Frontier is an example of what happens when you incorporate multiple perspectives and, crucially, spend time on authenticity. Though its storytelling and pacing is less than perfect, Frontier‘s diversity and inclusion is noteworthy and fairly well-done.

Indigenous and pluralistic representation

Today, Canada is populated by diverse cultural and linguistic groups, which was also the case during the 1770s. Frontier showrunners Brad Peyton, Rob Blackie, and Peter Blackie take care not to fall into the trap of depicting Indigenous peoples as one and the same – throughout its three seasons, we’ve seen Cree, Haudenosaunee, Métis, Inuit, and more nations – acknowledging that they do not comprise just one singular culture or identity.

Whenever I talk about Frontier and Jason Momoa playing an Indigenous man, people often ask “but isn’t he Hawaiian?”

“Yes, Momoa is part Native Hawaiian, but he’s also part Native American on his mother’s side,” I say. You’d be surprised how skeptically people react to that answer. There’s a definite issue with saying someone is not “_________ enough” to identify with their heritage (I know from experience, as a mixed individual). To say that anyone who is part First Nations, part Inuit, etc. isn’t “Indigenous enough” is akin to telling a mixed English/Scottish Canadian that they aren’t allowed to identify as Scottish. People who are part Indigenous are Indigenous and have a right to their culture.

Momoa is heavily invested in sharing the experiences of Indigenous peoples in North America. Though working in London at the time, he was vocal during the #NoDAPL protest in North Dakota in 2016; he also starred in Road to Paloma (2014), which exposes the systematic dangers to Indigenous women in the United States. And now, on Frontier, he’s helping portray Canadian history from an Indigenous vantage point. Momoa’s Instagram posts demonstrate how he advocates for Canadian history as I’ve never seen in another American. Momoa’s work in Frontier contributes to the preservation of Canadian history from multiple perspectives.

Frontier also emphasizes linguistic diversity. Métis/Saulteaux-Cree actress Jessica Matten, who plays Harp’s sister-in-law Sokanon, learned two specific Indigenous languages for the show:

I’m mainly speaking Swampy Cree and also Ojibway to reflect Sokanon’s eclectic upbringing, born an Ojibway woman but raised amongst Métis, Cree, Scottish, French people on Turtle Island [North America]

Jessica Matten, Instagram post

Matten also provided creative direction in depicting the sale of Indigenous women to white settlers (as “country wives”).  The portrayal of these realities mirrors today’s issues with missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Brother- and sister-in-law Harp (Momoa) and Sokanon (Jessica Matten). Photo: Edmonton Journal

In early North America, intermarriage also occurred and is portrayed in Frontier, another nod to authentic representation. Irish settler O’Reilly’s wife is Haudenosaunee (married under frankly sinister circumstances), and Sokanon and Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron)’s budding yet troubled romance reflects the effects of the influx of fur traders on traditional lands. Nevertheless, Indigenous women – and almost all the women on the show – are depicted not as helpless victims but as clever and resourceful fighters. Frontier doesn’t shy away from the HBC’s violent behaviour that caused lasting trauma and grief for Indigenous peoples either, as depicted in the opening of season three, when the HBC is shown raiding and assaulting a Métis village.

Even amidst the fur trading companies, pluralism is the name of the game. There’s Declan Harp’s Métis-fronted Black Wolf Company, working directly against the HBC. The Scottish Brown brothers (Allan Hawco, also Executive Producer, and Michael Patric) rival Carruthers & Co., managed formidably by Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) after her husband’s death. Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle) and Cobbs Pond (Greg Bryk) are Americans established in Montreal, and Michael Smyth, an impoverished Irish stowaway, joins Harp’s company. Englishman Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong), a fictitious governor of the HBC, is merciless and is given no leeway – on Frontier, the HBC is held accountable for its historical misdeeds.

Irish trader Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), Harp’s protegée, with Sokanon (Matten). Photo: Rotten Tomatoes

The show flounders in its portrayal of Black loyalists in Canada, however. Charleston (Demetrius Grosse) flees from enslavement in the United States and falls in with Harp, but he is (SPOILER ALERT) the first to die in an overseas voyage – a typical trope in Hollywood movies (Black Dude Dies First trope). The two Black characters only play supporting roles; Josephette (Karen LeBlanc) is a close associate of Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) but eventually takes on the bulk of the company management when Elizabeth’s new husband Douglas Brown (Allan Hawco) drives it into the ground. If Josephette were given a larger role, her character could thrive in the limelight. 

A new Frontier for Canadian history

While Frontier is undeniably flawed, both in a storytelling/pacing sense and an accuracy sense, I think its merits outweigh its detractors. It illustrates (and popularizes) a long-distant era of Canadian history and emphasizes the facets of the fur trade economy. Most importantly, without glorifying colonialism, it depicts the conflicting interests of the different individuals and groups trying to live off the land – and in some cases, exploit it. It features Indigenous languages, celebrates women’s autonomy*, and inspires awe – there was a lot going on in the Hudson’s Bay region.

Warts and all, Frontier proves that Canadian history is by no means boring.

This article is part of a larger series discussing storytelling in the television show Frontier. As a mainstream adaptation of early Canadian history available worldwide, Frontier examines the pluralistic past and colonial legacies that still shape Canada today. Read the rest of the series here.

*Stay tuned for next week’s post!