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Write On Kingston!
Macdonald's Invisible Lady
In the early spring of 1842, Isabella Clark, living on the Isle of Man with her sisters Margaret and Jane, was awaiting the visit of her cousin, John Macdonald, who had been invited to stay a few days with them during his extensive tour of the British Isles. Isabella was unmarried, thirty-three years of age, dependent on the generosity of Margaret, and with few prospects of attracting a husband. Macdonald, a lawyer with a successful practice in far-away Kingston, was also unmarried although twenty-seven years old. Was his trip to the Isle of Man a matter of family duty, to call upon his mother’s three nieces, or was he in search of a wife? Whatever the answer to the question, he seems to have been sufficiently attracted to Isabella to encourage her to undertake the long and hard sea voyage to visit her relations in Kingston in the next year.
If Isabella sailed to Canada in the spring of 1843 with the hope of becoming Macdonald’s bride, she was not disappointed. Within months of her arrival in Kingston, the happy couple was joined in marriage at St. Andrew’s church. They made their home on Brock Street, together with Macdonald’s mother and two sisters, Margaret and Louisa, in a house that he had bought following his father’s death. Perhaps not a happy situation for a new bride anxious to take charge of her own home. Before long, however, Isabella was confronted with a problem far more serious than sharing a house with her in-laws, debilitating illness that became her tragic companion for the remainder of her life. Despite years of careful medical attention, no cure was ever found to restore her health.
Isabella’s illness was the dominant motif of the years of her marriage to John Macdonald. Their lives took on a sad routine that is duly recorded in Macdonald’s letters to family members. There were times when Isabella, although never truly well, was sufficiently recovered and in good spirits such as to give her husband cause for hope. But his hopes were, invariably, dashed. All too often, his correspondence contained a new report of a severe attack. His mood of melancholy found expression in his depiction of Isabella as the “Invisible Lady”, struggling to maintain some semblance of a normal life while condemned to the life of an invalid. So long the optimist, Macdonald seemed, at last, to lose faith in Isabella’s chances of ever regaining her health and the prospect of her death began to appear frequently in his correspondence.
National Archives of Canada C4183
It is clear from Macdonald’s letters that he was deeply affected by Isabella’s forlorn and unhappy life. Though devoted to his wife, he had no intention of abandoning his career goals to spend more time by her side. Indeed, the years of her illness were a backdrop to his swift rise to political prominence during the 1840s and 1850s. Macdonald’s sad years with Isabella came to an end with her death on 28 December 1857. She was buried at Cataraqui Cemetery in the Macdonald family plot. With the passage of time, she was joined there by other members of the family and, in 1891, by her illustrious husband.
By John Coleman with assistance from Aarin Crawford
Parks Canada, Bellevue House National Historic Site of Canada, Kingston, Ontario