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Mrs. King: The Life and Times of Isabel Mackenzie King

Nora Marsh

having read and enjoyed several of Gray's articles for Saturday Night and Chatelaine, I was anticipating to find her biography of Isabel Mackenzie King well written and interesting.

Mrs King book cover Well, it was interesting. Very interesting. However if you are looking to read this as some sort of definitive biography you should look elsewhere. The point is that there probably couldn't be a "definitive" biography of Isabel Mackenzie King. We know little about her early life, and much of the rest of her thoughts are based on Gray's speculations.

King was born in 1843, but by page 100 of a 365 page biography we have covered her life up until 1893- fifty years of her life! Early chapters of this book are filled with such speculative statements as "Bell (Isabel) had stopped expecting to see packing cases each time she rounded the corner on her way home from school" (35). The book is filled with such quirky little fictions that one would expect to see in a genre called "virtual fiction", or a fictional biography.

That isn't to say this book is useless. In fact, quite the contrary. It is well structured and fascinating. Although it reads more as a section of a William Lyon Mackenzie King biography, it contains a wealth of information on the life of women in Victorian Canada.

The book begins with Isabel's life as the daughter of the "Little Rebel", William Mackenzie King. William Mackenzie King and his battle against the Family Compact is fascinating. Much of Gray's armchair psychology is based on Isabel's fears of her own husband and children getting involved with political life due to her early family experiences with "Little Rebel".

Isabel eventually ends up in a lifeless marriage with John King. He looks like a promising catch, but ends up being unable to support Isabel and her upper-middle class pretensions. Their marriage gives life to several children, William Lyon Mackenzie King being the most famous as the longest serving Prime Minister in Canadian history (22 yrs).

A good lot of Mrs. King has very little to do with Isabel directly. Most of it deals with the trials and tribulations of the King family, amply documented in letters. As the book proceeds it focusses almost entirely on "Willie" and his obsessive relationship with his mother. He never got married, instead choosing to hold tight to the memory of his mother- a woman he thought no other could ever match.

Regardless of its downfalls, Mrs. King is a valuable text in the study of women in Canadian history, and is wonderful as a perspective on the life of the Mackenzie King family. Unfortunately, as a biography, it is a failure.


Nora Marsh lives on biographies.

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