When Joan Archibald Colborne married her minister husband in 1948, she joked about cashing in on the current craze for books about ministers by writing one herself. Little did she realize that her joke would come true more than fifty years later. This book, Letters from the Manse, is a collection of the letters she wrote during the first year of her married life in a small PEI community. To communicate more efficiently with her extended family, she wrote one letter a week and made five carbon copies--four to send away and one to file. Mrs. Colborne, who lives in Hampton, recently came across the letters that she had filed and shared them with her children and some friends, who persuaded her that the letters would be of interest to readers other than herself.
I agree. While the letters mostly recount the mundane events of life—maintaining a house, a husband, and, later, a baby—they are fascinating because they preserve the memory of a former time and way of living. But along with their historical value is a very personal appeal, for Mrs. Colborne is a beguiling correspondent who generates interest in the most ordinary of days. She came to the manse with a lot of education but very little practical experience in housekeeping. While she had every reason to complain about the drudgery of housework, the continual problems with (in her words) "that God-damned Water System", the rat infestation, and the isolating winter storms, her tone is invariably cheerful. She makes light of the difficulties and tells of her shortcomings with self-deprecating humour. For instance, when she was given a dressed chicken, she prepared it for the oven without inspecting it closely. When her husband asked, she couldn’t conscientiously say that all the organs had been removed, so she was obliged to unsew it, take out the stuffing, and check. She found, to her chagrin, that the lungs, kidneys, and sundry other organs were still inside.
The letters are also interesting because they reflect the social structure of the community and the position of the minister. The minister and his family were generally looked up to, but Mrs. Colborne never realized how much influence she had until one Sunday when, in desperation, she broke the local taboo by hanging out her diapers. Expecting severe criticism, she instead noted that within half an hour all the neighbours had hung theirs out also. This position proved to be difficult by times, as she says in the epilogue, for no one but her husband ever called her by her first name. She remarks that it was "lonely to be treated with so much respect."
Letters from the Manse
has more to recommend it than simply the letters. It is visually appealing, with a generous supply of snapshots and reproductions of typewriter font and handwriting, all of which preserve the flavour of the era in which the letters were written. It also includes a beguiling introduction by PEI folklorist John Cousins commenting on the necessity of preserving our history, and an epilogue and prologue, both supplied by Mrs. Colborne. These provide the frame for the letters, anticipating and answering questions such as when and how the Colborne’s first baby was born.
I discovered the multi-generational appeal of this book when I passed it on to my mother to read. Having lived on the Island at the same time that the letters were written, she found that they connected her with her own memories. So whether, like me, you have never bought a chicken with head and feet attached, or else you lived in a time before e-mail and long-distance plans, when the daily mail was a significant event, you should be pleasantly engaged by this book.