Mary Robie and the Didactic Qualities of Reading Fiction


June 4, 2018
by G. Patrick OBrien Also by this Author


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Mary Robie, a Massachusetts refugee living in revolutionary Nova Scotia, did not mince words when she criticized her friends for simply “passing thro life” in late May 1783. Despairingly, the nineteen-year-old mocked the tedium of her peers’ routines as fitting for those “whose views extend no higher” than the daily humdrum of Halifax. In Robie’s eyes, her friends spent their days frivolously considering “the more interesting points of beauty” or discussing the latest “scandal or fashions.” In the evenings it was “tea, cards, supper, and to bed,” only “to rise tomorrow and do just the same.” When her friends lamented “what little variety” they had in their lives, Mary was quick to highlight why she was different: she read fiction. “Had [they] read novels as well as I,” she pondered, “perhaps they may not have made the observation.” While her comments can be read as either an apt social critique of loyalist Halifax, or the puerile grumblings of a pretentious teenager, her opinion clearly underscores the importance she placed on reading fiction and its informative qualities.[1]While many across the British Empire exhibited a similar enthusiasm for print culture during the “reading revolution” of the late eighteenth century, Robie’s literary tastes and critiques of the literature she read, offer a glimpse of the reading habits of Loyalists in revolutionary Halifax.

“The Town and Harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia looking down George Street to the opposite shore called Dartmouth,” by Richard Short, published 1764. (Nova Scotia Archives)

The young Mary had followed her family north to Halifax in the early weeks of May 1775 after a rebellious mob chased them from their home in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Her father Thomas, while by no means an ardent supporter of the crown, had refused to agree to colonial nonimportation, which he understood would ruin his lucrative import business. As a successful merchant, Thomas fraternized with the wealthy elite of Marblehead and argued against colonial unrest during the troubles of the early 1770s. Recalling the turmoil that followed the engagements at Lexington and Concord, Thomas explained, “[It] was a time of when law was in a manner utterly suspended.”[2]Although Thomas clearly understood the Revolution through the economic lens of a merchant, his sympathies antagonized the rebel majority of Marblehead. Seeking protection from continuing retribution, the Robies fled north and were among the earliest refugee families to arrive in Nova Scotia.

Landing in Halifax, the family encountered a colonial port far different from the New England town they had left behind. Considering her first impressions of the city, Thomas’s wife Mary Sr. lamented, “So much for Halifax, I wish I had never seen it.”[3]The city was founded in 1749; the British had hoped to attract both American colonists and European Protestants to settle Nova Scotia and tip the balance of power away from the Indigenous-Acadian alliance. Despite their ambitions, the colony had grown slowly. Nonetheless, as the Robies disembarked on the town’s docks, they would have been met by a diverse array of people in a port city that was home to soldiers and sailors representing the rank and file of the British military, fishermen from around the empire, colonial officials, indigenous people who came to trade, and a number of immigrant Germans. Despite the growth of the city between its founding and the Robie’s arrival, however, the family could not help but be taken by the stark differences between it and the Massachusetts towns that they had left.

While Mary, the eldest Robie child, often expressed a more positive view of her adoptive home than her mother did, she also longed for some of the luxuries that were difficult to procure in revolutionary Halifax. Perhaps above all, the young Mary missed her books. While Mary’s educational background is unclear, as a direct descendant of the celebrated colonial poet Anne Bradstreet and a line of Puritan ministers on her mother’s side, and the paternal granddaughter of acclaimed colonial scientist Thomas Robie Sr., it can be assumed that as with other daughters of well-to-do parents, Mary had received some schooling, especially in reading and the arts.[4]While New England colonists had brought the first printing press to Halifax in the 1750s, the growing town lacked the rich literary tradition of neighboring New England, and like many other goods in revolutionary Halifax, scarcity inflated the price of books and newspapers.[5]

Despite this shortage, the steady stream of Loyalists into Nova Scotia had revolutionized the demand for printed material in the colony, and distributors sought to profit from this growth. Surviving advertisements demonstrate the evolution of available books and other print material. To conclude the 1782 edition of his almanac, Halifax printer Anthony Henry listed a number of “Books to Be Sold” at his printing office on Granville Street, just up the road from the Robie’s home. The list includes just over 100 individual titles alongside parchment, red and black ink, inkwells, and “red Dutch sealing wax.” A quick glance at Henry’s book list reveals that he was certainly catering to the demands of his Halifax readers. Copies of High German Grammarand English Guide to the German Languagewould have been particularly useful for merchants who were in constant contact with both arriving Hessian soldiers turned settlers and the number of German Protestants living in the nearby town of Lunenburg. Likewise, those who interacted with the Acadian and Indigenous populations would have had special need for copies of Bayer’s French Grammar. Yet while Henry offered a number of instructive manuals, he also listed twenty-five volumes of the trendy collection of “Swift Works,” nine volumes of “Pope’s Homer,” and a number of other popular works.[6]While Henry’s list of available books is comparable to those found along the eastern seaboard of North America, the variety of his list marks the dramatic growth in available literature and suggests the preferences of the Loyalist population.

The young Mary Robie’s diary, however, reveals that when printers and vendors could not provide the books refugees demanded, they sought other means of acquisition. For Mary, her father’s transatlantic commercial connections provided her access to literature from around the British Atlantic when she could not find what she was looking for in Halifax. On other occasions, Mary describes being introduced to books that other Loyalists brought with them.[7]Collectively, none of the titles Mary documents reading between 1783 and 1784 appear in Henry’s booklist. Although Mary often filled her dairy with descriptions of boredom and recounting how the days passed with “nothing extraordinary,” when Mary was able to get a copy of something she desired to read, she had little time for anything else.[8]After months of patiently awaiting the arrival of one shipment of books, which she knew to include “some works of Shenstone,” the books finally arrived on the yearly transports from England on May 30, 1783. Mary’s next entry read, “I was too much engaged in reading to have any thing to write about or any time to write.”[9]

Like many other late eighteenth-century colonists, Robie read a variety of material but especially loved fiction. Between May 1783 and early June 1784, she recorded reading thirteen titles, along with a number of other days she “spent the day reading” but did not document specifics. While she read philosophy and literary criticism, works of fiction accounted for nine of the listed entries. The young Loyalist was not alone in this preference. At the turn of the nineteenth century, critics condemned the popular reading habits of young people across the English-speaking world, and were especially wary of their attraction to fiction. William Wordsworth attacked those who consumed “extravagant stories in verse” for possessing a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.”[10]Predating Wordsworth’s sentiments by more than fifteen years, one visitor to the Robie household in Halifax denounced fiction during evening conversation. He proclaimed that works of fiction were “very injurious to young people as they poison their minds.” A chorus of, “So they do” rang out in reply.[11]

This popular attack on fiction arose from a general wariness concerning the growth of leisurely reading and private reading practices. Many critics feared young women were particularly corruptible. Largely disinterested with her life in revolutionary Halifax, the young Mary Robie admitted that reading gave her “sufficient employment for every hour,” satiating both her “roving disposition” and “a longing to explore distant regions.” Its greatest benefit, however, was in gratifying her “almost insatiable curiosity.”[12]Robie’s sentiments reveal a young girl who used reading to achieve specific objectives, rather than just pass time. For Robie, reading fiction was an edifying experience.

Critical to the instructive qualities of literature, Robie worked tirelessly to distill and evaluate the principles from the works she read.After contemplating Hannah More’s The Inflexible Captive, a rewriting of Roman born Pietro Metastasio’s Attilio Regolo, Mary recorded that while she did not “mean to find fault with Miss More’s production,” she very much disagreed with the tragic death of the play’s protagonist. Although More intended the death of Marcus Atilius Regulus to champion the virtue of civic duty, Mary saw his demise through a more personal lens. Robie believed Regulus died more for “a love of glory than of his country,” and she wished More would rewrite the play “to have nature triumphant.”[13]Certainly, the overarching themes of patriotism and exile found in More’s tragedy would have resonated with the young refugee who often compared her life as a Loyalist to a life in captivity; however, she rejected the concept of self-sacrifice exemplified in the tragic hero’s death.

While Robie read a number of other tragedies akin to More’s The Inflexible Captive, she also enjoyed more lighthearted works and empathized with a number of characters from empathetic novels. She was especially fond of the novel The Mutability of Human Life. Published anonymously “By a Lady,” the epistolary novel champions the power of love to rescue two despondent youths from their sorrow. Although reviews of the novels belittled the work as little more than “improbable events in vulgar language,” Robie believed the overall sentiments expressed in the novel were “á propos to our present feelings.”[14]Having lived as a refugee in loyalist Halifax for almost a decade, she recognized the author’s emphasis on vicissitude. Perhaps she hoped, like the novel’s protagonist, that she too would be delivered from her own grief to a place where “sorrow no more tortures the victim of oppression.”[15]

Reading also appears to have greatly affected the teenager’s disposition. After reading Edward Young’s melancholy poem “On the Last Day,” Mary recorded how she found herself “bewilder’d in maze.” In the poem, Young examines the effect of time on men and great empires, including Great Britain. Similar to the anonymous novel’s focus on mutability, Young underlines life’s volatility and emphasizes its dominance over all men forcing even emperors and kings to “bend his soul’s ambition down.”[16]While Mary found solace in contemplating how she might be one day rescued from the misery of exile, Young’s emphasis on the relentless march of time seems to have unsettled the teenager. Although she promised herself to reflect on the poem all week hoping to have more valuable insights by the following Sunday, she could not help but admit the poem made her feel “really very serious.”[17]

The Loyalists of Nova Scotia had a profound effect on the growth of print culture in Halifax. In examining the loyalist experience, however, it is equally valuable for historians to recognize how reading practices demonstrate self-reflection and the advantageous reasons for reading. As refugees, the Loyalists of Halifax looked to literature to help cope with the intangible difficulties of exile and provide larger meaning to their struggle. Although the young Mary Robie believed reading allowed her to transcend and escape her mundane daily routine in Halifax, in reality, reading fiction gave her a useful lens to understand and evaluate her own life. Refuting the sentiments of the visitor who condemned the dangers of reading fiction, Robie wrote later in her diary, “It did not convince me.” Perhaps reading provided a small measure of comfort, or maybe the fictional characters helped her see beyond the confines of exile. Regardless, she never contemplated forgoing her reading practices. In the face of opposition she simply explained, “I mean to persevere.”[18]


[1]Mary Robie, diary, May 22, 1783, Robie-Sewall Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA (hereinafter MHS).

[2]Unfinished letter, Thomas Robie to Mr. Shipman(?), December 7, 1786, Robie-Sewall Family Papers, MHS.

[3]Mary Robie Sr. to Thomas Robie, January 9, 1776, Robie-Sewall Family Papers, MHS.

[4]On Mary’s pedigree, see “Decedents of Gov. Bradstreet,” in William Jenks, et. al. eds., The New England Historical & Genealogical Register For the Year 1854,Vol. 8(Boston: Samuel D. Drake, 1854), 213-225 and Frederick G. Kilgour, “Thomas Robie (1689-1729), Colonial Scientist and Physician,” Isis30, No. 3 (August, 1939): 473-490. On reading practices in the eighteenth century, see Julie Hedgepath Williams, The Significance of the Printed Word in Early America: Colonists Thoughts on the Role of the Press(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 55-58.

[5]For a comprehensive study of printed material in Nova Scotia, see Michael Eamon, Imprinting Britain: Newspapers, Sociability, and the Shaping of British North America(Montreal: McGill Queens University Press, 2015).

[6]Anthony Henry, “Books for Sale,“ The Nova Scotia Calendar; Or an Almanack, 1782(Halifax: 1782), Nova Scotia Archives.

[7]On one such occasion, Mary describes a visitor talking to her about God and having her “read to him in a book he brought called Systems de la Nature.” Mary Robie, diary, August 30, 1783.

[8]Mary recorded such slow days on a number of occasions. The best examples can be seen Mary Robie, diary, May 31, 1783; June 3, 1783; and July 28, 1783.

[9]Ibid., 30 May 1783.

[10]William Wordsworth, “Preface,” in Lyrical Ballads, 2nd Edition(London: 1800).

[11]Mary Robie, diary, May 21, 1783.

[12]Ibid., May 22 1783.

[13]Ibid., March 26, 1783.

[14]On the review, see Scots Magazine 39,(August 1777), 441; Mary Robie, diary, August 23, 1783.

[15]“A Lady,” The Mutability of Human Life(London: J. Bew, 1777), 1.

[16]Edward Young, “A Poem on the Last Day” (London: Edward Whistler, 1713).

[17]Mary Robie, diary, May 18, 1783.

[18]Ibid., May 21, 1783.

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