In 1670, King Charles II of England granted a commercial charter for exclusive fur trade in British North America to The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay. For centuries HBC—the Hudson's Bay Company—were the defacto government over a huge area of what is now most of Canada and a small section of the northern United States.
Hudson Bay forts, the only European settlements in a vastly un-colonized land, existed for one purpose: to buy and ship furs. A factor (agent)—often the only European for hundreds of miles—ran each fort. In remote areas like the Scottish Hebrides an impoverished, unmarried man had two choices: starve to death at home or become a Hudson's Bay factor.
After a lifetime of difficult work in remote areas, a few of these men rose to the position of Chief Factor, the man responsible for a major trading post and their surrounding district. They married First Nations or Metis women, built large houses, were given permission to retain a cook and a steward at Company expense, and became socially prominent in the communities that eventually sprung up around the forts.
In 1859, Oregon became a state. That put the border of the United States right across the Columbia River from the headquarters of the HBC's pacific region. The Company moved their pacific headquarters to Fort Victoria, today the site of the city of Victoria, capital of British Columbia.
It was an unsettled time in Fort Victoria. The town had already expanded far beyond the confines of the original Company fort. Long-time HBC employees, like Chief Factor John Work, could recall a time when he knew every person who attended a dance, wedding, or funeral. But no more.
The town is flooded with people: gold miners on their way to the Fraser River strike; American entrepreneurs, who view Victoria as an extension of their country; competing First Nations people, camping too close to town for some people's liking; and transplanted Englishmen, who consider being in charge their natural birthright, and who bring with them class and race prejudices.
Margaret Work is John Work's "oldest unmarried daughter, living at home." A spinster at 23, she knows that her prospects for marriage aren't good. Of all the Work girls, she's the only one who inherited her Metis's mother's dark hair and skin. As if being (incorrectly) referred to as a half-breed wasn't bad enough, Margaret grew up in the isolated fort where her father was Chief Factor. She thinks nothing of taking walks unchaperoned, usually the only time she can be by herself. She can ride a horse beautifully and has never heard of a side-saddle. She reads, not only novels, but newspapers.
Still, because the ratio of young women to young men is abysmally skewed toward the men, and because John Work is respected by the remaining HBC community, she's included in dances and parties. Good to have another dance card to fill, but would you really want your son to marry her?
This is a novel of marriage and manners, in the style of Jane Austin, set in an intricate and fascinating social background where, after almost two hundred years, the HBC monopoly is yielding to the English-led settlement of Victoria. The prose is restrained and a little old-fashioned, as befits the story's time and place. This is one of the best examples I've read of an author being able to get inside the mind-set of characters who would have lived by a different set of values than those of the modern reader. John Work, his family, and all of the major characters are based on historical figures who lived in Victoria in the last 1850s. Highly recommended.
Vanessa Winn writes non-fiction and poetry; The Chief Factor's Daughter is her first novel. She has a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English from the University of Victoria. Born in England, Vanessa now lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Visit her web site.
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