News and Interviews

Open History - Travels and Identities: Elizabeth and Adam Shortt in Europe, 1911

Our Open History series continues with Travels and Identities: Elizabeth and Adam Shortt in Europe, 1911, by Peter E. Paul Dembski, published by Wilfred Laurier University Press. 

Read on after the following description for a Q & A with the author.

Travels and Identities: Elizabeth and Adam Shortt in Europe, 1911 (From WLU Press):

Elizabeth Smith Shortt was one of the first three women to obtain a medical degree in Canada, and her husband, Adam Shortt, enjoyed a successful career as a professor of politics and economics at Queen’s University in Kingston. In 1908 Adam Shortt relocated his family to Ottawa to take up a commission to oversee civil service reform under Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. There he convinced his superiors that an onsite investigation of four European countries would expedite his effort to improve Canada’s bureaucracy, and in June 1911 he and Elizabeth embarked on their trip. This book chronicles their Atlantic crossing and extended visit to England, as well as trips to Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands.

The Shortts were generally pleased with England and its values, but Elizabeth was sharply critical of the behaviour of British nurses. Her diaries and letters, here reprinted, critiqued the lands and peoples she visited in Europe. Leading foreign feminists such as Lady Chichester and Mrs. Maud of the Mothers’ Union in England sought her advice, as did Alice Salomon in Germany, the corresponding secretary of the International Council of Women. The diaries and letters presented in this volume reveal the multifaceted nature of Adam and Elizabeth Shortt, from public figures to difficult employers to a couple who couldn’t help but live beyond their means.

Peter E. Paul Dembski’s introduction paints a picture of a couple who lived as moderate liberals with occasional conservative or radical views, and who blended science and an adherence to Protestant Christianity into their thinking. Their travel experiences, during a period of building political upheaval, provide a valuable snapshot of pre–First World War European society and culture.

 

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Tell us a bit about your book and how it came to be.

My book originated with a perusal of the Elizabeth Smith Shortt Papers at the University of Waterloo’s Dana Porter Library. Here I soon became mesmerized by four diaries and a number of letters that Elizabeth Shortt wrote during her trip to Europe in 1911. Soon afterwards the Queen’s University Archives provided her husband’s diaries and letters from the same excursion. Adam’s documents were less extensive, but valuable in portraying the couple’s travels through the five countries they visited. Collectively, these primary materials supplied the foundation for the present volume.

What drew you to write about Adam and Elizabeth Shortt?

There is relatively little written about the Shortts and virtually nothing dealing with them as a couple. Thus, I began this book with a comprehensive definition of their identity as a couple up to 1911. Further, I sought to provide an account of what Elizabeth and Adam experienced in Europe. It soon became apparent that this was closely linked to the national identities perceived by the Shortts on their visit.

Here Beth’s incisive criticisms were especially revealing. For example, she was displeased with the improperly trained British nurses, a manipulative Catholic Church in Austria, and an intense militarism in pre-World War Germany. Her thinking extended to international as well as national issues, a theme not generally enunciated in published works about her. There were, of course, positive images that enraptured Mrs. Shortt in the Old World. For instance, she was delighted with the venerable parliamentary buildings in London as well as the stunning scenery and culture in Switzerland.

The primary materials presented here also reveal a good deal about Adam’s personal identity, which cannot be found elsewhere; for example, his love of good meals followed by lively discussions. His athletic prowess led the fifty-one year senior bureaucrat to climb a mountain in Switzerland. These details round out his character for the reader.

These stories provide present micro level reactions that complement and extend the macro accounts of English Canadian visitors to Europe such as A Happy Holiday: English Canadians and Transatlantic Tourism, 1870-1930 by Cecilia Morgan. Both approaches ought to be included in a comprehensive history of English Canadian transatlantic tourism.

Whenever possible, the Shortts’ writings have been analyzed in the prefaces to each chapter. Thus, the couple’s views on the national identities of Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have been assessed in the prefaces to chapters 4, 5 and 6. However, their views on British identity extended over four chapters and could only be discussed coherently in the conclusion.  Another subjct analyzed in the conclusion is Elizabeth’s evaluation of visual art in Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. Her definitions of the British identity and European art in 1911 show that the Shortts’ diaries and letters deal with multiple identity issues, whch make them valuable references for understanding both Canada and the Old World during an era of great change.

What were the challenges in capturing your subject through the way you've chosen to present it? How can this medium help readers to connect to a particular historical event?

I have written this work with an emphasis on a Life Writing approach, featuring diaries and letters composed by Elizabeth and Adam. I have added my own comments in an introductory chapter sketching their personal histories down to 1911. Further critical commentary is presented before the primary material in Chapters 1 through 7. Finally, the conclusion seeks to “connect the diaries and letters presented ... to other questions of identity not discussed elsewhere” (p.245). On all levels I sought to express a non-fictional method of life writing.

Thus, both primary and secondary materials are presented in this volume. This furnishes an important tool for history teachers on almost any educational plane. To be more specific, the diaries and letters constitute primary sources while the editor’s comments comprise secondary sources which are easily distinguishable.

Why do you think it is important for contemporary readers to remember and reflect on Canadian history?

This is a difficult subject to discuss with any kind of thoroughness so I will confine myself to two references; one relevant to Adam and the other to Elizabeth. By 1911 Adam was hopeful that he could radically improve the federal civil service. However, as Doug Owram points out, “to achieve these goals would take decades”. By 1917 Shortt’s ongoing campaign for civil service reform caused the Borden government to ask for his resignation since his criticisms were undermining Ottawa’s all important war effort. In immediate terms, Adam had failed to achieve his dream of a new and improved bureaucracy. But he had laid a firm foundation for a major overhaul of the federal civil service in the years to come.

A similar pattern characterized Mrs. Shortt’s campaign for various causes. By 1913 she had been converted to the idea of voting rights for females. Meanwhile she continued her struggles for gender equality in education, the teaching of hygiene and domestic science in public schools, dress reform, social and economic improvements for poor children, an end to tuberculosis and other social issues. However, none of these problems were resolved by 1911 and some remain prominent today. Elizabeth and Adam were building foundations for significant, and mainly positive, changes in the future. Nevertheless, contemporary Canadians who enjoy these advantages today owe much to the hard work of early activists like the Shortts.

What impact did the the Shortts have on current Canadian culture?

In my research for this book I began to recognize its relative uniqueness. I encountered two publications on the history of Canadian tourism in Europe: Eve-Marie Kröller, Canadian Travellers in Europe, 1851-1900 (1987) and more recently, Cecilia Morgan, A Happy Holiday: English Canadians and transatlantic Tourism, 1870-1930 (2008). Both were sound macro studies, but I could find no references which provided a micro analysis of a Canadian individual or couple traveling in the Old World. So the historical importance of Canadian individuals and couples visiting Europe has been very slight mainly because studies on the subject have been so limited. Hopefully this book will be a modest step in the direction of more attention to this interesting and significant topic especially on the micro level.

 

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Open History is an initiative to explore Ontario's past, one book at a time, sponsored by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization, Canada Council for the Arts, and The Ontario Arts Council. For previous Open History posts, catalogued on our Open Book Explorer site, please click this link.

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