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Dr. Lissa Paul

Brock University’s Lissa Paul has spent countless hours examining archives in four countries to track down information on a woman who died nearly 180 years ago.

For many years, the Faculty of Education professor has been drawn to the story of Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840), an educator and author who Paul believes helped shape Canada as we know it.

She says Fenwick’s story, although largely forgotten, “speaks to what we still want: financial and social security and a place to call home. And it speaks to the kind of country that Canada has become: a welcoming place.”

In her latest book, Eliza Fenwick: Early Modern Feminist, Paul traces Fenwick’s journey from being a writer in England to running a girls’ school in what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake and serving as mistress of the Boys Boarding House for Upper Canada College in Toronto at the end of her career.

“What I try to show in the book is that she is an early-modern feminist, but I think she also stands as a Canadian heroine,” said Paul. “She was living what we now see as the immigrant’s dream of establishing a life for herself and her family when she had nothing with which to support herself except her own intelligence, her own skill at networking and her own drive.”

A talented writer, Fenwick wrote 10 books during the 1790s and early 1800s, including edited collections for children and one published novel for adults.

“As a children’s literature specialist, I first encountered Fenwick a long time ago, in her 1805 product-placement novel Visits to the Juvenile Library,” said Paul.

Fenwick was well connected with some of the most famous authors and figures of the period, including William Godwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake and William and Dorothy Wordsworth. As a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, Fenwick attended the birth of her daughter Mary (later Shelley) and cared for Wollstonecraft as she died of septicaemia following her daughter’s birth.

“She knew everybody who was anybody in radical London of the period, when modern democracy was being conceived, slavery was being abolished, feminism was being invented and when education was undergoing radical shifts,” said Paul.

Despite her well-known peers, Fenwick largely disappeared from public records after leaving England. Paul spoke of following Fenwick’s trail, taking “deep dives” through numerous archival resources in Canada, the U.k., U.S. and Barbados.