Tolmie. Begbie. Work. Douglas. Helmcken. These are the names scattered about Victoria, BC, in its streets and buildings and natural landmarks, but who were these men? What did they accomplish in the city’s history to have their names memorialized for future generations? These questions and more are answered by novelist Vanessa Winn, who brings Victoria’s history alive once again with her latest novel, Trappings. Focused like her first novel on the daughters of Chief Factor John Work, Trappings takes readers into Kate Wallace’s life in Victoria in the 1860s—a time of depression and political turmoil.
[Trappings is] also set mostly in Victoria, but the reach extends farther afield. Trappings portrays Kate (Work) Wallace, the younger sister in The Chief Factor’s Daughter, and her difficult married life in the aftermath of BC’s gold rushes. Her home, Point Ellice House (a National Heritage Site), is put at risk by her husband’s business speculations and their lives become intertwined with the political power struggles between Victoria and New Westminster. But above all, it’s a story of families and maternal love, across three generations of women. ~ Vanessa Winn
I received this book for review courtesy of the author; all opinions expressed are my own.
Through the Eyes of Kate Wallace
Kate Work, now Catherine Wentworth Wallace, mourns the death of her oldest daughter in 1866. Only four years old, Abby had succumbed to an illness and left behind her parents and little sister Eliza. As Kate’s mother-in-law seems determined to keep her in mourning forever (just like herself), Kate’s sisters try to draw her back into society. She and her husband Charles join an excursion to Seattle, along with other members of Victorian society. The dancing and sight-seeing on the excursion a brief happy memory, however. Their return to Victoria brings with it a declaration of Charles’ bankruptcy.
A fur trader might provide his daughter with the trappings of success, but even a Chief Factor could not free her from wedlock, once caught in the matrimonial snare. Neither could he revoke a will, nor an indenture, from beyond the grace. Thus when Chief Factor John Work died, his daughter Kate’s share of his immense Victoria estate was left largely in her husband’s reckless, mercantile hands. ~ Trappings
Forced to leave Point Ellice House, which Kate Wallace had inherited from her father, she moves to her mother’s home at Hillside. She focuses her energy on caring for Eliza and preparing for the birth of her baby. Even the birth, however, is overshadowed by fear, as Kate has already lost one son in infancy. With her mother and sisters around her, she brings baby Charlie into the world. They remain at Hillside, where Kate’s sisters can help her with Eliza and Charlie. However, her husband’s ongoing bankruptcy disputes soon comes between her and her youngest sister, Cecilia, whose school life is affected by the gossip.
As her husband’s business affairs fail one by one, and his bankruptcy drags through the courts, Kate remains with her family, focusing on her children. She moves between her sisters’ homes and her mother-in-law’s house, trying to juggle family tensions and still mourning the loss of her beloved Point Ellice House. She is surrounded by dear friends—Captain Bazalgette, Mr. Nicholson, Mrs. Drake—who attempt to cushion her from the hardships of her husband’s poor choices and help her navigate her grief. All her concern turns to Eliza, especially as her mother-in-law contemplates a return to eastern Canada. As Charles’ business endeavors take him repeatedly from home, Kate tries to ensure that Eliza will have a stable future.
Charles’ court hearing, the next week, fell on the anniversary of his first son’s death. Despite a lingering hard frost, Kate went to the cemetery alone. She stood before the obelisk, the veined patchwork of ice spreading out from her feet into the shadows, and listened to the ravens calling. Her husband told her he would meet her there later, but he did not come. ~ Trappings
My thoughts on Trappings
When Vanessa Winn emailed me about Trappings, I was very excited to start reading. I thoroughly enjoyed The Chief’s Factor’s Daughter (about Kate’s older sister Margaret) and couldn’t wait to learn more in the saga of the Work sisters. I found Trappings hard to get into, however. Whether because of the short snippets of time that I was able to spare for reading because of my own children running about, or the many characters in the novel, it took me quite a while to feel drawn into the story. I was able to finish most of the book while sitting at my polling station here on election day. As I watched history play out in my own little corner of BC, I read about the political shiftings and turnings of Victoria a century earlier.
Kate Wallace is a strong, dynamic character. I felt a keen sense of closeness with her as a fellow mother worried about her daughter in a time of great uncertainty. My husband and I have also faced the ups and downs of changing jobs and financial uncertainty, though thankfully not to the extent that Kate and Charles face. Kate’s grief over the loss of her children was real and palpable, as was her conflict with her controlling mother-in-law. I enjoyed the closeness she shared with her sisters, and the quiet, steady presence of Mrs. Work in her life. Vanessa’s descriptions of various parts of Victoria, from the crumbling bridges across the inlets to the rickety fences of the cemetery and the regatta on the Gorge, made those places come alive for me and brought back memories of our time spent there.
Trappings would have been an easier read if Vanessa had focused more tightly on Kate’s story and immediate circle of family and friends. There was a wide cast of characters in this novel (including David Thompson, another HBC trader and explorer distantly connected to Kate’s mother) and at times, it was hard to keep everyone—and their relationships to Kate—straight. It wasn’t always easy to know if this husband of a former classmate was going to be a major character in the novel or was just a quick mention for this part of the story. And since John Work had eleven children, there were quite a number of family members to remember while reading.
Overall, Vanessa’s extensive historical research and attention to detail were obvious. Around a sturdy structure of historical facts, she wove a beautiful tapestry of emotions and motives, making Kate come alive for modern readers. I was honestly deeply sad when I realized what Kate’s persistent cough meant, as I had hoped for a much different ending for her story. Whether you’re a lover of historical fiction or curious to know more about British Columbia, I recommend both The Chief Factor’s Daughter and Trappings.
More about Vanessa Winn
Vanessa Winn’s debut novel, The Chief Factor’s Daughter, was longlisted for the ReLit Awards and runner up for Monday Magazine‘s “Favourite Fiction” award in 2010. As a manuscript, it won a Heritage Group prize for new voices in Western Canadian history and culture. The book has been studied in several BC universities.
Vanessa’s non-fiction has appeared in Monday Magazine and her poetry has been published in The Quilliad, Quill’s Canadian Poetry Magazine and Island Writer Magazine. She has a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English from the University of Victoria. Trappings is her second novel, another work of historical fiction. A story of first love, second chances, and family secrets, it’s set in Victoria during the collapse of the Cariboo gold rush.
Beyond her love of the written word, she finds inspiration in music and dance and teaches Argentine tango. Born in England, Vanessa Winn has lived in Victoria, BC, for much of her life. Drop by her website to learn more about Vanessa and her writing. You can also read my interview with Vanessa about her books and writing.
Vanessa gives a brief introduction to Kate Wallace, Point Ellice House and some of the questions in Trappings in a reading held at Kate’s former living room. Today, Point Ellice House is a national historic site open to the public (which we never managed to visit while we lived there, somehow—I’ll have to remedy that next summer!).
Had you heard about Kate Wallace, John Work, or any of the other characters mentioned in this novel? What historical figure in Victoria, BC would you like to learn more about?