I have a five and seven year old. We talk about super powers. Quite a bit actually. They’re a little more creative than I am when it comes to thinking about what super power we’d like to have. I’m boring. I always pick the same thing – time travel. There are so many dead people I’d like to meet. Near the top of my list would be Osla Clouston.
Osla Seaborne Clouston was the sister of Marjory Meredith Clouston. That’s where the description of Osla has to start because everything I know about Osla, through her diaries and letters and paintings and photographs, revolves around her relationship with Marjory or “Daw” as she was known to Osla. Osla and Marjory were almost always together. They had been since birth. Osla was the temperamental sister, Marjory was the even-keeled one. Osla was the older one, Marjory was the baby of the family. Osla had a flair for the dramatic, Marjory indulged it. Osla lived with one foot in reality and the other entrenched in a complex imaginary world. Marjory was one of the few people invited into both worlds. They shared secrets and friends and schemes and memories.
Both girls were coddled and spoiled by their father, Edward Seaborne Clouston. “Ned” as he was known to the girls and all who were close to him, was one of Montreal’s most powerful men. Of rather humble origins, the son of a Hudson’s Bay Trader, Ned had climbed the ranks of the the Bank of Montreal until he sat as the Vice-President alongside the bank’s president, George Alexander Drummond. Many years earlier, Ned had met Annie Easton in Brockville, Ontario where he was stationed with the bank for a spell. I know absolutely nothing about their courtship except for the fact that it came to an end when they were married in November 1878. I suspect that Annie was a relatively shy woman. I wonder if I think that because she was slight in stature and private in nature. Though she performed the matriarchal duties of elite social life, she never sought out the spotlight, nor did she pursue a front line role in philanthropic or cultural societies. She had several very close friends and her visitors’ books and family photographs indicate that she spent much time surrounded by these trusted friends. Within the traditional confines of her class (i.e. having a nanny and other staff), Annie kept her daughters very close to her – planning trips and outings for the girls and welcoming them into her own bed when nightmares terrified the girls out of theirs. There is little correspondence between Annie and her daughters because she was nearly always with them. It is clear that both girls adored their mother.
Though she had every advantage of the era offered to her, Osla still lived a difficult and complicated life. She had perpetual health problems that plagued both her body and her mind. In her diaries she records the constant stream of doctors’ visits and new health regimen suggestions – weeks without reading, sitting in dark rooms, trips to warmer climates, headaches that never quite went away despite medications, and perhaps most disconcerting to her, extreme mood shifts that left her feeling confused and frustrated. She had a dark complexion, physical evidence of the power of DNA. And she seemed to prefer the company of women to men – with her father, Ned, and Jimmy Paterson (was he in love with her?) an old family friend being the exceptions.
Osla and Marjory spent the winter of 1904-1905 in Europe. Social networks connected them across the Atlantic so that these young, accomplished women had access to elite social circles and the corresponding active social schedules that accompanied privileged life abroad. They returned to Montreal in early June 1905 so that Osla could be a bridesmaid in her friend’s wedding. In the lead-up to the wedding, Lady Allan hosted a celebratory dinner for the wedding party at her house, Ravenscrag, on June 2, 1905. Marjory and Osla attended the party just up the hill from their Peel street house. Osla never made it home that night. On the way out the door, Osla dropped dead. She was nearly 26 years old. The newspapers reported the cause of death as a heart attack. The cemetery recorded it as a brain tumor. Without an autopsy, we’ll likely never know the exact cause. Whatever the cause, Marjory was left without her best friend and other half. Annie and Ned had to face that nightmare world in which they’d outlived their child.
I wish I could meet Osla. I wish I could feel what it was like to be in her presence, where any moment there could be an open door into a world of imagination. I wish I could watch her with Marjory, the intimacy shared only by closest sisters. I realize that I’m completely destroying my reputation as an objective observer of history. I’ve confided my emotional connection to those I’ve written about. And last week when I drove by the old Clouston estate, I confess I imagined what it must have been like to lie out on the grass at the family’s summer mansion in Senneville. Time travel.