For Elise: Unveiling the Forgotten Woman on the Criddle Homestead
Elise Harrer, a well-educated, talented artist, and musical young woman in Heidelberg, became engaged in 1863 to a young English music student. His desperate mother had sent her only son, 16 year old Percy Criddle, abroad in 1861.He was supposed to study music and took piano from a teacher at his main street studio in Heidelberg. Soon in trouble, his friend, George Nicol was recalled to London by his parents and studied law at Oxford. Percy promised his mother to apply all his energy to study and was allowed to stay in Heidelberg. Within the year he had won Elise’s love and shortly after the engagement he returned to his mother’s home in Addelstone, near London. Occasionally, on the pretense of obtaining German instruments ordered by his cousin Henry in Siam, Percy visited his fiancée. In September, 1866, having received his grandmother’s legacy, Percy, now a gentleman of means, took a health break to Heidelberg. Following that six week stay Elise found herself with child and when Percy returned at Christmas the family expected them to marry. German authorities required a groom to have his parent’s permission, a profession, a position with the employer’s signature, and proof he had a home for a family. Not able to satisfy the requirements, Percy promised to marry Elise in England and took her illegally across the channel in January 1867. Their infant, Mabel, was born in London in March. Elise’s family in Germany thought Elise was Mrs. Percy Criddle never learned otherwise.
Percy and Elise had five children while Percy courted and finally married Alice Nicol in Sept 8, 1874. their son, Norman, was born May 14, just three weeks after Elise’s last child Cecil. By 1878 Percy’s business failed and he had already spent Alice’s money from her deceased parents. He was depended on the sale of his mother’s painting for support until she died three years later. Percy faced bankruptcy and fortunately his wife’s brother died leaving her an amount under 1500 pounds. He decided to use his wife’s money to set himself up as a gentleman farmer in the British colony of Manitoba. Alice was not anxious to leave her relatives, and also had always had servants to care for her and her children. She stubbornly refused to go without a servant and delayed their departure from January to July. Percy, desperate to get away, finally sought Elise Criddle and won her consent to fulfill Alice’s requirement. Before the two Criddle families boarded the ship, however, Elise and her five children had their name changed to Vane, and traveled as servants below deck in steerage.
The author wrote For Elise from the perspective of Elise, the betrayed woman, her great-grandmother. It tells of Elise’s remarkable contribution, 1882-1903, to the English family’s survival on Percy Criddle’s homestead south of Shilo, Manitoba.
Because the Vanes did the work, Alice and her children, especially her firstborn, Norman, were able to enjoy an upper class lifestyle. Norman began using his grandmother’s paints to capture the simple beauty of prairie plants. Elise, with her artistic training, evident on the book’s cover, must surely have guided Norman as his skill developed. His paintings opened a path for his escape from the farm, and step by step, he became a well known naturalist, and entomologist.
Self-published books are not reviewed by mainstream media, but fortunately For Elise has many enthusiastic readers who advertise the story. With 2850 copies sold, my father’s grandmother is no longer forgotten. Although her talents went unrecognized, and she was cruelly cheated of her hopes for herself and her children, her sacrificial loving service is now inspiring, not only her descendants, but countless readers. This seemingly simple book actually contains a multi-layered, complex story that touches many aspects of our pioneering history and raises questions not easily answered. Her experience may be explained as “trauma-bonding” which sheds light on her inability to escape from the homestead.
For Elise was awarded the Margaret McWilliams Award in local history by The Manitoba Historical Society. The book was also a finalist in the 2016, inaugural Whistler Independent Book Award for non-fiction.