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The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925.

The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925. By Mariana Valverde (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1991. 205 pp.).

Underlying this work is Valverde's acceptance that "the role of discourses, symbolic systems, images, and texts in actively organizing both social relations and people's feelings" is critical to understanding the past (p. 9). Using discourse analysis and literary theory to evaluate the moral reform movement in English Canada in the latter decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries is no easy task. For one, the movement was not one-dimensional, but as Valverde points out, it was an amalgam of several different issues: temperance, the white slave trade, concern about immigration, racial purity, and the perceived threat of the city. While a number of these facets have been studied individually and while there has been a sense of some of the connections among them, until Valverde's book no-one had examined those links in any depth. Central to the study is the interplay of gender, class and ethnicity and we are reminded not to assume "that 'gender' is a ... euphemism for women, 'race' one for people of colour, and 'class' one for working-class and poor people" (p. 16). The author plays each of them against one another and while this introduces the reader to the dangers of oversimplifying the past and to a greater appreciation of the complexities of our ancestors, it does not in this case always make for easy reading which is somewhat problematic in a publication series designed for undergraduate teaching.

Valverde begins her book with a wide-ranging, at times stimulating, examination of reform during this period, intertwining theory, speculation, and conclusions. In a social science approach this comes before the concrete discussion of moral reform that is her focus, and thus for a reader unfamiliar with the historical material, it may lead to some confusion. Her second chapter on allegories, however, is fascinating in the way she probes the language of reform. For example, through an examination of reform rhetoric she notes that although today moral and scientific discourses are separate, in the past they were not. What joined them was medicine. All the concerns that Canadians had which were linked to moral reform were also related to health social health, moral health, and sexual health. The latter is particularly intriguing. Central to it was white slavery, which doesn't appear to have existed but as an issue stimulated a good deal of discussion. It was a symbolic issue par excellence. As Valverde makes clear in trying to account for it, the fears surrounding it were the fears of many Canadians and certainly of the moral reformers--fear of change in women's roles, of the rise of urban alienation, of the disintegration of traditional modes of support. To overcome these 'problems' was the purpose of the various voluntary reform organizations. But their members believed that they needed help to do so and consequently looked to strengthen the state in order to bolster up their own endeavours. The irony of this was, of course, that the state itself was not interested in assuming either the power or the responsibility. As Valverde concludes, some things do change.

Wendy Mitchinson University of Waterloo
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Mitchinson, Wendy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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