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Inside the Criddle-Vane Saga

The colourful and scandalous life of Manitoba's most eccentric pioneer

The Criddle-Vane family was one of the most unusual pioneer families to ever make its way to Manitoba. In 1882, Englishman Percy Criddle arrived in the province with his wife and four children, along with his German mistress and their five children.

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It is about 300 pages into For Elise one finds an act of unequivocal cruelty that forever damns Percy. It is when Percy won’t let Elise attend the wedding of her eldest daughter, Minnie. There is no explanation given. It may be he was embarrassed by how Elise’s looks had deteriorated. That’s not a reason but may explain how his mind worked. One can only imagine the heartbreak for Elise.

Elise aged rapidly after arriving in Manitoba. Veldhuis maintains she lost her looks due to illness and because the Criddles overworked her. Several years after settling, Elise contracted a lengthy illness that almost took her life, and she never fully recovered, said Veldhuis. It caused her hair to thin to the extent she took to always wearing a bonnet. In two family portraits of the Criddles, Elise is barely recognizable as the woman Percy fell in love with, and she seems to be hiding her face.

Both Criddles and Vanes have nothing but condemnation for her exclusion from her daughter’s wedding.

"It’s just heartbreaking. I cried when I read that," said Trollope. Added Patricia Jacquest, another Criddle descendant now living in Souris, "I don’t know how you justify that treatment."

"That was Percy, the aristocrat, the snob," said Trollope, a founding member of the Criddle-Vane Homestead Committee that started and looks after the Criddle-Vane park.

Percy, who would weasel money out of Elise, also committed a grave injustice by virtually leaving the Vane children out of his will. A couple of Vane girls received $100 each, which is the equivalent of about $2,000 today adjusted for inflation. Edwy, his oldest son with Elise, received a mere $50. Yet without Edwy, the Criddles would never have survived. Edwy was the leader and cornerstone among the children who made that farm run.

Injustices in a will can run deep within families, and this one has endured for generations. The rest of the estate — it was either $10,000 or $18,000, it is not legible on the original document Veldhuis secured — was left to Alice and six children. Alice died less than a month after Percy, so it went to the six children — he had left two Criddle daughters out of his will because they married husbands he didn’t approve of. (Only four of the eight Criddle children ever married, possibly because they didn’t want to risk their father’s wrath.)

Even so, the Vanes were never entirely servants, or never entirely family. That surfaces in Percy’s diaries.

He doesn’t say a lot about family members, but after Elise died in 1903, he showed a rare display of emotion, in an entry excerpted by Criddle-de-diddle-ensis.

"The first time in at least 40 years that I am without a birthday greeting from Elise," he wrote, using her real name for the first time since they’d left England.

"My memory keeps going backwards and forwards over the 41 years of changes and vicissitudes through which we have travelled together. On every side too here, I see a thousand things to tell me of her work and doings — and how steadily and quietly she laboured for the general good."

One of the problems with self-published books is they don’t usually have editors, and that’s obvious in For Elise. One publisher who rejected the manuscript told Veldhuis, For Elise is so black-and-white in its portrayals it almost defies belief. The book is also overly long at about 500 pages, and the material could have been organized better, although so much research material would have challenged even the most accomplished writer.

Veldhuis has also written it as creative non-fiction. She tries to get inside Elise’s head and puts her thoughts in italics. For the most part, this is effective, allowing her to finally speak. However, there are places where it can be misleading, like when Elise speaks Veldhuis’s theory Percy promised farmland for her boys to persuade her to immigrate. That’s only speculation but a reader can mistake it for fact. As someone in academic circles said, For Elise should not be considered the authoritative book on the Criddle and Vane families.

As well, Veldhuis ignores most of Percy’s diaries. She believes the letters she obtained trump them. Her argument for doing so — that diaries aren’t reliable because they only portray the writer in a positive light — isn’t convincing. The diarist is bound to reveal things both intentionally and unintentionally about him or herself.

For example, while flipping through Percy’s diaries, Louis Riel’s name leaped out on one page. It was an entry from 1885, the year Riel led the Northwest Rebellion. Criddle admitted to not knowing much about Riel but viewed him as a threat to the British Crown in Canada. He wrote he hoped Canada would act like the Americans for once and shoot Riel and his aboriginal supporters on sight. It’s typical Percy.

One of the difficulties in being a history detective is figuring out what can be blamed on the mores of those times, as well as the circumstances and conditions in southwestern Manitoba, versus how much blame rests with individuals. Other husbands may have been just as controlling as Percy.

"Englishmen were the king of the castle and women were like their possessions almost," said Marguerite Cory, curator of the museum in Wawanesa. "Englishmen thought they were so superior to women."

In her defence, Veldhuis said she was writing for the Vanes, not the Criddles. "I didn’t write the book to be vindictive. I wrote it for my family to recover. A social worker said to me, ‘You’re recovering from a third-generation trauma,’ " Veldhuis said.

Around Wawanesa, the book by Alma Criddle is sometimes dubbed The Gospel According to the Criddles, and Veldhuis’s book is The Gospel According to the Vanes.

Even so, For Elise, which won the Margaret McWilliams Award for local Manitoba history, is remarkable. It sold out its first print of 1,000 copies, and is well on its way to selling out the second print of 1,000. That’s pretty good for a local book and very good for a self-published one.

What sets the book apart is Veldhuis’s research. It is breathtaking. Veldhuis, 80, made three trips to Germany and two side trips to England to uncover lost documents and make contact with Criddle and Vane descendants. She lived her great-grandmother’s life for 12 years. While her interpretations can be questioned, few would have gone to such lengths. It became a massive retirement project but also a commitment to her family to set the record straight. Veldhuis said what needed to be said: That is, the Criddles wouldn’t have survived without the Vanes. The Vane children were more solidly built and knew how to work with their hands. The Criddle children were well-educated and went on to have extraordinary careers, but they were effete when it came to farm work.

Percy tried to avoid manual labour at all costs, sitting in his library reading up on botany or astronomy or whatever seized his brain at the time, while the children did the work. Percy may have been the straw that stirred the drink but the Vanes set down the glass and poured it.

Elise was Percy’s first wife. We see that now. If it’s any consolation, entomology professor Neil Holliday stopped referring to Elise as "mistress," after his encounter with Veldhuis. He began referring to Elise as Percy’s "former common-law wife."

Elise raised beautiful children. She did the age-old thing immigrants do: She sacrificed herself so her kids could have a better life. Edwy, her oldest son, eventually left the Criddle homestead and became a much-admired farmer in the area.

Even today, four generations later, Vanes and Criddles socialize with each other.

Gary Everard played baseball with Paul and Dave Criddle, grandsons of Percy and Alice. Everard used to hunt with Dave Criddle, who has since passed away. Everard worked with Paul on restoring the buildings and the grounds at Criddle-Vane Homestead Provincial Park. Other Vanes and Criddles also worked together to make the park a reality.

The Criddles agree Elise didn’t get a fair shake. She was a dedicated, hard-working woman, and she raised her kids to be responsible adults.

"The Criddle got all the glory, the Vanes got nothing," said Trollope. She applauds Veldhuis for making the correction and heaps praise on the book, even if she doesn’t agree with all of it.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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