Reading “For Elise”

For Elise fell into my hands. Now what?

This is a thick book, and I have a tendency to relinquish focus and many books I long to read remain on my bedside table, half-read, through no fault of their own.

I was determined to read For Elise: The Forgotten Woman on the Criddle Homestead completely, with no other books interrupting it. Elise and Oriole deserve all this and more.

This is not a post about Mennonites, but it is about Manitoba history and about women. (As I’m thinking Elise may not be as alone as she likely felt during her time here.)

I first came across mention of the Criddle-Vane homestead on a Manitoba history Facebook group. Someone had visited the historic site near Brandon, Manitoba during the pandemic and sadly noted it had been vandalized. My heart breaks every time I hear of such things. People shared pictures of what it looked like before. It had been grand and storied. I wished I knew more.

Then, completely unrelated, I purchased a little local book called Manitoba Walks which includes hikes that venture past historic plaques. One such walk detailed here was upon the former Criddle-Vane homestead. A brief description of the walk mentioned that Percy Criddle immigrated from England to Manitoba in 1882 with his two wives, who did not know about each other until they were boarding the ship with their respective offspring.

Naturally this caught my attention and further deepened my interest. This was deeply weird.

Soon after, I was discussing books with a new acquaintance, and she told me about For Elise. I recognized the “Criddle/two wives” story and leaned in as she told me what she had learned. This book is tricky to obtain, so she kindly lent her copy to me.

So I have been spending time with the author, Oriole A. Vane Veldhuis, and her great-grandmother, Sabine Elise Harrer “Vane”.

This book is extraordinarily well researched, with footnotes on each page.

To sum up:

Elise Harrer was born and raised in Germany. She was well educated, lovely, musical, and spoke several languages. Percy Criddle was an Englishman determined to live the life of a gentleman, and in this pursuit went to Germany and took music lessons from Elise, fell “in love” and successfully wooed her. He promised they would marry when he had enough money, which would be “soon”. In the meantime, they had six children together (one died in infancy) and lived together as a family.

One day, Percy announced he had business in London but would still be around. He was not around so much after that, until he appeared and declared the family was moving to Canada where he was confident they would attain wealth quite easily. 

As they were boarding the ship, another woman by the name of Criddle appeared, with several children. Turns out Percy’s “business in London” had been to marry Alice Nicol, whose father was a lawyer, this being a step in the direction of his goal of becoming a gentleman. He could not have it be known to anyone that Elise’s children were his as well. He made it clear the children were to never call him “father” again and from now on he was “Mr. Criddle” to them. Furthermore, Elise’s story was to be that she was a poor widow by the name of Vane, and he and Alice took pity upon her and were good enough to support the poor “Widow Vane” by allowing her to bring her children to Canada and homestead with them in Manitoba. 

Makes me pretty ragey.

It gets worse. The Criddles treated the Vanes as second class citizens, and Elise in particular as their servant. And, as we all know, Manitoba weather is harsh. Elise was essentially held captive and subjected to many insults. In this way Percy covered and protected the real story, as Elise was kept busy cooking, cleaning, never able to leave the homestead. She was prevented from owning anything, ever again. She never saw her family in Germany again. They continued to write letters to her and Percy, never knowing the horrible truth. Percy censored all her correspondence, documented here.

And yet, and yet, and yet… humans are strange. This story is unbearably tragic, yet also… possibly redemptive?

I mean…

Oriole A. Vane Veldhuis was motivated to research and write this book because this history was a quiet source of family shame and community mockery. By getting the details right, and sharing them, she has brought painful secrets into the light, robbing them of their power. She has offered these ghosts some release, recognition, and redemption.

And I am heartily here for it.

As engaging as this “creative non-fiction” biography has been, I find Oriole’s preface and afterward equally compelling. How she visited Elise Vane’s grave with her father, watched his tears fall, then gently put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Tell me about your grandmother.” How she was told by others, “The past is past. Let it be.” And “you’ll find nothing.” I’m so glad she did not let it be. Instead, she was relentless in her pursuit to learn and publish the truth. She says, “But, I couldn’t leave the well alone, even if the waters proved to be bitter.” I admire the writer of this book so very much. 

Elise was buried apart, outside the family plot, on the homestead site near Brandon. I intend to visit her grave and pay my respects.