Saunders, Marshall (1861–1947)

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Saunders, Marshall (1861–1947)

First Canadian author to sell over one million copies of a single book. Born Margaret Marshall Saunders on April 13, 1861, in Milton, Nova Scotia; died on February 15, 1947; daughter of Edward Manning Saunders(a minister) and Maria K. (Freeman) Saunders; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

(children) Beautiful Joe: The Autobiography of a Dog (1893), Deficient Saints (1899), A Tale of Maine (1899), Beautiful Joe's Paradise (1902), Princess Sukey (1905), The Wandering Dog (1914), Esther de Warren (1927); (adult) The Girl from Vermont (1910).

Marshall Saunders was born on April 13, 1861, the eldest child of the Reverend Edward M. Saunders and Maria Freeman Saunders , both of whose ancestry in the New World dated back to the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock. Saunders was born in the house of her maternal grandparents in Milton, a town in the vicinity of Liverpool, Nova Scotia. She lived with her family in the Annapolis Valley in the town of Berwick until 1867, when her father, a Baptist cleric, was reassigned to a church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When Saunders was 15 years old and ready to attend finishing school, she went to Scotland to study in Edinburgh. She remained abroad for two homesick years, including time spent for enrichment purposes in Orléans, France. When she returned home in 1879, she worked as a schoolteacher. Recognizing her talent, her father encouraged her to write.

Saunders, who was content in her home life, wrote frequently about her surroundings. She was adept at weaving elaborate plots in emulation of those authors whose works her parents most respected—Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. Her earliest works appeared in periodicals when she was 23. Later she began to work on book-length manuscripts with involved, dramatic plots. Her first book My Spanish Sailor appeared in 1889. Her second, Beautiful Joe: The Autobiography of a Dog (1893), was her most famous, and the only one to remain in print by the end of the 20th century. The story's protagonist-narrator, a dog named Joe, was modeled after an Ontario friend's pet whose ears and tail had been mutilated by its previous owner. The family in the narrative resembled her own, especially Miss Laura, based on Saunders' own sister Laura, who had died at age 17. The book, reissued as Beautiful Joe: An Autobiography in 1894, had been written in part as an entry for a Boston-based writing contest, and Saunders had won $200 for the story. She wrote a sequel, Beautiful Joe's Paradise; or, The Island of Brotherly Love, in 1902.

Saunders lived in Boston from 1895 to 1898, at which time she relocated to California for two years. Thereafter, she traveled throughout Europe and North America, writing and observing subjects for her work. She settled in Toronto, Ontario, with one of her younger sisters and a few house pets. Saunders was extremely fond of domestic animals, as was clearly demonstrated by the many animal stories that she wrote. The animals in her writing, notes Carole Gerson , "are able to remember, record, and present (with the aid of a human amanuensis) complex information at the intellectual level of a nine-year-old child." Along with encouraging humane treatment of animals, Saunders advocated for the rights of children and often used animals to parallel their vulnerability. In her only work geared to an adult audience, The Girl from Vermont: The Story of a Vacation School Teacher (1910), she affirmed her ideas about social justice for the young.

Saunders concluded her writing career in 1927 with her final novel Esther de Warren: The Story of a Mid-Victorian Maiden, her personal favorite. Because of poor financial management and harder-to-come-by publishers, she was forced to pursue supplementary income aggressively during the 1920s and 1930s, touring the country with her sister Grace , giving slide presentations of "Marshall Saunders and Her Pets" and "Marshall Saunders: Her Life and Literary Adventures." Aging and in failing health, she withdrew increasingly to her residence in Toronto beginning in 1940, assisted for a time by the Canadian Writers' Foundation. She died in relative poverty in February 1947.

Through her work, Saunders attacked such social issues as urbanization and child labor. She successfully attracted international attention to her activist policies in opposition to child exploitation and inhumane treatment of animals. Saunders received an honorary M.A. degree from Acadia University in 1911, and in 1934 she was created a commander of the Order of the British Empire.


Gerson, Carole. "Margaret Marshall Saunders," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 92. Canadian Writers, 1890–1920. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California