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Tuesday September 8, 2009

Author was fascinated with medieval women

She was named to the Order of Canada for her ability to bring history to life and her volunteer work on behalf of nurses and the aged

Special to The Globe and Mail

From dry baronial household accounts to the travels of a restless medieval nun, Margaret Wade Labarge, author, lecturer and long-time volunteer, had the ability to bring even the smallest historical detail to life. Combining a love of storytelling with a scholar's precision, she pored over arcane records to shed light on the more domestic side of a time most know for violence, damsels in distress and Joan of Arc.

"She often remarked that compared to some of the roles women played in medieval times, we haven't advanced that far today," said her son, Charles Labarge. "Back then, especially when the men were at war, it was the wives who collected the rents and wrote detailed accounts of their estates' activities. They did what they had to do and they did it as well as anyone. She understood that. She lived it. And if she encountered problems, she wouldn't let it stop her. She'd say, 'You're the problem, not me.' "

As the wife of a busy civil servant in Ottawa, as a mother of four children and a researcher with degrees from Harvard and Oxford universities, Mrs. Labarge was disciplined, generous and organized, fulfilling all her roles while somehow managing to keep them separate from each other. There was no in between for her, no promises to "be there in just a minute." After she saw the kids off to school, she shut herself in her office and wrote straight until they all came home, at which time she began to prepare supper.

"Respect" and "service" were her watchwords; in addition to her familial and academic duties, she worked tirelessly for causes such as the promotion of education for nurses and the prevention of abuse of the elderly, never once losing sight amid all the board meetings and fundraisers that there were real people behind the issues, and real suffering.

"Once, she told me about an elderly patient, whose children had complained because hospital staff had bought her a new nightgown to replace one that was old and ripped, and they didn't think it was necessary," Mr. Labarge said. "That was Mum all over. Here was this woman who'd published all kinds of books and met all kinds of important people and she'd know of a person who didn't have clothes for Christmas. Her care for others wasn't just this academic exercise."

Margaret Wade was born in the summer of 1916 in New York, the youngest child and only daughter of Alfred B. Wade, a wealthy partner in a brokerage firm, and Cecilia Helena Mein Wade, a Sacred Heart alumna who instilled in all her children their duty to give back. Young Margaret, known as "Polly" because everyone in her family had a nickname, spent much of her childhood on New York's Upper East Side. Her city life was upended when she was 10, after an ophthalmologist recommended that her parents take her out of school for a year, ban all reading and move to a place with lots of green space. It appeared that her fair colouring predisposed her to poor eyesight and the specialist promised that fresh air and rest would do her a world of good. Without further ado, the family moved to an estate in New Canaan, Conn., where the little girl continued to read during her enforced sabbatical, hiding up in trees during the day and under blankets with a flashlight at night.

The following year, her parents sent her to a boarding school run by The Sacred Heart order near Greenwich, Conn., after which she attended Radcliffe College (part of Harvard), where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1937. Her parents always stressed that she should be accomplished in her own right, just as her three older brothers were accomplished in theirs. One brother, Munroe, was an actor and drama teacher in the Princeton community, while another, Hugh, was head of the Canadian Studies department at the University of Rochester and wrote The French Canadians, a history of French Canada from an economic perspective. A third, Philip, was a distinguished combatant in the Second World War. (Only after he died did the family discover that France had given him a medal of honour.)

After Radcliffe, Ms. Wade went on to St. Anne's College at Oxford, where, torn between English literature and medieval history, she opted to read the latter under the tutelage of Frederick Maurice Powicke. She was fascinated, not so much by the big picture and the formation of things such as nation states, but by little things that, taken together, gave a glimpse into how individuals lived: Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, about whom she wrote her thesis; his wife, Eleanor, whose accounting records over seven months in 1265, while her husband was away at battle, was the basis for the much-lauded A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century; and Mary, the daughter of Edward I, a peripatetic nun whose journeys are part of another book, Medieval Travelers - The Rich and the Restless.

She would write nine books, all in a concise, entertaining style that both academics and laypeople enjoyed.

While at Oxford, she met her future husband, Raymond Labarge, a Canadian who was there studying law. Smitten with both her smarts and her looks, he often reminisced about how, soon after they had begun to date, he saw her from a distance while walking with several of his friends. When they all commented on what a lovely looking woman she was, he proudly said she was his girlfriend, and waved. Only she didn't wave back. It was as if she hadn't seen him at all. "Sure, Ray, sure," his friends said. "Your girlfriend."

A few dates later, as they sat by the water admiring sailboats, he asked what she thought of the one with the red sail. "It's lovely," she said.

"And the one with the blue sail?" he asked.

"That's nice, too."

But it was a test, for there were no red or blue sails. And Mr. Labarge understood that she really hadn't seen him with his friends a few days earlier; although she had prescription glasses, she didn't wear them unless she absolutely had to.

On June 20, 1940, the couple married at her parents' estate in Connecticut and moved to Canada. Fiercely patriotic of her adopted country, she renounced her American citizenship, believing that people should make a home of where they found themselves and not yearn for someplace else.

At the end of the Second World War, the couple settled in Ottawa, where, in short order, they had two daughters and two sons. To satisfy her need for intellectual stimulation, she lectured at the city's universities and began to write.

In 1965, only a few months after he'd been appointed deputy minister of customs and excise in the National Revenue Ministry, Mr. Labarge suffered his first heart attack. Although his wife tried to make him slow down, a second one in May 1971 proved fatal. A widow at 55, Mrs. Labarge continued to write and became even more involved in community work.

"When Mum got into something, it was always full-bore," Charles Labarge said.

Over the years, Mrs. Labarge garnered many honours, including honorary degrees from Carleton University, the University of Waterloo and Mount St. Vincent University. In 1982, she was named to the Order of Canada, for both her ability to bring history to life and the volunteer work she did on behalf of nurses, convalescents and the aged.

"She was tickled and gratified by that," said her son. "She was only doing what she thought was right. That was how she lived her life."

Margaret Labarge

Margaret Wade (Polly) Labarge was born on July 18, 1916, in New York City. She died in her sleep at home in Ottawa on Aug. 31, 2009. She was 93. She leaves her children, Claire, Suzanne, Charles and Paul, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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