Margaret Marshall Saunders, 1861 — 1947

Canada's Early Women Writers. SFU Library Digital Collections. Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada. 1980-2014.

Touching Hearts Around the Globe

Not many writers sell millions of books, but this Nova Scotia writer did — nearly 125 years ago.

Margaret was born in Milton and grew up in Berwick and Halifax. Her animal-loving family recognized she was precocious and furthered her education by sending her as an adolescent to school in Edinburgh and France. Her inclination to write was strong, especially of stories with a moral purpose for children, often including animals. Margaret wrote as Marshall Saunders, to make readers think she was a man.

With what would be her second novel — written from the perspective of a mistreated but beloved, heroic dog — Saunders won an American publishing contest. The book, Beautiful Joe, came out in 1894. It was a story filled with animal rights and humanitarian messages that charmed readers everywhere. Beautiful Joe is said to be the first book written by a Canadian to sell over a million copies. By the late 1930s it was in fifteen languages and had sold over seven million copies worldwide.

The story Saunders told in her best-seller was true. It was about a mongrel dog she had come to know in Ontario. The loving family she wrote about was based on her own and the locations where the action unfolds were inspired by Halifax and the Annapolis Valley. However, the contest she had won — and the publishing reality — insisted that fictitious American place names be used instead of the Nova Scotia ones.

Beautiful Joe and later books made Margaret Marshall Saunders a well-known author and public speaker, honoured by both Great Britain and France. She was a champion of children's and animal rights, but ended her days needing charity to help her get by.