Mina Benson Hubbard

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange has been paddling in the wake of a unique early feminist.

(LANGE) Mina Benson Hubbard, born to an Irish-American farm family just north of Lake Ontario, was both physically and mentally precocious. Widowed at thirty-three, she undertook and completed the exploration that had killed her husband, Leonidas Hubbard. With sextant and sketch pad, she mapped the route so well that her notes were superseded only by aerial photogrammetry in the 1940s. She wrote a book and lectured on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, she married a second time, into immense wealth, and beginning at the age of thirty-nine, bore three children. She cultivated a British accent.

She requested that her ring from her first marriage be used at her second wedding. She displayed her first husband’s idealized portrait in her British mansion and always measured other men against her memory of him. She insisted her second husband, an easy-going sportsman who loved country life, reestablish in London society. He left her during the First World War for a Hungarian refugee. She dragged out the bitter divorce proceedings for years and at the age of fifty-six received a handsome settlement, establishing her as a grande dame. She supported feminist and radical politics, encouraged young artists, and embraced Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy. Claiming an immunity to fear, she once chased a burglar from her bedroom; and during bombardments in London refused to retreat to the cellar.

Last summer seven companions and I followed Mina’s voyage through northern Quebec exactly one hundred years later. Her young husband had attempted, with a friend and a Cree guide, to cross from the coast of Labrador to Ungava Bay by river and ancient Indian trails. Left behind when he collapsed from starvation, he was dead when help finally arrived. His friend, Dillon Wallace, wrote a slightly florid account of the expedition, The Lure of the Labrador Wild. When she read it, the widow was outraged. She claimed it made her husband seem childish and romantic, (which he was) and conceived a lifelong hatred of Wallace.

In 1905 she decided to complete her husband’s expedition. At the same time Dillon Wallace set out on the same route. Each was aware of the other’s intentions; they traveled north on the same steamship, neither speaking to the other; and neither ever mentions the other in the two dueling books they produced afterward.

Her diary, with each day’s experiences still fresh and undigested, is superb, written with freezing fingers or while enduring mosquitoes and black flies.

Always preferring confrontation to negotiation, she was “often difficult to live with,” and estranged from two of her children.

How did she die? Well, the sign by the railroad track read, “Please do not cross the line.”

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

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