A Doukhobor Romance

Victoria Daily Colonist & Lima Times Democrat

“All the world loves a lover” – and his story. What follows is the story of Arthur Fortesque, a well-born, Oxford-bred Englishman and nephew of the Chief Steward of the Duke of Portland, who fell in love with Olga Varinhoff, a Doukhobor maiden in Canada in 1901. Renouncing caste, inheritance and English tradition, he married her and adopted her religion, customs and way of life. This story is a composite of two articles: a feature in the Victoria Daily Colonist published October 22, 1902, and a Lima Times Democrat feature published March 27, 1909. Although largely forgotten today, it is surely one of the most remarkable romances in Canadian and Doukhobor history. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

The birth a few days ago [in March 1909] in a little town in the far Canadian Northwest of a baby girl recalls to the few who knew of the incident one of the most remarkable romances in history – the romance of Arthur Fortesque, a nephew of the Chief Steward of the Duke of Portland, and Olga Varinhoff, a Doukhobor maiden, then less than 20 years of age.

The story was suppressed carefully at the time, and the passing of a few years obliterated the memory of it among those friends of the young nobleman who were aware of it, for naturally it was the most pronounced kind of a mesalliance [Victorian term for a marriage with a person of inferior social position].

Oxford Roots

Fortesque, handsome and dashing, a recent graduate from Oxford University, where he took an honor course, disagreed with his family, and went to the Canadian West as a remittance man [Victorian term for an Englishman living abroad on funds remitted from his family in England, usually to ensure that he would not return home and become a source of embarrassment]. He was daring and devil-may-care by nature, and unless he kept it a secret carefully hidden, he was heart whole and fancy free. He reached Winnipeg when that city was just beginning to boom, and for some time, he hung around the western town, making friends among the restless western souls like himself who thronged the place. At Oxford, Fortesque had been a figure in athletics and at one time, he was prominently identified with rowing and aquatics. His name was familiar to many of the Englishmen he met in Winnipeg during his first few weeks there and he became popular with them. However, the wanderlust within him conquered his ambition to become a Winnipeg business man and he drifted south to Minneapolis, Minnesota across the line.

Life in Minneapolis

Fortesque lived in Minneapolis for two years, arriving there in 1899. He became known as a landscape painter of some distinction, but being perennially hard up when trying to subsist on money he received from his artistic endeavors, he succumbed to the persuasion of Fred W. Gretton, now senior member of the sign-painting combination of Fortier-Gretton on 213 Hennepin avenue, and began decorating windows for people who desired to secure stained glass effects without the expense of stain.

At this sort of enterprise Fortesque, who was then a fashionably-clad and handsome youth of 25, made good wages and supplemented his remittance from England of $100 a month.

In 1901, he refused to receive longer any financial aid from his uncle in England, who is Chief Steward of the estate of the Duke of Portland, and decided to make his own way in the world. This decision on the part of Fortesque appears to have been due to a religious conviction. Early in his Minneapolis career he became interested in Christian Science, and he continually preached the doctrine of Mrs. [Mary Baker] Eddy’s cult during his residence with Gretton, who regarded the views he expressed as visionary in the extreme and his declination of an income from his father’s estate as nothing short of suicidal.

It was at this time that the idea of visiting the Doukhobor colony in Western Canada formed in Fortesque’s mind. Sociology had been a hobby with him, and as the idea took form, he determined to get some money together and make a study of the customs and religion of the strange community of “Russian Quakers” to the north.

Fortesque first heard of the Doukhobors when he reached the ancient Canadian city of Quebec, and the story had been of deep interest to him. These people, he was told, had left their own homes in Russia because of their strange religious beliefs. The Russian government had hounded them until their spirit was bowed and broken. They would not fight because of their creed, and they had sought Canada, as the Puritans sought America in the pursuit of happiness and religious liberty. The Canadian government had given them grants of land, in the far West, and there they were living as communalists, apart from the world, industrious, peaceful, happy.

The tale appealed to Fortesque as little more than mythient, but in the West he heard more of this strange people and read a great deal about them, and the longing to understand them, to know their creed, ethics and simplicity of life, possessed him relentlessly. To this end, Fortesque left Minneapolis for Assiniboia [district], ostensibly for the reason that he felt more at home under the British flag.

Visit to Doukhobor Colony

It was midsummer 1901 when Fortesque reached the first of the Doukhobor colonies on the Saskatchewan River. He had bought a horse and outfit and he intended to go from colony to colony making friends with the dim notion of eventually publishing an account of his life among the Canadian Doukhobors. Behind this ambition, preserved for the future, was his expectation that he would one day return to England and claim his own among his own people. But here fate intervened.

Fortesque was “hiking” along a dusty trail in the Doukhobor country one hot afternoon when he came in sight of a spectacle that caused him to pull up short in bewilderment. Some distance to one side of the track he was following, he made out a band of women dressed in the gorgeous attire of the Dukhobortsy, laboriously hauling a plow, 16 to a yoke. Behind them, guiding the handles of the implement, trudged a broad-shouldered Doukhobor man.

The sight angered the young nobleman, and spurring his horse, he dashed across to a point where the human drudges must pass. Slowly and toilsomely, they came on, the women chanting in a minor key as they tugged at the ropes. Then they were abreast of him, and from the moment his eyes first rested on the sweet face of one of the women, a mere girl in her teens, Fortesque forgot his anger. The girl gazed at him shyly as she passed, and Fortesque thought hers the sweetest face he had ever seen.

The incident passed from the young man’s mind at the time, and he continued his journey to the outlying colonies, spending considerable time with each one. He was struck by their evident earnestness and sincerity in renunciation of the world’s vanities.

Then, one night, in a little cabin in one of the furthest colonies, when he was fighting off the lonesomeness that possessed him and the physical weariness, the face of the plow girl flashed into his memory. Responsive to the promptings of his impulsive nature, Fortesque started next morning for the colony where he had seen the girl, determined to seek her out and dispel the strange fancy that had taken hold of him by hearing her talk and by observing the crudities [unrefined nature] he knew she must possess.

The search for the girl presented more difficulties than the Englishman anticipated, and the longer he hunted, the stronger became the desire to see the girl’s face again. At last, by accident, he saw her among a group of women coming from a little church [prayer home]. Through friendship with the leaders of the colony, Fortesque was presented to the girl. Her name, he learned, was Olga Varinhoff.

Fortesque liked the name. The girl met him shyly but without affection, for simplicity was a part of her nature. Her clothes were outlandish, Fortesque admitted to himself, but despite his attempts to rid himself of the charm this peasant girl had for him, the young nobleman found her surprisingly sweet and womanly. She was different from any woman he had ever met.

Day after day, he spent more and more time with her, accompanying her on her journeys to and from work, for the girl would not consent to shirk her duties in the community.

In the end, Fortesque sank his pride and acknowledged to himself that he loved Olga Varinhoff, Doukhobor maiden. With the admission came a great happiness for he found that the girl cared for him, and disregarding British convention and Doukhobor custom, he took the little woman in his arms and kissed her after the manner of the Anglo-Saxon.

Decision to Join Colony

Fortesque, following this, made arrangements to become a member of the colony. He sent no word to his people. He decided his future in a moment, relinquishing his chance for fortune and title in his love for the peasant girl. He renounced the faith of his father and swapped the Church of England for the sect of the Doukhobors.

Some of his friends in the West heard of it and did their best to dissuade him. They warned him that his fancy for the girl would soon fade. But Fortesque turned his back on all objections and convincing the leaders of the colony that he was in earnest, he was received with the customary ceremonies into the community of the Dukhobortsy.

Soon afterwards, he and Olga Varinhoff were married, and in accordance with their rules of communal life, his brothers and sisters helped him and his bride to build a home. Fortesque adopted, in part, the Doukhobor dress and entered into the fullest extent into the life of the strange people with whom he had thrown in his lot, becoming by adoption a ‘Doukhobor of the Doukhobors’ and a vegetarian of pronounced views.

Fortesque’s action cut him off forever from his friends in England. His family, learning of his marriage sometime after it took place, disinherited him and forgot his existence.

Return to Minneapolis

It was back in Minneapolis that Fortesque’s extraordinary story was exposed to curiosity-mongers. He returned there from Assiniboia in October 1902, nine months after he left. He was bare-footed, his hair was 18 inches long, of the silken blond variety, and he refused to answer any questions that seemed to him unworthy of the mental effort necessitated in ordinary conversation.

“I have nothing at all to say about my change of faith,” said Fortesque when asked by a Minneapolis reporter. “I did not [just] become a Doukhobor because my wife is of that faith. I joined the band because I believe they are right, and there is excuse for my change of heart in the beliefs of other men, much more distinguished than I am. Tolstoi believes the Doukhobors are right, and so do scores of men in England quite as brilliant thinkers as he is. The trouble with them all is that they have not the courage of their convictions. I have nothing but my convictions to bother me. I would not be rich if I could be so now by the mere turning of my hand. I will never wear shoes again so long as I may live – that is, if they are made of leather. I may wear felt shoes in the winter, and I might even be persuaded to wear canvas shoes with rubber soles in the summer. I don’t want to go into all the ramifications of the Doukhobor belief. It would take too long, and might excite ridicule from unthinking people.”

But the interesting feature of this episode was that Fortesque was on his way to England, where he proposed to influence the British government, through influential relatives, to set apart a territory in South Africa to which the Doukhobors may remove from Assiniboia and be unhampered in their religious faith by the interference of government.

“I do not say what my intentions are, said Fortesque, “but there is certainly no reason why a people should not be permitted to do what it pleases with its own. I think our turning of our cattle into the hills was our own private business. We decided that it was wrong to work cattle. The government authorities have rounded the cattle up and sold them, but that, while unfortunate, is not our fault. I believe that the British government, which is able to get along with all sorts of Mohammedan sects in India and evade friction, ought to be able to find a corner in its broad dominions for so inoffensive a body as the Doukhobors, and I am going to find out whether or not this is so.”

Fortesque then left for Chicago on the Milwaukee road. When asked whether he intended to travel bare-footed, he curtly informed the newspaper man that it was none of his business, and refused to discuss any phase of his mission thereafter, the outcome of which is unknown.

Present Life

At present [in March 1909], by reason of his education, Fortesque has become one of the leaders of the colony. He and his wife live peacefully and apparently happily in Assiniboia district. They resent intrusion on the part of strangers and seem content to let the outside world do what it will. They have two children now, one but recently born.


The story of the Englishman Arthur Fortesque and the Doukhobor maiden Olga Varinhoff has all the makings of a best-selling novel or Hollywood movie: romance, drama and adventure, with a dash of scandal and controversy tossed in for good measure. Not surprisingly, after the story first broke in October 1902, it was carried by dozens of newspapers throughout the Canadian and American West and caused quite a stir. It must be recalled that in the Victorian era, social class barriers were rigid and stratified; much more so than they are today.

According to the story, Fortesque (spelled Fortescue in some accounts), well-born and Oxford-bred, left England over a family disagreement in the late 1890’s. He sailed to Canada, arriving via Quebec City, and stayed briefly in Winnipeg, Manitoba before departing stateside for Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1899. There he lived and worked for two years as a landscape and window painter. During this time, he drew a monthly remittance from his uncle, the Chief Steward of the Duke of Portland (in some accounts his uncle is identified as the Duke of Portland). In mid-1901, the 25-year old Fortesque travelled to the Saskatchewan and Assiniboia districts of the Northwest Territories to visit the Doukhobor colonies. There, he met and fell in love with a Doukhobor maiden, Olga Varinhoff (possibly a misspelling of Varankoff, Varabioff, Vanin or Verigin), then less than 20 years of age. Renouncing his upper-crust English birthright, he married her and adopted the Doukhobor religion, customs and way of life. Thereafter, Fortesque fell in among the Doukhobor zealots who, in late 1901, released their horses and cattle into the wild and refused to use animal products. It was at the height of this hysteria that Fortesque returned to Minneapolis in late 1902, with bare feet and long hair, en route to Chicago. He was ostensibly travelling to England to persuade the British Government, through his influential relatives, to set apart land in South Africa for the Doukhobor zealots to live according to their beliefs. It is not known whether Fortesque carried out his mission; in any case, the Doukhobor zealots did not relocate to South Africa or elsewhere abroad. What is known is that by 1909, Fortesque was still living among the Doukhobors of the Assiniboia district (probably in the North or South Colony) with his wife and two children, where he attained a measure of local leadership on account of his education.    

Nothing is known about the fate of Arthur Fortesque after 1909.  A cursory search reveals no trace of him or his family among the Doukhobors in the available census and other records for the period.  His story is virtually forgotten among Doukhobors living in Canada today.  Clearly, further historical and genealogical research needs to be carried out to verify and elucidate this most interesting Doukhobor love story.

Special thanks to Corinne Postnikoff of Castlegar, British Columbia for assisting in the data input and proofing of this article.