L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
Literary Revival, 1900-1921
[For the citation, see the end of the text]
There are very definite reasons for affirming that during the last fifteen or so years there has been a renaissance of French Canadian literature. The literature of France has been made accessible as never before. Improved means of communication have facilitated the visits and study trips of Canadians to France , whence they have returned with fresh inspiration.
At length a real public sufficiently numerous has been secured. This was lacking to the pioneers, who had perforce to labor without adequate encouragement either personal or financial. Cf : "It (i.e. the Quebec Act .) has kept alive in British North America a French nation never so united or self-conscious as at the present time " (1).
Troubles undergone by the French Canadians in provinces where they are in the minority, always a sure method of promoting a cause, have greatly increased the interest of the people of Quebec in their language and literature. The public interest has been thus stirred as never before. National solidarity has been achieved.
In 1902 was founded at Quebec under the auspices of Laval University L a Société du Parler français au Canada . This organization by its monthly review, le Parler français, has stimulated very considerably the development of French Canadian language and literature.
Then we have at the end of the last century the formation at Montreal of a cénacle of writers, who have by mutual encouragement and by united efforts accomplished much in prose and especially in poetry.
Last and by no means least we have definitely established as a genre literary criticism, without which no literature can hope to endure and make progress. In large measure the credit in this branch must be given to Professor Camille Roy of Laval University, whose fine sense of literary values and keen appreciation of literary art has enabled him with a delicacy of sympathy, combined with necessary firmness of judgment, to guide and counsel in apt and constructive manner the writers of the newer movement, which he adorns in no small measure.
Louis Fréchette (1839-1908 )
In 1900 Louis Fréchette , the well known poet, published his Christmas in French Canada (2). His aim, as stated in the preface was to do something to popularize among English readers the manners, customs, traditions and popular beliefs of French Canada. He takes the reader among the adventurers of the Far West, the dwellers in town, and country in Quebec . The stories, he says, are true.
The reader will add that they are interesting. Told in a vivacious and artistic manner, each very different from any other in the group, they have the appeal of true heart interest. They are simple, naïve like the characters they represent, but. they have the latter's rugged strength and genuine fidelity. The milieu in which they are set, the joyous, far-famed winter time of " Our Lady of the Snows ", those snows which are not at all as bleak and repelling as many suppose, but fraught with the liveliest pleasures and the merriest of outdoor sports, is pictorially perfect in its representation. The snow white of a Canadian Winter is everywhere, but the colors of filial affection, of lovers' dreams, of children's piety, of ardent religion are thrown against its white gleam in a contrast the more striking.
One must not forget also to mention his Originaux et Détraqués (3) (1892) a series of portraits, of tableaux de moeurs of a kind, which have an undoubted merit for those who would understand fully French Canadian life.
Abbé Camille Roy , (1870-1943)
In 1912 was published Les Propos Canadiens (4) of Professor Camille Roy , the distinguished educator, to whose efforts in literary criticism is due probably more than to any other single cause recent developments in French Canadian literature. These articles which appeared in le Soleil are described by the author as : des fragments d'une conversation que plus d'une fois nous avons reprise avec le public and again, recalling his earlier introduction : Les Propos du Samedi seront avec tous ceux qui voudront nous lire un échange très simple et cordial d'impressions, d'idées, de souvenirs, d'espérances, de joies et de tristesses, selon que le soir où il les faudra tenir, il y aura lieu d'être confiants, heureux ou chagrins. In these writings, which savor of the essay rather than of the chronique or which represent, if you like, the chronique in its loftiest form, all the author's grave, kindly idealism is displayed, together with a wealth of penetrating observation. In beautifully clear-cut prose worthy of the best traditions of French literature M. Roy seeks to express above all the truth and the ways which lead to it. In the different writings grouped as: Propos Rustiques, Propos de Morale, Propos Patriotiques, Propos Scolaires, Propos Littéraires, we have observations, lessons, concepts, exhortations on subjects regarding which the author is eminently fitted to write because he knows them thoroughly. It is easy to write for the day, to appeal to the popular taste, to follow the easier way of contributing to the self-indulgence of the mob ¾ and this is unfortunately rather the rule than the exception in many parts of the world today. But, possessed of a passionate desire for the best development of his race, M. Roy has left no opportunity go by to combine judicious didacticism with his treatment of topics drawn from actuality.
The first series, Propos Rustiques, in graphic word-pictures recalls from the author's reminiscences life in old Quebec . Beginning with le Vieux Hangar, which is a genuine masterpiece of description, we have presented various characteristic scenes such as le Journal au Foyer (which affords an opportunity to urge the necessity of dignified journalism ¾ a favorite theme with M. Roy), Vieilles Cloches et VieilIes Églises with its exquisite depiction of the church of Saint-Vallier, Leçons des Vacances with its exhortation to proper study including the forests, flowers and sea and Noël Rustique, the author's recollections of a Christmas of long ago before modern improvements changed the lighting and music of the church. In these articles intimate in tone, wherein is apparent the author's deep love for scenes of a beloved home, there is not forgotten the milieu of picturesque Quebec .
In the Propos de Morale, which follow, the didactic note is of course very prominent. Sobriety, purity, industry, studiousness are advocated. Exemplary warnings from contemporary life are cited. As usual, solicitude for the welfare and proper upbringing of the youth is in the foreground. Philosophical interludes and timely allusions to classical writings are judiciously interwoven. This is especially noteworthy in the three last: Idéal de Jeunesse, Une Âme de Jeune and Lectures des Jeunes Gens.
The reader interested in international politics will read with great attention the next series, Propos Patriotiques. The last of this series: Le Couronnement du Roi (an address given in the basilica of Quebec City . June 22, 1911 on the occasion of the coronation of George V in Westminster Abbey) affords the views of one of the outstanding leaders of French Canadian thought. This is much more than a mere "duty" address. The striking breadth of view of M. Roy is nowhere better illustrated than here, where he expresses the qualities of tolerance and liberty characteristic of British administration. The church is described as a bulwark of constituted authority. The spread of social atheism is attributed to the weakening of true religion. Britain , where royal power is buttressed by religion, is praised as a confederation, which affords ample room for the development of its constituent states.
It is not too much to say that M. Roy rising far above the pettiness and temporal character of contemporary political struggle, (bitter enough in all conscience in view of the circumstances) has been able here to visualize, as did Sir Wilfrid Laurier , the potentialities of the British Empire as a genuine league of nations, the first practical, working league, indeed, of such a kind, a league in short of much greater possibilities for the future of the world than many of its more narrow-minded administrators and officials even have been able to appreciate.
In others of this series such as: Pour la langue française, Pour l'extension de la langue française and Québec, ville française, he deals with the role of French culture in the world and shows himself an ardent and jealous advocate of its fine qualities. Naturally enough this is a matter which is peculiarly dear to French Canadians as well as to Frenchmen generally, but it is also much more, one which the rest of the world should value more generally than it does. The development advocated by M. Roy takes away no whit from other cultures and adds a great deal of untold value to the sum total of the progress of civilization, proponents of wide uniformity (a constant and seductive idea of mankind) notwithstanding. The function of French as the auxiliary international language par excellence, which has been lately recognized by the great majority, is outlined with convincing arguments in Pour la langue française, which possesses special interest as it was an address given at the annual meeting of la Société du Parler Français du Canada, of which the author was then (December, 1906) president.
In the Propos Scolaires one is not surprised to find Professor Roy a champion of disinterested culture. Without doubt he assigns technical and vocational to the highest place that its most ardent advocates could desire, but is definitely and warmly opposed to making colleges into mere factories. Also, as one would expect, the importance of religious instruction is faithfully delineated, a point of view to which many leaders even in what he calls the "neutral schools" are coming, in recognition of current conditions of much gravity. The Roman Catholic church has been uniformly consistent in this matter and despite the difficulties which sectarianism presents in protestant and state schools, it is evident that drastic changes will have to be made, if the youth of today are to be guided aright.
Lastly come the Propos Littéraires.
In Journalisme décadent the author with a clear sense of the importance of good journalism to proper national development stringently inveighs against the "yellow" press, which has been gaining in influence; and points the way to presenting the truth (of which no one could be a better model than M. Roy himself).
His review of Chez les Français du Canada (5) by Jean Lionnet affords M. Roy an opportunity to describe some of the chief resemblances and differences existing between French Canada and the mother country and to emphasize certain of the outstanding characteristics of French Canadian civilization.
In his review of Les Arpents de Neige (6) of Joseph-Émile Poirier there is an occasion, well taken advantage of, to deal with a question which is very dear to the French Canadian public, i.e. the development of the French speaking settlements of the West, which they fear may be engulfed in the rapid and striking progress of those English-speaking provinces. The subject of the book, which is not the great conflict of the Plains of Abraham, but the Riel Rebellion of 1885 opens up this much vexed question and the criticism of M. Roy presents the French speaking side of a little known matter.
To sum up, it is at once seen that M. Roy is not interested save in those great major matters, which are of concern to his people and that the truth, as he presents it, cannot be impugned by any fair-minded reader. The future of French Canada cannot be in doubt when possessed of such leaders (rare in all countries) as M. Roy, who brings to his task all the qualities of ripe scholarship combined with a critical faculty of the highest order.
The author's weighty material is conveyed to the reader in faultless language. The style is clear and trenchant, rising at times to the heights of eloquence. And back of this is clearly felt the spirit of the man, animated by the most admirable concern for the welfare in every respect of the race, which he loves.
M. Adjutor Rivard (1868-1945)
is the author (1919) (7) of Chez Nous, which is a review of the various aspects of French Canadian life beginning with la Maison and working outward. The substance is the plain, gray, but solid, substantial, homespun life of the pious family of old Quebec . This is told in sections separate, but united by the main theme, in a style of masterly simplicity. It is animated by the spirit of genuine religion and true patriotism. Telling, simple, direct, it has undoubtedly spoken with effect to the hearts of numerous readers as the third edition, attests.
M. Rivard, who was until recently the worthy secretary-general of la Société du Parler français au Canada is also the author of articles on philological and literary topics in the Bulletin of this association.
Abbé Lionel Groulx (1878-1967)
composed several tales published to 1916 (8) under the title of Les Rapaillages . They are sincere, homely little narratives, often pathetic, with a strong Catholic coloring. One, Une leçon de patriotisme suggests somewhat the Dernière Classe of Daudet . An indirect but nevertheless powerful plea is made to maintain the ancient traditions and the true faith. While these are sketches, lacking in any kind of regular plot, they breathe the very air of the people and charm by their presentation of the plain life of the people.
appear also in this last period.
M. ALBERT LOZEAU presented in book form to the public in 1911 and 1912 his Billets du soir (9) . They have a very distinct individuality, are in many respects quite different from others. They are short, very pungent, ingenious. Their crisp directness is not, however, de longue haleine, cannot be, probably. While they deal with the smaller things of life, these are nevertheless very often just the things which concern us most strikingly.
So also M. LÉON LORRAIN has given the public his Chroniques (10) , which are short, smart, witty, odd satires on society and events. M. Lorrain has the true and rather rare gift of intriguing his readers. He never bores and the form and style of his chroniques are almost always exceedingly happy. It is true that his gay badinage does not go very deep. There is no striving after deep philosophy. But there are many ways of approaching the truth, some of which are by apparent frivolity.
He also possesses in large measure the cosmopolitan spirit. Any part of the world may on occasion furnish him with the text for his short screed. This is essentially the French nature at its best. His introductory articles in the form of a dramatic sketch reminds one somehow of Abel Hermant. One would wish for more of the same type.
Finally; as might be expected in these modern days French Canada has also it women writers, not numerous as yet, but very probably destined to become more so.
From the pen of FRANÇOISE (Mlle Barry) we leave Le Journal de Françoise, 1902-1909 ; a number of chroniques in la Revue de Mme Dandurand, Le Coin du Feu, and her Correspondance hebdomadaire in La Patrie of Montreal (11). MADELEINE (Mme Gleason-Huguenin) has written le Premier Péché (1902) and Le Long du Chemin (1912 ). FADETTE has issued the four series of Lettres de Fadette (1914, 1915, 1916 and 1918).
As might be expected the role of women and children is very prominent. The different aspects of family life, the sufferings of the sex which pays for the wanderings and exigencies of man are faithfully delineated. By this I do not mean to imply that there is a definite, purposeful crusade of feminism manifested. Far from that indeed is the truth. But naturally and unconsciously perhaps these writers address themselves to the soul of feminine readers with representation of the problems of the feminine mind and heart. The tone is generally gently melancholy or else poignantly sad. Resigned cheerfulness or understanding compassion for joy, which must be taken by youth before it passes, is in general the height of the contrasting emotion, although vivacious passages occur. There is a deep religious feeling throughout together with a love for nature and the precious soil of the native land.
Madeleine adds a pronounced love, for France, which is perhaps significant. In her L e Long du Chemin, for example, which is an interesting collection of contes, légendes, portraits and studies, she begins with an article which is almost an invocation Vive la France a note sounded again in several places particularly in le Fort de Chambly. Studies of outstanding figures in French Canadian life such as Émile Nelligan [for his poems ] and J. Israel Tarte together with others like Les Impossibles Départs (the fruitless attempt of a son to take his parents with him to the land of gold and excitement, the United States) bear specially on the love of country, which is so definitely a French Canadian characteristic.
The great majority, however, of the different parts of the book concern the life of the lowly. Guided by sure, sympathetic realism, we are permitted to enter into their joys and sorrows, more of the latter by far than the former, since the poor, are more unprotected against the misfortunes of life. Love, maternal, conjugal, is the only ever-recurring relief, the one consolation which is constant, though even this is unfulfilled by the frailty of man or the inscrutable purposes of God. When man falls, however, woman as represented here will pardon, a tribute to her nobility of soul, as she illustrates particularly well in the conte told in letters, A travers la Vie.
Graceful, philosophical, much more cheerful, though also tinged with melancholy, are the letters of Fadette (published as columns in le Devoir ) . The duties of life, the folly of the worldly woman are strong elements in the letters, which are often little sermonettes directed against the undue pursuit of pleasure, the scorn for domestic duties, the failure to perceive the attractiveness of the commonplace ordinary things of life or those which seen ordinary. The real identity of Fadette is concealed by a careful editor (12), but one might deduce that she is one accustomed to the salons and the intimate circles of the great when the desire is entertained to leave the picturesque retreat from which she usually writes. Extreme delicacy of perception and fineness of sentiment is hers and her writing is enveloped in the tenderness of truest sympathy and understanding of one who apparently has also known suffering.
(1) Victor Coffin, The Province of Quebec and the Early American Revolution , University of Wisconsin Bulletin Vol, I, 1897, p. 277.
(2) In English, Toronto, 1899; in French, Toronto, 1900.
(3) Montreal, 1892.
(4) Quebec, 1912.
(5) Roman canadien, Paris, 1909. Nouvelle Librairie Nationale.
(6) Paris, 1908. Plon.
(10) Editions du "Devoir" Montreal, 1912.
(11) I am greatly obliged to M. Ernest Myrand, Litt. D. for having furnished me with these facts.
(12) [Fadette was the pseudonym of Madame Romuald-Maurice Saint-Jacques, born Henriette Dessaulles.]
Source: Charles Frederick WARD, "Chapter 2: Literary Revival, 1900-1921", in The Récit and Chronique of French Canada , Montreal, Librairie G. Ducharme, 1921, 44p., pp. 37-43. Minor editing and typographical errors have been corrected.
© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College