Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia




[For the citation, see the end of the text]

Until 1760 Canada was called of course la Nouvelle France. The outcome of the decisive battle fought by Montcalm and Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, the significance of which was not fully appreciated at the time any more than the farseeing statesmanship of Pitt, brought la Nouvelle France, which with better support from the French crown might have become a French empire in the West, under the British flag; and also removed from the colonies to the South the fear of attack - a matter, which, as is well recognized now, was of primary importance in their later declaration of independence from the mother country. On account of the broad tolerance of the British government, however, the French part of Canada remained French after the conquest even in such matters as legal procedure and holding of land.


It was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries particularly that France colonized la Nouvelle France , chiefly from the provinces of Normandy , Brittany , Maine , Poitou, Saintonge and Anjou (i.e. the North and West of France). Naturally these colonists, even in the new environment which was so different from their native land, retained the outstanding qualities of their race such as artistic ability, love of psychological realism, addiction to clarity of reasoning, logic and the theory of general ideas together with the enthusiasm and mysticism characteristic of Northern France.


The life they had to lead as pioneers of a new world: duties as farmers, Indian fighting, military and diplomatic contests with the Thirteen Colonies, caused certain changes in their character, which later forces, e. g. the initial loss of enterprise of a conquered race, which had not learned that it was in reality free, the lack for many years of contact with France and the influence of the dollar worship in the neighboring republic caused other changes. Thus it is clear first, why literary development was slow; and second, why it acquired a somewhat different character from that of the literature of France .


The language brought to Canada was that of the French seventeenth century, the golden age of French Classicism. The early educational programs for reading texts consisted almost entirely of the classic masterpieces, which of course were admirable, but deficient in certain qualities as an exclusive intellectual diet. While in France the language was undergoing important and necessary changes (particularly in vocabulary), books in French Canada available for reading were as above stated. Thus the language of French Canada remained so to speak in a state of arrested development making only comparatively few additions from the dialects of the provinces of origin or by newly coined words.


General Characteristics of French Canadian Civilization


Of course, as we would expect, the fundamental qualities of French civilization are also to be found in French Canada. Hence we have both the love of art and the ideals of art in the different branches: architecture, sculpture, music, etc. in picturesque Quebec and elsewhere.


The ability of the French woman to establish an artistic interior, the cult of domestic privacy, the attention paid to family duties, even the refinements of personal adornment and the expertness of fashioning the toilette crossed the sea with this pioneering race.


Intellectual qualities such as logic, reason, clearness of thought, ability to penetrate the exterior of prejudice, convention, custom to the real idea beneath likewise are to be found as characteristics of the civilization of French Canada, characteristics, which have at times led to very interesting and entertaining debates on the floor of the Dominion Parliament and Senate, when they have been pitted against the different characteristics of English speaking Canadians. These qualities needless to say, whether in the arena of politics or in business or elsewhere have enriched Canadian development in a remarkable and unique manner.


While there have been and are leaders on both sides, who have been animated by narrow, prejudiced views, unable to join forces for the development of the country as a whole, a splendid roster of fine personalities will ever stand forth as an undying record of men who have combined the genius of two races to promote the progress and prosperity of the whole land.


The natural gaiety and wit of the French, a very wholesome counterpoise to the more serious, sober character of the Anglo-Saxon also must be mentioned. While undoubtedly it is not as fine or as sophisticated as in the mother country, it possesses a bonhomie, a heartiness and perhaps a wholesomeness which the latter somewhat lacks. It is familiar to the observer of French Canadian manners.


Then naturally also there are certain qualities which are native to French Canada itself. Just as the great commonwealths of the English speaking people have developed new qualities in the midst of vast new territories, so with the inhabitants of the former la Nouvelle France.


The country itself with its great extent, its new fauna and flora, its wonderfully picturesque landscapes, its capacities for adventures and enterprises on land and sea has been of very considerable influence on the population thereof. The French Canadian loves his new patrie with a deep and abiding affection and loves to hear about its legends and its stories. He is, as has been demonstrated, ready to defend it with his life's blood, although in part as yet unable to see why he should cross the seas to do so (3). To fully appreciate French Canadian literature and civilization therefore, we should know something of the land itself.


Surrounded as he is by strong influences from the English speaking parts of the continent with their intense practicality and devotion to commercial success in particular ¾ and of course these have not been without effect on him ¾ the French Canadian has been greatly concerned about the growth of his own nationalism, which to some pessimists seemed at one time to be falling into decadence. This concern and the ardent determination to maintain and keep pure his language, customs, to develop his own literature, even in the midst of unfavorable circumstances, has colored much of the writings of French Canadian authors; and, if it seems at times a trifle overeager and bitter, it must be remembered that the circumstances have been difficult and that the recollections of conquest and regret for what might seem to have been a different ending to the Seven Years' War are hard to forget.


Finally, since we may speak in this brief sketch only of outstanding matters, the civilization of French Canada is distinctly Roman Catholic. The influence of the clergy is supreme and it has accomplished much in causing the country to develop Christian ideals of life. No more devoted body of men have ever worked for their race than the priesthood of Canada . Finely educated for the most part, animated by high ideals, sincerely desirous of forwarding education and social service work as well as the more definitely religious aspects of their work, they have given their lives to the welfare of the souls of their parishioners in a manner, which has unified the people in their care (with but few exceptions) against the attacks of sinister doctrines economic or political, a matter which deserves close study. These aspects are of course reflected in the literature of French Canada in a very obvious way. They have worked towards the high moral value of the work produced; which is in strong contrast even to some of the masterpieces of French literature proper.


The Four Periods of French Canadian Literature.


Before coming to the special topic of the book, it may afford a clearer understanding thereof to give the four periods, into which it is usually recognized that French Canadian literature is divided.


I. The Period of Origins. (1760-1820. )


This is the period of first beginnings. Cut off from the old land, discouraged by rankling memories, inexperienced in methods and processes, facing the problem of living, newspaper articles are in the main the only monuments of this age of commencement.


II. Second Period. (1820-1860. )


The second period, filled with political agitation, is also distinctly a period of struggle. There was naturally an increase of journalistic endeavor. Patriotic poetry and history, written with intent to develop the national pride and consciousness, were the chief genres.


III. Third Period - The Pléiade and After. (1860-1900.)


This begins with the " Pléiade " of 1860 (Octave Crémazie, Louis Fréchette, Pamphile Le May, Alfred Garneau chiefly). They attempted with fair success, particularly in poetry, to lay the foundations for a national literature, and were animated by a zeal that may well be compared to that of Du Bellay and Ronsard. The subject matter of their work was national. Their theme was patriotism. Inspired by their efforts we have the first récits and chroniques.


IV. Literary Revival. (1900-. . . .. )


This period is too recent to characterize clearly. It contains more works than the previous and there is greater perfection of technique.


(3) This is not altogether confined to French Canadians. While it is an erroneous attitude, it may presumably pass with greater education in world politics.

Back to the Index page of Récit and Chronicle of French Canadian Literature


Source: Charles Frederick WARD, "Introduction", in The Récit and Chronique of French Canada , Montreal , Librairie G. Ducharme, 1921, 44p., pp. 13-16.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College