Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

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


French Canadian (Quebec) Literature


Part II




This text was written by abbé Camille Roy in 1914. For the full citation, see the end of the text.

The novel appeared rather late in the history of French-Canadian literature. This branch of letters, which demands a well-disciplined imagination, a profound knowledge of life, and a most skilful art, suffered from the hard conditions that long affected the development of literature in French Canada. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that any one ventured to enter a field in which such rare qualities of mind are necessary for success.


The novel of Canadian life and the historical novel were the first to be cultivated. Works of great merit are not very numerous. In 1853 Pierre Joseph Olivier Chauveau published Charles Guerin, which was merely a timid attempt at a novel of manners. Ten years later, in 1863, a work appeared that was to take a permanent place in the history of the Canadian novel - Les Anciens Canadiens, by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé.


Born in 1786 at Quebec, de Gaspé, a son of the seigneur of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, did not enter Canadian literature until late in life. After a career at first mingled with trials, afterwards tranquil and happy at the seigneurial manor, he was suddenly seized with a great longing to communicate to his fellow-countrymen his earliest recollections. It was then 1860, and de Gaspé was in his seventy-fourth year. The literary movement instituted by the intellectual activity of Crémazie , Garneau , Casgrain and Gérin-Lajoie had led to the establishment of Les Soirées canadiennes, on the first page of which was inscribed the saying of Charles Nodier : 'Let us hasten to relate the delightful tales of the people before they have forgotten them.' The septuagenarian took Nodier's counsel to himself, and began to write his romance.


Les Anciens Canadiens is at once a novel of manners and an historical novel. As a basis for his narrative the author has used some of the most interesting features of Canadian life. Two young men, one of whom, Jules d'Haberville, is a Canadian, and the other, Archibald Cameron of Lochiel, a Scotsman, become friends during college life. Separated by the necessity of earning their livelihood, they again come together, but under different flags, during the war in which France and England fought for the last time for the soil of Canada on the Plains of Abraham and the fields of Ste Foy. Their old friendship is broken, then resumed with reserve. The author turns to account all the incidents that he gathers about this main theme in relating the life led by his countrymen at the already distant period of the Conquest.


De Gaspé's work is less a novel than a series of historical pictures; it is, as it were, - the first draught - the rough sketch of a national epic. May not the novel be a veritable epic, and may not the epic, in its turn, be history ?


Les Anciens Canadiens, moreover, was a species of chanson de geste in prose. De Gaspé blended history with legend; he related the heroic actions of the last battles of the Conquest, and their no less poignant dramas of conscience. He introduced the marvellous, without which there is no epic; he evoked a love-interest, too prudent, perhaps, to satisfy the canons of romance, but capable of recalling the mingled smiles and tears that pervade the Iliad , or the passion, ardent yet restrained, that breaks forth only to die at the end of the Song of Roland . Thus de Gaspé is at once the most eloquent, the most simple, the most charming narrator of Canada's past - the true epic singer of a marvellous phase of its history.


The life of the seigneurs, interwoven with that of the colonists, is described at length in de Gaspé's pages. The artless simplicity of popular manners is painted with truth. If Père José, as a type of the good old domestic, is a little exaggerated, M. d'Haberville and his son Jules are worthy representations of the seigneur of the old French regime. The scenes of the disaster of Saint Thomas, and the maypole dancing at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli; the tales of José, the evocation of the sorcerers of the Isle d'Orléans, and the nocturnal promenades of La Corriveau ; the description of the costumes of the peasants, and the conversations, animated and true to the characters and their time-all reconstruct before the reader's eyes the life of a period whose traditions are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. De Gaspé even shows himself a philosopher: he depicts life and he depicts himself, for in describing the trials endured by the worthy seigneur of the story, d'Egmont, he evidently draws on his personal experience. The style of this novel, unique in French-Canadian literature, breathes simplicity and good humour. At times there are eloquent passages into which all the author's patriotism is infused. Sometimes these hastily written pages are adorned with classical reminiscences which testify to the writer's culture.


Very different from Les Anciens Canadiens is the Jean Rivard of Antoine Gérin-Lajoie . This novel, while containing studies of Canadian manners, is also a social romance - a novel with a purpose. The author published the first part of the book in Les Soirées canadiennes in 1862, while de Gaspé was preparing Les Anciens Canadiens. He entitled it Jean Rivard, le défricheur; the second part, Jean Rivard, économiste, appeared in Le Foyer canadien in 1864. Gérin-Lajoie endeavoured in these successive works to persuade his compatriots to remain on their native soil of Canada instead of emigrating to the United States , as they were then largely doing; to cultivate the rich soil of the Province of Quebec; to clear the virgin forest without ceasing; to open up new parishes - in a word, to colonize.


Upon this very real theme of colonization Gérin-Lajoie built up the simplest of romances. As little intrigue and as much agricultural life as possible - such was the rule that this somewhat unromantic novelist imposed upon himself. This did not prevent him from writing a book that was widely read, and creating a type that has remained as an example for all colonists.


Jean Rivard is a young student, prevented by ill-fortune from finishing his classical studies. He passes, willingly enough, from his rhetoric into the forest, where he intends to cut himself out a domain. He becomes a pioneer tiller of the soil. Alone in the woods of Bristol, the forerunner of all his future companions and fellow-citizens, he fells the great trees, clearing them away by dint of the most patient efforts; he sows his roughly cleared field and builds himself a modest house in the virgin forest - a nest, soon to be brightened by the coming of Louise. The hard-working colonist becomes a rich and contented cultivator. Round about him other young men gather - men who have attacked the great trees with equal ardour. Rivardville is founded. Jean Rivard, who manages his farm with wisdom, is now an able economist after having been an indefatigable farmer. He offers the benefit of his practical experience to whoever will use it. He becomes the leading citizen of the newly colonized region, then the mayor of his village, and finally member of parliament for his county.



In this novel one must not look for profound psychology or an art practised in narrative. What the author wished chiefly to portray were pictures of colonization, scenes in which there passed before the vision, successively and realistically, the laborious stages, sometimes hard but on the whole happy, of the Canadian colonist's life. The tale is told in a simple style - a little dull, perhaps, but always interesting; it is enlivened, too, with most picturesque pages in which are clearly reproduced some of the most characteristic customs of the French-Canadian habitant's life.


Here, for example, is how Gérin-Lajoie draws the picturesque scene of the corvée:


Quand les matériaux furent prêts et pour qu'il ne fut plus question que de lever , Jean Rivard résolut, suivant la coutume canadienne, d'appeler une corvée .


Dans les paroisses canadiennes, lorsqu'un habitant veut lever une maison, une grange, un bâtiment quelconque exigeant l'emploi d'un grand nombre de bras, il invite ses voisins à lui donner un coup de main. C'est un travail gratuit, mais qui s'accomplit toujours avec plaisir . . . . Ces réunions de voisins sont toujours amusantes; les paroles, les cris, les chants, tout respire la gaieté. Dans ces occasions, les tables sont chargées de mets solides, et avant l'institution de la tempérance le rhum de la Jamaïque n'y faisait pas défaut.


Une fois l'oeuvre accomplie, on plante sur le faite de l'édifice, ce qu'on appelle le 'bouquet,' c'est-à-dire quelques branches d'arbres, dans la direction desquelles les jeunes gens s'amusent à faire des décharges de mousqueterie.


Quoique Jean Rivard n'eut invité, pour l'aider à lever sa maison, que les hommes de la famille Landry et quelques autres de plus proches voisins, il vit, le lundi matin, arriver avec eux plus de trente colons établis de distance en distance à quelques milles de son habitation . . . .


Chacun avait apporté avec soi sa hache et ses outils, et l'on se mit de suite à l'oeuvre. Le bruit de l'égouïne et de la scie, les coups de la hache et du marteau, les cris et les chants des travailleurs, tout se faisait entendre en même temps; l'écho de la forêt n'avait pas un instant de répit . (1)


While de Gaspé and Gérin-Lajoie were issuing their works, Georges Boucher of Boucherville (1814-98) published in La Revue canadienne another novel, which quickly attracted the attention of readers, Une de perdue et Deux de trouvées (1864-65). This was a novel of manners and adventure, and was very successful. The author transports his personages by turns to South America, Louisiana, the Antilles, and finally to Canada . His pictures and descriptions, especially in the first part of the book, are bright and animated. The extravagant and exciting situations that occur in the course of the tale contributed greatly to its popularity.


Joseph Marmette (1844-95), who was a most prolific novelist, devoted himself specially to the historical novel. His principal works were - Charles et Eva (1867), François de Bienville (1870), L'Intendant Bigot (1872), Le Chevalier de Mornac (1873), and Le Tomahawk et l'Épée (1877).


Marmette's historical studies are generally fascinating; they recreate dramatic periods of the past. In Francois de Bienville he depicts the siege of Quebec by Phips ; in L'Intendant Bigot, the last years of the French régime. The author had a lively descriptive imagination, not, however, always under control; and his characters are lacking in originality.


The historical novel has had other representatives. In 1866 Napoléon Bourassa published Jacques et Marie , which recalls the dramatic story of the dispersion of the Acadians; 'Laure Conan' (Mlle Félicité Angers) wrote A l'Oeuvre et à l'épreuve (1891) and L'Oublié (1902); and in 1909 Sir Adolphe Basile Routhier produced Le Centurion , an interesting attempt to reconstruct Jewish and Roman history in the time of our Lord.


Following the example of Gérin-Lajoie, Jules Paul Tardivel (1851-1905) attempted another novel with a purpose. His Pour la Patrie , published in 1895, is a work treating of religious thought; in it the author specially attacks the influence of freemasonry, which he denounces as the most dangerous and most subtle evil that can invade the national life of French Canada. Ernest Choquette , who published Les Ribaud (1898) and Claude Paysan (1899), and Hector Bernier, who wrote Au large de l'Écueil (1912), have given us pleasing romances of manners.


French Canadians still [in 1914] await writers in the field of fiction who will endow their literature with powerful and original works.


(1) Jean Rivard , i. 180-2.

Source: Camille ROY, "French Canadian Literature", in Adam SHORTT and ARTHUR DOUGHTY, eds.,   Canada and Its Provinces , Vol. XII, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, pp. 471-477.  



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College