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 Camille Roy in 1914. For the full citation, see the end of the text. Footnotes are found at the end of the text]


SHORTLY after the publication of Michel Bibaud's Histoire du Canada, another work appeared which was at once to eclipse it and cause it to be forgotten-the Histoire du Canada (1845-48) by François Xavier Garneau . With this work the second period of French-Canadian literature opens - the period of its development. This book was soon to be followed by others, not less important, which were to make the years following 1840 a remarkable epoch from the point of view of progress in Canadian letters.


The conditions of the political life of the country were such as to bring about this literary growth. The struggles which the French Canadians had to maintain for the defence of their legitimate liberties, the bloody issue of that long agitation, the designs of diplomatic repression which the Act of Union of 1840 sufficiently disclosed - gave them to understand that they must more than ever concern themselves with strengthening their separate and distinctive public life. As nothing expresses better, or stimulates more effectually, the forces of national consciousness than literature history, poetry, oratory, books and publications of every kind - several minds determined to devote themselves to the development of French-Canadian letters. Men felt a need to write the history of their past, the better to illumine the future; to sing the ancient glories in order to inspire new courage; to relate the old and venerable traditions, that their memory might be imprinted ineffaceably on the hearts of the young. François-Xavier Garneau appears first on the list of those who then made the literature of French Canada shine with a fresh brilliance. National history has for him a distinct claim on the Canadian conscience.


Born at Quebec in 1809, Garneau belonged to a respectable artisan family, industrious but not well-to-do. His people were unable to give him the education he would have liked. He attended the day-schools of Quebec , but he was unable to enter the Petit Séminaire for his classical course. Entering the office of Archibald Campbell , notary, at the age of sixteen, young Garneau began his apprenticeship, studying Latin and French classical authors by himself in his spare time. It was while thus engaged that his vocation as historian was revealed to him. It was then, at least, that, moved by a natural feeling of irritation, he one day conceived the project of writing his history of Canada . There were some young English clerks in Campbell 's office; and, as the rivalries of race were at that time warm, arguments frequently arose on questions of Canadian history. The young patriot's opponents did not scruple to offend his pride. After all, was he not but a son of the vanquished, and did not every one know that the French Canadians had no history? One day, driven beyond all bounds by some such insult, young Garneau retorted: "Our history! Very well - I will tell it! And you will see how our ancestors were vanquished and whether such a defeat was not as glorious as victory !" The work that Garneau wished to write demanded much labour and preparation. Unexpected circumstances occurred, however, to enable him to qualify himself gradually for the task.


Garneau became a notary in 1830. He employed his leisure in collecting historical notes on Canada; and soon, on June 20, 1831 , by dint of stringent saving, he was enabled to go to Englan. There he applied himself to the study of English institutions, and attended the sittings of parliament. After a short visit to France he returned to London , and had the good fortune to become secretary to Denis Benjamin Viger , who was then diplomatic agent for the French Canadians to the English government. The young secretary spent two years in London. He had an opportunity of meeting some of the great men in the English and French world of letters; he learned at what cost the literary glories of Europe had been built up, and he was astonished at the influence and prestige accorded to intellectual authority in the enlightened Old World centres of culture. Returning to Quebec on June 30, 1833, Garneau endeavoured - but only for a short time -   to pursue his profession as a notary. He then became an accountant in a bank, and was at length appointed translator to the legislative assembly of Lower Canada . It was in an official position that he was to find the time necessary for carrying into effect his project for a history of Canada.


The first volume appeared in 1845, the second in 1846 and the third in 1848. These volumes brought events down only to 1792. In 1852 the author published a second edition, in which the narrative reached the year 1840. In 1855 Garneau published his Voyage en Angleterre et en France. But already a serious malady, epilepsy, was gradually undermining his health. Since 1844 he had been secretary of the city of Quebec; he was obliged to resign in 1864, when his malady attacked him in a more violent form. He died at Quebec in 1866. The ashes of the 'national historian' of French Canada rest in the Belmont cemetery, at the gates of the city, near the battlefield of Ste Foy, the glory of which he has so eloquently told.


Garneau's Histoire du Canada gives the story of all the French colonies of North America from their origin to the treaty of 1763. From that date the author confines his narrative to Canada proper. The sustained effort necessary to the construction of a work so extensive and so fine cannot be overestimated. Garneau wrote at a time when it was very difficult to get access to the sources of the history of Canada . Obviously, his documentation could not be so abundant as that of later historians. But he set himself to turn to account all the materials and historical information he was able to collect. Out of these materials, hitherto rare, he made a work that, although incomplete and capable of improvement in many respects, excited the admiration of his contemporaries by its general excellence. Written during the political turmoil that came to a head in 1837, and published on the morrow of the insurrection and the establishment of the inacceptable union of the two Canadas, Garneau's work is plainly a work of defence and of attack. Yet the spirit of moderation by which it is animated deserves praise. Some of his contemporaries even reproached him for not having written panegyrics on the French Canadians. Garneau preferred, while honourably acquitting his compatriots in respect of certain historic accusations made against them, to indicate also the political errors into which they fell.


One of the most important sections of the Histoire du Canada, and one awaited with the greatest curiosity and impatience, was that devoted to the account of the conquest of Canada by England. Garneau had himself suffered from the accusations sometimes lightly cast at the conquered Canadians. Happily, and very justly, he brought out the value of such a conquest, and opportunely rectified the military history of those painful years.


Garneau's chief aim was to write the political history of his country. Educated in the school of Augustin Thierry and Guizot , he took delight in philosophical speculations; he loved to trace the principles governing historical development, and his work clearly bears the mark of his intellectual sympathies. His history is not merely dramatic by reason of the stirring recitals it contains; it is also a work of philosophy.


Unfortunately, the philosophy of Garneau is not always very safe. Not having followed the lessons of the masters, and having acquired his ideas on government in the course of studies that were often ill-chosen, he sometimes allowed theories derived from French liberalism to find their way into his work - for example, the principle of the absolute freedom of conscience, for which he has been so keenly reproached. Garneau, moreover, did not sufficiently appreciate the part played in Canadian history by the Catholic Church or the clergy. He did not see with sufficient clearness the very special conditions under which the church's intervention in the political life of the colony took place. Nor did he sufficiently know or understand the efforts made by the clergy for the instruction of the people. These errors of the historian prevent his work from being as perfect as it might otherwise have been. If, however, we forget these defects and remember only the work as a whole, we are obliged to acknowledge that such a monument could have been conceived and executed only by a great mind.


The literary style, moreover, heightens the interest. Garneau's phraseology is free, ample and eloquent. On occasion it is warm and vibrating. If it is hampered at times by heaviness, it is incontestably capable of grace and vivacity. The study of the Histoire du Canada produced the greatest enthusiasm in the middle of the nineteenth century. The young especially were stirred as they turned the pages in which they felt the soul of their country throb. Garneau founded a school. Under his inspiration the historians and poets of the ensuing years worked.


Garneau was still alive when another historian essayed to rival him in public favor - the Abbe Jean Baptiste Antoine Ferland , who was born at Montreal in 1805. A diligent student at the Collège de Nicolet, and gifted with the most varied talents, he became in turn professor at Nicolet, vicar, curé, and finally, in 1850, a member of the archiepiscopal staff in Quebec . He devoted his later years to the study of Canadian history, and from 1856 to 1862 delivered at Laval University lectures which were well attended. These university lectures he began to publish in 1861. He was able to issue only one volume; the second was published by his friends. Illness and death prevented the continuation of his work. He died at Quebec in 1865.


Ferland's Cours d'Histoire du Canada comprises only the years of the French domination, and it is to be regretted that the author was unable to carry his work further. He possessed, indeed, the best qualities of the historian. He is specially distinguished by the most scrupulous scientific method; he was a tireless seeker for truth. He visited the archives of London and Paris to consult documents at first hand. The sole object of his stay in Europe , during the years 1856 and 1857, was to obtain materials for his history from original sources. In his work he did not sufficiently indicate his references to authentic documents, but he rarely wrote without basing his information on such documents. Thus he was able to rectify a great many dates which, before his history appeared, were uncertain, and to throw a fresh light upon incidents that had not always been properly judged. He understood better than Garneau the religious nature of the historical origins of Canada, and rendered greater justice in this regard to those who were their principal creators.


Ferland carefully examined the details of the life and manners of New France. He also made a very full study of the character and the curious customs of the Indians. He took special pains in his narration of the circumstances attending the establishment of the colony, and the first developments of its national life. After a preface dealing with the early inhabitants of America, and the explorers who were the first to touch the American coast, he addresses himself to the subject of his, laborious study, and lays bare, with the most ample and interesting details, the foundations of Canadian history.


Ferland has not the brilliant literary enthusiasm of Garneau. He aims less at the development of general considerations, he has a better grasp of vital details, and he gets into his book more historical matter. The language he writes is thoroughly French, and is precise, clear and spirited, its one ornament being a fine and frank simplicity.


Certain of Ferland's smaller works and articles are of the greatest interest and deserve mention: Journal d'un Voyage sur les Côtes de la Gaspésie, Louis-Olivier Gamache, Le Labrador, and Notice biographique sur Mgr Joseph-Octave Plessis. These studies appeared in Le Foyer canadien between 1861 and 1863.


Contemporary with Ferland was Antoine Gérin-Lajoie , one of his admirers, who also wrote a considerable chapter of Canadian history. He was born at Yamachiche in 1824, and died at Ottawa in 1882. He was long known chiefly by his novel of colonization, Jean Rivard. But in 1888 a valuable work which he had left in manuscript, Dix ans d'Histoire du Canada , 1840-1850, was published. This work is the best study we have of the period that witnessed the establishment of responsible government. The information is abundant and accurate. Possibly official documents are inserted too copiously in the text, and too frequently impede the course of the narrative. The style is temperate and easy. Although not an artist capable of making his figures stand out boldly, Gérin-Lajoie produced a work that may be read with great interest and profit.


The Abbé Henri Raymond Casgrain , who was born at Rivière-Ouelle in 1831 and died at Quebec in 1904, devoted his entire life to the study of his country's past. He was a most prolific and enthusiastic historian. With Gérin-Lajoie, Joseph Charles Taché and Dr Hubert Larue , he played a large part in the renaissance of French-Canadian letters that followed the year 1860. With them he founded Les Soirées canadiennes in 1861, and Le Foyer canadien in 1863. The works of Garneau and Ferland had excited his ardent interest, and it was his ambition to continue and complete their task.


In 1860 he began by publishing his Légendes, in which he set himself to revive Canadian customs. He then entered upon serious history, and wrote successively - Histoire de la Mère Marie de l'Incarnation (1864); Biographies canadiennes, which were collected in one volume; Histoire de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec (1878); Pèlerinage au Pays d'Evangéline (1885); Montcalm et Lévis (1891); Une Seconde Acadie (1894); Asile du Bon Pasteur de Québec (1896); and Les Sulpiciens et les Prêtres des Missions Étrangères en Acadie (1897). The work of Casgrain is therefore considerable. It gives evidence of great activity. Yet his eyes had been strained by over-study, and he had to have recourse to a secretary to aid him in his search for and study of documents. His learning was great, and his books are full of information of the most varied nature. It is generally agreed, however, that he possessed an imagination and sensitiveness which at times injured the accuracy of his narrative and the justness of his judgment. He liked to find in history what he sought. Yet his books are imbued with warmth and life. The language is free and vivid, although sometimes rather overloaded with imagery - especially in his earlier works. It was, indeed, by his literary art that he captivated his readers. Casgrain's works have helped greatly in making Canada known abroad, especially in France .


In the first of his Légendes, le Tableau de la Rivière-Ouelle, Abbé Casgrain thus faithfully described in a most picturesque manner the home of the French-Canadian habitant:

Voyez-vous là-bas, sur le versant de ce coteau, cette jolie maison qui se dessine, blanche et proprette, avec sa grange couverte de chaume, sur la verdure tendre et chatoyante de cette belle érablière. C'est une maison canadienne.


Du haut de son piédestal de gazon, elle sourit au grand fleuve, dont la vague, oû frémit sa tremblante image, vient expirer à ses pieds. Car, l'heureux propriétaire de cette demeure aime son beau grand fleuve et il a eu soin de s'établir sur ses bords. . .


Voulez-vous jeter un coup d'oeil sous ce toit dont l'aspect extérieur est si riant ? Je vais essayer de vous en peindre le tableau, tel que je l'ai vu maintes fois.


D'abord, en entrant, dans le tambour, deux sceaux pleins d'eau fraîche sur un banc de bois et une tasse de ferblanc accrochée à la cloison, vous invitent à vous désaltérer. A l'intérieur, pendant que la soupe bout sur le poêle, la mère de famille, assise près de la fenêtre, dans une chaise berceuse, file tranquillement son rouet. Un mantelet d'indienne, un jupon bleu d'étoffe du pays et une câline blanche sur la tête, c'est là toute sa toilette.


Le petit dernier dort à ses côtés dans son ber. De temps en temps, elle jette un regard réjoui sur sa figure fraîche qui, comme une rose épanouie, sort du couvrepied d'indienne de diverses couleurs, dont les morceaux taillés en petits triangles sont ingénieusement distribués.


Dans un coin de la chambre, l'aînée des filles, assise sur un coffre, travaille du métier en fredonnant une chanson. Forte et agile, la navette vole entre ses mains; aussi fait-elle bravement dans sa journée sept ou huit aunes de toile du pays à grande largeur, qu'elle emploiera plus tard à faire des vêtements pour l'année qui vient.


Dans l'autre coin, à la tête du grand lit à courte-pointe blanche et à carreaux bleus, est suspendue une croix entourée de quelques images. Cette petite branche de sapin flétrie qui couronne la croix, c'est le rameau bénit.


Deux ou trois marmots nu-pieds sur le plancher s'amusent à atteler un petit chien. Le père, accroupi près du poêle, allume gravement sa pipe avec un tison ardent qu'il assujettit avec son ongle. Bonnet de laine rouge, gilet et culottes d'étoffe grise, bottes sauvages, tel est son accoutrement. Après chaque repas, il faut bien fumer une touche avant d'aller faire le train ou battre la grange.


L'air de propreté et de confort qui règne dans la maison, le gazouillement des enfants, les chants de la jeune fille qui se mêlent au bruit du rouet, l'apparence de santé et de bonheur qui reluit sur les visages, tout, en un mot, fait naître dans l'âme le calme et la sérénité.


After these distinguished authors, who created and developed the writing of history in French Canada, we need recall only three writers - of much less power, however - left useful works: Louis Philippe Turcotte (1842-78), author of Canada sous l'Union; Théophile Pierre Bédard (1844-1900), author of L'Histoire de Cinquante Ans, and Joseph Royal (1837-1902), author of a Histoire du Canada (1841-67), which deals with the régime of the Union.


The field of history is still that which is most cultivated by French-Canadian writers of to-day. Among these may be mentioned - Benjamin Sulte , who, in addition to his Histoire des Canadiens Français, wrote many articles and studies which have been collected in volume form; Joseph Edmond Roy , author of the Histoire de la Seigneurie de Lauzon ; the Abbé Auguste Gosselin , the historian of the church in Canada ( L'Église du Canada ); Alfred De Celles, the elegant monographist who wrote on Papineau, La Fontaine and Cartier; Thomas Chapais , the author of Jean Talon and the Marquis de Montcalm; N. E. Dionne , who gave an account of our colonial origins; Louis Olivier David, author of L' Union des Deux Canadas (1841-67) and the Histoire du Canada sous la Confédération (1867-87); the Abbé Amédée Gosselin, the erudite archivist of Laval University, who rewrote the history of L'Instruction au Canada sous le Régime Français ; and Pascal Poirier, the historian of Acadia. Among the very numerous French-Canadian workers engaged in rewriting, correcting and continuing the history of their country these are distinguished from their fellows by a riper learning and a more perfect art.


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. 451-460.






© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College