Cornelius Krieghoof’s paintings show a mythical Quebec. Similarly, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé‘s (30 October 1786 – 29 January 1871) Les Anciens Canadiens (1863) mythifies the Canadians of Old. Les Anciens Canadiens, a novel, was first serialized in Les Soirées canadiennes, a magazine founded in 1861 by H. R. Casgrain, A. Gérin-Lajoie, the author of Un Canadien errant (the words only), F. A. H. La Rue and J. C. Taché.
A Literary Homeland Novel & an historical novel
Aubert de Gaspé wrote his Anciens Canadiens, Quebec (1863) when he was in his mid-seventies and did so in response to the Report of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham GCB, PC (12 April 1792 – 28 July 1840), in which Durham stated that the Canadiens did not have a history or a literature. Les Anciens Canadiens therefore constitutes a Patrie Littéraire achievement. In 1890, Charles G. D. Roberts‘s KCMG, FRSC (10 January 1860 – 26 November 1943) translated Gaspé’s novel entitled The Canadians of Old, but I have yet to explore translations of Les Anciens Canadiens.
Given that it was written one hundred years after the Treaty of Paris (1763), one may think this novel has little to do with the aftermath of the “conquest,” except that it is a historical novel in which events take place as the Province of Québec replaces Nouvelle-France, which Aubert de Gaspé memorialized and idealized.
Les Anciens Canadiens‘s main protagonists are Jules d’Haberville, the son of a seigneur, and Archibald Cameron of Locheill, an exiled Highlander, both of whom are students at the Jesuit seminary in Quebec City and both of whom are fated to fight on opposite sides during the Seven Years’ War or French and Indian War.
Moreover, while visiting Jules’s father manoir, Archibald meets Blanche, Jules’s sister, and the two fall in love, which almost takes us back to Krieghoof’s two major themes: the habitant and the Amerindian. Krieghoof was fond of genre themes and, among these themes, a “typical scene” was one where “a British soldier flirts with a young francophone woman, the intimate moment interrupted by her husband or a parent.”[i]
Archibald, renamed Arché, is not “a British soldier flirting with a young francophone woman.”[ii] However, like a “parent,” the parents of a French-Canadian girl, Blanche herself does not think she should marry Arché. She is the daughter of a seigneur and she rejects Arché who is not just “un bon Anglais,” but Scottish and extremely handsome. Blanche is simply too pure. It is at times possible to correct the accidents of history.
Dumais’s gratitude & the habitant as voyageur
However, being Scottish does save Archibald’s life. The novel contains two perilous and related events. Early in the novel, Dumais, an habitant, crosses the Rivière-du-Sud when the ice is too thin and breaks. The Canadiens made ice bridges, as depicted in Krieghoff’s painting above. In fact, Dumais is the victim of a genuine débâcle. He breaks a leg and is hanging from a tree hoping to be rescued. Archibald turns into a formidable athlete and saves Dumais’s life.
Later in the novel, Dumais will save Archibald’s life. The British have attacked New France and Archibald is ordered to burn properties, including the d’Haberville’s manoir, which he doesn’t want to do. However, as he is destroying properties, Archibald is captured by Amerindians and is about to be tortured and burned when Dumais surfaces, looking like an Amerindian, and tells the Amerindians that their captive is not an Englishman, but Scottish and that “les Écossais sont les sauvages des Anglais[,]”[iii] or “the Scots are savages to the English.” Dumais then goes on to tell that Archie is the young man who saved his life on the day the ice broke.
Dumais even reveals that is not altogether the Amerindian he appears to be, but a sort of “voyageur,” the often métissé French-Canadian who manned the birch-bark canoes, first for fur-traders and later for Scottish explorers who crossed the continent, the voyageur who spoke the Amerindian languages and married Amerindians.
Reference to Cooper and Chateaubriand
Interestingly, Les Anciens Canadiens, contains a reference to James Fenimore Cooper and, indeed, written by a Cooper the tragic events at the Rivière-du-Sud may have been better told. “Only a Cooper or a Chateaubriand could have done justice to a depiction of the tragic events taking place on the shore of the Rivière-du-Sud.” « La plume d’un Cooper, d’un Chateaubriand, pourrait seule peindre dignement le spectacle qui frappe leurs regards sur la berge de la Rivière-du-Sud. »[iv] Given Chateaubriand’s masterful style and Cooper’s quickly penned realism, this comparison is not altogether felicitous or convincing.
A Flaw, but not too tragic
Yes, there is the flaw. Like Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, Aubert de Gaspé’s Anciens Canadiens is a page-turner, but Aubert de Gaspé so idealizes New France that a comparison with Cooper is again rather inappropriate. The seigneur is too cordial and life at the manoir, too perfect: the meal, the May Fest, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the spontaneous singing, the good gentleman who has been imprisoned because others spent his fortune, the priest (le curé), the gentle treatment of the seigneur’s black slave, the friendship between Jules and Arché: frères (brothers), the much too “noble” Blanche. In fact, even Archibald’s heroism is also a little too heroic, but it is the tone of mythologies. They provide a glorious past.
[i] Arlene Gehmacher, “Cornelius Krieghoof,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/cornelius-david-krieghoff
[iii] Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, Les Anciens Canadiens (Éditions Fides, collection Bibliothèque québécoise, 1988), p. 239.
[iv] Les Anciens Canadiens, p. 79.
[v] Arlene Gehmacher, “Cornelius Krieghoof,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/cornelius-david-krieghoff