I did not write a conclusion to my last blog because Cornelius Krieghoof’s paintings were my conclusion. In Krieghoof’s paintings, Quebec was mythified. And it was also mythified in Philippe Aubert de Gaspé‘s (October 30, 1786 – Habyart 29, 1871) Les Anciens Canadiens (1863). 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. Charles G. D. Roberts‘s KCMG, FRSC (January 10, 1860 – November 26, 1943) 1890 translation of Gaspé’s novel entitled The Canadians of Old, remains a favourite, but there is at least one other translation.
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, 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.
Its 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 to 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 the Englishmen’s savages [Amerindians].” 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 although it is understandable, the element that is most difficult to accept, in my opinion, is Blanche’s rejection of Archibald. Although he has fought with the British against New France, as an enlisted soldier what choice did he have? Blanche does seem too pure, pure to a fault. To what extent is it necessary to use the misfortunes of history to one’s own detriment and to the detriment of the finest and most handsome of suitors? Even the enemy is too much of an enemy.
Yet, Les Anciens Canadiens is a good novel. The portrayal of the d’Haberville family and of life at the manoir may be idealized, but this flaw is redeemed by the novel’s fine structure (the two near-death experiences, etc.), by discreet digressions or stories within the story: the Corriveau legend (next blog) and other legends. It is also redeemed by the role played by Dumais, the habitant-voyageur, and Marie, the sorceress, not to mention the unexpectedly unflattering but relieving comments about the motherland. However, more than any other factor, Aubert de Gaspé’s skills as a storyteller all but override his idealization of New France.
Britannica labels The Last of the Mohicans an “imperfect masterpiece.” We just may be looking not at a “great imperfect masterpiece,” but at a smaller “imperfect masterpiece.”[v]
* * *Alouette folksong (Université de Moncton 21-voice male choir)[vi] (please click on the title to hear the music)
[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
[vi] Theodore C. Blegen, Songs of the Voyageurs (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1998), p. 46.