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Boutique à Crémazie

Boutique à Crémazie (Crémazie’s Bookstore)

Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau’s Charles Guérin 


Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau: Biographical Notes
Regionalism in Quebec Fiction: Patrice Lacombe
La Capricieuse & Crémazie’s Old Soldier
Maria Chapdelaine
The Canadian & his Terroir                      

This blog is a continuation of my blog on Patrice Lacombe’s Terre paternelle. It also deals with regionalism in Quebec literature. However, the author of the novel we will peruse, Charles Guérin (online text, in French) was is a prominent Canadian who helped lead Canada into confederation and was Quebec’s first Premier, among other achievements listed in Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau: Biographical Notes. His novel is well written, but it reflects a facet of its author’s imagination that suggests a divided man. This novel is the expression of the subconcious mind. In other words, there was a public Pierre-Joseph-Oliver Chauveau, but Charles Guérin is the portrait of the very private author of Charles Guérin.

Charles Guérin is a roman du terroir, a regionalistic novel, published the same year as Patrice Lacombe’s Terre paternelle. However, with Chauveau, the plot of our story of regionalism takes on new dimensions. Although it is a roman du terroir, Charles Guérin is nevertheless the work of a major public figure and a leader. However, the subconscious has its dictates that may be at odds with the dictates of the conscious self and I doubt very much that we can draw too wide a line between our public self and our innermost private self. We are the sum total of our private and public selves.

Charles Guérin (French entry for Chauveau) was first published, in 1846 in L’Album littéraire et musical de la Revue canadienne, a periodical. Its first venue is therefore the same as Patrice Lacombe’s La Terre paternelle except that it was published as a book in 1853, sooner than Lacombe’s Terre paternelle.

Summary of the plot

We are in the 1830s. Charles Guérin is the story of two brothers, Charles and Pierre, who, having completed their études classiques, realize that there are very few careers French-Canadians can enter. Students pursued their études  classiques in a Petit Séminaire, a private teaching establishmentOnly the études classiques gave access to University studies. The études classiques have now been replaced by a two-year tuition-free programme taught in a CEGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel). Students enter a Cegep after grade eleven and upon completion of the two-year programme, they can then enroll in a university.

Two Brothers: a Dilemma 

Realizing that their choices are the priesthood (le Grand Séminaire), law, and medicine, one brother, Pierre Guérin, who has thought of becoming a businessman leaves for France. As for Charles, he decides to study Law. In Quebec City, Charles falls in love with Marichette,[i] a peasant’s daughter. However, during a study break he goes home and meets Clorinde, an Englishman’s daughter and his mother’s tenant, Mr Wagnaër. Madame Guérin is a widow who needs to rent part of her SEIGNEURIE in order to pay for her son’s education.

Charles meets Clorinde 

During a break, Charles meets Clorinde and is smitten. He falls in love with her and acts as though he does not already have a lady friend, Marichette. Wagnaër would like to own the SEIGNEURIE, located on the south side of the St Lawrence river. At first, he hopes to woo Madame Guerin, but she will not marry him.

Charles loses the ancestral Seigneurie

However, given that Charles is in love with his daughter, Wagnaër sees and seizes the opportunity he needed. He has an accomplice in Henri Voisin, a disloyal friend. A plot is hatched. Wagnaër manages to make our love-stricken Charles sign lettres de créance (letters of credit), making Charles his debtor. Charles loses the ancestral SEIGNEURIE, his inheritance.

Charles’s salvation: Agriculture

As in La Terre Paternelle, the second son returns. Pierre has become a priest and cannot help his brother financially, but they are at least reunited. Charles is also reunited with Marichette. They inherit land from Charles’ employer, Monsieur Dumont, and live there with friends who do not want to leave Canada. So, once again, all is well that ends well. A farmer is not a SEIGNEUR but, in the Quebec of Chauveau’s youth, or the Bas-Canada of the 1830s, one could not do better than till the land, as had been Richelieu‘s wish. Québécois are depicted as hereditary cultivateurs: farmers.

Agriculture : Cette grande et noble occupation, seule base de la prospérité des peuples, est suivie par la très grande majorité des habitants du Canada.” (p. 676) (Farming: this grand and noble occupation, on which is altogether founded the prosperity of nations, is the one the majority of the inhabitants of Canada [Quebec] choose.)

The Shrinking 30 Acres

However, the habitant’s 30 acres are shrinking, so the time has come for the habitant‘s son to move to the city. That was nightmarish for the inhabitants of the Province of Quebec. The Canadien was unskilled and those who tried to become businessmen usually lost their business. Moreover, there were very few factories in Quebec.

As a politician, Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau sold farming land at very low prices because French-Canadians had started moving to the United States, where there were factories. Consequently, nearly a million French-Canadians and Acadians left the Dominion of Canada. They could not find work.

Those among you who have read Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine or my post on Maria Chapdelaine,[ii] know that Maria makes the “patriotic” choice, although unknowingly, when she chooses to marry Eutrope Gagnon, who is a “cultivateur.”  She could have married Lorenzo Surprenant and lived an easier life in the United States. 

Quebec is a large province, but only part of its vast territory can be used as farmland. Making land (faire de la terre), as the Curé Labelle advocated, was to a large extent an unrealistic proposition. How does one turn rock into arable land, which is what Maria Chapdelaine’s father has chosen to do?

At that time in history, the birthrate in Quebec was very high, but as soon as they had reached adulthood, men had to go where they could make a living: the United States, even if this choice was deemed unpatriotic.

Let us listen to Charles Guérin. Just outside the Church, where parishioners gather, Charles preaches to those who will not hear that there is cowardice (lâcheté) in leaving one’s country, that one may lose one’s faith (perdre sa foi) and traditional values [moral values and customs, or les mœurs] in a foreign land (à l’étranger).

Charles rassembla à la porte de l’église tous les fugitifs et il leur fit un magnifique sermon en trois points sur la lâcheté qu’il y avait  d’abandonner son pays, sur les dangers que l’on courait de perdre sa foi et ses mœurs à l’étranger, sur l’avantage et le patriotisme de fonder de nouveaux établissements sur les terres fertiles de notre propre pays. (pp. 608-609)


Here again, as in La Terre Paternelle, farming is the preferred occupation for patriotic Québécois. So, despite losing the ancestral SEIGNEURIE, Charles and Marichette are fortunate. They inherit land and Marichette is an early portrait of Maria Chapdelaine. The dominant ideology is one occupation: farming; one language: French; and one religion: Catholicism. It resembles French absolute monarchy: one language, one religion, except that the monarch is a farmer.

However, the cast of this novel includes an Englishman to whom Charles loses the ancestral land. So, although there was only a treaty, the Treaty of Paris (1763), not altogether a “conquest,” Charles reenacts the loss of his land to the British and the Englishman happens to be an “ugly” Englishman. Losing one’s land becomes the national plight and in Chauveau’s Charles Guérin the land is lost to a conniving Englishman. They therefore re-lives the Battle of the Plains of Abraham down to the ethnicity of the “conqueror.” 

In a letter his mother does not read until after he has left, Pierre Guérin writes that he would like to be a businessman, but not a Wagnaër, as Mr Wagnaër and people of his ilk destroy the forests as though there were no tomorrow. The forest is the land. Once the foreigner conquers the land, he destroys it.  

Moreover, Charles Guérin, in discussions with his friends, says that he fears the Canadien will lose his language, a language he cannot dissociate from the Canadien‘s religion.  

Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau was a brilliant and enormously successful man. He was as accomplished as an individual can be. So I will end by saying that the author of Charles Guérin is and is not Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau. Chauveau’s novel reveals a dispossessed innermost self: the fictitious Charles. Yet, the author or public Charles was the Honourable Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau, the first premier of the Province of Quebec.   

Unfortunately, I have not been able to identify the artist whose art work I have used. These are lovely works of art. Chauveau was a member of the École littéraire de Québec and members, including historian François-Xavier Garneau, a close friend, met at Crémazie’s Bookstore, la Boutique à Crémazie Chauveau was born in Charlesbourg near Quebec City. There were years he had to spend in Ottawa, but he lived in Quebec City and Quebec City is where he died.

[i] Not to be confused with Marichette, the pen name for Acadian author Émilie C. LeBlanc (1863-1935).
[ii] Maria Chapdelaine can be read online in either English or French: 
Maria Chapdelaine  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4383/4383-h/4383-h.htm EN
Maria Chapdelaine  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13525/13525-h/13525-h.htm


© Micheline Walker
5 June 2012