Capturing the spirit of old Canada

A barn doubling as a second-hand bookstore yielded a copy of Louis Hémon’s wonderful novel Maria Chapdelaine. French Canadians know it from childhood, but how many English-speakers have come across this gem?

Louis Hémon (1880-1913) wrote the novel after moving from his native France to the French-Canadian province of Québec, where in 1911 he settled first in Montréal and then worked on a farm in the Lac Saint-Jean district. Unfortunately, he was killed in 1913 in a train accident just before Maria Chapdelaine was published. It appeared in serial form in 1914, then as a book two years later with illustrations by Québécois artist Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté (1869-1937).

Suzor-Coté was fascinated by things Québécois. Apart from his two striking bronzes The Old Canadian Pioneer (1912) and The Companion of the Old Pioneer (1918) – both part of the McMichael Collection – he twice cast the woman who refuses the opportunity of a life of wealth and leisure by choosing marriage with a local boy. A bust of Maria Chapdelaine (1925) can be seen at the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) and a statuette (1925) at the Riverbrink Art Museum, Queenston, near Niagara Falls.

Since 1916 Louis Hémon’s novel has appeared in many different languages. In 1921 it was published in English in a sensitive translation by author W. H. Blake. The publisher, Macmillan, described the original novel as an “immortelle flowering in the somewhat straggling garden of our literature.” Of course, that garden has bloomed in ensuing decades, but the novel is still seen as a classic of both Canadian and French literature. Perhaps because of his own upbringing, Hémon instinctively understood Catholic rural society and its difficult living conditions and the result is a nostalgic portrait of an almost mythical period in Canada’s history.

Maria Chapdelaine is the eldest of six children living with her family in a remote farm in the woods surrounding the village of Peribonka. At the right age for marriage, Maria has the choice of three prospective husbands representing three possible destinies. François Paradis, a trapper and lumberjack, offers a life in the forest, far from the company of family and friends. Eutrope Gagnon, the Chapdelaine’s only neighbour, promises her a secure yet hard working life as a farmer’s wife. Finally Lorenzo Surprenant, a factory worker, offers the comfort and excitement of city life in New England. She listens to Lorenzo Surprenant’s offer of a life in the city and uses her imagination to compare these attractions with the hard life that Eutrope Gagnon offers her – a life to which she has become accustomed. By late summer, however, her mind is already made up, and as François Paradis sets out to spend winter in the woods, her heart goes with him.

To say more would be to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it. The story wonderfully evokes the harshness and beauty of life in the backwoods, the frozen landscapes of winter, the joy of picking wild blueberries in the brief summer, and the clash of values between the domesticated farmer and the unfulfilled pioneer.

Between 1929 and 1933 the Québécois artist Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942) created 54 colour illustrations for a French edition of Maria Chapdelaine published in Paris. Some of them appeared in the magazine L’Illustration in 1931. After endless technical difficulties (strikes and disturbances at the printers, the problem of finding high-quality China paper, and unauthorized alterations made by the workers to the colour films), the illustrated Maria Chapdelaine was finally published on 8 June 1933.

The artwork went on display in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, drawing huge crowds. The National Gallery of Canada was eager to purchase the entire series, as was the Musée de la province de Québec, but it was eventually bought by philanthropist R. Samuel McLaughlin after Gagnon’s death on condition that it never be broken up. In 1972 the whole collection was bequeathed to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection where it was the subject of an exhibition from 18 December 2010 to 27 February 2011. Clarence Gagnon achieved what he set out to do: “My purpose in illustrating Maria Chapdelaine was to catch the spirit of Canada and the French-Canadian way of life which the book immortalizes. That book represents the struggle of a brave little minority and reveals the true pioneering instinct of those early settlers.”

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3 comments on “Capturing the spirit of old Canada

  1. This is the forest primeval, the hemlock and the murmuring pine . . .

  2. Randy Naylor says:

    Thanks for this reminder of a book read in English many years ago while in High School. The Samuel McLaughlin reference has an interesting connection with where I am now: I am serving Parkwoods United Church. Many decades ago, before Toronto began to grow from a few hundred thousand to over 4 million in population today, this area was home to the McLaughlin family mansion, which was named `Parkwoods`. When this area was developed as a suburb in the 1960`s the main street was named Parkwoods Village Drive, and our church is on that street.
    Randy

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