Quebec Studies

"Porte fermée et cœur ouvert": Epistolarity and Self-Discovery in Canadiennes d'hier

Quebec Studies (2000), 30, (1), 79–88.


79 "Porte fermée et cœur ouvert": Epistolarity and Self-Discovery in Canadiennes d'hier By Juliette M. Rogers University of New Hampshire In 1941, the literary world in Quebec was still reacting to Claude-Henri Grignon's polemical piece "Notre culture sera paysanne, ou ne sera pas," published in L'Action Nationale, when a quirky and unusual text appeared quietly on the Montreal literary scene. Canadiennes d'hier, the epistolary novel by Marie Bonenfant (pseud, for Elisa Michaud1) did not receive much critical attention when it first appeared: very few newspapers reviewed it, and only a small number of reviews had positive comments (Action Catholique, La Presse, and Le Canada français were among those few).2 Even since its reprint in 1994,1 am unaware of any lengthy review or publication about this peculiar text. However, it is a text worth studying for its social and historical value, as it provides an alternative view of life in rural Quebec during the early twentieth century. Furthermore, I believe that Bonenfant's récit skillfully defied conventional narratival practices of her time period. Her literary choices, whether naive or intentional, allowed her to conclude her novel with a non-traditional and very modern position of closure for her heroine. Yet, simultaneously, the story appeared to follow con­ servative patterns of plot development dating from much earlier in the century. These opposing narrative techniques confounded her contemporaries. What is it about Canadiennes d'hier that resists definition? At first glance, one could easily interpret this novel as an archetypal romance narrative com­ bined with the traditional roman de la terre, so prominent in the conservative lit­ erary culture of Quebec from the first half of the twentieth century. Yet it also follows the general structure of an autobiographical novel,3 overlaid with an epistolary form; thus it is reminiscent of certain early twentieth-century French writers such as Colette, but mixed with the eighteenth-century nuances of a Mme de Lambert or Mme de Genus. The mélange found in this short text is dis­ concerting, to say the least. However, by examining its diverse structures, we can better understand the complex cultural statements that the novel makes and the ways in which it overcomes its apparently conservative story line. The conventional plot of Canadiennes d'hier probably contributed greatly to the novel's reduced chances for success. It is set mainly in the time period 1912 to 1913, less than ten years after the main action in the classic French novel about Quebec, Maria Chapdelaine, which was published in 1914. Many basic similarities exist between these two texts, including the love story in which a character's marriage decision determines his or her future and involves a choice between rural tradition and urban modernity. When Canadiennes d'hier appeared in 1941, much had changed in Quebec society since 1914, and the superficial similarities in the two plot lines and in the values apparently espoused in the two novels may have placed Canadiennes d'hier in the "old-fashioned" category in the minds of critics and readers. By that time, Quebec had already witnessed a major shift away from the standard Quebec heritage novel, particularly with the publica­ tion of texts such as Trente Arpents by Ringuet (1938) and Menaud, mattre-draveur by Félix-Antoine Savard (1937). Their tragic characters display a disintegration Québec Studies, Volume 30, Fall/Winter 2000

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Author details

Rogers, Juliette