Tuesday, May 22, 2007

how to escape canada without really trying

Back to the books today -- hopefully the nice weather will stick around as my reading is far more productive when I can sit out on the balcony reading my colonial literature and imagining I'm reading anything else...

The History of Emily Montague
by Frances Brooke

Idleness is the reigning passion here.

... in all respects naturally inferior to the Europeans ...

The general moral character of the Canadians: they are simple and hospitable, yet extremely attentive to interest, where it does not interfere with that laziness which is their governing passion.

... the uncultivated wilds of Canada, the seat of barbarism and ignorance ...

Who knew that the first novel ever written in Canada -- nay, in North America -- was the work of a woman? Frances Brooke wrote The History of Emily Montague in 1769, between the conquest of Quebec and the American Revolutionary War. It's an interesting snapshot, then, of a peaceful lull in the early life of a besieged colony.

The plot of the story is a straightforward one. Ed Rivers, a hopeful man seeking fortune in British North America, encounters the beautiful parentless Emily Montague upon his arrival in Quebec. It's a simple story -- boy meets girl, but girl is betrothed to well-appointed but boring suitor. Girl realizes charms of boy, and takes first opportunity to end engagement with suitor. Boy can't reveal how much he cares for girl because he lacks the fortune to make her his wife. Girl thinks boy intends to marry another. All is eventually settled and the couple seem destined to find happiness together, when WHAM -- boy's mother takes ill, and boy and girl are swept back to England where they cannot marry as they do not have the wealth to make it work in England like they could in the colonies. Family in England bands together to make it possible for the couple to wed, and just as they are settling in to a life of wedded bliss and meager means, it is revealed that girl's long-lost father is a bajillionaire, pleased by the match, and willing to hand over his vast fortune to boy in order that he may look after girl.

Really, it could have been written by Jane Austen, and the novel itself does not depend upon Canada at all for its story, themes, or characters. Canada is mere backdrop in this novel, and the Natives and Quebecois are equally wooden set pieces. The book could have been set anywhere, but that it is set in Canada is interesting for the commentary that is provided about the early life of the colony. Of note, however, is the fact that the characters themselves really comment very little on the fact that they are in Canada -- other than tangential commentary on the weather and the rudeness of the Quebecois women. Interestingly, though, Brooke seems to be aware of the interest of her readers in the culture of Canada, and so she creates the character of William Fermor, father to Emily Montague's best friend Bell, whose voice is only heard through his letters back to England about the comings and goings of Canadians. It's interesting in that these letters add nearly nothing to the plot -- we seem instead to have two narratives: a plot that could occur anywhere, be it an English country manor or the wilds of Quebec, and a narrative that is exclusively about life in Canada, almost completely unrelated to the primary narrative of the text.

I think an interesting factor here is that, while everyone in the novel talks about finding peace and happiness eventually in the Canadian wilderness, no one stays in Canada. By the end of the novel, every single character has funked off back to England to stay permanently. Indeed, the last 100 pages or so of the novel take place entirely in England, and in those last hundred pages I think the experience of colonial life in Canada is mentioned maybe five times. So as exciting as it is to read the first novel set in Canada and featuring Canadians actually written by a writer living in Canada, it's disappointing to see just how little of an impact the Canadian experience has on the characters in the novel, and it's frustrating to see that the rich experiences of a new place are treated basically as a mere backdrop to the events of the novel.

That's not to say that Frances Brooke doesn't do some very interesting things in this novel. Brooke is actually a very contemporary thinker in a lot of ways, and uses the lives and loves of her characters to argue for a number of positive and progressive ideas, including:

  • education for women
  • the right of women to choose their own spouses
  • the importance of marriage being for love rather than circumstance or arrangement
  • equality within the married home
  • allowing Quebecois to retain their religion and language

And actually, the list goes on from there. Even more interesting is that because this is an epistolary novel (a novel-in-letters), the reader is exposed to the viewpoints of people of varying gender, class, and so on -- and these progressive beliefs are universally espoused by the characters. Indeed, the young husbands are the most active proponants of the proto-feminist ideals in the text, such as the right of women to be educated (and even the assertion that it is only socialization that keeps young women ignorant in comparison to young men). While this is a very positive thing, it is unfortunate that these views are often brought about only through contrasting with the Native populations in negative and stereotypical ways -- instead of seeing the strength in Native women's right to choose the chief of her people, for example, Brooke's Bell sees only weakness in their inability to choose their own husbands. This when women's sufferage was not even to be hinted at in England, and certainly not in Canada! Brooke is so eager to make the point of who is the better at domestic life (the white, British colonists) that she misses the subtle strengths of alternate political systems (the Aboriginal social structure that seems more focused on equality).

In short, Brooke's novel is interesting in some ways and certainly has a lot to say about the gender relations of its time. As a Canadian novel, however -- well, all but about 50 pages of it could have occured anywhere else but here, and as such it seems odd to consider it a work of Canadian literature. Like much of the literature of this period, it's in many ways a book about escaping Canada, not about settling here. Does Brooke's 5 years in Quebec make her one novel about this place Canadian? At times, the depictions of Canada are heart-warming and show a real connection to the place, but in the end the novel doesn't need Canada to survive. Canadian culture, however, may need this novel. I wonder at our willingness to grasp onto early examples of CanCon... Even unflattering ones where Canada is merely a stand-in for any miserable place that may be escaped by young lovers.

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