St. Ursula's Convent Or, the Nun of Canada, Containing Scenes From Real Life
[Colonial Lit is all about the catchy catch titles.]
by Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart
As Louisa I loved you far above a brother's affection, and trembled to indulge it. My love was pure, but I feared some happy mortal would snatch from me my beloved sister. As Adelaide, I love you with increased ardour. Judge, then, if possible, the extent of my affection. I fear not death, Adelaide. It is parting with you I dread. To see you snatched away from me, by the devouring waves, I cannot dwell on the idea!
My brother, my Dudley, said Adelaide, rest assured that your affection surpasses not mine. What could have sustained me, when the unexpected discovery deprived me of every known relative? What could then have consoled me, but my love for you.
[The book is entirely composed in this schlocky, syrupy, please-let-me-die manner, by the way.]
Some books are Great Books because they are true masterpieces. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Jamaica Kincaid -- from all points in history and walks of life, we find literature that shapes the way people think, the way they view the world, and the way they make sense of their own place in history and society. Those books are great because they are texts that speak to the human condition. They are important books because they shape minds. Their power to influence, change, and inspire make them Great.
Other books are Great Books because they are historically important. They are landmark texts because they break new ground, change genres, or chronicle historically significant moments. These are books that we read because we should, because they are historical documents. These books don't have to change minds. They don't actually even have to be good. But we read them because they show us our progression as people, and we read them because they teach us where we have come from.
Part of the project of learning a field is that you have to read books from both the Great Books stacks -- the literary greats, and the historical greats. Most of the works in this colonial period are important for their historical place, but are also good works of literature in their own right. The Strickland sisters may not be scintillating to my tastes, but they craft a good narrative. Beckwith Hart's novel, however, is extremely important historically, being the first novel ever written by a person born in Canada. It's also awful. Just awful. Beckwith Hart was seventeen years old when she put pen to paper, and it shows in the most painful ways possible. Not only are there blatant incoherencies that should really have been caught by an editor (verb tense shifts, changing from third to first person, constant repetition of sentences, no normalcy in the choice between double quotation marks or single, missed words and spelling) -- or at least should have been caught by the editor of this edition and contemporized / normalized -- but the plot is really, really, really terrible. Really.
The problem for the novel rests in the fact that there is no conflict. Ever. Everything that seems like it could be a conflict is resolved by, "Everyone believes in God and therefore no one panics and deliverance arrives nearly immediately." That doesn't mean there aren't absolutely ridiculously bizarre circumstances evoked in the name of the quest for conflict. Shipwrecks, people getting shot, trapped inside mine shafts for no apparent reason, attacked by pirates, deaths, baby-swapping, incest -- it's all there. The best scene in the whole book is when Adelaide, the protagonist, discovers that she has been switched at birth with Lady Louisa -- but she was destined to marry Lady Louisa's brother, who is really her brother! Oh no! She announces it to the family, and Lady Louisa's brother says, basically, "That's okay, I was hotter for my sister anyway and now that she's not my biological sister we can be married!" And everyone rejoices at the romance of it all.
Actually, he's a pretty major character in the novel, too; no one acts, because they are all too busy waiting for Jesus to fix things. I have no problem with people who choose to live their life in this way, but it sure as hell makes for especially boring fiction.
The other problem is that any conflicts that do arise tend to be told as stories -- told in the past tense by the person who is in peril in the story, SO YOU ALREADY KNOW HE'S OKAY AND THEREFORE THERE IS NO CONFLICT. Ugh, I am never going to get these hours back.
Fascinatingly, even though this book is written by a Canadian born in Canada, everyone still ends the novel running for England or France. No one wraps up the plot in Canada. There's talk of returning in the end, but no one actually does it. This returns me to my earlier question -- what makes Canada so easy to leave? Even people born here write narratives, in this time period at least, about getting the hell out. (I'm trademarking the term 'Get The Hell Out Narrative,' heretofore referred to as the GTHO Narrative.) And the thing is, the new Lady Louisa goes to England and retires to the country, so it's not like she's seeking an urban society that isn't available in Canada in this period. There's no reason to not return to Canada, but it just seems more natural -- even to a Canadian-born writer -- to set a happy ending in another country. Talk about self-loathing!
444444444444vvvvv90ty <--- this, for the record, is what Swift has to say about the novel.
I do want to point out what I think is very interesting about the colonial period of literature in Canada, and that is the gynocentrism of the period. Every writer of note here, with the exception of John Richardson, who wrote Wacousta, is a woman. There are clearly a lot of practical reasons for this -- men were primarily taken up with the outdoor work of settlement, whether that was the hands-on work of farming, or soldiering, or any of the other active roles assigned to men. One of the benefits of being banished to the indoors and the kitchen garden seems to be that it affords time to write. What's interesting though is that there seems to have been a market for women's writing in particular. The Strickland sisters had a brother, Samuel, who wrote a book much like Moodie's many years before Moodie did -- yet no one reads Samuel Strickland in second-year CanLit class. I can't think of a place I have seen him mentioned outside of books by the Strickland sisters. I don't know what to make of this feminized period in our literature, but I'm very sad to say that it comes to a sharp end as the Confederation period emerges.
Atwood believes that Canada has been historically a good place for women writers because, as a nation marginalized by the US and the UK, we have been more willing to accept marginalized writers or writers of marginalized backgrounds. If you think of the canonical Canadian writers, there's lots of "minor writers" (in the Deleuzian sense of writers who write from a place of reduced power in comparison with the hegemonic forces of a society): Cohen [Jewish], Atwood [woman], Richler [Jewish], Laurence [woman] -- not to say we don't have our own history of while male dominance, because we do (Davies, I'm looking in your direction, you old goat). But there seems to have always been a place at least somewhere in Canadian literature, moreso perhaps per capita than in the US or the UK, for "minor writers" to develop a voice. The preponderance of writing by female authors is perhaps indicative of this idea.
In the end, we all probably should read this book. But it's not very good. If you don't read it, I won't judge you for it. I kind of feel like reading this book should add a tiny gold star to my degree.
According to the guy who edited this book, those who dislike it simply don't understand it. Colour me confused then, but this book is one of the most incoherent things I have ever sat down to read. She claims to be encouraging "native genius" through her writing but sister, this ain't it. Reviewers at the time called this book "a reviewers misery," and I'm willing to agree that it is also a grad student's misery, too! According to one reviewer:
Had this not been the first native novel that ever appeared in Canada, no consideration could have induced us to give its title a place among our pages.
But hey, she's from Fredericton.