Neither Saint nor Whore

Issue 5

In Candide (1758), Voltaire famously quipped that France and Britain are at war “over a few acres of snow around Canada” – many Canadians can even quote this part in the original French: “pour quelques arpents de neige vers le Canada.” – “and that they are spending more on this beautiful war than all Canada is worth.”  Not even counting the costs of actual war, the colony of New France had long been an expensive proposition for the French monarchy.  When faced with a choice, the Duke of Choiseul did not hesitate to bargain with Britain to keep the sugar colonies of the Caribbean instead.  After all, Saint-Domingue was rapidly becoming the most lucrative colony in the western hemisphere.  But New France became Canada, a member of the G-8 group of nations and the United States’ largest trading partner, so its humble origins have been gaining significance over time.  Now there’s a novel that sheds fascinating light on many of the earliest French women forced to take part in the monarchy’s colonial project in North America.  But Suzanne Desrochers, Bride of New France, is more than simply fiction.  As our in-house reviewer explains, it blends important new scholarship with the author’s own archival research.  If there is a danger here, it is no longer the relative obscurity of the subject, but that students might be so enthralled that they would describe this as “better-than-history social fiction.”

Neither Saint nor Whore

Liana Vardi
University at Buffalo, SUNY

Laure Beauséjour, the heroine of Suzanne Desrochers’s novel, Bride of New France, has no vocation to colonize the new world, to convert, heal, or educate its native populations.  She is a fille du roi (king’s ward), picked from among the inmates of the Salpêtrière hospital to marry a settler.  Although she will be free to choose from among suitors once she arrives, she has no more choice about departing than the other recruits from the Paris General Hospital who made the voyage between 1669 and 1671, and who composed a full third of the total complement of filles du roi.  Around 800 of these women crossed the ocean between 1663 and 1673, dowered by Louis XIV to populate the flailing colony and to encourage demobilized soldiers of the Carignan regiment to stay and farm the land.  The Salpêtrière contingent, escorted to the colony by its recruiter Mme Bourdon in real life as in the novel, was lucky to receive the promised dowry of 50 to 100 livres (unlike some of the recruits who arrived when the colony was especially strapped for cash).[1]  A few of the filles du roi went back to France, a handful stayed single, but most did indeed marry and lived up to the expectation of populating the land.  Despite their tiny number, the filles du roi represented nearly 50% of female immigrants to Quebec during the French Regime.[2] Think a large World Civ class or ten years of the average upper-level course at a big state university and you have the total of “mail-order” brides.  This should give pause to students and encourage reflections about the isolation of these women, a point that Desrochers very clearly means to get across.

Generally garnering no more than a line in Canadian history textbooks, the filles du roi have been the focus of intense research and historical debates in Quebec.  Criticized by some contemporaries as frail and unfit for the hard labor that awaited them, they were also denigrated by a number of observers who claimed Quebec was a dumping ground for criminals and prostitutes.  Nationalist historians sought to rescue the “founding mothers” from such vilification and upgraded them both socially and morally to well-born orphans and virtuous pioneers.[3] Proving their probity fit the racialist concerns of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but, with social historians to the rescue, the “real” story of the filles du roi has emerged.  Building on the work of Marcel Trudel and other social historians, demographic historian Yves Landry, who has become the standard reference, used every available document to trace the origins and subsequent fate of these women.  Half of them married in the third month (three-quarters within three to five months) after their arrival in Quebec, Trois-Rivières or Montreal, so that even with the serious gender imbalance, a “courtship” period was expected (however brief) and documents show that women were able to renege on hastily contracted engagements.[4]  If they survived the dreadful two-month voyage, and despite years of malnourishment in France, in particular at the Salpêtrière, the filles du roi proved remarkably hardy, living on average for another forty years, a life expectancy that their European counterparts would only reach by the mid-nineteenth century.[5]  Landry attributes this to the initial triage of candidates, the winnowing on board ship, and the isolation in winter that reduced risks of contagion.[6]

Desrochers, who began her novel as part of an interdisciplinary Masters thesis at York University in Toronto, wished to move beyond these demographic exercises to imagine what the transfer from one world to another might represent for an ordinary woman who fit neither the category of self-sacrificing dévote nor the handful of elite brides who married seigneurs or officers. Therefore, besides secondary sources on the early settlers of Quebec, she read on the daily life of the French lower classes, Paris seamstresses, and especially on the grand renfermement des pauvres, supplementing these with some primary research on the Salpêtrière.

The heroine of the novel, Laure, is seventeen and hence about five years younger than the average fille du roi[7] and has spent most of the past ten years at the Salpêtrière.  The archers who had hounded her parents out of the city had deposited her there when she was six; she had been briefly plucked from its midst by a kindly aristocratic lady whose heirs had promptly sent her back.  Although a de facto prisoner, Laure numbers among the “favored” few (the bijoux) at the hospice who have been taught needlework and are being trained as potential wardens, and get therefore slightly higher rations than standard inmates.  Besides dreaming of a better life as a seamstress, she longs for freedom and a few comforts.[8]  Instead, she is shipped off to Canada, among the first human cargo from the hôpital in 1669, after she writes a letter to the King complaining of the dire conditions that she and her fellows have to endure.  The hospital’s prison-like atmosphere is convincingly rendered, as are the class distinctions even within this cloistered enclave.  Laure’s petty jealousies and remorse move the plot along, underscoring the violence and pious lies of the age.  Laure, flawed but undaunted, is contrasted to the saintly Madeleine (based on an actual fille du roi who died upon landing in 1659) whom she convinces to make the trip with her and whose childhood abuse has rendered immensely sensitive to others but unable to surmount life’s harsh demands.

Laure “stands out” from the filles under Mme Bourdon’s care in not wishing to marry and in fretting about what life in the colony will bring, since she has only heard horror stories from sailors on board ship.  We see the pathetic little settlements of the North Shore, Quebec and Montreal through her disappointed and uncomprehending eyes.  Far from the hustle-and-bustle of Paris or the major ports of the Caribbean, Quebec is a patchwork of frontier settlements whose raison d’être are geopolitical.  Although Desrochers says she meant to avoid anachronisms, her Laure doesn’t pray (unlike her best friend who does nothing but that), nor does she seem superstitious, even if she is sometimes gullible.[9] This certainly facilitates a number of plot developments, but seems rather implausible, however jaded and “headstrong” the heroine.[10]  Perhaps this should be read as the symbolic shift from religious to secular colony, a point that Desrochers stresses in her thesis, once the French state takes over from the Compagnie des Cent associés in 1663.

Life in Canada does prove to be tough, although Laure eventually marries as she can think of no other way to survive her first winter.  Unfortunately, she has picked a shlemiel among the new settlers, a coarse and rather dim coureur de bois who abandons her in a hut “in the wilds.”  Yet she learns that he doesn’t even join the hunt for the pelts that bring in the real profits, but merely hangs around the Indian settlement with the wives and children.  She is rescued by a “real man,” a native hunk she had fed from Marguerite Bourgeoys’ garden the summer before.  He had frightened her at first but she comes to trust him, and the inevitable occurs when they meet again at the annual Montreal fur fair.  The down-to-earth midwife who travels from seigneurie to seigneurie to care for the women, and is distinctly “non-judgmental,” takes her under her wing and the story ends as well as it might, without unnecessary romanticism.  Laure’s husband drowns in the river and Laure surrenders her illegitimate daughter to her native lover, who will be able to raise her.  (Indian society, although by no means idealized, is presented nonetheless as kinder to its womenfolk).  This way a child of mixed parentage will not disgrace the colony, thus allowing Suzanne Desrochers to have her cake and eat it too.

The book is divided into four parts and some can be skipped for convenience’s sake –such as the voyage (although Laure learns on board that, however benighted her fate, the slaves on the neighboring ship are the ones to be truly pitied) or the later chapters on her hapless pioneering.  As I leaf through it, I am again struck by how well Desrochers manages to imbue her tale with local color, from the Paris of the 1660s to the budding colony whose identity has not yet congealed.  There are priests, nuns, officials, soldiers and settlers, the lure of the woods and the still-independent native traders.  She also conveys the ambient misogyny of the age, yet in the end, her heroine realizes that crossing the ocean has presented her with options that would have been inconceivable in France.[11]

Students in my Old Regime course like to read about New France.  This engaging novel is a painless way to get across what the settlement represented for the French monarchy and for the people who ended up there.  In a talk he gave on New France at one of the French history society meetings, Bob Forster remarked that his students could not understand why the French preferred their sugar colonies to Quebec.  This novel is as good a starting point as any to begin that conversation.

  1. They left from Dieppe, however, and not Le Havre as Desrochers writes.  Yves Landry, Orphelines en France, pionnières au Canada. Les filles du roi au XVIIe siècle (Montreal, 1992), 58.
  2. Landry, Orphelines, 13.
  3. Landry addresses the historiographical debates as well as offering the best demographic analysis of the origins, recruitment, and fate of the filles du roi.  Desrochers is at times unfair in her dismissal of his “mere” demographic approach: “Women of Their Time: Writing Historical Fiction on the Filles du Roi of Seventeenth-Century France,” MA thesis, York University, Toronto, 2007, 26.
  4. Landry, Orphelines, 128, 260, 152: 11 % did not go through with the first wedding plans, but 15% of those that arrived in 1669-71 did, as opposed to only 7% of other filles du roi.
  5. Landry, Orphelines, 150, 176, 210, 236, 239.  Their average number of children was 5.8 (203).
  6. Landry, Orphelines, 239.
  7. Landry, Orphelines, 171.  The average age of the brides was 23.4 years and the median was 22.6 years; the bridegrooms were 27.5 and 26.7 years respectively.
  8. Desrochers, who used the contents of the real filles du roi’s trunks, is insightful about how refinement penetrated the wilds.  Laure in particular likes “nice things” and makes dresses she will not wear from her allotment of linen and then sews a pretty blanket for her baby even if it serves no “practical” purpose, as her husband keeps pointing out.
  9. On avoiding anachronism, see Desrochers, “Women of Their Time,” 70.
  10. Desrochers, “Women of Their Time,” 69-70.
  11. Desrochers makes this explicit in the historical notes at the end of the novel (292).

Suzanne Desrochers, Bride of New France, Toronto: Penguin Books, 2011, 294 pp.

 

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