Love and Treachery in Nouvelle France
- Dorothy Reno
- September 25, 2017
A Canadian classic gets its due
When Canadians are pressed to name literary classics, they will likely reference the works of Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood. Born in 1931 and 1939, respectively, these laudable authors aren’t exactly of the same vintage as the 19th-century canon-establishers to the south, greats like Hawthorn and Melville.
In Canada, where Confederation happened nearly one century after the American Declaration of Independence, the literary boom took up a corresponding timeframe, gestating for a few generations, and then finding its footing in the 1950s and 1960s.
That’s not to say Canadians lack epic 19th-century novels. The Golden Dog is a work of historical fiction by William Kirby published in 1877 and is, roughly speaking, the Canadian equivalent of Moby-Dick. With one significant difference: Canadians don’t pretend to have read it. Indeed, many have not heard of it.
Like Shakespeare’s tragedies, The Golden Dog goes big on themes of ambition, betrayal, and love. Noble-born Angélique des Meloises is the most beautiful woman in Québec, and she’s teeming with aspirations beyond life in the colonies. Nothing beneath the court of King Louis XV will do, and once there, she plans to seduce the monarch to gain influence in the French empire.
Though in love with Le Gardeur de Repentigny, Angélique’s only ticket to the king’s court is a strategic marriage to François Bigot, the corrupt Royal Intendant of New France. The Intendant, however, is hard to get. And he harbors hidden agendas of his own.
If the first-order messaging in The Golden Dog is a well-worn meditation on the embodiment of good versus evil, there is also an air of pre-existentialism about — one that spotlights how people humble themselves (or not) to the circumstances of their thwarted desires.
Only the Intendant and the closest members of his retinue know that Caroline de St. Castin, his ex-fiancée and once great love, has fled the fallen colony of Acadia and is living in the basement at his official Québec residence. Having earlier deserted Caroline after deciding to avail himself of more ambitious marriage alliances, he takes her in, with lukewarm feelings of culpability and tenderness.
Caroline is depicted as the image of 18th-century Roman-Catholic purity, even if she has much in common with her adversary, Angélique. Both women have a taste for grand gestures, knowing their gambles could be risky and irreversible.
Will Caroline’s presence at the Intendant’s house be found out, bringing shame upon her family and destroying her ability to live in society? Or will the Intendant yield and marry Caroline, thereby making an honest woman out of her? And just how far will Angélique go to depose her rival and win the Intendant’s hand?
Across the divide from the two most willful women in the story is Amélie de Repentigny, Le Gardeur’s sister and Angélique’s longtime friend from convent school. Where Angélique and Caroline would force fate, Amélie follows the path of forbearance, waiting, for instance, in silence and never confessing her love for Pierre Philibert, a gentleman in the King’s service. When the two come together for a canoe voyage, Amélie is seated beside Pierre because her friends have contrived to make it so, and it is he, not Amélie, who finally confesses his love and proposes marriage.
The author has little to say about which approach to life is more valorous. Whether conniving or sincere, ambitious or humble, all of The Golden Dog’s characters are presented with much the same end as La Nouvelle-France.
Kirby himself was English-born and immigrated to the United States before going north to Canada. He was a loyalist, though one who happened to revere French language and culture. Researching and writing the story in the first decade after Confederation, his literary endeavor was one of conscious nation-building.
With later iterations of The Golden Dog, including its translation into French, the book’s existence proved a hopeful and idyllic blend (for the time) of Canada’s founding trio: a story written by an anglophone about French-Canada, with a few appearances from Indigenous Peoples.
That the novel unified early Canadians as its author intended is less persuasive. Anglophone critics and readers may have read with romantic but ultimately superficial connections in mind regarding their francophone compatriots, while francophones read the book as an opportunity for deeper connection with themselves. (For more on this, click here.) As for Indigenous readers and allies, there is a sad chill when Caroline, the only Métis character of the story, becomes the first of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women on literary record.
In the case of poor Caroline, whose body is never found, it’s difficult to suss out a moral beyond the obvious: “Don’t fall in love with an arse” and “Never trust the whites.” When Angélique commissions Caroline’s murder, she makes the Intendant complicit by allowing him to discover the body.
Even as a malefactor, Angélique overachieves and ruins her chances with the Intendant, who, all along, had been planning to send Caroline away with the Abenaki and marry Angélique instead. Unprincipled as the Intendant is, the murder of an innocent woman he once loved proves too much, putting him off Angélique.
The Intendant and Angélique share the same chronic weakness of many a manipulative personality: a blind spot to the scheming of others at the periphery of their own desires. The Intendant underestimates Angélique’s determination and is stunned by Caroline’s murder because he fails to perceive Angélique as his equal in depravity.
So engrossed is Angélique in her performance of innocence that she can’t foresee the Intendant’s counter blow when he orchestrates a scene where she unknowingly encourages Le Gardeur, who is in a drunken rage, to murder a man in full view of the public. With Le Gardeur in jail, Angélique can’t fall back on her love-match and is reduced to marrying one of the Intendant’s oily henchmen.
If Angélique and the Intendant are irredeemable, it’s important to note that in Kirby’s vision of 18th-century Québec, one can’t survive on goodness alone. Amélie’s purity of heart is what keeps her in denial about her brother, Le Gardeur, being insidiously controlled through the Bacchanalian influences of the Intendant’s inner circle.
When Le Gardeur draws his sword and kills Bourgeois Philibert (the father of Amélie’s fiancé, Pierre), Amélie assumes — without asking — that Pierre won’t want to marry her and flees to the convent, giving herself over to the Ursuline order. Amélie shies away from the lesson that life doesn’t reward passivity, that one cannot live on humility and flagellation alone.
The self-imposed exile from Pierre breaks Amélie’s spirit and ushers her to death’s door, rendering her pledge to Christ in bad faith. Amélie’s repressed rage finds its only expression as a facial mark which bursts forth like musket fire and settles on her cheek shortly before she meets her end.
Canadians are among the friendliest, most social-minded people in the world, so it’s only natural they find solace in a dark literary tradition. Other dark, seminal works from the more recent CanLit era, wider-known novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Barney’s Version, will remain central to the Canuck canon, and can only be further complemented by the unearthing and honoring of works that came before.
Dorothy Reno is a senior review editor and classics columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has been published in literary journals in Canada and the United States. She lives in Tbilisi, (former republic of) Georgia. If you would like to share your thoughts on The Golden Dog, please respond in the comments section of this article. Dorothy hopes you’ll join her in reading Sense and Sensibility, which will be the subject of her next column.