24 September 2009

Old Folks

Jean-Louis Lessard has just completed a very fine series on early Canadian writer Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé, the seigneur best-known for Les Anciens Canadiens (1863). I first encountered this historical romance as part of a CEGEP course on the literature of Quebec (if memory serves, Hubert Aquin's Prochain épisode and David Fennario's Without a Parachute were also on the reading list), but the words I read belonged to translator Sir Charles G.D. Roberts.

I've always viewed Roberts and his translation, The Canadians of Old, with a dab of derision, an irrational discourtesy that originates with the cover of the New Canadian Library edition used in the course. Those familiar with the NCL's second series design will be grateful that the only image I could find is so small. It was such an ugly book, made all the worse by the inexplicable presence of Roberts' name in place of the author's. Even the title is wrong: Canadians of Old, when it should be The Canadians of Old. Of course, none of this had anything to do with Roberts, who was three decades dead when this particular edition appeared. Like I say: irrational.

To be fair to Sir Charles, his name doesn't even appear on the cover of the handsome 1890 first edition, despite the fact that he was at the time a poet of some acclaim. I don't believe Roberts ever really considered himself a translator. The idea for the book came from New York publisher Appleton, and was accepted at a time when he was in dire need of cash. That said, it wasn't a bad match. Roberts may not have shared Aubert de Gaspé's interest in Boileau and Racine, but both he and the seigneur were readers of Sir Walter Scott. The name of the novel's protagonist, Archibald Cameron of Locheill, provides a good indication of the depth of the baronet's influence. This was raised to the surface in 1905, when publisher L.C. Page reissued the book as Cameron of Lochiel - dropping the double 'l', thus bringing the character's name into line with Cameron of Locheil in Waverley, Scott's hugely successful first novel.

This second title has received a good amount of criticism these past ten decades, but let's again be fair; though adopted in Canada by Copp Clark, it was first imposed on the book by a Boston publisher with an eye on the American market. I'll add that the 1865 theatrical adaptation was titled Archibald Cameron of Locheill ou un épisode de la guerre de Sept Ans au Canada, and that the plot has more to do with Archie than pal and fellow protagonist Jules d'Haberville.

Les Anciens Canadiens holds a unique position in this country as a novel translated by four different hands. The first, by Georgina M. Pennée (The Canadians of Old, 1864), was later revised by Thomas Guthrie Marquis and published in 1929 as Seigneur d'Haberville: A Romance of the Fall of New France. I imagine that Roberts' translation is the most read (the NCL edition sold nearly 1800 copies in the first six months alone); a great shame since it has been surpassed by Jane Brierley's 1996 translation. The only one currently in print, it is highly recommended, as are her translations of Aubert de Gaspé's moires (A Man of Sentiment, 1988) and his posthumous Divers (Yellow-Wolf and Other Tales of the Saint Lawrence, 1990), which received a Governor General's Award.

Oh, and Prochain épisode and Without a Parachute? Also recommended.


  1. Your posts are always fascinating. Between your blog and another I found through you, 'Great War Fiction', my next 6 months of income have probably been spoken for. I have also now ordered 'Michael's Crag', though in a POD edition that may give me hives.

  2. The head swells.

    Great War Fiction is an excellent blog. To it, I add Alan Hewer's Great War Dust Jackets site. Caution: clear at least an hour before your first visit.

    It would be interesting to compare the POD Michael's Crag with the first edition I ordered earlier this month (and which still hasn't arrived).