20 November 2009

Love and Unhappiness

The Master Motive [À l’œuvre et à l’épreuve]
Laure Conan [pseud. Marie-Louise-Félicité Angers; Theresa A. Gethin, trans.]
St Louis: B. Herder, 1909

Our first female French language novelist, Angers hasn't been accorded much attention outside Quebec; it wasn't until 1974, that Angéline de Montbrun (1884) the work for which she is best remembered, appeared in English. So, what to make of this early translation of a lesser work? Its existence, I think, can be explained by looking to the publisher. Herder was a house devoted to pastoral publications, and was so successful that it was recognized with an entry in The Catholic Encyclopedia. The house continues today as Herder & Herder, offering titles like The Local Church: Tillard and the Future of Catholic Ecclesiology and A Celebration of Priestly Ministry: Challenge, Renewal, and Joy in the Catholic Priesthood. As a historical novel, with touches of romance, The Master Motive wouldn't really fit the publisher's current list; but one hundred years ago it vied for attention with Herder's fine edition of The Necromancers, a gothic horror novel by celebrated convert Father Robert Hugh Benson (son of the Archbishop of Canterbury).

I haven't read Benson – not The Necromancers, not Come Rack! Come Rope! or Oddsfish! or any of his other novels – and so can say nothing of his talents. Of Angers, I can only comment on this book, which I will admit, was a challenge to get through. Looking at The Master Motive beside the original French, I can see that the problem isn't the translation, but an uncomfortable marriage of plot and pulpit.

Set in 17th century France and New France, The Master Motive is a work promoting piety, sacrifice and, ultimately, martyrdom. At its centre is Gisella Meliand – Gisèle Méliard in the original French – a beautiful orphan girl who leaves her studies at the Cistercian convent of Port-Royal-des-Champs to live with distant relatives the Garniers. On her final day, she is cautioned by the Abbess that "happiness is like those intoxicating liquors which can only be taken in safety in small quantities, and then, well diluted."

The happiness contained in this vessel is very much watered down. What sets out as a romance between sixteen-year-old Gisella and her fiancé Charles, son of Monsieur and Madame Garnier, is quickly swamped by talk of trial, tribulation and duty. Samuel de Champlain makes an appearance, as does Father Brébeuf, joyless men who appear fairly beaten by their tasks.

Gisella Meliand did not exist, but her betrothed did. We know little about Charles Garnier The Dictionary of Canadian Biography provides no more than nine sentences. To read this brief entry is to spoil the plot. Garnier never married, rather he was ordained as a priest roughly three centuries before being canonized by Pope Pius XI. His end, during an Iroquois attack on the Georgian Bay village of Saint-Jean, was not pleasant. Angers' novel closes with news of Garnier's final moments, spent running "hither and thither, to comfort the dying and prepare them for heaven." The reader is told that he "fought his way into the burning huts and baptized the children and catechumens amid the flames", before being felled by a gunshot to the abdomen.

This sad spectacle of a priest desperately trying to baptize those who had rejected his Faith has some claim to accuracy, and reminds the reader of words Charles had written to our heroine:

Oh, Gisella, what happiness there is in baptizing him and seeing him die! Have you ever thought of the astonishment, the overwhelming joy, of a poor savage who passes from the depths of misery to the splendors of heaven?
And, so, a happy ending.

Object: A handsome hardcover, typical of its day, I bought my copy inscribed – for 50¢ as a library discard.

Access: A rare book, amongst our libraries only the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec has a copy. Just two online booksellers – one in Australia, the other in the United States – offer the book for sale. The good news is that neither costs more than C$18. The novel is much more common in the original French, with plenty of copies to be had for as little as C$6. At the high end is a copy of the 1891 first edition. While not exactly a pristine condition, the very low C$36 asking price provides a pretty clear reflection of the author's waning popularity.

More Master Motive (or À l’œuvre et à l’épreuve): Jean-Louis Lessard provides his own thoughts on Angers' novel on his always excellent blog Laurentiana.


  1. OK, knowing that there's a (presumably serious) book out there called 'Oddsfish!', how can you NOT read it?

  2. Oh, and I would... that is if I hadn't read up on its plot. "It describes the plots and political movements of the closing scenes of the life of Charles II", says one of the many current publishers (primarily POD folk). Never one for historical novels, The Master Motive has tired me out a bit. That said, Benson's tale of Elizabethans, Come Rack! Come Rope!, does tempt - if only because the title somehow calls to mind Bettie Page.

    I trust I will be forgiven for writing this.