23 November 2012

A 19th-century Céline Dion and Her Horrible Hunchback Husband

'The Lane That Had No Turning'
The Lane That Had No Turning
     and Other Tales Concerning the People of Pontiac
Gilbert Parker
New York: A.L. Burt, 1900

To think that I nearly set this aside.

A historical novella of old Quebec, 'The Lane That Had No Turning' begins with an awful lot of backstory and a presumption that the reader is familiar with "Valmont, the bizarre but popular Napoleonic pretender." Well, this reader was not only unfamiliar but had to poke around a bit to discover that the character and accompanying plot elements are derived from Parker's 1895 novel  When Valmont Came to Pontiac.

Don't know it? Never mind. Everything you need to know can be reduced to three sentences... and I've wasted one:

The aging Seigneur of Pontiac has let it be known that his estate will go to Englishman George Fournel. The old man dies, no documentation can be found, and so everything goes to direct heir Louis Racine. He's a lawyer.

The eyes fairly glaze over until this:
On the very day of his marriage Louis Racine had made a painful discovery. A heritage of his father's which had skipped two generations, suddenly appeared in himself: he was becoming a hunchback!

"Terror, despair, gloom and anxiety", begins the next sentence. Turns out that Racine's bride, beautiful Madelinette Lajeunesse, the local blacksmith's daughter, is recognized throughout the world as "the greatest singer of her day." Three months into the marriage, the songbird leaves Quebec on a  European tour. Her groom delays his departure with a story that all sorts of seigneurial matters require attention. The truth is that Louis, who has somehow succeeded in hiding his condition, looks to arrest his "strange growth" with a secret surgical operation.

It's a failure.

His wife returns from Europe to find a hunchback husband of twisted mind and body. Madelinette retires from the stage, devoting herself to keeping Louis in check. You see, the seigneur is unstable, as evidenced by his attraction to the days of old. He flies the flag of the golden lilies, maintains a guard in the uniforms of New France and works assiduously in ridding those of English and Irish heritage from Pontiac.

But Madelinette cannot be ever-present. It's only at the last minute that she's able to prevent her husband from killing Fournel, She'll race tirelessly through the Quebec countryside so that her husband won't lose his seigneury, but will unknowingly perform during a murder. Like the 19th-century heroine she is, Madelinette will stand helplessly as a suicide takes place on the other side of a locked door.

Throughout all her trials, I couldn't help but liken Madelinette, a woman from rural Quebec whose pipes are celebrated the word over, to this much-hyped figure:

Of course, the greatest living Quebec singer is really this man:

Everybody knows.

Trivia: Today is the sesquicentennial of Gilbert Parker's birth.

More trivia: This is the earliest Canadian book I've read to feature the word "slut".

Yet more trivia: In 1922, 'The Land That Had No Turning' was adapted to the silver screen. A lost film, this surviving image of Madelinette (Agnes Ayres) and Louis (Theodore Kosloff) suggests that it was not a period piece.

Object: Though less ornate than the first edition, my A.L. Burt reprint – which is very attractive indeed – features four plates illustrating the title story. Purchased in 1998 from a Toronto Goodwill Store (price: $1.50), it once belonged to one J.P. Butler of Walden, Mass.

Access: Used Parkers are plentiful. Very Good copies of the American and British first editions can be bought online for ten dollars; expect to pay $35 for the first Canadian. At the high end, we have an Ottawa bookseller who dares ask $125 for a later, very common Doubleday reprint. He is to be ignored, as is the UK bookseller who looks to sell a crummy print on demand copy for $175.

Interestingly, I find no sign of a French translation. A Finnish edition, Umpikuja (Dead End) was published 1917 by Karisto.


  1. Enjoyed this, thanks. My post on Parker today is a (Parkeresque?) coincidence. And I concur on the matter of greatest living singers from Quebec.

    I was surprised to find an Anglo-Canadian writing about French-Canadians. I'm curious to know what the French-Canadian take on him is (if there is one). I can imagine French-Canadians preferring one of of their own as a writer of fiction about them. I'm also wondering how you would translate French-inflected English dialogue into French.

    1. I can think of a few other Anglo-Canadians who set stories in French Canada - William Kirby, Duncan Campbell Scott and Thomas B. Costain come first to mind - but I can't see that the favour or disfavour was returned.

      Everyone is supposed to be speaking French in "The Lane That Had No Turning" - so no inflected dialogue. That said, I think Parker errs in making his habitants seem so very English:

      "'Tut,tut, old leather-belly,' said Gingras the shoemaker, whose liquor had mounted high, 'you'll not need to work now.'"

  2. This narrative sounds rather interesting. Whether the book lives up to it is another story altogether.

    Personally, I could have done without the Celine reference. I prefer to substitute her with La Bolduc (which probably makes more sense historically --- although, I don't think she had actually started singing/recording at the time of the book's release.)

    Knuckles G.