19 October 2020

Armand Durand; or, A Summer Project

Armand Durand; ou, La promesse accomplie
    [Armand Durand; or, A Promise Fulfilled]
Madame Leprohon [Rosanna Eleanor Leprohon;
    trans, J.-A.  Genaud], 
Montreal: Beauchemin, 1894
367 pages

In her time, Rosanna Eleanor Leprohon – Madame Leprohon – was more popular with francophones than anglophones, so does it not make sense to tackle this, her third novel, in translation? I thought so. It was my summer project. That the season ended weeks ago speaks to my inabilities, and is no reflection on the novel itself. The story is simple and has a rushed, rather predictable conclusion – but it is deftly told and is populated by fully-drawn characters who live in a Quebec the author knew well.

The novel begins with Paul Durand, descendant of the earliest settlers of New France, who has come to inherit a large and profitable farm in "the seigneurie of — Alonville we will call it — on the banks of the St. Lawrence."* Handsome and hardworking Paul has put off marriage so as not to impose upon his mother, who had lived many, many years in the Durand family farmhouse... until she didn't.

I shouldn't be so flippant. Mère Durand is depicted as a fine woman. After her death, son Paul looks to be in no hurry to take a bride — but then he encounters Geneviève Audut. Newly arrived from France, delicate Geneviève is employed as governess to a pair of thoroughly dislikable children related to the seigneur. Geneviève herself is a relation —a poor relation — whom no one treats her particularly well. Her charges are the worst: "Mamma says we will never learn anything till we have a tutor, and that she would get us one to-morrow, only she does not know what to do with you. No body will marry you as you have no dot."

After overhearing this little shit, Paul proposes to Geneviève, which in turn sends the women of Alonville into a tizzy:
What could he see in her, indeed, a little doll-faced creature with no life or gaiety in her, to bewitch him in such a manner? What made him marry a stranger when there were plenty of smart handsome girls in his own village that he had known ever since they wore pinafores?
Much to their delight, Geneviève proves a disaster in keeping a farmhouse, but Paul Durand loves her to the end... which comes when she gives birth to the titular character. 

Again, I shouldn't be so flippant. Though I could see it coming, Madame Leprohon's description of Geneviève's death touches the heart.

Believing that his infant son is in need of a mother, Paul marries spinster Eulalie Messier, a plain-featured woman of good character, who had been generally recognized as Alonville's youngest spinster. His new bride loves and cares for the infant Armand Durand as her own, and Paul comes to love her as a result. Eulalie wasn't so old an old maid that she couldn't provide her husband with another son. They name him Paul, after his father.

And then, she dies.

I fear I've made Armand Durand seem gothic, when it is really a mélange of melodrama and literary realism. Its depictions of French Canadian traditions and society, which Mary Jane Edwards suggests is the reason behind Madame Leprohon's popularity, was just one element that kept me reading.

With Eulalie's death, focus shifts to the two Durand boys and their schooling at "the old Montreal College." Armand, the more retiring of the two, is the intellectual. Paul, though younger, is both literally and figuratively the bigger brother. He has confidence and brash. Poor Armand, so pretty and slight, becomes a target of his fellow classmates. "Miss Armand," as he's called, is bullied to a point at which he lashes out, bloodying the brute Rodolphe Belfond, after which the two become fast friends.

As the title suggests, Armand comes to take the place of the main character. Paul fis begins to fade with the end of their schooldays, returning to Alonville to help run the family farm. Armand remains in Montreal, working for a lawyer, with the goal of becoming one himself. It all makes sense, and works well until jealousy rears its ugly head. On visits to Montreal, Paul feels like a country bumpkin, and comes to resent the money their father sends to help support Armand. He begins a campaign of lies, implying that the funds are wasted on drink and dandyism. The scheming reaches its apex when Paul Durand pere lies in his deathbed as Paul fis intercepts letters addressed to his older brother. The upshot is that Armand Durand is disinherited.   

Madame Leprohon's greatest challenge in writing this novel must surely have had to do with events following the father's death. Armand marries Delima Laurin, his landlady's niece. Written this way, the decision seems so rash, and yet this reader understood the proposal of marriage and its timing. Sadly, Armand and Delima soon prove themselves ill-suited. 

I'll write no more for fear of spoiling things... and because I'm hoping you'll read it.

I found Armand Durand to be one the finest Canadian novels of the nineteenth-century.

Am I wrong?

Was something gained in translation?

* All quotes come from Rosanna Eleanor Leprohon's original text.  

Object: A fragile volume printed on thin paper, bound in embossed scarlet boards, my copy once belonged to the Bibliotheque de Chénéville. It was purchased earlier this year from a Gatineau bookseller. Price: C$19.41. I see no evidence that it was a discard. Should I be concerned?

Access: Armand Durand first appeared as a serial on 1 October 1868 in the Montreal Daily News. That same year, the novel was published in book form by John Lovell. That edition can be read — gratis — through this link at the Internet Archive.

The novel is in print today, with introduction by Loraine McMullen and Elizabeth Waterston, as part of Tecumseh's Early Canadian Women Writers Series. It can be ordered here, thorough the press.

Pay no heed to print on demand vultures. Take it from a Montrealer, this isn't Quebec:

The Tecumseh edition aside, I see no copies of Armand Durand — English or French —listed for sale online.

As might be expected, this once-popular novel has come to be the stuff of academe. The only copy I see in a public library can be found in Toronto.

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