24 June 2024

Fifteen Favourite Quebec Novels pour la Fête

For the day, a list of fifteen novels by Quebecers – born and bred – all deserving more attention. In each case, the image presented is the cover of the edition I read. Descriptions are short, but clicking on the links will give a better idea as to why they were selected.

Was 1960 the banner year for Quebec literature? 1962? 1916?

Les Anciens Canadiens
Phillipe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé

The second French-language novel – following son Philippe-Ignace-Francois's L'influence d'un livre (1837) – Les Anciens Canadiens is set in the decades surrounding the fall of New France. Steeped in history, culture, and the supernatural, I've read it twice, but only in translation.    

Rosanna Eleanor Leprohon

A novel I read in French translation, though it was composted in English. Makes sense in a way because Mme Leprohon was even more popular amongst French readers. Like Les Anciens Canadiens, it leans heavily on what would've then been described as Canadien traditions and culture. A moving tale of love and betrayal.

Albert Laberge

Condemned by Mgr Paul Bruchési, Archbishop of Montreal, as "ignoble pornographie," you can understand the attraction. La Scouine is populated by dislikable, immoral, and hypocritical characters, clergy included. It is, in short, the anti-roman a terre. Sadly, Laberge paid a real price in writing this novel.

The Miracle Man
Frank L. Packard

A gang of thieves and con artists leave New York City for rural Maine so as to get in on the scam pushed by a blind faith-healer, only to find there there is no grift. The 1919 Hollywood adaptation is considered one of the great lost silent films. Since writing my 2011 review twenty-four more seconds have been found. I couldn't be happier.

Similia Similibus
Ulrich Barthe

A Great War nightmare in which Germans invade Quebec City, seize the Legislative Assembly, and slaughter citizens, this novel was almost certainly inspired by propaganda involving supposed atrocities committed in Belgium. Civil servant Barthe's lone novel, it is itself propaganda.

Marion: An Artist's Model
Winnifred Eaton

No other Montreal family has been so remarkable. Though a novel, Marion provides the most intimate glimpse of the Eatons' struggles against racism and poverty. Winnifed was a successful novelist with a career in early Hollywood. Whether she was the most accomplished of the twelve Eaton children is a matter of debate. Imagine!

Les Demi-civilisés
Jean-Charles Harvey

Another banned book, the villain this time is Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve, Archbishop of Quebec, who condemned it for criticizing religion. It does not. What Les Demi-civilisés does criticize is the Roman Catholic Church. The novel has been translated twice, but John Glassco's is the one to read.

Erres boréales

Faurent Laurin [Armond Grenier]

The craziest Quebec novel I've read thus far, in Erres boréales massive heaters have been placed in the Gulf of St Laurence so as to make Quebec a tropical paradise. A travelogue of sorts, the story follows friends as they explore the province, now an independent country with palm trees.
Roger Lemelin

Roger Lemelin's first book, for decades Les Plouffe stood second only to Gabrielle Roy's Bonheur d'occasion as the best known French Canadian novel. The television series it inspired made for essential viewing. So why is Mary Finch's translation not in print? I blame Bertelsmann.

Le Libraire

Gérard Bessette

The story of a washed up man who somehow manages to get a job in a shop selling stationary, religious items, and books. After a time, the proprietor comes to trust him with selling literature banned by the Catholic Church. Le Libraire was first published in France, not Quebec... 'cause, you know, the Church. 
The English Governess

Miles Underwood [John Glassco]

First published in Paris by Olympia Press, The English Governess is both this country's finest and best selling work of erotica. That said, I much prefer Harriet Marwood, Governess, the more elegant version of the love story, published fourteen years later. 


Claire Martin [Claire Montreuil]

A literary editor is presented with a bad manuscript by a good looking woman. He reworks, remakes, and remodels, crafting a work that is both a critical and commercial success. A novel of obsession, it is vaguely Nabokovian – which is always a plus.

John Buell

This writer is far better known for his first novel, The Pyx (1960), but it was the second that caused critic Edmond Wilson to place Buell alongside Marie-Claire Blais as one of Canada's great writers. Of the nineteen novels I've helped return to print, this is my favourite.

The Damned and the Destroyed
Kenneth Orvis
   [Kenneth Lemieux]

Another novel I helped usher back to print, The Damned and the Destroyed is set during the earliest days of Jean Drapeau's first term. Its hero, a Korean War vet, is hired to go after the heroin ring polluting the veins of a rich man's daughter. Lee Child is a massive fan.

Une Chaîne dans le parc
André Langevin

Jack McClelland considered this novel the best to have come out of French Canada since Bonheur d'occasion. Sadly, sales did not in any way match expectations. Alan Brown's 1976 translation received no second printing and has been out of print ever since. The novel is a masterpiece.

Bonne fête!

17 June 2024

A Nova Scotian Writes Ontario Gothic

Morgan's Castle
Jan Hilliard [Hilda Kay Grant]
New York: Abelard & Schulman, 1964
188 pages

An uncredited dust jacket of mysterious design, whatever does it mean? The rear image provides no clue.

The covers of Jan Hilliard's other novels are much more straight-forward. Consider this:

A View of the Town
, is "A NOVEL OF SMALL TOWN LIFE IN NOVA SCOTIA," as are most of her novels. Morgan's Castle stands with Dove Cottage as one of two set outside her home province. Dove Cottage has a heavier, darker tone than her Nova Scotia novels, while Morgan's Castle is the heaviest and darkest by far. This is not to suggest that the humour, which runs through all her fiction, is entirely black.

Jan Hilliard's career as a novelist lasted just ten years. One wonders why it wasn't longer. Her novels garnered uniformly positive reviews – I've yet to find an exception – yet Morgan's Castle is the only one to have been reissued in paperback. "A spellbinding novel of romance and suspense in the Du Maurier [sic] tradition," the tagline reads. I was reminded more of Muriel Spark and Margaret Millar, but this may be because I'm more familiar with their respective works.

The heroine of Morgan's Castle is Laura Dean. The youngest member of the Dean family, she lives with her widowed artist father Sidney in a ramshackle house located somewhere in the countryside between lakes Ontario and Erie. Amy Scott, sister of Laura's late mother, isn't at all happy with her niece's situation. Nature can have such a bad influence on a maturing girl. And then there's Sidney, who Amy considers a "rural Dion Juan." For goodness sake, the man gets around on a bicycle! 

Aunt Amy has sent Laura money for a train ticket to the town of Greenwood, where she lives and breeds spaniels. There is a husband, Uncle James, but he is as irrelevant to the story as he is to Aunt Amy. The focus of her life is Charlotte Morgan, depicted here by Reint de Jonge on the cover of the Dutch translation, Spel met de dood (Haarlem: Staarnrstad, 1966).

Charlotte may just be the most beautiful, most refined, most elegant woman in Greenwood; that she is the wealthiest is not up for debate. The widow of Robert Morgan, heir to a vast Niagara winery, she lives with her twenty-eight-year-old son Robbie and various servants at Hilltop House, known to the locals as "Morgan's Castle." It is located on a bluff above and away from the town and is described as looking something like a castle, though the artist for the Ace edition imagines it as a large Anglican church. 

Aunt Amy sent her niece train fare on the pretence of wanting to give the girl a birthday party. Laura's four brothers and their wives will be there, but not the patriarch. Amy is well aware that Sidney won't be able to afford a ticket.

Because she's turning sixteen, Laura's siblings are concerned about shouldering the cost of further education. Is it not enough that their wives provide her with their castoffs? Sure, those old dresses have frayed hems and missing buttons, but Laura knows knows how to sew. They need not worry. Aunt Amy has a plan – and it has nothing to do with tuition.

Over the past year, Charlotte has taken a shining to the girl. Once so skinny and boyish, Laura is becoming a woman. This, um, development hasn't escaped Aunt Amy's attention either. She criticizes her niece's white dress as being too revealing, even though it's an old thing that once belonged to a brother's wife.

Aunt Amy's attraction to Charlotte is nuanced while Charlotte's attraction to Laura is simple. She would like the girl to marry her son Robbie, produce offspring, and secure the line of succession in the family business. Never mind the age difference, the time is right. It's almost as if the fates had brought them together. Just a few months ago, not long after Laura's last visit to Greenwood, Robbie's childless wife Phyllis died suddenly after having sprinkled arsenic, which she thought was sugar, on a bowl of strawberries.

In his 1995 anthology Investigating Women, David Skene-Melvin describes Laura as a detective.

She is not.

Laura has a handle on her ne'er-do-well father, but is nowhere near so savvy or keen-eyed when it comes to others. There's no surprise here. Despite having had to deal with Sidney's fabrication and deceit, her innocence is such that she believes these traits are unique to Sidney.

Morgan's Castle is in no way a detective novel, nor is it a mystery novel, though there are two murders (and many more in the backstory). The first murderer is obvious. The second murderer is a little less so, though one anticipates the act. 

So much of what happens escapes Laura's attention. Does the girl's innocence have something to do with the rural environment Aunt Amy so disparages?

Could be.

Object: Yellow boards in an uncredited dust jacket. I've mentioned the uncredited bit before, I know, but it is relevant here because Hilliard, who worked for Abelard-Schulman, provided her own covers. The only one I have seen credited is Dove Cottage, which features this illustration by son of Scotland William McLaren:

Access: As with the author's four other novels, the first edition of Morgan's Castle enjoyed one lone printing. What sets it apart is a mass market paperback published three years later by Ace featured above, making it the biggest selling of the author's nine books.

The Toronto Star Weekly published Morgan's Castle in two parts over two issues (July 11-18, 1964). I've consulted various pals about the Ace cover, but have no definitive answer as to who should be credited with the illustration. What I can say is that it is accurate in its depiction of Laura.

As I write, two copies of the Abelard-Schulman edition are being offered online. Both ex-library copies, they're listed at US$5.06 and US$64.67. Take your pick. Two copies of the Ace edition are also listed. The cheaper, at US$7.12, has a cocked spine. The other, which "can have notes/highlighting," is being sold by Thrift Books for US$50.06.

The less said about Thrift Books the better.

Staarnrstad's aforementioned Spel met de dood was republished at some point. Judging by the dress, I'm guessing the second appeared in the 'seventies.

10 June 2024

Three Weeks in Thirteen Images

Of all the illustrations depicting young Paul Verdayne and his dark lady love, the worst I've seen is featured on the jacket for the 1950 Duckworth edition. The novel never once describes Paul as having a moustache. The lady's hair should be raven, not red. She dresses only in black, deep purple, and white. And does Paul not look older than his twenty-two years? The lady should be ten years his senior. They do travel by  gondola at one point, but it is covered.

The earliest editions of Three Weeks had no cover illustrations. In all likelihood the first depiction of the lady came with the frontispiece of the 1907 Duckworth first edition. I don't have a copy myself, and so am sharing this image of a copy currently being offered by Addyman Books of Hay-on Wye. A very good price at £154.50.

The description is every bit as striking as the portrait.

Duffield, the novel's first American publisher, used the above before switching to this:

And so we have two entirely different images described as "the only one available."

This early Macaulay dust jacket provides another mystery as no one has yet been able to identify the source of the photo.

I'm fairly certain that this woman is Madlaine Traverse:

The Moving Picture World, 15 June 1918
If true, I'm even more confident that the source is the 1914 film adaptation, in which Traverse plays the lady, known in this film as Sonia, Queen of Veseria.

Sadly, predictably, Hollywood's 1914 Three Days has long been lost. Not so the 1924 adaptation! My Macaulay copy is a tie-in. I chose it over this alternate cover:

The 1974 Duckworth hardcover also tempted because of the Cecil Beaton introduction, and for the glam rock-inspired cover illustration.

It reminds me of nothing so much as Bryan Ferry's tiger skin jacket, Flashbacks of a Fool, and this:

I don't know that I have a favourite cover, though I do enjoy looking over the translations. My favourite is the Czech, Tři Týdny (1925), which focusses on the gondola scene. As with the 1950 Duckworth edition, the cover is missing, but here hair colour and garb are pretty much correct...

...unlike the 1960 Digit paperback:

It has been over three decades since Three Weeks passed into the public domain. Remarkably, the only publisher taking advantage is Virago. Its cover uses a portion of Georges Clairin's 1876 Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt. Not a bad choice, though the only dog to feature in the novel is Pike, Paul's beloved terrier. The lady never meets him.

According to the Virago website, Three Weeks has sold over five million copies. Roughly two million more since the 1960 Digit edition. 

As far as I've been able to determine, there has never been a Canadian edition.

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04 June 2024

Three Weeks a Lady

Three Weeks
Elinor Glyn
New York: Macaulay, [c. 1924]
245 pages

I misread "IMMORTAL ROMANCE" as "IMMORAL ROMANCE," which I expect was the publisher's intent. The very definition of a succès de scandale, when first published in 1907 Three Weeks was denounced, banned, seized, and destroyed. This went on for years. Consider this Toronto Globe. story from 11 April 1911: 

Three Weeks shares something with Fifty Shades of Grey in being a novel read primarily by women. Nurse Sneed reads it to Baby Peggy in The Family Secret. A switchboard operator is shown reading it in Buster Keaton's Seven Chances.

My favourite appearance is in an oft-censored scene from the 1930 Mickey Mouse short The Shindig

Horace Horsecaller, Clarabelle Cow's date, pulls on her tail to announce his arrival. The bell around her neck rings, naked Clarabelle hides the book beneath straw and then gets dressed. I will not comment on the scene in which Mickey pulls on Minnie's bloomers because this post is about Three Weeks, which is far more family friendly.

The premise of Three Weeks is simple. Handsome, blonde, twenty-two-year-old son of privilege Paul Verdayne, "young and fresh and foolish," has fallen for Isabella Waring, secretary to his mother, Lady Henrietta.

And why not!

Isabella shares his passion for sport and the sporting papers, happily washes his terrier Pike, and is in every way an equal partner in the hunt. All is good until "one terrible day Paul unfortunately kissed the large pink lips of Isabella as his mother entered the room."

Lady Henrietta, is horrified; not so Paul's father:

"Let the boy have his fling," said Sir Charles Verdayne, who was a coarse person. "Damn it all! a man is not obliged to marry every woman he kisses!"
Lady Henrietta begs to differ – to her a kiss seals a betrothal – and so she is quite horrified at the prospect of a "daughter of the middle-classes" being brought into the family. Son Paul is is soon sent on a three week tour of the continent "for his health."

The first of three memorable scenes centres on Paul's final meeting with Isabella:
Paul was six foot two, and Isabella quite six foot, and broad in proportion. They were dressed almost alike, and at a little distance, but for the lady's scanty petticoat, it would have been difficult to distinguish her sex.
   "Good-bye, old chap," she said "We have been real pals, and I'll not forget you"
   But Paul, who was feeling sentimental, put it differently. "Good-bye, darling," he whispered with a suspicion of tremble in his charming voice. "I shall never love any woman but you — never, never in my life."
   Cuckoo! screamed the bird in the tree.
Paris bores Paul because he can think of nothing but Isabella. The same is true of Lucerne, until one fateful evening, whilst dining alone, he is seated at a table in view of another lone diner. This is the novel's greatest scene. In its eleven pages there is but one word of dialogue "Bon" – the rest consists entirely of descriptions of the two people dining at separate tables. One, a woman, is seemingly oblivious as to Paul's presence, while Paul is all too aware aware of her. He is at first judgemental ("Who could want roses eating alone?"), then irritated ("The woman had to pass him — even so close that the heavily silk touched his foot.), and then unsettled:
Her face was white, he saw that plainly enough, startlingly white, like a magnolia bloom, and contained no marked features. No features at all! he said to himself. Yes — he was wrong, she had certainly a mouth worth looking at again. It was so red. Not large and pink and laughingly open like Isabella's, but straight and chiselled, and red, red, red.
    Paul was young, but he knew paint when he saw it, and this red was real, and vivid, and disconcerted him.
Try as he may, Paul cannot help but compare Isabella to this woman. Whether Paul falls in love with the woman then and there is up for debate; that he does fall in love with her is not.

But who is she?

The "lady" – by my count the descriptor is used nearly two hundred times 
 is never named. An older woman, perhaps ten years older, the lady is very much the dominant in their relationship. She initiates Paul into the ways of love and Paul responds in the manner of most twenty-two-year-old heterosexual males. Three evenings pass between five-star hotel dining and sin on a tiger skin:

This is the scene that made Elinor Glyn famous. It is the scene that inspired these lines of verse (sometimes attributed to George Bernard Shaw):
                                   Would you like to sin
                                   With Elinor Glyn
                                   On a tiger skin? 
                                   Or would you prefer
                                   To err with her
                                   On some other fur?
It's the scene for which she is best remembered today – and it is not at all what I expected. 

Look carefully  and you will see that

is followed by this:

There is no sex in Three Weeks.

How disappointing!

The best scenes now past, Three Weeks shifts its focus to the lady's teachings on the nature of love and, well, nature. These lectures, coupled with extensive travel itinerary, consume much of the middle-third. It all seems a bit slow and repetitive, but the pace picks up in the third period.

What impressed most wasn't the plot, rather the author's ability to mine the male mind. This is best demonstrated in Paul, but extends to Sir Charles and his friend
Captain Grigsby, both of whom display unhealthy interest in Paul's relationship with the lady. 

Three Weeks is an immortal romance. It lives on in that it is read, though perhaps not as a work of literature. What I know for sure is that it is in no way immoral. 

Object and Access: A bulky red hardcover with four plates of scenes used in promoting the 1924 Hollywood adaptation. I do like the jacket; not only does California girl Aileen Pringle as the lady feature, the rear flap and cover have advertisements for other Glyn titles.

Three Weeks enjoyed sales in the hundreds of thousands. It is not at all hard to find, which is not to say that I've ever come across a one in a Canadian bookstore. I blame Staff Inspector Kennedy and Detective McKinney.

My copy was purchased earlier this year from a Northampton, Massachusetts bookseller. Price: US$45.00 (w/ a further US$ 30.00 for shipping).

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