Philippe Aubert de Gaspé
Philippe Aubert de Gaspé
Philippe Aubert de Gaspé (1786-1871) was a French-Canadian author whose historical novel, "Les Anciens Canadiens," is one of the earliest landmarks in French-Canadian literature.
Philippe Aubert de Gaspé was born on his family's seigniory at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence. The family manor had been burned down by British troops during the Seven Years War and reconstructed on a more modest scale, and this incident is transferred to the novel.
Educated and called to the bar (1813) in Quebec, Aubert de Gaspé had a career in law and public administration until 1834. His disdain for petty calculation, either in money or in friendship, led to bankruptcy and imprisonment from 1838 to 1841. He spent the next 30 years living modestly on the family estate.
Aubert de Gaspé was preceded as an author by his son, Philippe Ignace François, who has serious claims to being the first French-Canadian novelist. L'Influence d'un livre (1837; The Influence of a Book), subsequently published as Le Chercheur de trésors (The Treasure Hunter), contains a chapter sometimes attributed to the father.
Aubert de Gaspé's first signed publication, which appeared in 1862, was an extract from his novel, which was published the following year. Les Anciens Canadiens (The Canadians of Old) is the kind of novel in which fictitious major characters live in a world of historical minor characters. Ostensibly used by the author as a vehicle for his descriptions of traditional Canadian life, the novel and its copious notes, together with his Mémoires (1866), constitute a personal record of a way of life which had disappeared. The posthumously published Divers (1893) adds some less well known memoirs. These descriptions range from popular storytelling to the dinner conversation of the rural aristocracy, though conspicuously omitting the professional life that the author had known all too well.
Endless notes and explanations show that Aubert de Gaspé—then 75—was combining personal memories of his own time with stories handed down from his grandparents. But the novel maintains the artistic illusion of giving firsthand impressions of the period of the Conquest, then a century old. The interest of the central narrative lies in its symbolic patterns, which amount to an acceptance of British rule and a desire for reconciliation, provided that the honor and values of the French Canadians be respected, particularly among the nobility. Aubert de Gaspé's vision of a gentlemen's bond in Canada had a wide appeal, which has proved durable. Although the seigniorial system had been abolished in 1854, the author himself continued to receive the deference of his habitants until his death at the age of 85.
A biographical study of Aubert de Gaspé by James M. Tassie is in Robert L. McDougall, ed., Our Living Tradition (1959). □