Biography in French

Biography is the study of a life. It reveals a personality and an analysis of an individual's work in the context of the age in which it existed. Biography has always been popular in French Canada. For a people with limited education and a limited standard of living until very recently, this literary genre was often, in its most elementary form, the only one which received space in the meagre public and private libraries.

Among the cultivated elite in Québec, especially among historians, biography has been both in and out of favour. Its history corresponds to that of ideologies. In its evolution, therefore, one can trace the major trends of more than 2 centuries of French Canadian society. Before taking the path where quality depends on concern for scientific rigour and fidelity to historical accuracy, biography served to showcase virtue, spread a message and support the national cause.

The First Biographies of French Canada

These were "edifying lives," popularized or frankly distorted, and they hold an important place in the history of Québec literature. Until about 1880, biography was closer to medieval hagiography than to true biography. After 1840, the Catholic church began the rise which brought it control of society for a good century. It sought to consolidate its position on 2 fronts.

Internally, it tried to increase its strength and inculcate in the population a value system conforming with its vision of society. Externally, it tried to show its power and credibility with Rome. In this perspective, the recognition, official or not, of the sainthood of various individuals could only reinforce its position. Hence the interest of the clergy in the biography of the founders of the church in Canada.

It is perhaps not by accident that La Vie de Mme d'Youville (1852) by Etienne Michel Faillon appeared just when d'Youville's beatification was under consideration in Rome. And it was to happen again. Faillon also published the biography of Soeur Bourgeoys (1853), of Jeanne Mance (1854) and of Jeanne Le Ber (1860).

In the purest medieval tradition, Faillon's biographies paid much more attention to God and His work in New France than to the subject of the biography and her creative role. Faillon adopted the clergy's view of history, namely that it should immortalize "good" people, people who conformed to the values of society and could serve as role models.

With a little more talent, Henri-Raymond CASGRAIN continued in the same vein as Faillon, and his Histoire de la Mère Marie de l'Incarnation (1864) was the greatest bookstore success in French Canada at the end of the 19th century. As for the Vie de Mgr Laval (1890), written by Auguste Gosselin, its main purpose was to promote the ULTRAMONTANE cause by stressing the required rights, real or assumed, of the Church in Québec and by insisting on the importance of these ties with Rome from the beginning. It helped to nourish an already conservative school of thought.

Even if only a small part of the population had access to these biographies, their influence stretched far beyond their readers. They reached the masses through priests' sermons and schooling, and stimulated the recruitment of clergy and creation of many religious communities. The various biographies of the 19th century were thus an instrument of social control which reached the people through the intermediary of the elites.

The First True Biographies

The end of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century saw the birth and development of the first true biographies. Now well established, the Québec church, allied with the bourgeois elite, concerned itself with the preservation of economic, cultural and social strength in French Canada. The idealization of a glorious past, of an exemplary style of life reinforced the ideology of survival. And so along came the national heroes and the biographies of laymen, politicians, explorers and military men, to enrich a literature which already overvalued the historical patrimony. French Canadian history was thus presented as a succession of lives of heroes, illustrious or unknown, who were all living examples of the virtues of the ancestors, all of them outstanding.

The first of these biographies was that of Guillaume Couture, premier colon de la Pointe-Levy (1884) by Joseph-Edmond Roy. Of "populist" inspiration, this biography of a pioneer exalted the rough life of the homesteader and the purity of rural society. Here we find the 2 themes which Michel Brunet emphasized a century later: agriculturism and messianism. But the book was also in the avant garde, in the sense that instead of praising submission, it showed that French Canadians could moderate the consequences of the CONQUEST.

It is worth noting that most of the biographies of this period dealt with pre-Conquest figures. Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Sieur de Maisonneuve, Louis Jolliet, Jean Talon, Marquis de Montcalm and François Lévis each found his biographer. In each work, we see the classic triptych of Québec at the time: the Cross, the plough and the sword. Recalling a glorious past through these idealized heroes was a way to obscure the real situation of inferiority of French Canadians, all the while justifying the preservation of values handed down by these illustrious men.

It was also, in a way, a reply to the DURHAM REPORT: in place of a future, French Canadians had a past. Moreover, the appearance of these biographies often coincided with the building of a monument to their heroes, which also helped to strengthen this belief in the population.

Three authors stand out among all these biographers by the quantity as well as the quality of their work: Henri-Raymond Casgrain with Marie de l'Incarnation (1864); Narcisse-Eutrope Dionne with Samuel de Champlain (1891-1906); and Thomas CHAPAIS with Jean Talon (1904) and the Marquis de Montcalm (1911). All 3 were ultraconservatives and representatives of the old aristocratic and clericalized rural society. At a time when economic and social changes were under way, their exaltation of the past amounted to a rejection of these changes.

Even if the biographies of this period dwelt on a religious past overlaid with nostalgia for the French régime, some biographers focused their analyses on political matters, the second element of traditional French Canadian thought. It was this myth of the leader that inspired Laurent-Olivier David's biography about the Patriotes de 1837-1838 (1884) and Laurier et son temps (1919), as well as Alfred-Duclos DeCelles's studies of LaFontaine (1907), Cartier (1913) and Laurier (1920).

These 2 biographers belonged to opposing ideologies: David incarnated the purified liberal thought of the turn of the century while DeCelles belonged to the conservative nationalism which had reconciled itself to Confederation. But they were united in their admiration for political strong men. They made these men the new heroes, even if abundant archival material compelled less hyperbole and more realism.

After WWI

After WWI, which coincided with Abbé Lionel GROULX 's entry on the historiographical scene, the biography changed its tone. It remained moralizing and romantic, lacking sufficient grounding in historical reality (eg, Groulx wrote in the course of a polemic about Dollard des Ormeaux: "I retain my admiration for and devotion to these 17 young men of Long-Sault whose memory, revived in 1920, has truly exalted a generation and created for it an atmosphere of French pride").

What changed was the subjects of biography and its orientation. The heroes were no longer only pious and valiant men, obedient to God and authority; they were combative warriors who did not passively accept destiny. Dollard des Ormeaux, Madeleine de Verchères, d'Iberville and La Vérendrye are only a few examples. For Groulx and his disciples, it was no longer enough to assure survival; they meant to demand and win back the rights and pride of the French Canadian people, laid low by 150 years of coexistence with the conquerors.

In this spirit, several historians sought to highlight the elements of the constitutional battles of the 19th century. Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, George-Étienne Cartier and Honoré Mercier were the subjects of various studies. Here one finds the monumental output of Robert RUMILLY, which included many biographies, the most important being Honoré Mercier (1935), Mgr Laflèche et son temps (1936), Henri Bourassa (1953) and, in particular, L'Histoire de la Province de Québec, to which he imparted a biographical flavour by giving each volume the name of the person who had pretty well dominated the short period of time under consideration. This series constituted, in fact, a gallery of individuals, great and small, who were judged by the yardstick of their nationalism and their battles for the rights of Québec.

It is significant that during the years 1920-50 more attention was paid to periods other than the French régime, even if the most notable biographies were still stuck in that era. This is the time when Guy FRÉGAULT, disciple of Groulx and member of the neo-nationalist school, published Iberville le Conquérant (1944), Bigot (1948) and Vaudreuil (1952). These were rigorous biographies, universally praised by the critics, which could have consolidated the genre had they not appeared at the moment when the SOCIAL SCIENCES were undergoing a reorientation.

After WWII

After WWII, in fact, biography in Québec, as in France, went into a period of disfavour, especially in intellectual circles. The new historiographic trends, which emphasized economics and social matters, pushed the individual to the background of history. Moreover, the quantitative approach inspired by American sociology, which thought it unscientific, ridiculous even, to show interest in personalities, profoundly influenced the historiography of Québec and distanced historians of the biographical genre. And the negative view of biography was reinforced by the anti-Duplessis and anticlerical spirit which equated, not without reason, moreover, traditional biography with conservative nationalism and the domination of the Catholic Church.

End of the 1960s

At the end of the 1960s, however, the genre came resoundingly back into fashion in Québec, as in the entire Western world, but in a different form and with different content. Biography proved that it could be and had become a contribution of major importance to the growth of historical knowledge. Since then, numerous biographies, solid and serious works, have added knowledge and timely analyses, essential for the construction of any synthesis of quality. It is scientific history, but personified, much more revealing than the cold monographs which too often simplify questions along with their answers.

In this new biography, not only the subject is revealed; so is the group, class or ideology which he or she represents, plus the times this person helped to create. And the individual belongs to an economic, social and cultural world as much as a religious and political one. The new biography thus comes to the rescue of all-embracing history.

Several names deserve mention here, such as Pierre Savard with Tardivel (1967); Henri Masson with Joseph Masson (1972); Robert Rumilly with Duplessis (1973); Nive Voisine with Mgr Laflèche (1981); Brian Young with George-Étienne Cartier (1982); Andrée Désilets with Hector-Louis Langevin (1969) and Louis-Rodrigue Masson (1985); Réal Bélanger with Albert Sévigny (1983); Jean-Paul Delagrave with Fleury Mesplet (1985); and the many contributors to the DICTIONARY OF CANADIAN BIOGRAPHY/DICTIONNAIRE BIOGRAPHIQUE DU CANADA and Le Dictionnaire des Oeuvres littéraires du Québec.

It is evident that after having abandoned the biographical genre for almost a quarter of a century, historians are rediscovering its attractions and real value. The public loves biographies more than ever, whether scientific, or romanticized. The amazing success in Québec of televised series about d'Iberville, Riel and Duplessis proves that biography can meet public taste as well as the demands of the professional historian.