Gabrielle Roy, C.C., author (born 22 March 1909 at Saint Boniface, MB; died 13 July 1983 at Québec, QC). Member of the Royal Society of Canada since 1947, Gabrielle Roy received the highest literary awards, including the Governor General’s Award (1947, 1957, 1978), the Prix Duvernay (1956), and the Prix David (1971), and was appointed Companion of the Order of Canada (1967).
Youth and education
The granddaughter of Québécois pioneers, she was the youngest in a family of 11 children. According to first-hand accounts, she began to write at a very early age, receiving her gift for story-telling from her immigration agent father, her mother, and her sister Marie-Anna. Despite frail health as a child, her family’s financial difficulties, and the injustice of the Thornton Act of 1916 (also called the School Attendance Act) which abolished the teaching of French in schools (see Manitoba Schools Question), she excelled as a student at the Académie Saint-Joseph and at the Winnipeg Normal Institute before pursuing a career as a teacher.
Her experiences between 1929 and 1937 as a teacher in small-town Manitoba, in places like Waterhen and Saint Boniface, exposed her to the vast western landscapes and the ethnic mosaic which would generously nourish her writing.
Split between literature and the theatre (she performed with Le Cercle Molière), she left for France and England to study drama. After two disappointing years, she decided to devote herself entirely to writing. She moved to Montreal, where, under the direction of her literary advisor, Henri Girard, she became a freelance journalist with La Revue Moderne and Le Bulletin des agriculteurs. Her discovery of Montreal’s poverty-stricken Saint-Henri district inspired her to write what would become the first major Canadian urban novel. Bonheur d'occasion (1945) denounced the condition of workers and the underprivileged at the beginning of Second World War, while breaking with the values of patriotism, religion and attachment to the land.
Bonheur d'occasion was a huge success. A Literary Guild of America selection (transl. The Tin Flute), it was awarded the Prix Femina (see Literary Prizes in French) in 1947, and was translated into a dozen languages. Universal Pictures paid a large sum for the rights, but the film version was only made in 1983, in Québec, by Claude Fournier and producer Marie-Josée Raymond.
Having married Dr. Marcel Carbotte, Roy left once again for a three year sojourn in France. There she wrote La Petite Poule d'Eau (1950) which was inspired by her time spent in the Waterhen district of Manitoba. Returning from abroad she settled in Quebec City. In 1957 she bought a cottage in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, Charlevoix County, where, despite suffering from regular bouts of depression, she would write the bulk of her work, while continuing to travel across Canada, the United States and Europe. She died of a heart attack at l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec hospital in 1983.
A tormented and solitary personality, afflicted by numerous contradictions and a longing for her western roots, fragile and endearing at the same time, Gabrielle Roy is one of the great contemporary writers on the human condition. She wrote of the existential malaise of modern man (Alexandre Chenevert, 1954), of the endless quest of the artist (La montagne secrète, 1961), of Aboriginal peoples torn between two worlds (La rivière sans repos, 1970), of the harmony of the mystical soul with nature (Cet été qui chantait, 1972), of the difficulties of pioneer life in the West (Un jardin au bout du monde, 1975), and of the journey of a mother with a vagabond soul (De quoi t'ennuies-tu, Éveline ?, 1982). Her childhood and adolescent memories, transposed into Rue Deschambault (1955), La route d'Altamont (1966) and Ces enfants de ma vie (1977), would find their full expression in her autobiography La détresse et l'enchantement (1984), followed by Le temps qui m'a manqué (1997), both published posthumously. In addition to children's stories (Ma vache Bossie, 1976; Courte-Queue, 1979), Gabrielle Roy also produced a collection of news articles and essays, Fragiles lumières de la terre (1978), a volume of correspondence, Ma chère petite sœur – Lettres à Bernadette, 1943-1970 (1988), and numerous unpublished works.
With an underlying foundation of unrelenting counterforces, and marked by a constant questioning, Roy’s oeuvre offers a vision of humanity afflicted by problems of instability, lack of communication, and a complex and ambiguous relationship with the environment, yet ultimately redeemed by its aspirations to a perfect, fraternal and united world. Simple in appearance, her style seduces through an erudite and sophisticated blending of the powerful shortcuts of North American language with the purest French classicism.
In addition to numerous academic studies, the life and work of Gabrielle Roy have inspired several biographies and essays: François Ricard, Gabrielle Roy (1975) and Gabrielle Roy, une vie(1996); Monique Genuist, La création romanesque chez Gabrielle Roy (1966); Marc Gagné, Visages de Gabrielle Roy (1973); Annette Saint-Pierre, Gabrielle Roy : Sous le signe du rêve (1975); M.G. Hesse, Gabrielle Roy par elle-même (1985); Ismène Toussaint, Les Chemins secrets de Gabrielle Roy – Témoins d'occasions (1999).