St. Ursula’s Convent

St. Ursula’s Convent was the first novel published in Canada which was also written by an author born in Canada. Though this fact alone entitles the novel to a place in the annals of Canadian literature, there are several other remarkable facts about the work, not the least of which being that it was written when the author was only seventeen. Published first in Kingston in 1824, St. Ursula’s Convent had been written ten years earlier when the author was a teenager living in Nova Scotia. That the author of Canada’s first home-grown novel was a young woman informs the novel in interesting ways.

St. Ursula’s Convent passes the Bechdel test by its second chapter. A refreshing surprise given my complaints about the lack of female characters in the last novel I read — however understandable that is in a eight-decade-old novel about the Spanish Civil War. In fact, the novel centres mainly on two female protagonists. The foremost character, Adelaide, is the daughter of a Quebec seigneur who attends a convent in Quebec City as part of her education. There she meets the titular Nun of Canada, Mother St. Catherine, whose story occupies much of the first half of the book. Many of the other characters of any importance are also women, with the story being told from their perspective.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of St. Ursula’s Convent, as the novel covers significant ground in only 200 pages. The introduction to my edition notes that some early reviewers describes the pace as “manic”, and I think that’s a fair characterization. To give you some idea of the general plot: Adelaide attends a convent in Quebec City, where she meets the virtuous Mother St. Catherine, who shares with Adelaide her own disheartening life story. Adelaide also becomes close friends with Charlotte, the daughter of a British officer living in Quebec, and is invited to travel with them to England. During her travels to Europe, Adelaide discovers some secrets about her own past, and that of Mother St. Catherine.

The novel includes piracy, kidnapping, shipwrecks, and effusive praise of the Canadian countryside. Children are revealed to have been swapped at birth, people given up for dead make a surprise appearance, and as a consequence I understand why early readers were critical of the novel’s sometimes melodramatic plot. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it though. The final quarter of the novel drags since by that time the central mysteries and drama have already been revealed and solved, and the denouement stretches longer than is necessary. The prose is mostly “tell” and not “show”, which generally hurts the novel. However, there are places where this works to the advantage of the story. At least two lengthy stretches of the novel consist of characters retelling their own pasts, and here the tell-don’t-show prose effectively captures the feeling of someone relating an anecdote to an audience. I’ll admit I’m more forgiving since I know the author was a teenager at the time — I couldn’t have written this well at seventeen. Perhaps I owe Ted Allen an apology for saying This Time A Better Earth “has the hallmarks of an early career work”, however.

Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart would go onto write two other novels, Tonnewonte, and Edith, or The Doom. I will definitely locate, read, and discuss these other two novels here at some point, although to my knowledge Tonnewonte has never received a reissue after it’s initial publication in 1825. There are probably scanned digital versions I can find online, but I might be thwarted in my efforts to find a physical copy to read. The case of Edith, or The Doom is even more unfortunate. Some selections from the novel were published in New Brunswick newspapers in 1848-9, but the finished novel was never published. There does exist a scholarly edition of Edith, in the form of an MA thesis completed by Jennifer Slauenwhite (née Jeffries) in 1991. At the moment that’s the most accessible version I can recommend. I’ve spoken with Ms. Slauenwhite, who stated that she might have the chance to revisit her edition of Edith in a few years, and hopefully find a publisher. I hope she gets the chance — I think Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart deserves more critical and scholarly attention that considers more than just St. Ursula’s Convent.

Perhaps because of its place in the history of Canadian literature, St. Ursula’s Convent has had better luck when it comes to remaining in print. My edition comes from the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT), a sadly defunct project based out of Carleton University. Initially published by Carleton University Press, McGill-Queen’s took over distributing the books reissued by the CEECT when Carleton University Press closed up shop in 1999. Twelve books were reissued through the CEECT series, between 1985 and 2012. Of these I have St. Ursula’s Convent and their version of John Richardson’s Wacousta. On the basis of these two editions I highly recommend the CEECT versions of any book.

The 1991 CEECT reissue of St. Ursula’s Convent is the most recent to my knowledge, and remains in print through McGill-Queen’s. There were two earlier reissues, one through the “Maritimes Literature Reprint Series” based out of Mount Alison University in 1978, and one through The Cherry Tress Press in 1981. The most commonly available version of St. Ursula’s Convent appears to be the CEECT one, although I have seen a few copies of The Cherry Tree edition online. Naturally, the CEECT edition comes highly recommended.

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