Recently I have taken up collecting books from the New Canadian Library (NCL), the late McCelland & Stewart’s collection of Canadian literature. Having amassed thirty some odd volumes I’ve begun to read them in order to justify picking up more.
Antoinette de Mirecourt has a dual claim to historical importance, having been penned in 1864 just as Confederation was being negotiated, and being set a hundred years prior in the 1760s, just after the conquest of New France. The titular Antoinette is a strong-willed but virtuous Canadien girl who travels from the genteel country-side setting of her youth to Montreal to live with her frivolous and excitable middle-aged cousin, Mrs. D’Aulnay. At one of Mrs. D’Aulnay’s regular parties, Antoinette is seduced by the handsome and charming Major Audley Sternfield. Antoinette and Sternfield are subsequently married in secrecy at the encouragement of Mrs. D’Aulnay, who tells Antoinette to marry for love instead of settling for the husband selected for her by her father.
Antoinette’s fortunes spiral downwards from there, as Sternfield reveals himself to be a jealous, tyrannical man who married the wealthy young heiress as a means of covering his gambling debts. I would consider this a spoiler of sorts, but the NCL edition I own (pictured above) spoils this turn of events on the front cover:
“In Montreal after the conquest, a young French-Canadian heiress is deceived by a fortune-hunting officer of the conquering British army.”
The introduction by Carl Klinck spoils not only this premise, but the very climax of the novel. In fairness I should have known better than to begin with the introduction.
The chief strength of the novel is its core cast of characters, which display just enough nuance and contradiction to make them interesting. Sternfield is charming, and even after the revelation of his hidden jealous and conniving nature, he exhibits moments of tenderness that make him a believable human, rather than a mustache-twirling villain. Antoinette’s other suitors, Louis Beauchesne and Colonel Cecil Evelyn are interesting in their own right. Louis, despite appearing the least, displays more respect than any other character in the novel for Antoinette’s autonomy, setting aside his unrequited love once she makes it plain she cannot love him back. Colonel Evelyn carries a sense of mystery and tragedy that he retains even after his past is revealed.
Having already begun, I’ll venture more into spoilers from here on out.
Mrs. D’Aulnay is a necessary player in the morality play without which the events would not be possible. Her loveless yet amicable marriage to Mr. D’Aulnay prompts her to tell Antoinette to marry for love, since she finds her bookish husband dreadfully dull. Klinck notes in the introduction how, despite events proving Mrs. D’Aulnay’s romantic advice dangerous, she is neither punished nor significantly changed by events. Combined with the fact that events eventually conspire to allow Antoinette to enter a loving and prudent marriage, the lesson does not seem to be that Mrs. D’Aulnay was entirely wrong. While I liked Mr. D’Aulnay, he was for the most part a bit character.
The character I least liked, for reasons unintended by the author, was Antoinette’s father, Mr. De Mirecourt. Although the text describes Mr. De Mirecourt throughout as indulgent and caring, this is seldom bore out in the narrative. An early chapter digresses entirely from the main narrative to relate the story of how Antoinette’s parents became married. Anoinette’s mother Corinne was the adopted sister of Rodolphe De Mirecourt, who spent his early adulthood in Europe serving France. Upon returning, home at a marriageable age, Rodolphe began courting various women. His adopted sister, who was deeply in love with him, keep her mouth shut until he accidentally discovered her affections, and they subsequently married. I relate this only to note how Mr. De Mirecourt is a hypocrite. His first action within the narrative is to send Louis, the husband he chose for Antoinette, to Montreal to inform her of their upcoming marriage. After Antoinette sends Louis home empty handed, Mr. De Mirecourt arrives in Montreal himself to accost and threaten his daughter. Although he married for love rather than any prudent reason, he denies his daughter precisely this right. This is eighteenth century Canada, so the subtext of Antoinette being the property of her father – and later her husband – is unsurprising, but even for its day Mr. De Mirecourt’s hypocrisy must have been contemptible.
I did enjoy how Antoinette’s reasoning for turning down Louis was precisely what made me uneasy with her parent’s union. Antoinette claims she could never see Louis as other than a brother, since they were childhood friends. This in contrast to her parents, who were legally siblings prior their marriage. An interesting touch.
Relatedly, the greatest weakness of the novel is how Antoinette is wasted as a character. Despite her evident wit and willfulness, Antoinette is more often the victim of events than their author. Her greatest act of agency in the first half of the novel is to blush profusely whenever so much as a stiff breeze passes by, and in the second half she begins to wilt and die while things happen around her. This is a shame, because as I mentioned, Antoinette is interesting. Colonel Evelyn’s romantic feelings are inspired by her strength of character and willingness to stand her ground. Were she a more proactive character in her own story these traits might be better showcased.
The novel does effectively make use of its setting as a backdrop for the story it wants to tell. The conquest of New France looms over the proceedings and the Canadian seasons are described in beautiful detail. I cannot fault the novel for shying away from specifics of politics, but I wish I could have heard Mr. De Mirecourt and D’Aulnay’s conversation:
“They found the gentlemen engaged in an animated political discussion, in which the grievances of Canada and the oppressive acts of the new government formed, of course, the chief topics. In deference to Mrs. D’Aulnay, who of late professed the greatest possible dislike to politics, nothing more was said on the subject, and the conversation turned to general topics.”
The climax of the novel sees Antoinette wasting away while being badgered by her secret husband Sternfield. When Louis, the childhood friend turned unsuccessful suitor, objects to Sternfield’s treatment of Antoinette the two have a duel that leaves Sternfield mortally wounded and Louis on the run. The duel happens off-screen, and is described in a single sentence in a hurriedly scribbled letter left for Antoinette by the fleeing Louis:
“This morning we met, and he fell, mortally wounded.”
In my view a missed opportunity.
Nevertheless, the subsequent chapter where Antoinette attends Sternfield’s bedside as he dies is for my money the best in the novel, which was needed, as it serves as the climax.
Antoinette de Mirecourt was a worth read. Despite my misgivings, the characters made the novel worthwhile. Rosanna Leprohon populated her novel with compelling figures, and more than once Sternfield or Evelyn made a suave remark, or the narration made an snide observation which made me laugh aloud. I especially recommend the novel to fellow friends of Victorian literature, and those interested in older CanLit.
Next in my NCL library is sometimes more voluminous from Yves Beauchemin.