Bookish Birthdays: Gabrielle Roy

22nd Mar 2012


Today literary lovers everywhere raise a glass to one of the most influential writers to stem from France’s first colony, Canada. It could be argued that this fascinating woman, who produced a staggering amount of literature between her inception and decay, shaped the course of French Canadian history.

Born in the crevice of the two great wars, it is unsurprising that Roy’s novels are continually weighted with ideas centred on the effects of urbanisation and human progress.

Her life was always positioned in a delicate balance between security and moderate hardship, as she was the youngest of eleven siblings with relatively elderly parents.

Living in Saint Boniface, her father worked as a colonisation officer for the department of immigration. As an active member of the colonial system influencing its presence in her family memory, it is unsurprising that the French Canadian colonial attitude played an important part in the formation of her first and most successful novel.

The loss of her father’s job in 1915 meant that her family suffered from a bout of economic strain, a financial drought which resulted in a lost opportunity for Roy.

Even though she was a continuously sterling student, she was unable to afford a university degree so instead propelled herself into teaching. In her years as a curious twenty-something, Roy toyed with a series of potential careers, exploring her faculties, ambitions and dreams.

After training as a teacher at the Winnipeg Normal School, she taught in rural schools in Marchand and Cardinal and was then appointed to Provencher School in Saint Boniface.

Although she then abandoned the idea of teaching long term, this formative experience was not wasted, as it became the subject matter for the series of short stories that were published in her twilight years, entitled Ces Enfants de ma Vie.

Exploring her options and limitations, Roy continued to search for her true vocation by joining a theatre troupe which travelled around Europe between 1937 and 1939.

Although she eventually decided to dismiss previous desires to become an actress, her experiences in Europe no doubt contributed to the ideas that unleashed themselves in the form of her first novel, Bonheur d’Occasion.

The publication of this novel in 1945 was met with a tidal wave of widespread acclaim, rocketing Roy into the limelight. The piece beautifully recorded the emotional backlash experienced by dwellers living in rapidly urbanising Montreal.

Unlike the other works within the French Canadian canon, Roy was celebrated for her stance as a champion of the urbanised poor, who were horribly disenfranchised by the modernisation of the city. An opinion has been established that Roy’s seminal text helped to lay the foundation for the quiet revolution that swept over Quebec in the 1960s.

Roy’s marriage to Dr. Marcel Charbotte in 1947 set her off on another three year adventure around Europe. This element of Roy’s life is arguably one of the most interesting, as her husband was by some critics classified as a homosexual. Regardless of this fact, the two remained in a platonic relationship until her death in 1983.

Throughout her life Roy continued to produce a steady stream of publications that darted between a common binary, innocence and experience.

Alexandre Chenevert, published in 1954, presented a sharp contrast between her former works, which tended to accentuate the beauty of a pastoral existence.

The dichotomy of tradition and modernised living styles remained embedded in Roy’s oeuvre throughout her working life, characterising her literature and accentuating the versatility of her characterisation within different contexts.

It is undeniable that Gabrielle Roy is one of Canada’s seminal female authors, leaving behind a legacy which will always resonate. Alexandre Chenevert has been hailed as one of the most important works of psychological realism to be written in Canada.

If she was alive today, this incredible lady would be 103 years old. Ornamented and eternalised by a plethora of literary awards, I would heartily recommend her novels to anyone with an interest in French Canadian literature and the construction of a delicately woven national identity.

Ashleigh Brown