Friday, August 09, 2013

The History of Emily Montague

Not the cover of my copy, but I think
 this is quite a nice one.  Not as
 bad as this bizarre choice!
The History of Emily Montague / Frances Brooke
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991, orig. published 1769.
318 p.

This is commonly referred to as the "first Canadian novel". It was written in 1769 by Frances Brooke, an Englishwoman married to a minister who served for five years as regimental minister in Quebec. Her impressions of early British Quebec are captured here in a romantic, epistolary novel.

Brooke was friends with the great Samuel Richardson, during the years that he wrote and published his masterpiece of letter-writing fiction, Sir Charles Grandison. Since I've just read Grandison, and was really delighted by the humour, the characters, the cohesion of the story and the general epistolary flair, this novel had a lot to live up to! I read this first years ago and had remembered it as an entertaining read, but unfortunately, rereading it immediately after Grandison, well, it paled by comparison.

First of all, it is much, much shorter. And the letters themselves are more like notes, brief and rapidly dashed off. It's hard to imagine that they'd take the trouble to send a one page (or less) letter all the way back to England, particularly in the colder months when ships weren't flying back and forth. The action seems to lack that necessary time lag required by the physicality of sending and receiving letters between England and the New World. While the majority of the letters in Grandison were simply going back and forth between London and other English cities, in Emily Montague they must go cross oceans. So the realism was a bit sketchy.

Also, the story is quite weak The descriptions of early British Quebec are fascinating -- the Montmorency Falls are beautifully described, the coldness of winters, the jaunting about in summer days, all delightful. But, being 1769, and being British and the ruling class, her commentary on the French inhabitants and on the Native population are scarcely kind. I did enjoy the novelty of the setting and the contemporaneous impressions shared by her characters. Once the story moves to England, about 3/4 of the way through, it completely loses coherence and the plot is tied up in melodramatic fashion.

I could see the influence of Richardson on Brooke's story. There was a particular connection between the lively Arabella Fermor, with her leading statements about marriage and women's situation in social life, and that of Charlotte Grandison, the sparkling provocateur of Grandison. They both comment on the inequalities of women and men in making the "rules" for romantic and marital conduct.

Nonetheless, as a novel, this is fairly forgettable. It was clearly inspired by the great epistolary tradition which was brought to its peak by Richardson, but doesn't really compare. Its power lies in its historical relevance, not its plotting, even though there were a few good quips in the text, thanks to a couple of the characters.


  1. How interesting! I was not previously aware of this book. Not sure if I'll be rushing out to find it, but if it crosses my path I will peruse it with interest. :-)

    1. It's well worth a read if you are either Canadian or interested in epistolary novels. It doesn't really stand up as a great novel, but has its moments. There are some quotable bits, mostly the parts that were heavily influenced by the ideas I'd just read in Samuel Richardson's novel! It was serendipitous to read them close together.


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