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125 Subverting the Saintly Mother: The Novels of Gabrielle Poulin | by kathleen kellett-betsos 7 Novelist, poet, and critic Gabrielle Poulin describes her initial impulse to write partly as a response to a frustrated maternal desire: “I felt the stirring of a nostalgia and regret that I had believed long gone: I had no child, I would never have one, except in my dreams. But, within me, a louder voice objected: Nothing is impossible for one who writes!” Her characters would be “the children of desire and promise.”1 Born in Saint-Prosper, Quebec, in 1929, Gabrielle Poulin had renounced maternity upon taking her vows as one of the Soeurs des Saints-Noms-de-Jésus-et-de-Marie in Outremont in 1950, working within the order as a teacher while pursuing studies first at the Institut de Spiritualité de Nicolet and later at the University of Montreal . Upon leaving religious orders in 1968, she continued her career as a teacher but also began to write poetry, literary criticism, and fiction. Although Poulin has lived in Ottawa since 1971, she considers her childhood home of Saint-Prosper to be an important source of inspiration (VE 18). In 1979, Poulin published her first novel, Cogne la Caboche, an autofictional account of a young woman’s life as a nun, ending with her departure from the convent in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, a tumultuous period of social change in the 1960s which saw a diminishing role for This is a significantly revised version of a paper entitled “Images of Maternity in Novels by Gabrielle Poulin,” given at the annual conference of the American Council for Quebec Studies in October 2000 in Montreal, Quebec. All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated. 126 kathleen kellett-betsos religious orders and a correspondingly increased role for the modern state inhealth,education,andotherinstitutions.AshistorianMichelineDumont points out, from 1900 to 1961, the number of women entering religious orders in Quebec increased steadily, partly because the religious vocation offered young women in Quebec one of the few means of pursuing their aspirations for security and a socially valued career as an alternative to domestic service or marriage, for example (282–85). Outside the Church, maternity was considered a woman’s destiny; Lori Saint-Martin, in her study Le nom de la mère, notes: “Religious discourse, broadly circulated in Quebec until the 1960s and even beyond, shows [the mother] as asexual, smiling despite her pain, and altruistic” (13). Such an image, although perhaps noble, can hardly be thought to inspire anything but an ambivalent maternal desire. At the same time, as Dumont indicates, religious orders promised women the exalted possibility of “spiritual maternity”; the nun was to be “a bride of Christ, a mother of souls” (285). As Quebec social institutions became more secular, new career paths opened to women and the religious vocation went into serious decline. The ideal of the selfless mater dolorosa, whether she be “mother of souls” or the mother of numerous offspring, long persisted in Quebecculturelikethelingeringodourofincense.Thesixnovelswrittenby Poulin present the lives of women touched by the increasing secularization of their society and by changing ideals of womanhood. In Poulin’s fiction, narrative and maternity are inextricably linked. As mothers, surrogate mothers, and daughters tell their life stories orally or in writing, the joys and, especially, the frustrations of the mother–child relationship constitute a recurrent theme. It is particularly useful then to consider Poulin’s representations of the maternal in the context of Marianne Hirsch’s study The Mother/Daughter Plot, which examines the ways in whichwomenwriterscontestrestrictiveliteraryconventionscreatedwithin a “sex-gender system which … identifies writing as masculine and insists on the incompatibility of creativity and procreativity.” Hirsch insists: “Female plots, as many feminist critics have demonstrated, act out frustrations engendered by these limited possibilities and attempt to subvert the constraint of dominant strategies by means of various ‘emancipatory strategies’—the revision of endings, beginnings, patterns of progression” (8).2 In examining the maternal role, Poulin reconstructs archetypal narratives , notably that of Demeter and Persephone, but situates them in the context of a society in transition. Saint-Martin associates the theme of hostility toward the mother with Quebec women’s writing beginning in the 1970s, when authors such as Nicole Brossard celebrated the “symbolic putting to death of the ‘patriarchal 127 subverting the saintly mother mother’”(48).3 Poulin’searlynovelsfollowthistrendintheirrepresentation ofmatrophobia,ifonerecallshereAdrienneRich’swell-knownremarkthat matrophobia is not fear of the mother but fear of becoming one’s mother (Saint-Martin 25).4 The...

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