- Writing Herself into Being: Quebec's Autobiographical Writings from Marie de l'Incarnation to Nelly Arcan by Patricia Smart
This thoroughly researched and illuminating book by French and Canadian Studies scholar and Chancellor's Professor Emerita Patricia Smart explores the experiences of women who helped weave the fabric of Quebec's history. The Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures awarded Smart the prestigious Gabrielle-Roy Prize for its French version (De Marie de l'Incarnation à Nelly Arcan. Se dire, se faire par l'écriture intime, 2014). She is a renowned historian of women's literature noted not only for her ability to disseminate her work in English and in French, but also for her engagement with unearthing the importance of women's roles in culture and society. Most of her books have been recognized by eminent awarding bodies throughout Canada and Quebec. She has published and translated many other essays such as Writing in the Father's House: The Emergence of the Feminine in the Quebec Literary Tradition (1991), which received the Gabrielle-Roy Prize, the French version having won the Governor General's Award in 1988. [End Page 529]
In Writing Herself into Being, Smart gives credence to a variety of genres that shed light on the political power of the intimate experience. Autobiographies, autobiographical fiction, annals of religious communities, letters, and published and unpublished diaries by girls and women form an intricate mobilizing circuit of "other forms of writing the self" (4). This diverse corpus allows the contemporary reader to measure the weight and systematic nature of historical silence of and about women, and to get hold of the perennially subversive nature of the act "of putting pen to paper [as] an essential part for the search for self and for agency" (11). The book follows a chronological evolution from the early French settlements of the "New World" to the period of personal and collective emancipation that began with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.
The book has four parts, the first of which delves into some of the most central themes from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries: the intersection between religious (or pious) life and the difficulty of self-realization. The first part, "Living and Writing for God: The Mystical Era," begins with the new forms of religious life for women in New France in the seventeenth century. For Marie de l'Incarnation (1599-1672), "the great mystic and foundress of the Quebec Ursuline order" (17), and Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620-1700), the colony's first teacher who founded the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, writing allows for the "emergence of the feminine" (62). Through writing, they can reassert the singularity of their voices in a world rife with exclusion and violence.
In the second part of the book, Smart pieces together the correspondence of Élizabeth Bégon (1696-1755) and Julie Papineau (1795-1862). She demonstrates how the eighteenth century marks the beginning of "an evolution in the concept of self and the forms of life writing" (67), as educated women were expected to master the epistolary arts. Smart sheds light on the background of these women's lives "when the missionary fervor that originally dominated New France has given way to an authoritarian Church" (76). The epistolary operated "as the primary site of reflection and self-reflection" (68); but it resounds time and space, as Smart explains, because its female voices speak intricately about the universal fear of silence and solitude as well as the need for hope and change. For Julie Papineau, "politics is a visceral commitment which frees her from the monotonous routine of her daily activities and gives her the feeling of participating in the creation of a better world" (97) and allows her to temporarily rebel in favour of the Rebellion against the Church. In her quest to shed light on the intricacies of these women's lives and writings, Smart warns the reader against the idea that the...