Historical Fiction Roundup 4: The Monarchy in Canadian Literature

The monarchy is a recurring theme in Canadian literature, encompassing both popular perceptions of individual members of the royal family and policies enacted in the name of the crown. Here are a few examples that capture the diversity of monarchy as a literary theme in novels by Canadian authors.

In Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers, the fictional heroine, Laure, becomes one of the approximately eight hundred marriageable young women who emigrated to New France (modern day Quebec) between 1663 to 1673 with dowries provided by King Louis XIV. While previous novels inspired by the experiences of “The King’s Daughters,” such as The King’s Daughter by Suzanne Martel, romanticized these journeys as opportunities for poor young women to seek independence and adventure, Desrochers emphasizes the heavy hand of royal policy in the emigration of brides for the colony’s overwhelmingly male population.

Louis XIV and his Minister of Finance, Jean Baptiste-Colbert wished for New France’s population to expand, and Paris’s orphanages and homes for poor women were expected to supply wives for the colonists. In Bride of New France, Emigration to New France is not portrayed as an enticing future for even the most adventurous young woman. When one potential “King’s Daughter” dies before embarking on the voyage, the nurse remarks, “Canada? Well, it’s just as well she died, then . . .Terrible. Just because we don’t know what do with them here doesn’t mean they deserve to be sent over there to freeze in the forest.” Desrochers illuminates the full extent of Louis XIV’s influence over his North American empire through the experiences of her characters.

In  Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, the rumoured African heritage of Queen Charlotte, consort of King George III reinforces the affinity of the Black Loyalist community of British North America with the crown.

Portrait of Queen Charlotte with her two eldest children by Allan Ramsay, 1765.

When Hill’s fictional heroine, Aminata, is received by King and Queen as part of William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, she is curious to know if the rumours about Charlotte’s background are accurate. Aminata states in the novel, “We moved first to Queen Charlotte Sophia. . . She was the one I most wished to meet, for I wanted to see for myself if she appeared to be a daughter of Africa. The portraits I had seen had drawn her delicately, giving her face a porcelain composure. But seated before me was a woman with a broad nose and full lips, and skin much richer than any painter`s rendition.”  Charlotte’s ancestry continues to be debated by historians to the present day but Aminata’s impressions give a sense of how she might have been perceived in the Black Loyalist community of late eighteenth century Nova Scotia.

In the nineteenth century, Susanna Moodie sought to raise the profile of her memoir of life as a Canadian pioneer, Roughing It in the Bush, by dedicating it to her sister, Agnes Strickland, who was the more famous author at the time of the book’s publication. Strickland was the celebrated writer of Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest, a series of short biographies of England’s Queens that combined apocryphal romantic anecdotes with archival research and cultural history. While Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush, and The Backwoods of Canada, which was written by another Strickland sister, the regally named Catherine Parr Traill, are now classics of Canadian literature, Agnes Strickland’s biographies are now read primarily by royal historians.

No account of the influence of the monarchy on Canadian literature would be complete without a discussion of the novels of Robertson Davies. The author was a lifelong monarchist who encompassed elements of popular perceptions of 19th and 20th century Canadian monarchs into his works. Fifth Business, the first novel in the Deptford Trilogy contains a vivid example of a character’s personal identification with a well known member of the royal family. The narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, describes his “lifelong friend and enemy” Percy Boyd Staunton as initially in search of an ideal person to emulate.

Ramsay observes, “This ideal, this mould for his outward man, was no one less than Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the Prince of Wales. The papers were full of the Prince at that time. He was the great ambassador of the Commonwealth but he also had the common touch. . .” The future Edward VIII was extremely popular amongst Canadians. during the 1920s and 1930s, and Staunton’s all consuming obsession is an exaggerated depiction of the genuine admiration that the Prince received during his royal tours of Canada. Ramsay and Staunton ultimately debate the Abdication Crisis of 1936 during the novel, representing the two different sides of Canadian popular opinion on this historic event.

For more information about the crown in Canadian literature, I recommend the essays by Mary Condé and L.C. Knowles in Majesty in Canada: Essays on the Role of Royalty.

Next weekend: The Royal Frame of Reference in Downton Abbey

2 thoughts on “Historical Fiction Roundup 4: The Monarchy in Canadian Literature

  1. I have to admit that I much prefer the romanticised “The King’s Daughter” to “Bride of New France”. It should also be noted that “The King’s Daughter” is definitely YA fiction, and as such is much easier to read and in my case, reread multiple times over the years.

    • I like both books in different ways. I read the King’s Daughter many times growing up but found Bride of New France to be really well written and an original interpretation of the emigration of the Kings Daughters.

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