Read Bride of New France Online

Authors: Suzanne Desrochers

Bride of New France (42 page)

New life?
The words seem impossible.

Will Laure add this exchange, giving away her daughter, to her collection of losses and carry on?

Madame Rouillard nods. Yes, it will be possible. Tomorrow will dull even this agony.

Laure is a stone goddess carved by saltwater tears. She is a woman who has managed to cross the ocean without drowning. She has risen from the depths, intact, on new shores. When so many have not, when she has not even really wanted to, she has somehow survived. A living artefact of the absurd dreams of royal men who tear starving girls from their hospital beds and drop them in the frozen woods. Laure’s body is the scroll upon which they write their plans: ten thousand people by 1680 and thousands more after that. The King is offering
rewards to the husbands of women who give birth to ten, twelve children and more. More babies will be born here than anywhere else on earth. The villages will grow like cornstalks along the riverbank. The Savages, even the Iroquois, will kneel at the altar of the dozens of churches they will erect in this new world. The ships back to France will be filled with furs and tales of a prosperous new country. So much becomes possible now that French children are being born and raised in a country that for centuries did nothing but starve and mutilate the priests and traders that came down the river.

Except that Laure’s daughter, the one being held up to the light of the moon, is not the one they want. She is worth less than a wolf skin. This baby brands Laure as a transgressor, a woman who spits in the face of the King’s dreams. She is the one the sailors fear. The one they burn as a witch for fornicating with a Savage enemy, for killing her husband, for giving away her own flesh. Still, who can destroy her, when she is the one who guides the ships, when her gentle waves or foaming wrath decide who makes it to the other side? Whether the precious colony lives or dies.

Laure remains as long as she can, watching Deskaheh and the woman’s swift retreat down the path. They walk close together, huddling over the baby between them. Finally, once the two are far up ahead, Laure and Madame Rouillard set out. They will go to Ville-Marie first. Madame Rouillard wants Laure to forget her life in Pointe-aux-Trembles. “You are still young,” she says. “You still have time to settle.”

Laure follows Madame Rouillard along the trail, her feet tripping on stones and stumps that were easy to avoid when Luce was pressed warm against her chest. The sun is rising behind them and they no longer need the torch to light the
path. Laure wants to run ahead, to catch up with Deskaheh and the Algonquin woman, to take Luce back, or at least to see her one last time. But instead she comes up alongside the woman who delivered her of the baby, and will now take her to Ville-Marie. Together they will find a new suitor for Laure.

Soon Laure will be someone’s wife, but for the moment she forgets about the river’s shore and its burgeoning settlements. She remembers, instead, the place she came from. She lets herself return to the sea.

Historical Notes

filles du roi
, like most historical women, are largely figures of legend. Their story, at least its more legendary aspects, is very well known in French Canada. My impression as a child was that these founding mothers had been sent by Louis XIV, whom they had met at a grand send-off ball in Paris. When they disembarked in their elegant gowns at Québec, they would have been warmly welcomed. As the story went, in a feat of modest feminine heroics, they then went on to marry and have children with the brave pioneering men of the fur-trading rivers and forests. It wasn’t until years later that I started to think again about these women sent from France to Canada. After having faced the challenges of living for several years in a foreign country myself and being half French Canadian, I wanted to know more about what the French counterparts of Susanna Moodie had really felt, arriving in Canada over a century before she wrote
Roughing It in the Bush

Between 1663 and 1673, approximately eight hundred women were sent from France to Canada to become the wives of men already in the colony, mostly fur traders and soldiers. But the historical record is sparse on details about the lives of the
filles du roi
. Most of what is known about them is contained
in the comprehensive research of historian Yves Landry, based on marriage contracts and death certificates in Quebec’s parish records. But to write a novel I needed to bring this demographic data to life. I wanted to know how the women got to Canada. Did they decide to go on their own? Were they forced onto the ships, as some historians have suggested? And most of all, what did they think of this new wilderness country and its inhabitants, both European and native, once they disembarked? Also, which of these women was going to be my protagonist? Surely each of them had a unique story worthy of being told.

Reading seventeenth-century accounts about the
filles du roi
, I realized that my childhood impressions of them as elegant ladies in ball gowns needed some revising. Marie de l’Incarnation, a seventeenth-century Ursuline nun in Québec, referred in her letters to the women sent from France as rude, troublemaking riff-raff. Of course the cloistered nun likely had very little interaction with the
filles du roi
and was probably commenting mostly on the appearance and low class of the women. Patricia Simpson, in her two-volume biography of Marguerite Bourgeoys, observes that this woman, herself a legend in French Canada, faced her own challenges as an uncloistered nun, and as such welcomed the
filles du roi
. She housed them at Ville-Marie upon their arrival, training them in the necessary housekeeping skills and presumably assisting with their matchmaking. It was also Marguerite Bourgeoys who gave the women the title of
filles du roi
. This had nothing to do with any royal connections, but was rather related to the seventeenth-century term
enfants du roi
, which referred to orphaned children being provided for from the king’s coffer. The
filles du roi
were mostly poor, usually orphaned young women. But did they choose to come to Canada? Were they
happy to leave behind their wretched conditions and sail across the Atlantic to find a husband as is commonly believed?

Historians, including Yves Landry, agree that at least one-third of the
filles du roi
came from the Salpêtrière in Paris. Michel Foucault considered the Salpêtrière to be one of the central institutions for the mass incarceration of the poor in Paris of the seventeenth century. Marthe Henry, a medical doctor writing in the 1920s, outlines the living conditions of the Salpêtrière: long work hours, a starvation diet, and days filled with Latin prayers and masses. Jean-Pierre Carrez’s more recent work,
Femmes opprimées à la Salpêtrière de Paris (1656–1791)
, mentions women listed as thieves or prostitutes being sent to America, mostly to Louisiana, as a form of banishment. Although there are no surviving hospital records in France for the women sent to Canada, there is little reason to believe that their social status would have been much different. In France, the
filles du roi
would most likely have been women attempting to survive in desperate urban poverty, ending up at the Salpêtrière through petty crime or vagrancy and occasionally something more serious.

Off the beaten tourist track in Paris, you can still see the original structure of the Salpêtrière, a modern-day hospital, near the Gare d’Austerlitz. I visited the Salpêtrière several times during my stay in Paris. What a contrast it must have been to have this awesome stone structure with its magnificent dome chapel at the centre and thousands of impoverished women starving inside its walls. I was also struck by how it truly must have felt like taking a voyage into hell to leave behind Paris with its rituals, medicine, markets, horse-drawn carriages, and royalty to travel by night down the Seine with guards and to enter the hold of a wooden ship for a months-long journey across the sea. How there could have been any excitement or hope
in such a dangerous and terrible venture is really beyond my imagining. I think we attribute a sense of heroism and purpose to our forebears because to really contemplate the challenges they faced, to think that maybe they didn’t want to come at all and that they were miserable when they arrived, makes their lives seem unfair, even cruel.

The inspiration for my protagonist came from a brief biographical note in the records on Madeleine Fabrecque, a young woman who died, seemingly of exhaustion, shortly after reaching New France. I asked myself, Are these women valuable to us only as producers of a population? Did the choices they made and the unique contours of each of their lives matter? In the end, I decided to use a fictional, perhaps more mythological woman as the main character of my story. It was important that Laure survive, as most of the women in fact did, and that eventually she adjusted to life in the colony, although not necessarily as a wife and mother complicit in some grand design. Perhaps there were women among the
filles du roi
who were happy to “escape” the impoverished circumstances of their lives in France. Having the opportunity to marry, even a strange woodsman, would possibly have seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But through the character of Laure Beauséjour, I wanted to create a counterweight to this grand historical narrative of the
filles du roi
as founding mothers.

I would be proud to have Laure in my family tree, the sort of woman who thought about justice, who entertained possibilities—options—even when these were merely fantasy and served only to endanger her life. On some levels she is a selfish character, but how else in such circumstances, if not through wit and strength and even malice, could these women have survived and given birth to French North America?


This novel began as an M.A. thesis project at York University. I would like to thank my supervisors, Jane Couchman and Roberto Perin, and especially Susan Swan, who guided me to “stay light” and to find the creative in all the historical research I was undertaking. I am indebted to the valuable feedback and support of the group I met during the 2006 Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop: Hélène Montpetit, Rita Greer, Wayne Robbins, David Hughes, and Elizabeth Brooks. I am grateful to my mentor, Joseph Boyden, who provided encouragement and advised me to stick with the story for the “long haul.”

I would like to thank my friend and agent, Samantha Haywood, whose enthusiasm for the novel spurred me on. At Penguin Canada, I would like to thank Nicole Winstanley, Sandra Tooze, Barbara Bower, and especially Adrienne Kerr for her brilliant insight, patience, and kind approach to editing, as well as freelance copy editor Shaun Oakey. I am indebted to staff at a number of archives in Toronto, Montreal, and Paris, with particular thanks owed to the archivists of the Assistance publique—Hôpitaux de Paris and to Patricia Simpson, who graciously met with me in the heart of a Montreal winter to discuss the life and times of Marguerite Bourgeoys.

For financial support during the researching and writing of the novel, I owe gratitude to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Government of Ontario, York University, and the Humber School for Writers.

I am indebted to my family and friends who have indefatigably asked when this novel of mine was going to be available, especially my mom and dad, Joanne and Edmond Desrochers, who would have loved to see this story become a book, Joe and Cécile, Ross and Rose Dioso, and Cathy and Richard Nucci. I would like to extend a special thank-you to Anne and Dave Black, who first inspired me to seek out the history of French Canadians, who helped me to persevere in telling this story, and who provided some of my best critical feedback. But my greatest gratitude is due to my husband, Rod Dioso, whose love and encouragement have made my writing life possible.

Finally, I would like to thank Cynthia Varadan and Marlene Sagada at Toronto’s Riverdale Community Midwives Clinic, for showing me what a woman can really do. Just three days after my manuscript was accepted for publication, I gave birth to a baby boy, who has filled my days ever since with endless inspiration, although very little time, for the telling of stories.

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