Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

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Word PressThis was an interesting book, but strange because it was so negative. However, the author said that she didn’t want to make everything seem heroic or romantic, so I suppose she achieved exactly what she set out to do.

The “Bride of New France” was one of the young women sent from France to what’s now Quebec province during the 1670s, to marry one of the settlers there. There are all sorts of stories across the years about women going out to colonies which have far more men than potential brides. In some cases it’s been women who can’t find husbands at home hoping for better luck abroad, most famously the annual “Fishing Fleet” going out to British-ruled India, and in some cases it’s been lonely men sending messages home for what would now be called mail order brides (or would that now be on-line order brides?), but, in this case, neither side seemed to be very keen. It was the state, Louis XIV’s France, and the Catholic church, which wanted to bring about these marriages, partly in an attempt to stop the men from chasing after the women of the First Nations bands and partly to populate their not-so-shiny new colony.

Louis XIV’s France gets an extremely bad press in English writings (and the author of this book is actually half French-Canadian), but that’s usually because of the invasions of neighbouring countries and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In this book, we see another very unpleasant element to it – social engineering. Laure, the main character in this book, is taken away from her street entertainer parents and sent to an institution by authorities charged with cleaning up the streets. Then she’s forced to go to Canada. And, in Canada itself, rewards were even given to couples who produced more than ten children, which I can see would have made sense at the time but which now, in the post-Nazi era, smacks of something very unpleasant. We tend to associate social engineering with the twentieth century, but this book shows that there was plenty of it about in the seventeenth century as well.

Interesting themes, then, and the accounts of the hardship on the ships and the hardship faced by the women struggling to get through the harsh winter alone whilst their husbands went off to engage in illegal offshoots of the fur trade were interesting as well (although I do wish people wouldn’t write in the present tense!). But the main character was so annoying! All right, we can’t all be Ma Ingalls, but could she not at least have tried to keep her cabin clean and tidy, instead of just sulking about how hard her life was? And she wasted the material which was meant to last her for years on making a few fancy frocks which she was never going to have occasion to wear, and then just shrugged her shoulders and said that she was used to living in Paris. And, yes, it was very broad-minded and liberated of her to have an affair with a First Nations man, but did it not occur to her that it was inevitably going to end in tears? All rather gloomy and frustrating.

However, as I said, I think that was what the author wanted. The founding of the colonies wasn’t all heroic and rewarding: for most people, especially those without money and those who hadn’t even wanted to go there in the first place, it was pretty grim. That message came across loudly and clearly!

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