Patricia Smart pens an award-winning book on the personal writings of Quebec women.

Chancellor’s Professor Emerita in the Department of French wins Gabrielle Roy Prize, the Académie des lettres medal and the Jean Éthier-Blais Prize.

Distinguished Research Professor and Chancellor’s Professor Emerita in the Department of French, Patricia Smart, has been awarded the Prix Gabrielle Roy and the Jean Éthier-Blais Prize for her latest book, De Marie de l’Incarnation à Nelly Arcan. Se dire, se faire par l’écriture intime(Éditions du Boréal). The book was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and for Ontario’s Trillium Award.

Rounding off a very successful 2015, Professor Smart finished the year by receiving the prestigious Medal of Quebec’s Académie des lettres for her overall contribution to the study of Quebec literature and culture.

These accolades are a fitting endorsement of a career which has always been dedicated to putting English-Canadian and Quebec literature and language on the national agenda.

“Carleton’s English and French departments in the 1970s, with professors like Robin Mathews, Parker Duchemin, Donald Smith, Sinclair Robinson and myself, were instrumental in bringing Canadian literature to the forefront, and it’s gratifying to see that present day Carleton professors like Sara Jamieson, Jody Mason, Jennifer Henderson and Catherine Khordoc are still playing major roles in developing new critical approaches to our national literatures,” said Smart.

Released in 2014, Professor Smart’s De Marie de l’Incarnation à Nelly Arcan. Se dire, se faire par l’écriture intimebrings together a number of published and unpublished first person accounts of the lives of Quebec women from the time of New France to the present day.

Smart began her research with the intention of writing a study of Quebec women’s autobiographies, but was surprised to discover that in the three centuries between Marie de l’Incarnation’s spiritual autobiography (1654) and Claire Martin’s memoir of her childhood, Dans un gant de fer(1965), there had been no publicly accessible autobiographies by women.

This striking absence of centuries’ worth of personal commentary from half of the province’s population obviously leaves an important gap in the collective understanding of life in Quebec. To help bridge it, Smart began the monumental task of searching for correspondence and diaries by women.

“I’ve become more and more interested over the years in what literary texts can tell us about history,” said Smart. “What I’ve tried to do in this book is to study each of the texts in depth. I wanted the authors I was studying to come to life for the reader, and that meant that I had to take the time to really immerse myself in the work of each one of them. They feel like ‘my’ women now, and I want their voices to be heard.”

The women featured in Smart’s book come from all walks of Quebecois life and their personal stories raise important questions. Their voices provide a new perspective on some of the major events of Quebec political and social history. Through a new lens, De Marie de l’Incarnation à Nelly Arcanrevisits the rebellions of 1837-1838, the cholera epidemic in Montreal and surrounding areas in the mid-nineteenth century, the slow beginnings of feminism and Church resistance to it in the early twentieth century, and the changes brought by the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

The two celebrated writers named in the book’s title, Marie de l’Incarnation and Nelly Arcan, are representative of the book’s great diversity.

Marie de l’Incarnation, the founder of the Ursuline order in Quebec, was a mystic, while Nelly Arcan became a best-selling author in France and Quebec in 2001 with the publication of her autobiographical text Putain (translating to “whore” or “hooker”) which tells of her experiences working as a call girl while studying at the Université du Québec à Montréal. “So, through the work of two brilliant and important writers, we go from one extreme to the other of the roles assigned to women, from the nun to the prostitute,” explained Smart. “Tragically, Arcan took her own life in 2009, at the age of 36.”

Other authors studied include Julie Papineau who is known thanks to her forty yearlong correspondence with her husband Louis-Joseph Papineau, the leader of the 1837-1838 rebellions; Henriette Dessaulles, who wrote a diary critical of life in Quebec as a teenager in the 1880s; Michelle Le Normand, an early twentieth century novelist whose diaries demonstrate the incredible struggle of a woman who aspired to be a writer, a wife, and a mother; and Claire Martin, whose denunciation of the family, the educational system and the Church in the years of her childhood was an important and controversial work in the Quiet Revolution period.

These are but a few examples of the many authors featured in the book, who deliver a multiplicity of perspectives on the ways women experienced the strictly prescribed roles of wife and mother dictated by French-Canadian Catholicism. Smart’s presentation of these texts provides a new look at both the public and private history of Quebec women, from the motivations and dreams of the nuns who chose to come to New France in the seventeenth century, on through to the postmodern age where, as the tragic writings of Nelly Arcan display, women are still severely restricted by their vulnerability to the expectations prescribed by society.

“I like to think that my book could be described as a history of women’s subjectivity in Quebec,” said Smart. “Through their writings these women express their struggle for an autonomous voice—often achieved through the process of writing itself—and they document the obstacles to freedom of expression and action that women have faced across the centuries and still face.”

From the nun to the prostitute

From the nun to the prostitute

Patricia Smart poses with her husband, John Smart, after the awards ceremony for the Académie des lettres

Patricia Smart poses with her husband, John Smart, after the awards ceremony for the Académie des lettres

More information on Patricia Smart and De Marie de l’Incarnation à Nelly Arcan. Se dire, se faire par l’écriture intime

Listen to an interview with Professor Smart on Radio-Canada

Friday, August 28, 2015 in , ,
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