Marie Guyart, the madness of writing

Once a month, Le Devoir de literature, under the pen of writers from Quebec, proposes to revisit in the light of current events works from the past old and new in Quebec literature. Discoveries? Proofreading? Different look? A choice. An initiative of the Academy of Letters of Quebec in collaboration with “Le Devoir”.


Can literature be completely free of moral considerations? Certain contemporary phenomena, such as the withdrawal of books deemed pernicious by the religious right from school libraries in the United States, arouse indignation and lead us to claim loud and clear the freedom of writers and artists. It is the same, on another scale, when the mere fact of pronouncing the title of a work is the object of a sanction or a condemnation, because one feels there necessarily a concealment of the work itself. even a refusal to read it and understand what is at stake, in short another form of censorship.

The moral issues affecting literature today are far from being attributable solely to religious fanaticism or radical militancy. The themes of cultural appropriation, colonialism, misogyny, the representation of violence, racism or pedophilia all have in common that they pose to literature, writers and their readers the dilemma of the eternal divide between good and evil. This confrontation becomes all the more vivid when we read old works, most of whose cultural references are far removed from ours.

This is the case with the writings of New France, contemporaneous with the first European settlement on the present territory of Quebec, and in particular with the enterprise of evangelization of the native populations by religious men and women. This universe of apostles convinced of the absolute truth of their Catholic faith and ready for all sacrifices, even martyrdom, seems foreign to us at first sight, and it can even arouse reprobation by the moral superiority that it bestows upon those whom he calls “the Savages”. These “are not so barbarous that they cannot be made children of God”, wrote Father Paul Lejeune in 1634.

In a different way from the Jesuits who also became, despite their prejudices, the first ethnologists of Aboriginal cultures, Marie de l’Incarnation undertook her work as an educator in Quebec in 1639, believing she could “civilize” dirty, greasy and dirty little girls. apparently miserable people who come to stay in his convent. At the same time, she observes them with as much respect as astonishment, she learns the Montagnais, Huron and Algonquin languages ​​(Innu, Wendat and Anishinabé) and she goes so far as to write down lexicons and dictionaries.

After a few years of experience in the field, she observes lucidly and without great bitterness: “Of the hundred little girls who have passed through our hands, we have barely civilized one. Three centuries later, we still believe we have found a “solution” in boarding schools!

Who is this woman whose name all Quebecers know but more rarely her extraordinary life course? Do we know that she is not only a fervent mystic, but also a great writer whom Bossuet admired, whose stature literary history now recognizes and whom contemporary feminists place in the fascinating evolution of intimate writing or even feminine autofiction, as the title of an essay by Patricia Smart boldly suggests: From Marie de l’Incarnation to Nelly Arcan. To say to oneself, to be done by intimate writing ?

Literature is a school of complexity. In Relationship from 1654, accessible for a few years in pocket edition, we discover much more than a woman imbued with her Catholic European superiority. Here we are transported into an often paradoxical spiritual adventure, more tormented and frenetic than contemplative, oscillating between the finest self-analysis and a self-denigration far removed from the narcissistic overexposures that are the delight of selfies and social networks.

A series of reversals

Marie Guyart was born in Tours in October 1599, at a time when religious conflicts and power struggles were tearing Europe and France itself apart. Although Marie’s father practiced the modest trade of a baker, her parents’ ancestors counted many notables and those of her mother, Jeanne Michelet, had acquaintances with nobility and royalty. Like her brothers and sisters, Mary will benefit from a good education provided by family members and special educators.

At the beginning of Relationship from 1654, she paints herself the portrait of a little girl who astonished the neighborhood with her piety and who devoted to preachers a worship that can make you smile, so much does it resemble the often frenetic passion that young girls can devote nowadays to their show idols. Wasn’t this pious little girl adept at sermons obviously heading towards a religious vocation?

What will follow is rather a series of reversals, each more improbable than the next. Coveted by several suitors, Marie will marry Claude Martin, a master silk craftsman: she is only 18 years old and, the following year, she gives birth to a son, who will bear the name of his father. Then everything collapses in a few months when illness suddenly kills her husband. Widow and mother at 20, Marie can count on her sister and her brother-in-law, who welcome her with their young child and entrust her with domestic tasks.

New reversal: great civil servant and head of a major transport company, the brother-in-law quickly measures Marie’s many talents and soon entrusts her with management tasks. In an account of 1633, she recounts having worked sometimes until midnight on the banks of the Loire to load and unload goods. She leads and rubs shoulders with uncouth men, she shares meals with them, often shocked by their coarse language and their “sins”. Here is the pious little girl and the destitute young widow who has become a first-class administrator, a quality that will serve her greatly as superior of the Ursulines of Quebec.

The work Relationship from 1654 gives few details on the 10 years that Marie Guyart will have spent managing the stevedores. The story rather retraces the inner evolution that will lead her to another detour: her decision to enter the cloister of the Ursulines of Tours in 1631. You have to imagine the commotion, even at a time that was experiencing significant mystical fervor: we speak of a mother who chooses to abandon her 12-year-old son to join the community! To this painful but determined seclusion will soon be added an insurmountable distance.

In the cloister, the Jesuits of Canada are read and Marie thinks she hears a voice within her that urges her to join them. Wealthy devotees, Madame de la Peltrie and Monsieur de Bernières, would be ready to finance the trip and the installation of nuns in Quebec. A ship was chartered in the spring of 1639: Claude’s mother would not see her son again, but she would write him beautiful and long letters. Ironically, he who will have been a dissipated teenager will end up entering the Benedictine monks and will even become the editor of his mother’s writings, including her correspondence.

Literature and the invisible

What makes Relationship of 1654 a great literary work, capable of absorbing us whatever our faith or our disbelief? The trajectory of this life full of twists has something to do with it. Once religious life has been chosen, the call of a poor and distant “vast country” seems both irresistible and frightening. The grueling journey by ship, the installation in Quebec, the construction and management of the convent, the meeting of the Aboriginal peoples, the joys and tribulations that will follow make this story a real adventure, including frustrations and dramas.

Thus, the significant arrival, in 1649, of Huron survivors after the massacre perpetrated against them and the Jesuits by the Iroquois in Huronia (southern present-day Ontario) led to many deaths, often young children, following illnesses . Shortly after, a fire that occurred on December 30, 1650 devastated the convent: ten years of effort went up in smoke, it was necessary to start from scratch.

However, what gives this story its real strength are the inner adventures, the story of an encounter and an association body and soul with the invisible, “the divine Spouse” or “the Word incarnate”. Relationship of 1654 is the story of a spiritual passion which is just as much a love story: sometimes it is “caresses” and “kisses on the mouth”, sometimes suffering “worse than the most cruel death”. The certainty of a real fusion with the “Bridegroom” sometimes comes up against a terrible doubt: is it all just an illusion, does the demon possess it, as has been said about the nuns of Loudun?

Marie must punish her pride, chastise her body, admit that she is only a “person of nothingness”. However, telling what she saw, developing marvels of introspection, exposing all the nuances of her “love affair” with God, isn’t that almost scandalously contradicting her desire for humiliation and annihilation?

No doubt, but his desire to write is irrepressible and we feel much more than a concern to edify. “Mad of God”, as defines it the beautiful documentary-fiction by Jean-Daniel Lafond (ONF, 2008), Marie de l’Incarnation will also have experienced a passion for writing, and it is a beautiful and great madness, which goes beyond moral questions and makes us live, for the time of a book, all the tumult and all the paradoxes of the human soul.

Relationship of 1654

Marie de l’Incarnation, presented by Alessandra Ferraro, “Boréal Compact”, Montreal, 2016, 264 pages

Marie de l’Incarnation Businesswoman, mystic and mother of New France

Françoise Deroy-Pineau, Bellarmin/Fides, Montreal, 1999, 295 pages

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Marie Guyart, the madness of writing