Louis Hémon's Novel Maria Chapdelaine
One of the highlights in our Special Collections is an assortment of various editions of Louis Hémon's novel Maria Chapdelaine, which stands to this day as one of the most popular and successful books ever published in Canada, although the author was not himself Canadian.
Originally serialized in a Parisian newspaper throughout 1914, Hémon's novel – which tells the story of two rural Quebecois pioneers and their daughter Maria, who is forced to choose between two suitors after the man she loves dies suddenly – was first published as a single volume in Montreal in 1916 and went on to sell over 10 million copies in more than 20 languages and at least 150 editions.
One of these editions, published in Paris in 1933, features illustrations by the French-Canadian artist Clarence Gagnon. These fifty-four miniature paintings are currently on display at an exhibit in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario until February 2, but Special Collection's holdings include a copy of this edition which is available to be viewed during any visit to the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library. Come see it for yourself!
Hémon was born in France in 1880 and distinguished himself as a student at various schools including the Sorbonne. After being granted early release from military service due to his status as a student he left France for London. While he was there, he wrote and submitted three novels between 1907 and 1911, none of which were published during his lifetime. In 1911 he moved to Canada, where he worked in an insurance office before taking a job as a manual labourer at a farm in Quebec. This rural setting appears to have been the inspiration for Maria Chapdelaine, which he wrote during this time and submitted to Le Temps in the spring of 1913 before setting off on a trip out west. Hémon did not live to see Maria Chapdelaine become an almost immediate critical and popular success, as he died after being struck by a train in Chapleau, Ontario, on July 8, 1913, in an accident some have speculated may have actually been a suicide.