I Tried Reading the First Novel Written in Canada
Note: This article includes historical materials from the collections of Toronto Public Library. Who tells the story, and how the story is told creates tensions when trying to present content written by settlers about Indigenous people. These materials can reflect offensive historic attitudes, and in some cases, were created by individuals directly involved in acts of cultural genocide committed against Indigenous peoples. These materials are included as part of TPL’s commitment to the 69th Call to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which recognizes the inalienable right of Indigenous peoples to know the truth of what happened and why.
Toronto Public Library has one of the world's largest collections of Canadiana. One intriguing work in our collection is The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke. Published in the late 18th century, it is considered by some to be the first Canadian novel.
To learn more about the book, I decided to take the plunge and read the whole thing.
Online access to the novel
You can find digitized versions on TPL's Digital Archive Ontario in English and French (see below). If you'd rather not wrestle with 18th-century fonts, there is a more recent ebook. You can also read an online version from University of Pennsylvania.
First edition in English
Early French translation
The History of Emily Montague was published in 1769. It was written by Frances Brooke in an epistolary style. That is, the story is told entirely in letters.
It is the first novel to be written in Canada and feature a Canadian setting. Some would stop short of calling it the "first Canadian novel," since Brooke was an Englishwoman and Canada wasn't technically Canada yet. However, such distinctions aside, the book is a fascinating glimpse of the times and a pretty good read, too.
The epistolary style allows the characters to share many observations and opinions about life in pre-Confederation Canada, specifically in Quebec where most of the story takes place. The English characters have a good deal to say about both the French Canadians and the Indigenous peoples of the area. These observations come from a settler's viewpoint. They are often what you might expect from an English woman of the time speaking through characters that share her culture, but the opinions expressed are sometimes surprisingly in line with more modern sensibilities.
For example, the Huron system of government is praised for its democratic arrangements. One character notes:
"The power of the chief is extremely limited; he seems rather to advise his people as a father rather than to command them as a master; yet, as his commands are always reasonable, no prince in the world is so well obeyed."
The rights held by Huron women are also described at some length. Women are said to be "consulted in all affairs of state" and involved in choosing a chief "on every vacancy of the throne." Brooke's fictional heartthrob Colonel Ed Rivers contrasts this strongly with the status of European women in a letter to his sister, writing, "The sex we have so unjustly excluded from power in Europe have a great share in the Huron government." Also, "In the true sense of the word we are the savages, who so impolitely deprive you of the common rights of citizenship." For me, this was an unexpected place to find such a strongly stated call to women's suffrage.
The abundant social commentary adds interest to what is primarily a romance novel. I will confess that I didn’t think the story would engage my interest as much as it did. It's true that the first section was slow going as it took a bit of time to sort out the characters and the relationships. Three pairs of lovers' stories are woven into the book. However, by Letter 17 I was already in great sympathy with the dashing Colonel Rivers — would he win the love of the fair Emily Montague, or would she be wasted on that insensitive clod, her fiancé Sir George Clayton?
The description of the scenery is such that at times you could also say that the book was a love letter from Frances Brooke to Canada. Brooke lived in Canada for five years and she described scenes such as the breaking up of the ice on the St. Lawrence River and visits to the region's grand waterfalls with all the fervor of someone who has seen them first hand.
Like all tales of romance, Brooke's love affair with Canada didn't always run smoothly. Canadian weather is made a lively subject in the letters. After having been earlier assured by locals that the behavior of the beavers promised a mild winter, one character writes:
"I will never take a beaver's word again as long as I live: there is no supporting this cold; the Canadians say it is seventeen years since there has been so severe a season. I thought beavers had been people of more honour."
Our Canadian Documentary Art Collection has many images of the region as Brooke and her characters would have seen it. Some of these items are available on Digital Archive Ontario.
Brooke returned to England in 1768, and she earned a place in the history of world literature when she published The History of Emily Montague a year later. I won't tell you the outcome of the other love stories because... spoilers. I hope you will find time to give the book a read yourself.
Published 40 years before Jane Austen put her brilliant novels to paper, The History of Emily Montague has a bit of the feel of that more famous English novelist’s work. The voice throughout is sharply observant about human behaviour, and there’s a good deal of saucy humour, too. I would recommend this book not only to people who’d like to read an account of life in pre-Confederation Canada, but also to anyone who'd like to vary their reading habits with a good story from the past.