Philippe-Aubert de Gaspé, Author of Les Anciens canadiens, at Musée de la mémoire vivante
par Saint-Pierre, Serge
Seigneur and Man of the World
Aubert de Gaspé* was born in Quebec City on October 30, 1786. The Aubert de
Gaspé family , allied itself with the most influential aristocratic families of
the time under both the French and British regimes, becoming a powerful
landholder with seigneuries in the St. Lawrence River Valley. Philippe Aubert
de Gaspé was the last seigneur of the fiefs and seigneuries of Port-Joly and La
After a carefree childhood at his father’s manor house in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé enrolled at the Séminaire de Québec. Upon completion of his schooling there, he went into law and was admitted to the Bar in 1811. The same year he married the daughter of a British infantry captain. Aubert de Gaspé liked to spend extravagantly, and he was arrested and imprisoned from 1838 to 1841 for dipping into state coffers while he was sheriff for the district of Quebec City. Upon his release he was welcomed back by the city’s socialites, notably by Le Club des Anciens, whose members included François-Xavier Garneau and other history aficionados. Philippe Aubert de Gaspé fathered 13 children, the most well-known of whom was his eldest son, who bore the same name, and who went on to write L'influence d'un livre, which was published in 1837 and is considered the very first French-Canadian novel.
Aubert de Gaspé’s works, particularly Les
Anciens Canadiens and his memoirs, have been widely read, especially from
an ethnographic perspective, as they abound in details on the traditional
songs, legends, customs and practices of the seigneurial
The novel Les Anciens Canadiens features two protagonists: Jules d'Haberville, the son of the seigneur of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, and his friend Archibald of Lockeill, a Scottish orphan who arrived in New France in 1746. The story is set mainly in two places—the city of Quebec and the seigneurial manor house in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. The first part of the three-part novel describes the mores and customs of the final days of the French regime, including popular celebrations marking Saint Jean-Baptiste Day and the planting season in May, mealtime in the home of a seigneur, the ceremony surrounding payment of the seigneurial rent, legends of the sorcerers of Île d'Orléans and others. The second part takes place during the War of 1759 as the French colony falls to the hands of the British. Archibald receives orders to torch the homes on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, including his friends’ manor house. The final part of the novel recounts the long reconciliation, with Jules marrying a British woman. The story closes with a scene typical of the times, as Manoir d'Haberville comes to life once again with singing and dancing.
Aubert de Gaspé’s memoirs, another seminal work, follow the author from birth to his retirement at the seigneurial manor house. They touch on his myriad personal memories as well as on Quebec’s political and sociocultural life, describing garden parties at the home of Governor Graig and a hunting expedition at Lac Trois-Saumons. Folklorist Luc Lacoursière describes the memoirs as “one of the finest portraits of early 19th century Canadian society, both rural and urban.” NOTE 1
The works of Philippe Aubert de Gaspé have been examined and reinterpreted many times over. It was long believed that the author, like historian François-Xavier Garneau, was striving to develop the identity and nationalism of Quebec francophones. But recent research has cast doubt on this interpretation. According to Maurice Lemire, for instance, Aubert de Gaspé sought not so much to depict the mores and customs of the day, but rather to rehabilitate a past marked by the domination of the seigneurs NOTE 2. Lemire suggests that the abolition of the seigneurial system in 1854 was a serious blow to the aging seigneur, and that his writings were in fact a plea in defence of the old regime.
Collective Recognition, Heritage Consecration
Aubert de Gaspé died in January 1871 in Quebec City and was buried beneath the
seigneurial pew at the Saint-Jean-Port-Joli Church, but his reputation and work
lived on. By the turn of the following century, his works were already being
reissued and became a source of inspiration for the first generations of
Quebecois writers, including Frère Gilles in his work Les Choses qui s'en vont.
As for his manor house, it gradually became a powerful symbol of its own. First depicted in an engraving in the newspaper L'Opinion Publique in 1873, it was later photographed prior to its destruction by fire in 1909. The photograph was made into a postcard and was distributed far and wide throughout the 20th century. With its singular architecture, the manor became a symbol of the enduring French presence in North America, and certainly the most famous seigneurial home in Quebec. Many a historian, including Marcel Trudel, has used the manor as a model to describe of the workings of the seigneurial regime in the St. Lawrence River Valley.
The early decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of a new phenomenon—mass tourism—made possible by the advent of the automobile. Before long, Quebec’s roads were soon buzzing with summer visitors from south of the border as well as members of Quebec City and Montreal’s burgeoning middle class. In 1924 Quebec’s Commission des monuments historiques inaugurated a series of 50 commemorative plaques. These “decorative posts with bilingual inscriptions” were designed to promote the province’s main historic sites. Among the first plaques to be erected was the one at the seigneurial estate with the inscription “Only a few feet from this spot once stood the manor house of the Aubert de Gaspé family, where Philippe Aubert de Gaspé penned his novel Les Anciens Canadiens” (our translation). Automobile club guides from the 1920s and 1930s mentioned the plaque and invited visitors to also stop at the Saint-Jean-Port-Joli Church, where the famous writer is buried, and at his flour mill on the banks of the Trois-Saumons River.
In 1943 archivist Pierre-Georges Roy wrote: “It is largely thanks to Mr. de Gaspé that the beautiful parish of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli has gained prominence. People who have read Les Anciens Canadiens and Les Mémoires make the trip to Saint-Jean-Port-Joli to see for themselves where the celebrated storyteller once lived.” At that time the seigneurial estate lay abandoned. With the exception of the commemorative plaque, nothing had been done to preserve or promote the site. Then, a group of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli residents headed by journalist Gérard Ouellet called on Commission des sites et monuments historiques and the municipality to revitalize and preserve the area surrounding the fountain and restore the old bread oven. The oven was eventually restored around 1947.
War II, tourists began to flock to Saint-Jean-Port-Joli in droves. For many
city dwellers it was a time to reconnect with their country origins, a time
when tourism and heritage were still closely associated. In the 1950s an
initial reconstruction plan was drawn up for the seigneurial manor home. The
project eventually resulted in the opening of a small museum inside the old
bakehouse, the only building still standing at that time. Maurice Leclerc, the
owner of Le petit musée des Anciens Canadiens, put together a display featuring
a handful of local artifacts associated with rural domestic life in an earlier
age. A woman dressed in traditional costume would welcome visitors there during
the summer. The private museum later became what is now Saint-Jean-Port-Joli’s
Musée des Anciens Canadiens, which stands next to the workshop of the Bourgault
brothers. Its role has evolved over the decades, and today its focus is
primarily on the wood sculptures that, after de Gaspé, helped put the village
on the map.
The Saint-Jean-Port-Joli sculptors, chief among them Jean-Julien Bourgault, were inspired by the work of Philippe Aubert de Gaspé. Like the writer, they too saw themselves as guardians of memory and tradition. As anthropologist Louise Saint-Pierre writes: “The scenes portrayed in the traditional Saint-Jean-Port-Joli wood sculptures are a sign of the enduring and resurging appeal of Les Anciens Canadiens. For many years buying one of these sculptures from a local artisan was a kind of act of communion (with the novel).” NOTE 3
And yet despite the popularity and influence of the man and his work, the site of Philippe Aubert de Gaspé’s manor house remained neglected for years. Then in 1984, at a seminar on the future of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, it was proposed that the bread oven and the seigneurial lands be bought by a local organization and that the seigneurial manor be eventually rebuilt. This marked a turning point in the history of the site. In 1986 Société historique de la Côte-du-Sud published Le Manoir Aubert de Gaspé : son histoire, son architecture. The same year Canada Post issued a stamp commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Philippe Aubert de Gaspé. Later in 1986 Corporation Philippe-Aubert-de- Gaspé was founded and acquired the section of the former seigneurial estate where the Aubert de Gaspé manor house once stood. In the early 1990s three separate archeological digs unearthed thousands of artifacts and vestiges of the manor house and some of the outbuildings. A Quebec City firm was hired to conduct a market study and develop a museological concept based on the works and the times of the famous author. The manor reconstruction and museum project was unfortunately put on the back burner due to flagging interest and a lack of funding.
The project was revived in 2004 when a group of local forestry companies donated lumber to rebuild the manor house. The museum concept was also given a second look. Since the interest in Philippe Aubert de Gaspé’s work lay primarily in his talent for recounting the daily lives of families under the seigneurial regime, the focus shifted to the collection and presentation of narratives and testimonials from the period. This decision not only paid homage to the writer, it also expanded the horizons of the future institution—Musée de la mémoire vivante. At the request of Corporation Philippe-Aubert-de-Gaspé, the manor grounds were designated an archeological and historical heritage site under Quebec’s Cultural Property Act.
Musée de la mémoire vivante opened its doors in June 2008 inside an exact exterior
replica of the original manor house. The decision to recreate the building’s
original appearance and dimensions acknowledged the importance of the manor’s image
in the minds of the local population.
Musée de la mémoire vivante
Aubert de Gaspé, Philippe, Mémoires, édition établie, présentée et annotée par André Bernier et Claude La Charité, Montréal, Bibliothèque québécoise, 2007.
Aubert de Gaspé, Philippe. Les Anciens Canadiens, édition critique par Aurélien Boivin avec une introduction de Maurice Lemire. Montréal, Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2007.
Castonguay, Jacques, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, Sillery, Éditions du Septentrion, 1991.
Chouinard, André, Le manoir Aubert de Gaspé. Son histoire, son architecture, La Pocatière, La Société historique de la Côte-du Sud, 1986.
Côté, François X, Le Manoir Philippe-Aubert-de-Gaspé. Vers un Musée de la mémoire vivante, concept muséographique, Québec, 2004.
Lacoursière, Luc, « Aubert de Gaspé, Philippe-Joseph », Dictionnaire biographique du Canada, vol. 10, 1972, pp. 19-23.
Lacoursière, Luc, « Philippe Aubert de Gaspé (1786-1871) », Les Cahiers des Dix no. 41, 1976.
Lemire, Maurice, «Les Anciens Canadiens, roman de Philippe Aubert de Gaspé », Dictionnaire des oeuvres littéraires du Québec, Montréal, Fides, 1978, pp. 16-23.
Lemoyne, Roger, « Philippe Aubert de Gaspé ou les affaires du ‘ bon gentilhomme' » , Les Cahiers des Dix no 57, 2003, pp. 299-321.
Lemire, Maurice, «Mémoires de Philippe Aubert de Gaspé », Dictionnaire des oeuvres littéraires du Québec, Montréal, Fides, 1978, pp. 479-482.
Martin, Paul-Louis, « La conservation du patrimoine culturel : origines et évolution », Les chemins de la mémoire. Monuments et sites historiques du Québec, Québec, Les publications du Québec. Tome 1, 1990. pp. 1-17.
Roy, Pierre-Georges, À travers les Anciens Canadiens, Montréal. G. Ducharme, 1943.
Roy, Pierre-Georges, À travers les Mémoires de Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, Montréal. G. Ducharme, 1943.
Saint-Pierre, Louise, Le Complexe Philippe-Aubert-de-Gaspé. Étude de marché, Saint-Jean-Port-
Joli, Mémoire vive, 2004.
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