Philippe-Aubert de Gaspé, Author of Les Anciens canadiens, at Musée de la mémoire vivante

par Saint-Pierre, Serge

Philippe Aubert de Gaspé
In 1863 Philippe Aubert de Gaspé published Les Anciens Canadiens, a novel of manners situated around the time of the Conquest in 1759. His work conveyed to future generations the memory of a way of life already in its dying days. Aubert de Gaspé’s novel was a smashing success, not only during his own lifetime, but also well beyond. Critics have consistently praised the book, considered a Quebec literary classic. Some of the many epithets bestowed on the author include “first historian of popular traditions,” “first memorialist of the British regime” and “chronicler of the elite and historian of popular traditions.” The Aubert de Gaspé Manor, as much a symbol of Les Anciens Canadiens as the author himself, was rebuilt in 2008, nearly a century after it was ravaged by fire. It now houses a museum that carries on the work of its former owner.  






Article disponible en français : Philippe-Aubert de Gaspé, Des Anciens canadiens au Musée de la mémoire vivante

Seigneur and Man of the World 

Philippe Aubert de Gaspé

Philippe 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 Pocatière.

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. 


His Works 

Philippe 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 era.

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 

Philippe 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. 

De Gaspé Manor, 1900

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.  

Une nuit avec les sauvages

After World 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. 

Musée de la mémoire vivante

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.

Serge Saint-Pierre
Musée de la mémoire vivante



NOTE 1: Lacoursière, DBC, p.23

NOTE 2: Lemire 2007 p. 52

NOTE 3: L. Saint-Pierre, p. 15



Aubert de Gaspé, Philippe, Mémoires, édition établie, présentée et annotée par André Bernier et Claude La Charité, Montréal, Bibliothèque québécoise, 2007.

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Castonguay, Jacques, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, Sillery, Éditions du Septentrion, 1991.

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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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