Maritime voices: Alistair MacLeod

By Leah Rae

About 360 kilometres from downtown Halifax, on the west coast of Cape Breton Island, lies the tiny community of Dunvegan. Too small to be a town, Dunvegan is a fork in the road located between Inverness and Margaree Harbour. It was here, in a small, hand-built shed overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (with Prince Edward Island in the distance) that writer Alistair MacLeod spent his summer vacations. It was in this shed that he wrote some of the greatest short stories in the English language and his one and only novel No Great Mischief.

A handwritten first page of The Boat.

Front page of the manuscript for The Boat by Alistair MacLeod. © Estate of Alistair MacLeod.

Like many “Capers” before him, MacLeod spent his youth working as a miner and a logger. He used his income to pay for his education, earning both his undergraduate degree and teaching degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. MacLeod spent his career as an English and creative writing professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario. Between the demands of being a full-time professor and a father to six children, he found it challenging to find time for his writing during the school year. However, during his summer vacations, he and his family returned to the family home in Dunvegan (named for Dun Bheagan on the Isle of Skye in Scotland) where he had the opportunity to focus on his writing. MacLeod’s work examines the daily struggles of the people of Cape Breton Island. What gives MacLeod’s writing its power and its majesty is its lyricism: MacLeod often read his work out loud as a way to perfect the cadence of each line. He was a slow and methodical writer, carefully considering every word. Although he produced a very small body of work in his lifetime, the quality of that work is outstanding.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is lucky to be the repository for the Alistair MacLeod fonds. In the early 2000s, LAC acquired about 4.5 metres of material (both textual and graphic) created by MacLeod in Ontario and in Nova Scotia. The material spans his career as both a writer and a teacher. The fonds includes manuscripts, correspondence, essays, thesis notes, clippings, photos of MacLeod and more.

A black-and-white photograph of a man sitting at a rough desk with paper and pen in hand.

Alistair MacLeod working in his writing shed in Dunvegan, Nova Scotia. © Chuk Clark.

Looking at MacLeod’s original manuscripts gives us a fascinating glimpse into his process as a writer. He was known in the Canadian literary community as a perfectionist, and you can see this is true in his manuscripts. The first draft of his short story The Boat is handwritten in an examination booklet from Notre Dame University (where MacLeod earned his PhD). If we look at the published version of the first paragraph of that story—perhaps one of the most beautiful paragraphs in English literature—it is nearly identical to the author’s draft version.

MacLeod continued the practice of handwriting his work throughout his career (a practice perhaps perceived by many writers today as very old fashioned!) He also wrote part of his manuscript for his novel No Great Mischief by hand. It is quite a special thing to see a work of this calibre written in long hand rather than as typewritten words on a page that we are so used to seeing nowadays. It gives you a very personal sense of MacLeod working diligently away during his few precious hours of free time, overlooking the beautiful cliffs of Cape Breton and the sea below.


Leah Rae is an archivist based in Halifax in the Regional Services and ATIP Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Œuvres complètes. Tome I by Normand Chaurette

By Michel Guénette

The Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada exhibition presents an unpublished work by Normand Chaurette entitled Œuvres complètes. Tome I. This work was chosen by our specialist Michel Guénette, a performing arts archivist.

Who is Normand Chaurette?

First, a profile of the author, to understand his creative context: Normand Chaurette is a Quebec playwright who was born in Montréal in 1954. Along with Michel Marc Bouchard and René-Daniel Dubois, he is in the generation of post‑referendum writers who turned away from the nationalist and realist theatre of the 1960s and 1970s, and instead created dramatic works that focused on artistic and linguistic renewal. Chaurette’s play Provincetown Playhouse, juillet 1919, j’avais 19 ans (1982) was a huge success and established his name. His theatrical career includes La société de Métis (1983), Fragments d’une lettre d’adieu lus par des géologues (1986), Les Reines (1991), Le Passage de l’Indiana (1996), Le Petit Köchel (2000) and Ce qui meurt en dernier (2008). His plays have been performed abroad as well, including the Comédie-Française’s 1997 production of Les Reines. He is also well known for the widely popular play Edgar et ses fantômes (2010), and its 2018 adaptation in France, Patrick et ses fantômes.

In addition to plays, Chaurette has also written a book, short stories, film scripts, translations, radio scripts and an essay. His work, which transformed the theatrical and literary landscapes, has earned much respect across the Canadian and international artistic world. Chaurette has received numerous awards, including four Governor General’s Literary Awards, four “Masques” from the Académie québécoise du théâtre, and a Floyd S. Chalmers Award. He also received a writing bursary from the Association Beaumarchais in Paris. Chaurette was appointed to the Order of Canada in the fall of 2004.

Black-and-white photo of a young man sitting with a sweater across his shoulders.

Portrait of Normand Chaurette around 1976; photograph by Linda Benamou (e011180592)

Œuvres complètes. Tome I

The Normand Chaurette fonds acquired by Library and Archives Canada includes documents about his career and personal life. The majority of the documents are annotated manuscripts and typescripts, outlines, drafts, notes and final versions of his writings. They include the original of Œuvres complètes. Tome I, which is in perfect condition.

The work is a kind of artist’s book, an illustrated book containing handwritten texts, drawings, watercolours and cut-out images. This magnificent book is divided into sections, including “Les dieux faibles,” “Orgues,” “Lettres au superbe,” “Texte de Londres,” “Nouveaux textes de Londres” and more. Chaurette began writing this early work in 1970 at the age of 16 and completed it in 1975; he later added some more pages in 1977 and 1978.

We might assume that Chaurette had literary ambitions at this time; the book is both strange and fascinating, with enigmatic and repetitive sentences. Readers might even see the influence of automatists like Claude Gauvreau and surrealists like Guillaume Apollinaire. But such assumptions would be erroneous. Chaurette had no artistic ambitions as an adolescent. In an email dated April 19, 2018, he explains that he had dropped out of school and did not dream of becoming a writer, at least not until 1976, when he won an award for a radio script, Rêve d’une nuit d’hôpital, that was broadcast on Radio-Canada.

Images of two pages of Normand Chaurette’s book Œuvres complètes. Tome I.

Images of two pages of Normand Chaurette’s book Œuvres complètes. Tome I (MIKAN 4929495)

Images of two pages of Normand Chaurette’s book Œuvres complètes. Tome I.

Images of two pages of Normand Chaurette’s book Œuvres complètes. Tome I (MIKAN 4929495)

So why did he fill page after page of a book with tiny words when he had no expectation of publishing it? Chaurette was going through a difficult time in his life: he had dropped out of school, was questioning his future and wanted to be out on his own. With the help of certain substances, he searched for his identity and retreated into his own world. As he explained in a telephone conversation, this was the time of the October Crisis, strikes, demonstrations and schools being closed down; it was a dark and very uncertain time for him. He could not talk to his parents about his fears or share some things in his life, so he took refuge in writing, drawing and painting, where he expressed all of his uncertainties and fears. He spent sleepless nights sketching and writing in books that served as his diaries.

Knowing this creative context sheds new light on the book and explains certain passages. The dark tone of the prose aligns with what Chaurette was experiencing, as this extract from his poem “L’ode au désespoir” illustrates:

Ma parole est une prison

Ma parole est carrée comme une prison dont le rebord noir perce les pages de ce recueil…

 

My words are a prison

My words are like a square prison with black edges that pierce the pages of this book …

[translation]

Readers are given access to the writer’s private thoughts. We also learn that the titles in this work are meaningful. For example, Chaurette had family in London, England, and he went to the city to learn English. So it is not surprising that some of his writing was done there. Chaurette envisioned a second volume, but the heavy demands of the first one led him to abandon this idea. With the passage of time, he moved on to other projects.

Chaurette wrote his texts in code, in tiny, almost illegible letters, worried that his journals would be discovered. He destroyed most of them as he went along so his parents would not find his compositions. Only the book Œuvres complètes. Tome I survives. Chaurette is pleased that Library and Archives Canada will preserve and make accessible to researchers the confidences of a troubled youth who became a major author. We can already see in this work the talents of a young writer who would develop over time.


Michel Guénette is a performing arts archivist in the Social Life and Culture Private Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

A few pearls of forgotten dramatic works at Library and Archives Canada

By Théo Martin

In its published documents collection, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has several old dramatic works in French by authors unfamiliar to new generations of Canadians. Although these plays are clearly inspired by the melodramas and vaudeville shows of Europe, they nevertheless represent the beginnings of French-Canadian dramaturgy. These plays include copies of printed works by French‑Canadian authors from the Ottawa–Gatineau (formerly Ottawa–Hull) region who enjoyed both local and national success from 1886 to 1935.

One example is the play Exil et Patrie by Jesuit priest Édouard Hamon (1841–1904). Although this work was not created by an Outaouais writer, it was one of the first plays presented in 1884 by the Cercle d’art dramatique de Hull, one of the first theatre companies in Hull, Quebec. This play deals with a very topical theme of the era: the exodus of French‑Canadians to the United States in the late 19th century. LAC holds a very rare copy of this work.

A colour image of the cover of a book entitled Exil et Patrie and bearing the title and the names of the author and the publisher, all printed in black on yellowed paper.

Exil et Patrie by Édouard Hamon, circa 1882 (AMICUS 12504589)

The LAC collection also includes plays by Hull prothonotary Horace Kearney (1848–1940), who wrote and produced La Revanche de Frésimus in 1886. This play, which combines vaudeville and satire, was one of the most performed plays in the Outaouais, eastern Quebec and even the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Other plays by Kearney are preserved at LAC as well, including Amour, Guerre et Patrie (1919).

Two-page image, side by side: on the left is the cover with a black-and-white photograph of the playwright, and on the right is the first page of the first act.

La Revanche de Frésimus by Horace Kearney, 1886 (AMICUS 2767145)

There are also several plays, melodramas, comedies and vaudeville acts by Ottawa author Régis Roy (1864–1945), including La tête de Martin (1900), Nous divorçons! (1897), L’auberge du numéro trois (1899) and Consultations gratuites (1924). Roy had a career as a public servant in the federal Department of Agriculture and the Department of Naval Service.

A black-and-white picture of an older man wearing a bow tie and glasses.

Régis Roy, photographed by Jules Alexandre Castonguay, circa 1930 (MIKAN 3229816)

Rare copies of plays by another Hull playwright, Antonin Proulx (1881–1950), can also be found in the LAC collection, including Le coeur est le maître (1930), L’enjôleuse. Dévotion et l’amour à la poste (1916) and De l’Audace, Jeune Homme! (1930). Proulx worked as a library curator and journalist during his career.

Cover of a play showing the title, author’s name and price of 25 cents, in black print on yellowed white paper.

De l’Audace, Jeune Homme! by Antonin Proulx, circa 1930 (AMICUS 11378035)

After the 1930s, the authors of these plays, after several decades of success, seem to have been forgotten. Fortunately, LAC holds a few copies of their works, for the great enjoyment of theatre lovers of today and tomorrow!


Théo Martin is a literature, music and performing arts archivist with the Private Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Lucy Maud Montgomery: From Potboilers to Poetry

Lucy Maud Montgomery, was born in Prince Edward Island on November 30, 1874 and lived there until her marriage in 1911 to Reverend Ewan Macdonald.

Picture from a page in Everywoman’s World magazine that shows a black-and-white photograph of a house with fruit trees in the foreground and a grove of trees to the left with the following caption, “My old home at Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, taken from the front. In the grove to the left was our playhouse with the wonderful door that we made ourselves.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s home at Cavendish, P.E.I. (MIKAN 3641481)

Montgomery began her career writing for Canadian and American children’s magazines. Her first novel, Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908 brought her immense international fame. Anne of Green Gables was published by L. C. Page and Company of Boston, Mass., which published another seven of her books before she left them over legal matters and lawsuits in 1917. She turned to Canadian publisher McClelland Stewart and American publisher Frederick Stokes in 1919. During this time period, L. C. Page published a collection of short stories in their possession, Further Chronicles of Avonlea, spurring another lawsuit.

Stamp showing an illustration of a young girl with red hair sitting on a box with a leather satchel beside her. She appears to be thinking or waiting for somebody.

Stamp in honour of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel, Anne of Green Gables (MIKAN 2218216)

By the time she died in April 1942, Montgomery had published 22 novels and books of short stories, articles, and a book of poetry, The Watchman, and Other Poems. She also had a portfolio of unfinished poetry. Despite her international fame and success, Montgomery was disappointed that her poetry was not as well received as her popular novels that she sometimes referred to as “potboilers.”

Library and Archives Canada has resources available in:

Related site:

  • L. M. Montgomery Institute—the Robertson Library at the University of Prince Edward Island is dedicated to helping students and scholars study Montgomery’s life, works, and influence