Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “War”

How Quebec Was Won


Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green (1935)

Ah, the Mitfords — so far, they’ve never let me down. We’ve already considered Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, as well as Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, and now Nancy has come through with another reference to Canada.

Wigs on the Green is  Nancy Mitford’s first novel, and a good part of it is given over to a parody of British Fascism in the form of the “Union Jackshirts,” who are a joke on Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. (P.G. Wodehouse also parodied Oswald Mosley in the form of Roderick Spode, leader of the “Black Shorts,” in The Code of the Woosters, published three years after Wigs on the Green — overall a funnier book, I would say, but Mitford did get there first.) The main exponent of Union Jackshirtism is Eugenia Malmains, a young, out-of-touch heiress who lives on a country estate with her even more out-of-touch grandparents.

The reference to Canada comes as part of a pageant of English history that is put on at the end of the novel to raise money for the Union Jackshirt cause; here, Jasper Aspect is reading out the list of the scenes that will make up the pageant:

First messenger arrives announcing the victory of Wolfe over French Pacifists in Quebec.
First Episode: Wolfe, while reading Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to his troops, is hit by a stray bullet and dies on a heap of straw. Rackenbridge brass band plays the “Dead March in Saul”.  (151-2)

The script for the pageant has been written under the guidance of Eugenia, who despises all enemies, real and perceived, of the Jackshirt cause as “Pacifists,” which is why the French army under Montcalm are designated “French Pacifists.” Other pacifist enemies range from a group of local artists (who do indeed attempt to disrupt the pageant) to Eugenia’s nanny, whose main crime in the service of pacifism seems to be trying to prevent Eugenia from leaving the house.

The events in the pageant are a garbled version of actual history: Wolfe died the day of the battle on the Plains of Abraham, having been hit by three musket balls. He did not die reciting Gray’s “Elegy,” but according to Edmund Gosse’s biography Gray, he did recite (most of) it (from memory!) to one of his soldiers the night before the battle, saying he would rather have written that poem than take Quebec. Here is the passage from Gosse:


Gray’s full “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” can be read here.

I assume some version of the story of Wolfe’s victory and death was current in England in the Mitfords’ time; I have no idea whether Nancy had actually read Gosse’s book. I suppose we could take offence at the fact that Wolfe so underrates the possession of Canada that he would rather have written a single poem (albeit a very famous one) than win our entire nation for the British Empire. We could also be offended that the version of events presented here is so confused, reducing a key moment in Canadian history to a farce — but of course the entire pageant is meant to be a farce, and we would have to be rather dull not to laugh along with every other reader.

On the positive side, the winning of Canada was considered an important enough event to be included in a pageant of British history — I think that definitely rates as a compliment.


Here is a rendition of the Dead March from Handel’s Saul:


Political Philosophy of a Libertine

History of My Life by Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life (1794?)

If you really want to immerse yourself in the world of Casanova, then this is the edition to get (not the Penguin selection discussed earlier). Translated by Willard Trask, it has the full text of Casanova’s memoirs in a brisk, readable English translation (don’t I sound like the worst kind of newspaper book reviewer?). The notes are useful, and there are even illustrations, some of which are quite intriguing, in an Aretino sort of way. (I’ll leave the rest to your capable imaginations.)

You can check it out here.

It runs to twelve volumes, but if you have them all and line them up in order on your bookcase, the spines make the image of the reclining nude on the cover. It will lend your bookcase just the right touch of louche yet sophisiticated libertinism.

I own only this one volume, which, alas, merely features the curve of her knee:

Spine of History of My Life by Casanova ed. Trask

Any zone can be erogenous, I’m told, but still, not quite the same effect.

I bought it so that I could read about the threesome with the two nuns, which was referred to in an alluring yet unsatisfying way in the Penguin edition. Worth every penny. Alas, they never mention Canada in the course of their exhilarating and exhausting amours.

There is, however, this:

At the Duchess of Fulvy’s I made the acquaintance of Mademoiselle Gaussin, known as Lolotte, who was the mistress of Lord Albemarle, the English Ambassador, a man of brilliant and most noble parts and very generous, who, one night when he was out walking with Lolotte, chided her for praising the beauty of the stars she saw in the sky, since he could not give them to her. If His Lordhsip had been the English envoy to France at the time of the break between his nation and the French he would have patched things up, and the unhappy war which casued France to lose the whole of Canada would not have occurred. There is no doubt that the harmony between two nations most often depends upon the respective envoys whom they have at the courts which are on the verge or in danger of falling out. (pp. 171-72; Vol. III, Ch. 9)

This seems to be Casanova’s take on the “great man” theory of history, which holds that the force of a few significant individuals changes the course of life for all the rest of us who are simply dragged along by the mighty currents created by the passing of powerful personalities. If only Lord Albemarle had been ambassador at the right time, we’d all be speaking French. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Canada appears here not as a nation in its own right, but merely as a plaything of great empires, passing from one to the other as the spoils of war. Still, it’s touching that Casanova chooses Canada in paying this compliment to Lord Albemarle; this puts us on the grand stage of world affairs (if only as a possession) and shows how valuable the natural resources Canada offered were considered.

But how odd that Casanova thinks it would have been a great victory of statecraft if the English ambassador had preserved Canada as a colony of the French, when in fact it was the English who benefited from the war by gaining all of Canada’s natural resources for themselves. (Though of course the fortunes of war are uncertain and can’t be predicted in advance. Casanova’s memoir is written in French, so perhaps he sympathized more with the French point of view. Or perhaps he simply hated conflict.)

And how typical of Casanova to think that just because a man can charm his mistress under the stars, he could also change the course of world history – if only as it pertains to a minor nation like our own.

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