In 1912, Louis Hémon, a writer from the region of Brittany in France, arrives on foot in Péribonka after having walked the 110 kilometers that separates Roberval from Péribonka. He stays for a little more than two months with Samuel Bédard who engaged him as a farm boy. During his stay, he observes the locals and takes notes. It’s in 1914, at the time of the first publication of the story in a Parisian newspaper named “Le Temps” (The Time) that the world discovers Maria Chapdelaine, a story inspired by the village of Péribonka that made it around the world.
Louis Hémon remained unknown during his lifetime, but made a name for himself after his death. His novel Maria Chapdelaine is considered the first novel about terroir life of the province of Quebec. He inspired numerous authors, thus promoting the emergence of a new genre. The myths surrounding him hid his true nature. French sports article editor or novelist of the land of Quebec? A mysterious and rebellious personality now defines him. A man who wrote a story with a thousand controversies.
A life, a work to discover…
Louis Hémon around 1885
Louis Hémon around 1887
Official photo of Louis Hémon published in the journal “Le Vélo” (The Bicycle) to announce his win to the holiday contest organised by the sport journal, 1904
Louis Hémon (the second on the left side) and Samuel Bédard (to the right of Louis Hémon) at the survey camp, 1912
Samuel Bédard’s farm around 1910
CHRONOLOGY OF LOUIS HÉMON
Louis HÉMON is born October 12th in Brest (in Brittany). He is the third and last child of Louise LE BRETON (1851-1945) and Félix HÉMON (1848-1916), a professor, an Academy inspector and a Public Education general inspector.
He first studies at the Lycée Montaigne (1887-1893) and then at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand (1893-1897).
He prepares a law degree at the Sorbonne and a diploma in the Anamneses language at The School of Oriental Languages.
He made a first stay at the University of Oxford. He’ll come back in August 1901 and in autumn 1902, without being registered.
From the 14th of November, he does his military service in Chartres.
The 19th of September, he comes back to his civil life and moves to Paris.
To escape the career that his father made him pursue, he takes refuge in London where he stays until 1911. He works there as an office clerk or secretary. During his free time, he writes and practices sports.
January 1st, with a short story entitled “La Rivière” (The River), he wins the first prize, prize of honor of the holiday contest organised by “Le Vélo” (The Bicycle), a sport journal in Paris. This is the beginning of a long collaboration that will end August 5th, 1905.
He wins another contest with a short story entitled “La Conquête” (The Conquest) published February 12th in the newspaper “L’Auto”(The Car). That autumn, he wins a third contest in the same newspaper with a short story titled “La Foire aux vérités” (The truth Fair) that is later incorporated in the collection La Belle que voilà… (The Pretty lass…) (1923).
In the summer, he completes the writing of the short story “Lizzie Blakeston” that is published in the Parisian journal “Le Temps” (The Time) between the 3rd and 8th of Mars 1908. The story is the last one added to the collection La Belle que voilà… (The Pretty lass…) (1923).
He writes his first novel, Colin-Maillard, which will be published in 1924.
His daughter Lydia-Kathleen is born on April 12th in London after an affair with the Irish actress, Lydia O’Kelly, who was interned not long after childbirth.
Louis Hémon writes Battling Malone, pugiliste (Battling Malone, pugilist), his second novel, that will be published in 1925.
From October 29th to August 26th 1913, he writes 24 shorts sports stories for the newspaper “L’Auto” (The Car).
He completes the writing of his third novel Monsieur Ripois et la Némésis (Mr Ripois and the Nemesis) that will be published in 1950.
On October 12th, his birth day, he quits Liverpool on the Virginian for Quebec where he lands on the 18th. He holds a travel journal that will be published in 1924, in the French magazine Demain (Tomorrow), under the name “À la recherche de Maria Chapdelaine” (The search for Maria Chapelaine) and in New York, the same year, under the name The Journal of Louis Hémon.
A week after his arrival, he works as a secretary for Security Life of Canada, an insurance company in Montreal.
On June 15th, he quits his job and takes the train toward La Tuque and then Roberval. From there, he walks all the way to Péribonka where he arrives on June 29th. He works as a farm boy at Samuel Bédard’s farm.
At the end of August, he works as a chainman for a group of engineers and surveyors who wanted to build a railway on the north shore of Lake Saint-John.
The 28th of December, he leaves Péribonka for Saint-Gédéon where he drafts Maria Chapdelaine.
In February, he gets a job as an office clerk at the Price Brothers and Company in Kénogami. He leaves at the end of March to go back to Montreal.
On April 9th, he is a translator at the Lewis Brothers Hardware store where he types two copies of the typescript of Maria Chapdelaine. He sends a copy to the journal Le Temps (The Time) in Paris and a second one to his family.
Around the 26th of June, he leaves Montreal toward Western Canada to participate to the harvest.
On July 8th, in Chapleau (Ontario), he dies hit by a Canadian Pacific train. He is buried in the local cemetery.
Being, at the same time, praised, criticised and controversial, Maria Chapdelaine is a novel that hasn’t passed unnoticed in the history of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. Only a few books from Quebec have over 150 different editions in over 20 different languages or have inspired 3 movies adaptations and a theater play.
Louis Hémon’s novel has sold millions of copies at a time when communications were poor and underdeveloped which did not help with commercialization. Yet, today, his novel is noted as an important transcontinental literary phenomenon. In fact, at one time, delegations of French and Americans were visiting the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region only to see Péribonka, the place behind the story of Maria Chapdelaine.
In the early 1910s, in Péribonka in Lac-Saint-Jean region, by a beautiful day of summer, Maria Chapdelaine realises that she’s in love with François Paradis, a fur trader. The pretty fat and valiant girl promises to wait him until its return from the logging camp for the marriage season.
But François Paradis will never come back. For the Christmas holidays, he tried, alone on foot by snowshoes, to make the route from the logging camp to Péribonka to see again Maria Chapdelaine. Despite the one thousand Hail Mary recited in the hope of its visit, François has lost his way in the snowstorm and has died.
The mourning makes Maria feels hatred towards the deserted countryside, the dark wood, the coldness and the snow. It is for that reason that the eloquent speech for the magnificent life of the big cities from Lorenzo Surprenant, an emigrant settled in United States, seduces Maria. During his passage to Péribonka, he offers to Maria a happy reign.
It is now the turn of Eutrope Gagnon, the only neighbour of this wasteland territory, to propose himself to Maria promising to “make her a beautiful land”. Maria receives both propositions in silence cannot engage her future.
As her mother passed away, Maria listens her father who praises this unpaired woman. Then, she hears three voices: the first one quasi miraculous from the land during the spring season, the second one remembers her belonging to the French language and civilisation and the third one from the “Québec country” which invites her, solemnly, to stay among her family. Following the heroic ideal of her mother and obeying the voices that were so clear, Maria promises herself to Eutrope Gagnon for the spring after this spring.
Free translation of an excerpt from the exhibition Maria Chapdelaine, truths and lies, Louis-Hémon Museum
The film crew of Maria Chadelaine poses for a photo next the monument erected in 1919 in memory of Louis Hémon, 1934
The memorial headstone of Louis Hémon in the cemetery of Chapleau, Ontario
Filming scene of Maria Chadelaine in 1934, Péribonka
Lydia-Kathleen Hémon, the author’s daughter, and Marie Hémon, the author’s sister, during their visit in Canada in 1938
The DVD’s cover of Maria Chapdelaine’s film made by Gilles Carle in 1983
Lydia-Kathleen Hémon, the author’s daughter, during her passage in Péribonka to participate to the inauguration of Louis-Hémon Museum (Contemporary Pavilion), 1986
CHRONOLOGY OF A SUCCESS
From January 27th to February 9th, Maria Chapdelaine is published by serial in the Parisian journal “Le Temps” (The Time).
The first volume publication of a work by Hémon is edited by Joseph-Alphonse Lefebvre (1869-1939) and illustrated by Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté.
A monument in memory of Louis Hémon is placed in Péribonka thanks to Damase Potvin from the Quebec Society of arts, science and letters.
A tombstone is erected in the cemetery of Chapleau under the auspices of the Montreal Society of Saint-Jean-Baptiste.
Maria Chapdelaine is the first novel of the Editions Grasset Les Cahiers verts (The Green Booklets) collection.
Editions Grasset publishes the collection of stories La Belle que voila… (The Pretty lass…).
Editions Grasset publishes the novel Collin Maillard.
Editions Grasset publishes the novel Battling Malone, pugiliste (Battling Malone, pugilist).
A plate is affixed on the house of birth of the writer in Brest by a group of Canadian admirers. The house and the plate have disappeared during the Second World War.
Release, as a limited edition of 50, of L’Itinéraire, (The Itinerary) his travel story.
Julien Duvivier shoots some part of Maria Chapdelaine in Péribonka. Madelaine Renaud and Jean Gabin play Maria and François Paradis in the movie.
The “Société des amis de Maria Chapdelaine” (The Maria Chapdelaine’s friends Society) is founded.
Celebrations are held in Chapleau and in Péribonka to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Louis Hémon. His sister, Marie, and his daughter, Lydia, come to visit.
A monument is erected near the train station in Chapleau and the Maria-Chapdelaine Museum is inaugurated in Péribonka.
Marc Allegret shoots Maria Chapdelaine, with Michèle Morgan as the lead character. The movie is a failure.
Editions Grasset publishes Monsieur Ripois et la Némésis (Mr Ripois and the Nemesis).
A celebration is held in Péribonka to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the writer. On 28th of July, a monument and a medal are revealed.
Nicole Deschamps publishes a collection of correspondance from the author named Lettres à sa famille (Letters to his family).
From August 13th to 17th, celebrations are held to commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of the writer.
In Brest, November 21st and 23rd, an international colloquium is devoted to Louis Hémon. His proceedings were published in the journal Études Cannadiennes (Canadian Studies) in 1981.
August 8th, the “Société des Amis de Louis-Hémon” (Louis Hémon’s friends Society) is founded at the « BCP » of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean.
Récits Sportifs (Tales of Sports) is prepared and presented by Aurélien Boivin and Jean-Marc Bourgeois.
Gilles Carle shoots the movie of Maria Chapdelaine.
On July 5th, in Péribonka, takes place the inauguration of the Louis-Hémon Museum with the presence of Lydia, the daughter of Louis Hémon.
Guérin literature publishes the first volume of the complete work of Louis Hémon. The edition is presented and annotated by Aurélien Boivin.
A second volume of the complete work of Louis Hémon is published. This one is dedicated to sport literature.
A third volume of the complete work of Louis Hémon is released.
A special programming is realized to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Louis Hémon’s visit to Péribonka.
On the 4th of July, the provincial government designed Louis Hémon as an historical figure of Quebec.
On July 6th, the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Louis-Hémon Museum is celebrated with a memorial day.
On October 31st and November 1st, an international seminar about Louis Hémon is organized in Montreal by the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec in memory of the 100th anniversary of the death of the author.
The documentary Sur les traces de Maria Chapdelaine (Remembering Maria Chapdelaine) realized by Jean-Claude Labrecque and produced by the National Film Board of Canada is released. It retraces the shooting of the 1934 film in Péribonka.
A special programming is realized to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first edition of the novel Maria Chapdelaine.
Since the publication of the first edition of the novel Maria Chapdelaine in 1916, some commemorative monuments have been established in honor of the novel and its author.
Surprisingly, each time, the result became a matter of controversy. The most striking works are probably those of 1919 and 1986.
The monument of 1919
At that time, the novel and its author are starting to get known everywhere. Damase Potvin, a man of letters from the Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean region has erected, at the initiative of the Society of arts, sciences and letters of Quebec, a monument to honor Louis Hémon. The inscription says:
“To Louis Hémon
Man of letters
Born in Brest France
October 12th 1880
Deceased in Chapleau Ont.
July 8th 1913
Tribute from the Society
of arts, sciences and
letters of Quebec”
However, in the community of Péribonka the novel is not unanimous. Some are outraged by the way Louis Hémon describes the habitants: Illiterates persisting in clearing land of rocks and indulging in medicines of charlatans. Yet, at the time when the writer was visiting Péribonka, several citizens lived from a pulp and paper industry and all benefited from electricity. According to testimony, three young vandals swung the monument to the river after coating it with cow manure.
The “Femme et Terre” (Woman and Land) monument of 1986
During the construction of the main building of the Louis-Hémon Museum in 1986, Ronald Thibert is selected as part of the Program for the Integration of Arts and Architecture of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, now Ministry of Culture and Communications, to create a work of art inspired by the novel Maria Chapdelaine.
He creates a sculpture of black granite and aluminum representing the furrows in the heart of a dark forest. The central aluminum part takes the form of a woman’s sex : it is then that the work takes the nickname of L’hymen à Maria (Maria’s hymen).
Perceived as a scandalous obscenity by some citizens, the Femme et Terre monument was covered with a thick canvas and then uncovered because of the pressures of the artist. Today, it is still one of the Museum’s major attractions.