Canada's First Fiction Novel
Source: the New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia via Wikipedia.
Name: Julia Catherine Beckwith
Birth Place: Fredericton, New Brunswick (NB)
Date of Birth: March 10, 1796
Date of Death: November 28, 1867
Gravesite: Old Burial Ground (NB)
Steam level: Not even a kiss
Content notes: Emphasis on death (inc. loss of parents and children) and descriptions of war. The author uses the term "Indian" to describe an Indigenous character who delivers a letter.
Tropes: Presumed dead + switched at birth
At just seventeen, Julia Catherine Beckwith’s published St. Ursula’s Convent, or the Nun of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. From an historical viewpoint, literary academics regard the two volumes to be the first work of fiction by a Canadian, but contemporaries gave it mixed praise. One critic in Lochhead's commentary describes it as "tittle-tattle" and another excused any geographical errors on the fact that she was a young woman. Beckwith's novel did, however, receive praise for how the main character's high regard for morality and religion. For romance readers, however, it is worth noting that it is the earliest novel by a Canadian to have both romantic relationships and a happily ever after for all of them.
"A View of Kingston from Fort Henry" four years after the book was published.
Credit: Gray, James. 1828.
Beckwith's own family and her knowledge of Canadian history gave her enough inspiration for the story. Her father's career was impacted by the outbreak of the American Revolution (1774-1783) as Nehemiah Beckwith worked as a shipbuilder, and was eventually forced to relocate to New Brunswick due to growing conflict at sea. Notably, he built a ship for the General Benedict Arnold for trading purposes. From an American viewpoint, Benedict Arnold had betrayed George Washington six years earlier and Julia’s father no doubt knew about his notoriety. According to a biography about Arnold, Beckwith felt slighted by the general as Arnold did not pay his financial dues for changes Beckwith made on the ship. Then, three years after the War of 1812, Julia’s father tragically died by drowning. His loss may have heavily impacted Julia as both parents pass over the course of the novel.
He wasn't the only family member to give inspiration to Julia. As her novel features a nun, it is not surprising to learn that her aunt chose to leave her Protestant family to serve at the famous Hotel-Dieu in Montreal. First founded by the Catholic nun and Montreal’s co-founder, Jeanne Mance in 1845, the hospital’s main focus was to give medical aid and assistance to the poor. In her novel, Julia’s main character (cheekily named after the author herself) secludes herself from the rest of the world after her husband assumedly dies in the Siege of Quebec and tragedies keep surrounding her. Acting as part war widow and part historian, the main character gives an account of life at the home front to the young Adelaide, who comes to be educated at the convent.
In her introduction page, the author mentions that her book contains scenes of real life, and at the beginning of the novel describes a community that her contemporary readers would have been familiar with. The main character’s parents meet at a ball, which provides a safe backdrop for the two to become acquainted with each other. While not as detailed as the balls in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it serves as a safe social arena for the two begin their romance. Notably, this would have been ideal for his father, who had been a black sheep and a disappointment to his grandfather for secretive reasons. Before he met his wife, he had been sent to school for a proper education. In a similar fashion, the main character’s parents send their daughter, Adelaide, to a Convent and her bother to a school.
Along the way, Adelaide’s father is comforted by the songs of the French peasants who create a scenic journey for them. Overcome by anxiety for the future, Adelaide spirals and agonizes that she will never see her family again. Because of her anxiety, Adelaide is at first unable to appreciate the beautiful nature around her, or even the singing. In order to console her, Adelaide’s father prompts her to take in the sound of the singers. After her father comforts her, the joy of the peasants working make Adelaide hopeful about the future. She manages to find glimpses of the society that she can enjoy along the ride. As if to further welcome Adelaide, the church bells are ringing for the noonday hour and the boatmen are also singing.
From the very beginning, the new community surrounds Adelaide. Not only do old acquaintances of her father tour the city with them, but members of the Convent make a point to meet Adelaide after the sole representative of her family departs. They become quite important to her after she hears that her grandmother has passed away, especially the caring nun who takes an interest in Adelaide. Under her care, Adelaide manages to continue her life at the Convent, even after the loss of her grandparents.
After nearly four years of residing at the Convent, the Turner family are the first acquaintances outside the Convent walls that Adelaide makes a point of addressing. This might be due to the fact that they are introduced to her through the Lady Abess, and not her father. Both Adelaide and the young Miss Turner are able to take comfort in each other’s friendship as she is to join Adelaide in the Convent as well. Unlike Adelaide, Miss Turner has the benefit of already seeing a girl in the situation she will soon find herself in. With Adelaide's comforting presence, Miss Turner does not have any reason to be anxious.
Interestingly enough, the next morning Adelaide’s brother appears at the Convent with the news that her other grandfather has died causing Adelaide’s community to comfort her again. Once Francis believes that Lady Abbess has taken care of his distraught sister, he departs. Instead of focusing on her anxieties as she previously did, Adelaide spends time with the Lady Abbess and focuses on her faith instead of her worry. She gains both a mother figure and a companion in the Lady Abbess, who shares her grief with her. In fact, the Abbess makes a positive impression on her whole family, especially her brother, who asks Adelaide to write down the Abbess’s life.
As if to make herself more relatable to Adelaide, the Abbess that convent life did not initially suit her in comparison to her sister. The Abbess notes her sister makes her appreciate more Catholic study, but nothing prepared her when her father’s ship that was taken over by pirates. Fortunately, he had not been on the ship, but it was still devastating for him. After he returns trying to sort out the impact of what has been lost, her father returns with a stranger named Mons’r. De la Valiere. The two of them are able to console each other over their losses as he was the son of a Marquis, who recently passed away. While on the way to visit his uncle, he was accosted, but saved by the Abbess’s father. During his stay at the Abbess’s family home, he is taken care of by a surgeon, but he has a fever and his uncle the Duke is sent for. He is much obliged for how his nephew has been taken care of. The Abbess recalls how the Marquis became infatuated by her sister, Annette, due to her attention and overall care for him.
At this point of the story, it becomes clear that the author has named the Abbess St. Catherine after herself as Annette addresses her as Julia for the first time. (Later, the othdr characters refer to her as St. Catherine after the Saint). In fact, it is at this moment that the first glimmer of a romance appears as Annette confides with Julia about the moments she shared with the Marquis in the gardens. She quotes the most romantic declaration from the Marquis, "I have detained you, Miss de la Valiere, to lay open my heart before you; it beats but for you, charming Annette; ah could I but flatter myself with a return, I would be the happiest of men!"
This becomes the perfect moment for all the readers swoon and the Marquis continues to go on and say that he fell in love with Annette while under her attentive care. He asks for her hand in marriage and Anette says she can accept it if they obtain her father’s approval. Upon taking her hand, Annette blushes and it is the first time Annette seems to show emotions beyond her zeal for her faith. But upon the awareness of others approaching, they rejoin the others. Annette regrets that nothing will persuade her father from making new profit in Canada and making Julia go with him, even when the Marquis offers him a house and financial support. Yet Annette is still able to marry the Marquis before Julia and the rest of her family leave Europe. Before they depart, Annette mourns the fact that she will not able to share her new social status in society with any of her family.
Upon their arrival in Quebec, Julia and her family manage to create a community due to the favor of several notable figures already residing there. Life becomes prosperous for Julia’s family once her father’s store gains the financial support of the locals. After she turns sixteen, a member of their community delivers letter from her sister informing the family that she has had her first son. The messenger proves important to the romance in this story as Julia’s attraction to this messenger blossoms and her father’s fortune makes it an easy arrangement. Following her marriage, Julia has three children (one is a stillborn) the same time as her sister-in-law, Marianne. Due to their closeness, Julia’s surviving daughter and Marianne’s are both named Julia.
As if to foreshadow the future, the present-day Julia notes how similar they were as babies. After this observation, present-day Julia becomes a historian to Adelaide she begins to discuss the fear of the British invading Quebec. Consequently, the fear of invasion looming over them causes Julia to send her son with Marianne and her family back to France. Julia continues to express her experiences as a historian would, but specifically focusing on the home front. Despite the ongoing war, life continues for Julia; her husband becomes a commander of the French militia, she delivers a healthy child, and her father falls ill.
Understandably, Julia begins to feel that the harsh realities of the world impact the way she interacts with those outside of her direct community, “the capture of Quebec having put a stop to all communication with France, I despaired of news from that quarter.” All of this happens to Julia when she receives a letter from an Indigenous man notifying her that her husband has died in combat when fighting against General Wolf’s army. As Adelaide’s historian, Julia’s understandable pride comes through as she creates a heroic picture of her husband’s last moments, especially since no one was able to retrieve the body. Thus, Julia’s role transitions from war historian to war widow.
View of the Taking of Quebec. Source: Library and Archives of Canada
In her grief, Julia doubts that she will outlive her ailing father, who implores her to look after her children and to find comfort in them. He is an example to Julia of someone who has lost a great deal, but is still able to rise above it all and remain resilient. By handing her one of her children, Julia’s father reminds her that she still has people she cares around her, despite the ominous events lingering in the background. Julia realizes she has to continue living despite the threats impacting her despite the grieve threatening to overwhelm her. Unfortunately, not all of those around her can give Julia comfort.
Three months later, her maid, Josette, informs Julia the disaster that befell her son and sister-in-law’s family. During their sea voyage, they find themselves separated by the man of war that has been escorting them back to Europe, and they are attacked by the English. Her cousin is on the same ship as her sister-in-law, and informs Julia that Marianne and the children have been killed by English cannonballs. (It is worth noting here that while Peter observes blood, he never sees the bodies). Since he has no rank and is not part of their community, Peter is able to convince the British to let him return home to Canada. When Julia’s father hears the story, he insists to have it confirmed by Peter as he considers Josette insensitive for telling the news so directly to Julia. Death continues to occur in this story as Julia’s in-laws die from grief, but Julia remains resolute to live for her children.
Luckily, her children are left with a large inheritance and they decide to relocate to Montreal. Near Trois Rivers, her mother finds a charming village, which suits Julia as she beings to close herself from others whiles she deals with her grief. To pass her days, she spends “[her] time in attending [to] the [children], reading books that suited my pensive turn of mind, musing on the death of my husband, and the uncertainty of my sister’s fate.” Fortunately, her father becomes better and this improves Julia’s outlook on life.
But in a dramatic fashion, Julia’s father dies soon after. Yet even as she mourns her father, Julia demonstrates her maturity by pursuing aspects of life that remind her of her father. She chooses to focus on the education and faith of her children as her father would have wanted her to do, “to support, with greater fortitude, the vicissitudes of life.” As someone who has lost a great deal, Julia clearly wants to ensure that her children have the ability to navigate the rough waters of life.
After she loses her young daughter and another falls ill, Julia has a ghostly visitation. Her bleeding daughter encourages Julia to let go of her. The wounds covering her daughter are all the times that Julia has been grieving. For in order for her daughter’s soul to move on, Julia must move on from her grief. In the same way, Julia has been encouraged to let go of those she now mourns. There are still people around her that she can have community with even in the nunnery, so Julia does not need to dwell solely on the dead just yet.
As the nun’s story finishes, it appears that Adelaide’s just begins as her sense of community grows with her friendship with Charlotte Turner. During an outing with the Turner family, a gentleman mistakes Adelaide for Charlotte. She continues to spend time with them and becomes close to them just like a family. They are her source of social entertainment and learning more about the society around her. In fact, she even joins them on a trip to England in Volume Two when Charlotte’s father receives an important inheritance.
Much of Volume Two focuses on revealing Julia's surviving family and her husband's story of survival. If not for Adelaide’s friendship with the Turners, Julia would not have been able to learn the truth about her family. With their knowledge of Julia's background, the young women are able to recognize their mentor's husband and inform him that she is still alive. Furthermore, one of the acquaintances Adelaide makes through the Turners is Dudley, who wishes to marry Adelaide, but eventually her childhood nurse reveals that Adelaide was switched at birth. She is not the only child to be switched at birth as both Marianne's husband and brother (Julia's husband) agree to switch their children (as Julia has two at the same time), so that Marianne never has to realize that one of her children was stillborn.
Of course, once the nurse reveals how her husband switched her Adelaide insists that the nurse reveals the truth to all those near her. The nurse feels compelled to tell truth in order to prevent Adelaide from marrying her own brother, Dudley. They all return to Quebec to bring the news to Julia, who obtains permission to leave the convent and live the rest of her life with her loved ones. Both Louisa and Adelaide also find appropiate happily ever afters with the story emphasizing their continued friendship and happiness.
Alfred G. Bailey, “Beckwith, Julia Catherine,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/beckwith_julia_catherine_9E.html.
"Benedict Arnold." My New Brunswick, 25 December 2017, https://mynewbrunswick.ca/benedict-arnold/.
Chong, Corinna. “Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart.” NBLE, University of New Brunswick Libraries, 2009, nble.lib.unb.ca/browse/h/julia-catherine-beckwith-hart.
Encyclopedia, The Canadian. "Battle of the Plains of Abraham (Plain-Language Summary)". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 09 July 2021, Historica Canada. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/battle-of-the-plains-of-abraham-plain-language-summary.
Francoise Noel. Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 178-1870: A View From Diaries and Family Correspondence. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.
“Introduction.” St. Ursula’s Convent, or, The Nun of Canada. Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart. Ed. Douglas G. Lochhead. Sackville, NB: Mount Allison U, 1978.
Maxwell, Lilian M. Beckwith. “The First Canadian Born Novelist.” The Dalhousie Review 31.1 (1951).