Captivity, Freedom, and the New World Convent: The Spiritual Autobiography of Marie De l'Incarnation Guyart

By Woidat, Caroline M. | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Captivity, Freedom, and the New World Convent: The Spiritual Autobiography of Marie De l'Incarnation Guyart


Woidat, Caroline M., Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


[W]hat we accomplish in this new Church is seen by God and not by men our enclosure covers all, and it is difficult to speak of what one does not see.

Marie de 'l Incarnation Guyart, Letter to her son, 9 Aug. 1668

(Word from New France 337)

Working within convent walls in seventeenth-century Quebec, Marie de l'Incarnation Guyart recognized her invisibility and generated a vast body of literature that reveals the extent of her spiritual and physical trials as a religious woman and early colonist. Her narratives of travel, frontier life, and encounters with native peoples paradoxically emerge from her seclusion as a cloistered nun, locating the convent at the center--not the periphery--of colonial settlement and American experience. Guyart's detailed accounts of the religious calling that led her to the New World and of her experiences as an immigrant span a time period of nearly fifty years, from 1625 to 1671. In addition to writing two autobiographies and letters estimated to have numbered from eight to twenty thousand, Guyart composed instructional catechisms and dictionaries in French and Indian languages. During her lifetime, Guyart's letters were circulated in France and cited in The Jesuit Relations, the published annual reports of Jesuit missionaries in Canada. Her writing, like that of other seventeenth-century religious women, was subject to the scrutiny and editing of male clergy who published her work not as literature, but as writing of practical, spiritual, and historical value. (1) In this respect, Guyart resembles Mary Rowlandson, whose authorship depended upon the usefulness of her captivity narrative's Calvinist moralizing and justification for Indian war. While Rowlandson's single work, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, occupies a prominent place in American literary history, Guyart's voluminous and wide-ranging body of writing has long been treated as a valuable source of Catholic, French, and Canadian history, a reason her work now appears in twentieth-century critical editions, including translations into English. (2)

Until recently, the importance of Marie de l' Incarnation's work to American literary history has been veiled by the religious vows that separate her from a strongly Protestant tradition. In his introduction to a 1989 edition of selected writings by Guyart, John Farina writes, "One searches in vain for signs of how the American experience,' whether it be the presence of the frontier or some other combination of factors, shaped her spirituality in any profound way. That, doubtless, was a function of the fact that she lived not in a lively British colony but in a cloister in Quebec" (1). Farina's assessment has been challenged by feminist scholars who approach Guyart's work as both American and literature, countering the tendency to idealize Guyart as a mystic and missionary apart from colonial America and its literary production. (3) Carla Zecher reads Guyart's correspondence "as belonging to an emergent New World literature, rather than as the production of a seventeenth-century French epistoliere or mystic (without, however, denying the validity of those approaches)" ("Life on the French-Canadian Hyphen" 39). Carla Mulford, Angela Vietto, and Amy E. Winans extend this critical trajectory in Early American Writings, a multicultural anthology that includes letters written by Marie de l' Incarnation and that models what Philip Gould describes as "a new kind of early American studies that reads beyond the U. S. nation" (305), one that "disrupt[s] the Protestant narrative of American culture" (316).

The constraints under which Guyart entered the convent, traveled to Canada, and wrote do not signal her removal from the American experience so much as they complicate cultural narratives of captivity and freedom. As one of the first white, middle-class, European women to settle in North America, Guyart is comparable to New England pilgrims, but embarks upon a distinct, divinely revealed religious errand of her own, and it is a mission that forces her to redefine her role as a woman.

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