Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Terror, Love, and the National Voyeur: Gilbert Parker's the Seats of the Mighty

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Terror, Love, and the National Voyeur: Gilbert Parker's the Seats of the Mighty

Article excerpt

One of the most popular Canadian novels of the late nineteenth century is one that many non-specialists today may not have even heard of, Gilbert Parker's The Seats of the Mighty (1896). The novel, which is set like many Canadian novels of the time during the "fall" of Quebec, received "instant international acclaim" (Ripley 9) and was the first of Parker's novels to be published in a Canadian edition, which eventually became a standard highschool text (Adams 85). A theatrical version of the novel was staged in 1897, attended by U.S. President Grover Cleveland at the Boston performance and put on in London, England, for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (Ripley 9). There are some good reasons why this particular novel was so well known among English speakers at the turn of the century and so significant for anglophone Canadians especially, although these reasons have yet to be fully explored. The few critics who have recently looked at the novel notice its racism in the way it pits British-Canadian morality against French decadence. (1) However, what I am particularly interested in here is that this

decadence is not merely condemned and dismissed but reformulated in such a way that it can be controlled by anglophone Canadians. Francophones in the novel are both celebrated and disavowed through a complex process that involves an anxious surveillance to distinguish and categorize cultures that, on the surface of the skin, appear similar.

Parker's manipulation of the genre of the historical romance is key in relation to this project. In A Purer Taste, Carole Gerson describes the popularity of this genre in nineteenth-century Canada, indicating how early English Canadians were looking for the same "nationalistic affect" in their own fiction that Sir Walter Scott had achieved in his for Great Britain (68). As Gerson points out, English Canadians often drew upon the "colourful history" of French Canada in historical romances in order to establish "cultural distinctiveness from Great Britain on the one hand and the United States on the other" (111). Especially around the turn of the century, many English Canadians wanted this "cultural distinctiveness," while still wishing for strong ties to Britain. Parker, born in Canada, was an imperialist who spent part of his life residing in Britain and eventually became a Member of Parliament there. Thus, his portrayals of Canada often seem to characterize it as interesting and distinct, but in ways that wouldn't alienate British readers. The task of glamorizing French Canada, without de-valourizing Britain, is one of the key processes in early Canadian historical romances generally and Parker's work specifically. In The Seats of the Mighty, the voyeurism of the protagonist juxtaposes two common elements of the historical romance, gothicism and the love story, in order to work out this process. (2)

The novel centres on the relationship between Robert Moray, a British soldier in captivity in Quebec, and Alixe Duvarney, a young Canadienne. Throughout the novel, the lovers' happiness is threatened by the war, the Catholic Church, and Tinoir Doltaire, a charming French villain who wants Alixe for himself. As several critics have noticed, The Seats of the Mighty plays out through its love story the conflicts between the nations (what Carl Murphy calls "the marriage metaphor" of early Canadian fiction), with Alixe standing in for French Canada, Robert for the British, and Doltaire for the French; (3) that is, Alixe's "choice" of Robert represents Quebec's allegiance to Britain over France. However, critics have failed to adequately examine the appeal, for both Robert and readers, and in such a pro-anglophone novel, of the villainous Doltaire, nor have they really explained why the heroine, far from being a damsel in distress, is a far more active character than Robert himself, or why Parker appears so obsessed with voyeuristic moments. Such elements, as I will demonstrate, are related to another understudied aspect of the novel--the ways it contributes to and draws upon colonial discourses and processes present in other parts of the British Empire in Parker's day. …

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