The Art and Genius of Anne Hébert: Essays on Her Works: Night and the Day Are One

By Janis L. Pallister | Go to book overview

First Mothers,
First Garden

LORI SAINT-MARTIN

The First Garden is part of a recent movement in the Québec novel toward a woman-centered rereading of history. Like Nicole Houde's La Maison du remous (The house by the whirlpool), Madeleine Ouellette-Michalska's La Maison Trestler ou le 8e jour d'Amérique (The Trestler house or the eighth day of America), or Francine Noël's Myriam première (Myriam the First), to mention only a few, Anne Hébert's novel questions history, both recent and long past, through a feminist rereading/rewriting of the "family romance."1 Its return to the origins of New France is orchestrated in such a way that Flora Fontanges's personal history and the collective history of Québec overlap and merge. This rereading of history involves few male characters; Marie Rollet (wife of Louis Hébert and, with him, founder of the first French family in New France), the "Filles du Roy" (young women, mostly poor or orphaned, sent by the king of France by boatloads to marry the settlers in the new colony), the chambermaids who worked for the wealthy families of the Grande-Allée—in other words, the mothers and daughters of the past—are at the forefront of Flora's quest. It seems that women authors cannot rethink, reconceptualize, and rewrite history without opening narrative space to accommodate the feminine, and especially maternal, figures and values repressed by Western male culture.

In fact, the entire novel rests on an intimate relationship with the maternal; maternal origins, although they are always already lost for good, inspire ardent longing. "What is the initial wound of love, for everyone, not just for Flora Fontanges who has no father or mother?,"2 one passage reads, with the answer following immediately: everyone is in mourning for the "notion of absolute maternal goodness" (Hébert 1990, 79).3 Behind every passionate love of adult life, this novel implies, lies the first love of all: the passion that united mother and child within the first embrace, in the heart of the first garden.

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