"Like a Fragment of the Old World": The Historical Regression of Quebec City in Travel Narratives and Tourist Guidebooks, 1776-1913

By Little, J. I. | Urban History Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

"Like a Fragment of the Old World": The Historical Regression of Quebec City in Travel Narratives and Tourist Guidebooks, 1776-1913


Little, J. I., Urban History Review


Although it was largely ignored in the late eighteenth century, Quebec City figured prominently on the North American circuit of British travel writers in the earlier years of the nineteenth century, when the obligatory description of the view from and of Cape Diamond served as a metaphor for imperial expansion. From this perspective, Quebec was not only the site where Wolfe had won his great battle against the French in 1759, it was also a military stronghold and gateway to an empire that stretched to the Pacific Ocean. The story told by American travel narratives and tourist guidebooks was rather different. They tended to see Quebec as unprogressive and of interest primarily because of its antiquity--an image that local tourism promoters turned to the city's advantage as its population growth stalled in the later nineteenth century. With the arrival of the railways and the growing reliance on tourism as an industry, Quebec City's image reverted to an early stage of the historical progress narrative, becoming frozen in a mythical past as a picturesque fragment of medieval Europe.

Quoique largement ignoree a la fin du [XVIII.sup.e] siecle, la ville de Quebec occupe une place importante sur le circuit nord-americain des chroniqueurs britanniques de voyage au debut du [XIX.sup.e] siecle lorsque la description incontournable de la vue depuis le cap Diamant et du cap lui-mere sert de metaphore pour l'expansion coloniale. Dans cette perspective, Quebec n'est pas seulement l'endroit ou Wolfe a remporte sa grande victoire contre les Francais en 1759; c'est aussi un bastion militaire et la Porte d'un empire qui s'etend jusqu'au Pacifique. L'histoire que racontent les recits de voyages americains et les guides to uristiques est passablement differente. Quebec y est presente comme retrograde et d'interet principalement en raison de son anciennete, image que les promoteurs touristiques locaux mettenta profit au moment ou la croissance demographique de la vile tombe au point mort vers la fin du [XIX.sup.e] siecle. Avec l'arrivee des chemins de fer et une dependance grandissante au tourisme comme industrie, l'image de Quebec revient a un stade precoce du recit historique du progre's, se figeant dans un passe mythique comme fragment pittoresque de l'Europe medievale.

Prior to the 1960s, the stereotypical image of French-speaking Quebec was of a profoundly Catholic society that placed religious faith and family ahead of the individualism and materialistic values of Anglo-Protestant North America. That land-based image, which was fostered by the priests who wrote most of the province's early histories and trained its historians prior to the mid-twentieth century, (1) also appealed to the romantic sensibility that drew English-speaking artists, writers, and tourists to the province of Quebec in search of the traditional and the picturesque. Historians and literary scholars examining this phenomenon have focused on rural areas such as Charlevoix County, (2) but it was not only the countryside that was seen as out of step with modernizing society. This article will examine how, as the nineteenth century progressed, tourism promoters increasingly depicted the very heart of the province, Quebec City itself, as a medieval outpost in the rapidly evolving New World.

The earliest and most numerous sources describing Quebec City are the memoirs published by British and American travellers, most of which are referred to in this article, but we will also examine descriptions by British officers stationed in the garrison town for a period of time, and by genteel colonists who passed through en route to Upper Canada. As historian W. H. A. Williams notes, British travellers had an acute visual orientation, and the ability to describe the landscapes they encountered was considered a mark of social distinction. (3) Tourism, on the other hand, has generally been associated with tasteless consumerism, but Quebec City became a uniquely popular urban tourist destination as early as the 1830s, largely because of its historic character. …

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