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From Cather Studies Volume 3

"Grande Communications avec Dieu"

The Surrounding Power of Shadows on the Rock

In "A Yankee in Canada," the first parts of which were published in Putnam's Magazine in 1853, Thoreau writes testily of his visit to Quebec in 1850. At the outset he observes that what he "got by going to Canada was a cold" (3). Puzzled that a country so "wild and unsettled" seems older than the United States, he concludes that the answer lies in the antiquity of Canadian institutions, in "the rust of conventions and formalities" (80-81). Left over from the feudal system, the all too visible machinery of aristocratic enterprises makes it impossible for a person to be "wholesomely neglected" (83). Although the "purity and transparency" of the air are commendable, one is constantly made aware of the government (34). Every day it "parades itself before you. . . ; every day it goes out to the Plains of Abraham or to the Champ de Mars and exhibits itself and toots" (83-84). One must, I think, admire the word toots in this context-irreverent, onomatopoetic, unit of sound that mocks the pageantry Thoreau endures from his Yankee perspective even as it heralds a fundamental statement about the value of human existence. For when he concludes that because of such governmental omnipresence the individual is "not worth so much in Canada as in the United States," we see that Thoreau with a cold is still Thoreau, a man who celebrates what he calls "the primitive and ultimate condition of man," who prizes individuality over community, singularity over tradition (82-83).

Almost eighty years later Willa Cather saw Quebec for the first time and came away with a different judgment about the traditions that had long sustained its life. What struck her about the city, as she wrote to Governor Wilbur Cross after four additional visits and the writing of Shadows on the Rock, was the persistence of a "narrow but definite" culture from another age into the present-an ethos she could not embrace but "could not but admire." Admitting the difficulty of defining that ethos, she likens it to "an old song, incomplete but uncorrupted." "The text," she continues in a provocative (and thoroughly postmodern) trope, "was mainly anacoluthon, so to speak, but the meaning was clear" ("On Shadows" 15).

Let me pause for a moment with the substantive anacoluthon, a term that suggests the kind of narrative Cather set out to write in Shadows on the Rock. Dictionaries define anacoluthon as an abrupt change within a sentence from one grammatical construction to another, quite inconsistent one, frequently for rhetorical effect. For example: "I warned him that if he continued gambling, what will become of him?" The Greek root of the word, an + akolouthos, means "not following." Cather invokes such a meaning when she says that "the text" of Quebec was "mainly anacoluthon." It came to her as something "not following," not sequential, as "an incomplete air" not linear or in standard progression. More importantly, it allowed her to transform, in the act of acknowledging, the distinction Thoreau found so important, to focus on family, community, and tradition even as she annexed historical examples of individuality that challenge and enrich the narrative. Cather is careful, as she says in her comments on Shadows, not to "mix kinds," not to "explode into military glory" after having settled into a seat "by the apothecary's fire" (16). But she also takes some calculated chances with the mood of this novel by exposing it to the light (and half-light) of radical spiritual ventures clearly outside the range of Cécile Auclair's domain and then converting these singular odysseys to communal stories, to the stuff of legend, for Cécile's edification.

To give coherence to a Quebec that came into her consciousness as a nonsequential text, Cather centers her fiction in a family that mediates between present and past, New World and Old, between the concerns of "an orderly little French household" and those of a surrounding world ("On Shadows" 16). Moreover, she takes pains with her setting, both geographical and temporal, circumscribing it carefully to make the physical narrowness of Quebec a factor in her composition, choosing the final year of Frontenac's life (1697-98) to lend an autumnal tone to a narrative that remembers years of tumult and wonder.[1]

Family and setting function together from the outset of the story. When Euclide Auclair watches La Bonne Espérance disappear down the St. Lawrence River en route to France one October afternoon, he realizes that "not a sail would come up that wide waterway" until the next July. "No supplies; not a cask of wine or a sack of flour, no gunpowder, or leather, or cloth, or iron tools. Not a letter even, even-no news of what went on at home" (Shadows 4). The thrust of these negatives differs radically from that of Jim Burden's initial description of the prairie in My Ántonia as having no fences, no trees, as being nothing but land, not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. Whereas the latter set of negations erases the familiar as the condition of making a new start, the former itemizes what must be preserved for the purposes of continuance. One of Cather's strategies in making Shadows a novel of place is to make it a novel of preservation-not only of customs and traditions but of foodstuffs and supplies. At the beginning Cather thus establishes a sense of separation from the source, from home and nourishment. And she follows quickly by characterizing the West as interminable and threatening, a "dead, sealed world," a place of "suffocation," in which "European man was quickly swallowed up in silence, distance, mould, [and] black mud" (6-7). It is not the West of most American fiction.

"Cut off" from a Europe that is at once cultured and decadent, and in fearsome proximity to the primordial, Cather's Quebec is an isolated settlement, protective of the customs and religious beliefs that have given it a transplanted identity. Its topography enhances its lack of space and its hierarchical ambience, with Upper Town perched above Lower Town, and no building on the rock "on the same level with any other" (5).

For Cather in Shadows, the family is the primary repository of values. Not only does Cécile go sledding on Holy Family hill with her little friend Jacques but the people of Quebec, we learn from Madame Pommier, have a special veneration for the Holy Family; according to Bishop Laval, no place in the world surpasses that devotion (101). And the association of Cécile with the Holy Mother (traced convincingly by Susan Rosowski) blends the secular and the sacred in a provocative dualism. In a more quotidian way, the Auclair household is a model of order.[2] For Cécile's mother "household goods" were the equivalent of household gods; without them, she "could not imagine life at all." Thus, in moving to Quebec, her effort was to reduplicate the domestic harmony she had known in Paris. "As long as she lived, she tried to make the new life as much as possible like the old." Mme Auclair's chief concern was to inculcate in young Cécile the regard for order and continuity that "had come down to her through so many centuries" and so impress on her that M. Auclair's "whole happiness depends on order and regularity." "At home, in France," she once tells Cécile with a burst of Gallic pride, "we have learned to do all these things in the best way, and we are conscientious, and that is why we are called the most civilized people in Europe and other nations envy us" (23-25).

One senses by means of Cather's subdued eloquence the deep contentment with which Cécile assimilates the pattern of household duties-revealed in such quiet albeit resonant matters as her awareness of her father's taste for gooseberries, her fear that the parsley will freeze, and her kindness to Blinker and Jacques. And one sees how the habits and rituals of Quebec reinforce the sense of sanctuary that she feels at home. Hearing Bishop Laval ring the bell for five o'clock (A.M.) Mass, Cécile feels "a peculiar sense of security, as if there must be powerful protection for Kebec in such steadfastness, and the new day, which was yet darkness, was beginning as it should. The punctual bell and the stern old Bishop who rang it began an orderly procession of activities and held life together on the rock, though the winds lashed it and the billows of snow drove over it" (105). Again, afflicted with a slight fever, Cécile lies in bed passive and content, listening to the rain and to her father ("an accomplished cook") preparing dinner, watching the firelight glow on the furniture and the brass candlesticks. When her mind roams abroad, Quebec and its environs contribute to her feeling of safety: "the dripping grey roofs. . . , to the lighted windows along the crooked streets, the great grey river choked with ice and frozen snow, the never-ending merciless forest beyond. All these things seemed like layers and layers of shelter, with this one flickering, shadowy room at the core" (158-59). From a cocoonlike perspective Cécile presides over a sheltering world. Even the "merciless forest," mercifully attenuated by the orderly procession of her thoughts, adds to her sense of herself as secure-and as central to the scene.

Predictably, Cécile's visit to the Harnois is uncomfortable: her protective context is not portable. Predictably too, the motif of withdrawal and return (used by Hawthorne in such works as "Young Goodman Brown" and The Scarlet Letter) works its transformational magic: Cécile returns home after two nights on the Ile d'Orléans feeling "at least two years older," no longer a little girl "doing what she had been taught to do." As she prepares dinner for Pierre Charron and her father, a graduating sense of purpose awakens within her. The coppers and clouts and brushes around her are not just objects, she realizes, but "tools"; and "with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days,-the complexion, the special flavour, the . . . happiness of each day as it passed; one made life" (197-98). Cather's eloquence gives Cécile a new dignity.

In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Latour offers a very French, and I might say Catheresque, praise of Father Vaillant's soup: "I am not depreciating your individual talent, Joseph," the Bishop says to his friend, but "a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup" (39). In her comments on Shadows, Cather observes that "a new society begins with the salad dressing more than with the destruction of Indian villages." "It's very hard for an American to catch that rhythm," she adds; "it's so unlike us" ("On Shadows" 16-17). With an aversion to salad dressing and to the destruction of villages, Thoreau had no way of catching such a "rhythm." But his Concord colleague Emerson made the principle underlying Cather's statement central to the argument of Nature in 1836: "The invariable mark of wisdom," Emerson wrote, "is to see the miraculous in the common" (44). As Shadows on the Rock attests, that is what Cather, with her focus on Euclide and Cécile Auclair, encourages us to see.

But if Cather encourages us to see the miraculous in the commonplace through her gentle emphasis on such things as the Auclair sofa and fireplace, she also exposes the commonplace to the extraordinary. On the periphery of a carefully established domestic tranquility, she inserts a variety of what Ann Romines aptly calls "narratives of elsewhere," some from France, some from the tropics, some from the Canadian wilderness (Romines 151), but none more powerful, more ambivalent, or more singular than those relating to female religious figures from Canadian history. A first-time reader of Shadows might well be aware that Count Frontenac, Bishop Laval, and various missionaries to New France were historical figures; in one way or another, they appear as necessary (almost institutional) parts of the setting. But the number of "real" historical women who stand dramatically in the environs of this novel-Marie de l'Incarnation and Catherine de Saint-Augustine from the mid-seventeenth century, Jeanne Franc Juschereau and Jeanne Le Ber from years contemporary with Cather's narrative-would surely surprise such a reader.[3]

Cécile is aware and in awe of the religious heroes of the past. On All Souls' Day "all the stories of the rock came to life" for her. The walls of the Jesuit church "seemed sentinelled" by "martyrs who were explorers and heroes as well; at the Hôtel Dieu, Mother Catherine de Saint-Augustine and her story rose up before one; at the Ursulines', Marie de l'Incarnation overshadowed the living" (Shadows 95).

And well she might. For of all the religious figures mentioned in Shadows Marie may be the most astonishing and most enduring of all. More than twenty studies of her life and letters have appeared in this century alone; she has been discussed at scholarly conferences, in journal articles, and in monographs on spirituality. In 1931, the very year in which Shadows was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, a popular biography of Marie by Agnes Repplier was a Literary Guild selection. In 1956 Aloysius G. L'Heureux's study of her mystical vocabulary was published. In 1971 Guy Oury's impressive edition of her letters and journals, most of them reporting on events in Quebec, appeared. (It was from a letter in an earlier edition of Marie's Correspondance that Cather took the epigraph for Shadows on the Rock.) And in 1989 Irene Mahoney's volume of her selected writings, complete with a helpful biography, was published.

Born Marie Guyart in Tours in 1599, this Ursuline-to-be yearned to enter a convent from the time of her adolescence, but at the behest of her parents she married Claude Martin, a master silk worker. Two years later her husband died, leaving her with a six-month-old son. I cite Agnes Repplier's account of this sad event as guileless evidence of how marginally husbands existed in this binary world of God and cloister: "The model wife of Proverbs could not well have surpassed [Marie] in diligence and discretion. Her spouse seems to have been affectionately disposed, and fully alive to her merits. The birth of a son so filled his heart with content that there was nothing left for him but to die, which he accordingly did, after two years of married life" (Repplier 22). Now a twenty-year-old widow, Marie was torn between a desire for the convent and her responsibility to her son. Interestingly in the light of Jeanne Le Ber's experience some years later, she retired to an upper room in her sister's house and there prayed for guidance. Unlike Jeanne Le Ber, however, Marie continued to work in the world, in her brother-in-law's business, and during the next five years, while she had several mystical experiences and revelations about the Holy Trinity, she assisted in the management of that business, bargained for prices with stevedores and merchants, and generally conducted it with a great deal of success. At the age of thirty-one she entered the Ursuline convent in Tours-and the story, perhaps apocryphal, in many accounts of her life is that her son ran to the convent door behind which she prayed, crying out, "Give me back my mother."

Marie's own account is much more riveting (and it validates the fundamental truth behind the melodramatic story): she was concerned, as she says in her journal, about leaving her son, then not quite twelve years of age. The devil urged her to think both of her son and of practical matters, using arguments that seemed "persuasive since I was considering the good of the present moment." In a sentence indicative of her convoluted state of mind, she says that God assured her that "he would take care of him whom I wanted to leave for love of God in order to follow his divine counsels more perfectly." When friends and acquaintances "came up with fresh objections," however, Marie felt "besieged on all sides," as if her soul were being "wrenched" from her body. No obligation seemed as strong as her love for her son; yet she kept hearing an "inner voice" that said it was not good "to be in the world any longer." Accordingly, putting my son into the hands of God and of the Blessed Virgin, I left him, as well as my elderly father, who cried pitifully. When I said goodbye to him he found every possible argument to stop me, but my heart remained unshaken. . . . Then there flowed into my heart an inner sustenance which would have enabled me to pass through fire, giving me courage to surmount all and accomplish all. Then he transported my spirit where he wanted it to be.

. . . on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul 1631, I left what I loved the most. My son came with me, crying bitterly in leaving me. Watching him, it seemed to me that I was being cut in two. Nevertheless, I did not let my emotions show. Dom Raymond presented me to Reverend Mother St. Bernard, who, with the whole community, received me with extraordinary charity. Previously I had received the blessing of the archbishop of Tours, who wished to see me before my entrance. (L'Incarnation, Selected Writings 94-95)

Thus, exemplifying what Irene Mahoney (herself a member of the Ursuline community) calls an "implacable determination for total consecration," Marie Guyart Martin sundered ties with her son and her father to embark on a life of austerity and prayer (L'incarnation, Selected Writings 5). Influenced by the teaching of Pierre de Bérulle, who advocated a severe asceticism as a way of assimilating the mysteries of Christ, she dedicated herself to Christ as Incarnate Word-hence her religious name. During her years in Canada she was very much a practical woman as well as a mystic. (Mahoney describes her as an "active/contemplative" both in France and in Quebec [15].) As her letters-many of them to her son, who became a Benedictine monk-report, she drew up contracts for the construction of the Ursuline convent, did it a second time after the convent burned in 1650, took an interest in mines and salt pits, had wells dug, and even tried to interest merchants in exporting porpoise oil. In his extensive study of New France, written almost a century ago, James Douglas considered Marie's letters to be "more valuable as sources of contemporary history than even the Relations of the Jesuits" (438). Aditionally, Marie learned Indian languages and produced French-Anglonquin and Algonquin-French dictionaries and even an Iroquois catechism. Bishop Laval she held in high regard. But when Laval approved a new constitution for the Ursulines (written largely by the Jesuit missionary Père Lalemont), Marie refused to accept the parts she did not like (L'Incarnation, Selected Writing 28-29).

Marie de l'Incarnation was forty years old when she founded the Ursuline convent in New France in 1639. In 1648 Catherine de Saint-Augustine, aged sixteen, arrived from France to work at the Hôtel Dieu. (The Récollets had come in 1615, the Jesuits in 1625, and François de Montmorency-Laval would arrive as apostolic vicar in 1659.) For twenty years Catherine worked at various positions in the hospital, first as depository, then as senior Sister of Mercy, then as mistress of novices. In 1668 the community contemplated electing her mother superior of the Hôtel Dieu, but, Willa Cather's narrative notwithstanding, Catherine died before that responsibility was given to her. Thus, she did not choose Jeanne Franc Juschereau to succeed her as superior, nor did she, as Cather writes, train "her to that end" (Shadows 42). Mother Juschereau was just eighteen years old when Catherine de Saint-Augustine died. But it makes a good story to have the mystic Hospitalière from Normandy select the practical Canadienne to take her place. And Mother Juschereau was indeed superior when the fictional Auclair and Cécile called on her in 1697. (The occasion for their visit was a sprained ankle, also fictional as far as I can discover.)

It is from Mother Juschereau that Cécile learns about the marvels of Catherine de Saint-Augustine's life. And, as James Woodress has pointed out, it was from her considerable reading-from, among others, Francis Parkman, from Mother Juschereau's Histoire de I'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, and from the correspondence of Marie de l'Incarnation-that Cather drew her portrait of Mother Catherine as one who had "burned her life out in vigils, mortifications, visions, raptures, all the while carrying on a steady routine of manual labor and administrative work, observing the full discipline of her order" (Woodress 431; quotation from Cather, Shadows 42).

Marie had met Mother Catherine in 1650 when she stayed for three weeks at the Hôtel Dieu after fire destroyed the Ursuline convent. In August of 1663 she wrote a long journal-like letter to her son in France ("Mon très cher fils") about a violent earthquake, a "tremblement de terre," that had shaken Quebec some months before. Shortly before the earthquake, a Christianized Indian girl had heard a forceful voice say that in two days "la terre sera agitée, et qu'elle tremblera d'une manière qui étonnera tout le monde." Two days later, at the very time predicted, another person, "qui a de très grande communications avec Dieu," had suddenly known that the Divine Majesty was "extrêmement irritée" at the sins of the country. While this person had offered prayers to God and also prayed for the Jesuit martyrs of Japan on their feast day, she had had "un pressentiment ou . . . assurance infaillible" that God was about to punish Quebec. Immediately after that, and "un peu devant le tremblement arrivât," she had seen four furious and enraged demons, at the four corners of Quebec, shake the earth with great violence until God made them desist (L'Incarnation, Correspondance 687-88).[4]

When Marie's son subsequently inquired about the person who had had this vision of the demons, Marie replied that it was Mother Catherine de Saint-Augustine. She then appended the story of Barbe Halé (or Halay), who was "vexed" with demons by the malignity of certain magicians and sorcerers: while this girl was in the hospital, troubled continually by the demons, Catherine de Saint-Augustine guarded her day and night. It was extremely difficult for Catherine; only God and her confessor knew how enraged the demons were at her spiritual courage. They appeared to her in hideous forms and battled her outrageously, but Catherine was fortified in her "grand travail" by Père de Brébeuf, who appeared to her often and consoled her in her troubles (813). Finally, the demons and the magicians were vanquished by the intercession of this saintly man. After these victories, the Lord made Catherine signal favors, visiting her and caressing her "beaucoup."

There is no doubt that contemporary stories about Catherine de Saint-Augustine attracted attention. Responding to a request from the Jesuit Joseph-Antoine Poncet in Rome, Marie wrote (in 1670) that although he asked "mon sentiment" about Catherine, "je vous diray entre vous and moy que je ne suis pas trop sçavante en ses affaires." She knew that outwardly Catherine was what "une bonne religieuse doit être," charitable and efficient in her hospital work. She attributed the "étranges tentations et les persécutions atroces" that beset Catherine day and night for sixteen years to a persistent "maladie" and again referred to the manner in which Brébeuf helped her (886). There seems little doubt that Catherine de Saint-Augustine was in fragile health throughout much of her life and that she cast herself as a tormented victim suffering for the sins of the country. Emotionally conflicted, nourished by what later psychologies would term hysteria, she underwent extreme waves of self-loathing, alternately hating and loving the demons, desiring to be damned so that she could show her love of God even from the depths of hell. It is perilous theology.

Lest we think of Catherine de Saint-Augustine as unique in her visions and Marie de l'Incarnation as the street-smart doyenne of the nuns reporting on an eccentric friend, it is well to remember that Marie's early life was punctuated with mystical visions of marriage. L'Heureux's study of her mystical vocabulary finds a pattern in her prayer: her description of "her second Trinitarian vision" (in 1627) suggests an "impression amour-lumière." She speaks of a mystical marriage with the Divine Word as "her spouse"-and in one of her prayers petitions the Lord to "let me embrace you and die in your sacred arms" (156-57). Again, her mystical marriage with the Trinity is "a mutual possession" (165). Although there is some ambiguity in her language, she seems frequently to be enraptured by what L'Heureux terms "post-nuptial states of union" (176). Long before L'Heureux undertook his specialized study, Parkman reviewed Marie's desire for a mystical marriage and concluded that "here is a case for the psychologist as well as the theologian; and the 'holy widow,' as her biographers call her, becomes an example, and a lamentable one, of the tendency of the erotic principle to ally itself with high religious excitement" (2:177). Parkman did balance this individual portrait with lavish praise for the "self-abnegation" of the "hospital nuns of Quebec and Montreal." "Too busy for the morbidness of the cloister" (a typical Parkman judgment), they were models of that benign and tender charity of which the Roman Catholic Church offers so many examples. Nor should the Ursulines and the nuns of the Congregation be forgotten among those who, "in another field of labor, have toiled patiently according to their light" (4:356).

Cather read Parkman both carefully and critically. And she accounted for the courage and good humor of the Quebec nuns by transposing Parkman's general praise into her own idiom: "They were still in their accustomed place in the world of the mind (which for each of us is the only world), and [had] the same well-ordered universe about them. . . . In this safe, lovingly arranged and ordered universe . . . the drama of man went on at Quebec just as at home, and the Sisters played their accustomed part in it" (Shadows 97). Just as Cécile thinks of Quebec as "her town" and lives securely inside its familiar boundaries, the nuns (according to Cather) breathe an atmosphere of supernaturalism that allows them to domesticate the universe (61). We do not know all of the stories about Catherine de Saint-Augustine that Mother Juschereau relates to Cécile. And no one tells specific stories about Marie de l'Incarnation, despite the reputation for sanctity she has in the novel and despite her actual work with Indian languages. But as the evidence suggests, these are formidable and renowned women, part of the surrounding context of Shadows on the Rock. And we learn something of Cather's priorities in dealing with the material offered by Quebec from the fact that she would mute the impact of such volatile lives in composing her "series of pictures . . . left over from the past" ("On Shadows" 15). Which is to say that Cather eschews a readily available and highly dramatic matière in Shadows, that she transforms a lurid spirituality into an aspect of Cécile's sheltering landscape. Thus Cécile comes to think that the martyrdoms of the early church were not "half so wonderful and so terrible" as those of the Jesuit missionaries: "And could the devotion of Sainte Geneviève or Sainte Philomène be compared to that of Mother Catherine de Saint-Augustine or Mother Marie de l'Incarnation?" (Shadows 102).[5] In order for Cécile to remain blissfully central to the story, demons and mystical marriages must give way to devotion, an omnibus term that distances reality, just as (in a secular mode) Auclair's reading of Plutarch's Lives to his daughter distances the idea of honor, locates it not in Quebec, not in France, but in Rome, where it assumes classical and undisturbing form.

When Mother Juschereau says that Cécile must know all of the stories about Catherine de Saint-Augustine, the apothecary's daughter replies that "there is no end" to those stories, and the Mother Superior agrees (37). Cécile does hear two stories: the homiletic tale of Catherine having Masses said for the sinner Marie, who died an outcast in a cave in France, and the much-told story of the conversion of an English sailor (a French Huguenot in the original sources) when Catherine ground up some powder from Brébeuf's skull and added it to his gruel. Cather measures the quality of Cécile's, and Mother Juschereau's, credulity in this case by having Euclide Auclair cast doubt on the so-called "miracle" (125-27). When M. Auclair listens in polite silence to her later story of angels repairing Jeanne Le Ber's spinning wheel, Cécile begins "to feel that his appreciation or miracles was not at all what it should be" (129).

As Merrill Skaggs has observed, an aura of the miraculous pervades Shadows on the Rock, echoing the commemorative rituals of miracle plays from centuries before (Skaggs 134-36). Just as the Puritans in seventeenth-century Massachusetts attributed their destinies to Divine Providence, so the citizens of Quebec, with a vibrant iconographic faith, saw heavenly intervention in the fortunes of New France. In 1690, after the town had survived the attack of Sir William Phips's fleet and driven off his forces, the church in Lower Town was renamed Notre Dame de la Victoire "in recognition of the protection which Our Lady had afforded Quebec in that hour of danger" (Shadows 64). According to Cather, a banner of the Virgin "had stood untouched" throughout the bombardment, "though every heretic gun was aimed at it" (95). Parkman supplies a somewhat different version of the action (and a wry gloss on miracles) when he writes that a picture of the Holy Family had been attached to the spire of the cathedral in Upper Town to invoke Divine aid. "The Puritan gunners wasted their ammunition in vain attempts to knock it down. That it escaped their malice was ascribed to miracle, but the miracle would have been greater if they had hit it" (5:274).

As a true daughter of Quebec and its unalloyed faith, Cécile stands apart from any skepticism about miracles. For her, "all the miracles that had happened there . . . took on the splendour of legend" (Shadows 95). It is thus with a sense of "joy" that she hears the story of angels repairing Jeanne Le Ber's spinning wheel. And that story, we learn, "was told and re-told with loving exaggeration during that severe winter," even in the remote parishes. "Wherever it went, it brought pleasure, as if the recluse herself had sent to all those families whom she did not know some living beauty,-a blooming rose-tree, or a shapely fruit-tree in fruit. Indeed, she sent them an incomparable gift" (136-37).

Not only is Cécile entranced by this story but it has the support of the selfless Bishop Laval when he asks Pierre about the health of "the aged nun Marguerite Bourgeoys" (another historical figure) and "Mlle Le Ber" and then adds that "all the sinners of Ville Marie [Montreal] may yet be saved by the prayers of that devoted girl" (175). Yet this same Jeanne Le Ber separates herself-in life as in the novel-from a loving family, imposes on herself vows of chastity and silence, and immures herself in her own room in her parent's house. After a passage of years, Cather writes, Jeanne's mother died: "On her death-bed she sent one of the household to her daughter's door, begging her to come and give her the kiss of farewell. 'Tell her that I am praying for her, night and day,' was the answer" (133).

Cather adds no comment to this bit of dialogue. And none of the characters comments on the apparently well-known incident. Only Pierre Charron, with his personal involvement, has anything but admiration for Jeanne Le Ber. In addition to Pierre's account of two meetings with the recluse, the second a haunting portrait of spiritual aridity, Pierre once says to Euclide Auclair (out of Cécile's hearing), "If the venerable Bourgeoys had not got hold of that girl in her childhood and overstrained her with fasts and penances, she would be a happy mother today, not sleeping in a stone cell like a prisoner" (177).[6] Although it seems tinctured by Pierre's sense of loss, this is the only explicit criticism of extreme asceticism in the novel.

How are we to take this refusal to go to a dying mother's bedside in the face of her explicit request? How are we, for that matter, to regard a mother who steels her heart against the tears of her young son as she enters a cloistered convent? The conduct of Jeanne Le Ber and Marie de l'Incarnation certainly follows from the desire for total consecration that Irene Mahoney sees as characteristic of seventeenth-century Bérullian spirituality. Yet there is a provocative difference between the two women's actions. Whereas Marie entered the Ursuline convent in Tours with the approval of her spiritual adviser, Dom Raymond of the Feuillant Fathers, Jeanne disregarded all counsel in adopting the life of a recluse: "Even her spiritual directors, and that noble soldier-priest Dollier de Casson, Superior of the Sulpician Seminary, advised her against taking a step so irrevocable" (132). Moreover, despite the extraordinary qualities that set her apart, Marie entered a community that welcomed and supported her. Jeanne, on the other hand, remained solitary in her life of renunciation. Her actions express a preference for individuality over community, for singularity over tradition-an oxymoronic but powerful combination of Bérullian and Thoreauvian asceticism.

It is interesting to note in Shadows that Cécile's favorite teacher at the Ursuline convent school was Sister Anne de Sainte-Rose, so minor a character that she does not actually appear in the novel. Whether Cather found Sister Anne ready-made or invented her in whole or in part, I do not know. But the portrait she supplies offers a reprise-patently nonsequential, conspicuously surprising-on the lives of Marie de l'Incarnation and Jeanne Le Ber. Sister Anne, we read, was "a niece of the Bishop of Tours, [who] had been happily married, and had led a brilliant life in the great world. Only after the death of her young husband and infant son had she become a religious. She had charm and wit and the remains of great beauty-everything that would appeal to a little girl brought up on a rude frontier" (60-61). The similarities and the differences between the experiences of Sister Anne and of Marie and Jeanne are manifest. Sister Anne is a mélange of what is most human in the other two women. Marie and Jeanne inspire awe, but Sister Anne is Cécile's favorite.

Whether Cather realized it or not, the implacable spirituality of Marie de l'Incarnation and Jeanne Le Ber was a shaping part of what she calls "the curious endurance of a kind of culture" in Quebec ("On Shadows" 15). When Bishop Laval washes the feet of young Jacques, we witness a spirituality born of humility in this prince of the Church, who has seen Christ in the person of a small boy. Washing Jacques's feet is an act of prayer. When Jeanne Le Ber chooses to help her mother by means of her own idea of prayer rather than by a prayerful accession to her mother's request, we witness a spirituality troubling in its uncompromising nature. The point is not that Jeanne refuses to spare a moment from her life of prayer to visit her dying mother but that Jeanne has such a single-minded and self-defined idea of prayer that she cannot conceive prayer in any form but that of her own making. And this suggests a disquieting fanaticism, ambivalent because it seems as prideful in its insistence on self as it seems heroic in its insistence on seeing all things in an eternal context.

Precisely how Cather feels about Jeanne Le Ber is difficult to say, but if we follow the old adage of trusting the tale we might make a tentative distinction between the popular consequences of Jeanne's actions and the actions themselves. The text of Shadows leaves no doubt that Jeanne's parents grieved at her self-imposed seclusion and that the story of angels fixing her spinning wheel brings "an incomparable gift" to many families in Quebec. To that passage Cather adds the following statement: "The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire. In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted assumes a form. From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another" (136-37). Strong language this-privileged, impossible to confute. It conveys a profound appreciation of the effect of miracles, evoked and validated by the story of this recent one. Jeanne Le Ber brings beauty to the lives of "the people." In doing so, however, the woman who desired "the absolute solitariness of the hermit's life" ironically becomes, and not for the first time, the talk of Quebec (132). And since all available evidence points to Jeanne as the source of the wondrous story, the adamant recluse must be seen as the creator of her own legend. Granting the depth of her spiritual commitment to suffer for the sins of Canada, Jeanne Le Bar may be the most reflexive figure in American literature since Arthur Dimmesdale.

Because she serves as a character in a novel that prizes family, Jeanne functions as what Susan A. Hallgarth calls an antitype of Cécile; the narrative danger is that her unrelenting force might make an admiring Cécile pallid by comparison. In a take that takes note of the Canadianization of Quebec, however, Jeanne carries the burdens of the old days, Cécile the promise of the new (though offstage with her four sons in the epilogue). Presenting the heiress turned recluse as someone who might have married the fictitious Pierre, moreover, gives added credence to an already engaging coureur de bois-to Pierre's final story about an unhappy Jeanne with despair in her voice and, crucially, to his dual emphasis on family and religion. "It was clear enough," Cather writes, that for Pierre "the family was the first and final thing in the human lot," the family "engrafted with religion" (174). Pierre becomes the rock his name signifies.

Only when Frontenac dies, and with him the security of the world she knew, is Cécile threatened in her own town and in her own home. At that point it is she who would like to become reclusive, to disappear into a hole, to evade what she has always recognized as responsibility. With a welcome greeting from the Auclairs (and from the reader as well), Pierre not only restores her sense of stability but brings an energetic competence to the family he will join. Susan Rosowski is right to puzzle over the things Cécile "has no comprehension of or curiosity about" (188). One can explain that lack of curiosity, of course, but only by saying, again, that Shadows on the Rock is a novel of refuge rather than a novel of engagement. The anomaly is that Cather locates her place of refuge in the eye of a mystical hurricane. For the lives of such figures as Marie de l'Incarnation, Catherine de Saint-Augustine, and Jeanne Le Ber contain high and ambivalent drama inimical to stability and order. And thus the necessity of Cécile, ingenuous, trusting, nourished by things of the home, while wilder winds than she would ever know emanate from the Ursuline convent, from the Hôtel Dieu, and from Montreal. For better or worse, Cécile blends the sensational into the sheltering landscape of this novel. For better or worse, Cécile, in conjunction with her scholarly father, offers a way of orchestrating a "text" that Cather saw as "mainly anacoluthon."


 1. Stouck calls attention to "the seasonal structure" of Shadows (156). (Go back.)
 2. On the need for order in Shadows see Murphy 37-38. (Go back.)
 3. Scholarship on Shadows has tended not to explore sources, frequently accepting as "history" what comes from Cather the novelist or going to Parkman as the ultimate authority. Parkman, of course, was an excellent historian, but the material on which he drew sometimes deserves a fresh appraisal. (Go back.)
 4. According to Guy Oury, Marie had a knowledge of the "journal in-time de Catherine de Saint-Augustine" (L'Incarnation, Correspondance 701). A number of details in Marie's account of the great earthquake of 1663 came from Catherine's journal. (Go back.)
 5. As the legendary protector of Paris, Saint Geneviève is a particularly appropriate heroine for citizens of Quebec. That Cécile comes to think more highly of Marie de l'Incamation and Catherine de Saint-Augustine is a sign of her increasing loyalty to Canada. Similarly, in Death Comes for the Archbishop Latour comes to think of the Spanish missionaries as more heroic than the martyrs of the early Church. (Go back.)
 6. Cather may have adjusted the facts in order to show Pierre's resentment over the loss of Jeanne Le Ber. Marguerite Bourgeoys is not likely to have encouraged Jeanne to undertake an austere, reclusive way of life, for this nun, who died in 1700 at the age of eighty and was beatified by Pope Pius XII in 1950, founded an active and socially committed religious community-the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame-whose members worked assiduously to assist the poor and to care for those who were ill. Indeed, "the Sisters of the Congregation" had taken care of Pierre's mother during her illness while Pierre was at the Straits of Mackinac (Shadows 170). (Go back.)


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——. Shadows on the Rock. New York: Knopf, 1931.
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