I was excited and a bit apprehensive about reading this one, my last unread Cather novel. A tale of a young girl and her father, an apothecary, set in Quebec City? In 1697? What would Cather have to say about their relationship? This time period? Why Quebec?
Cather wrote this novel after the death of her own father. I know it’s risky business to read biographical detail into a novel, but Cather’s feelings of love and respect for her own father do seem to be infused in Shadows on the Rock.
The deep and pure religious feelings of the daughter, Cecile and her young friend Jacques, seem almost a continuation, in some ways, of Death Comes for the Archbishop, even if this is an earlier time period and a radically different landscape. In a visit to Quebec City in 1928 Cather met Abbe Henri Arthur Scott, a scholar of Canadian ecclesiastical history, who obviously captured her imagination. Like some of Cather’s other novels, Shadows is also the story of the creation of a new country, one that is also historically accurate in its dismissiveness of the native cultures already in place.
I’ve read novels and nonfiction accounts about how the early colonists in the New World felt alone and disconnected after the ships returned back to their home ports, but Cather creates a sense of how it must have felt to watch the sails of the last ship slip over the horizon. She made me feel how one’s throat may have constricted with emotion at that sight, how belts were tightened over the long Canadian winters, and with what utter excitement the returning ships were greeted in the spring.
And one thing I never imagined was the heart wrenching reality of what it would be like for the last ship in the fall to deliver a letter from one’s family that brought news of a loved one’s serious illness and how you’d be left to worry about them over the long winter, not knowing until the spring whether or not they recovered or died. Big news could have been sent to the government on ships headed to New York and then over land by messenger further north, but for the average person there would be no news of home for months, until it came on the ships of spring.
One of my favorite scenes is when Cecile returns from her first visit away from her father and the comforts of home. After seeing how others lived with no care of their bodies, bedding, or the food they ate, Cecile is grateful to be home and has a profound realization:
As she began handling her own things again, it all seemed a little different,–as if she had grown at least two years older in the two nights she had been away. She did not feel like a little girl, doing what she had been taught to do. She was accustomed to think that she did all these things so carefully to please her father, and to carry out her mother’s wishes. Now she realized that she did them for herself, quite as much. . . . These coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes, were 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 flavor, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life (159-60).
This scene says so much about Cecile’s character and about how old traditions and ways of doing things are maintained and sometimes even thrive in new places. It reveals so much about what the French feel about life and what gives life meaning, or at least how Cather saw it.
Things I’ve Been Pondering
This fall I’m taking a seminar at the Newberry Library on the history of library architecture. We’ve been talking and reading about how scrolls, manuscripts, and books were used and stored prior to the advent of libraries and bookshelves as we know them today. We just finished up discussing early monastic and university libraries up to the late 1500s, a hundred years or so from the time period of Shadows. Because of this seminar I was sensitive to the subject and my attention was alerted early on in the novel when a library was mentioned.
I don’t know how historically accurate Cather was in depicting how early Quebecois stored their books, but the detail she adds gives the story a nice historic flavor. The first time a library is mentioned Cecile and her father, Euclide Auclair, are taking their evening walk through town and see that,
“The rock-top, blocked off in dark masses that were convents and churches and gardens, was now sunk in sleep. The only lighted windows to be seen were in the Chateau, in the Bishop’s Palace, and on the top floor of old Bishop Laval’s Seminary, out there on its spur overhanging the river. That top floor, the apothecary told his daughter, was the library, and likely enough some young Canadian-born Seminarians to whom Latin came hard were struggling with the Church Fathers up there” (17-18).
What a beautiful image. Not only the light of learning burning on top of the hill, but of young men struggling with Latin, as well as ideas. After this I couldn’t help but notice the subsequent references to books and libraries.
The next mention of a library is just a few pages after this, when it is said that Euclide, as a younger man, had,
“gone deep into the history of medicine in such old Latin books as were stuffed away in the libraries of Paris. He looked back to the time of Ambroise Pare, and still further back to the thirteenth century, as golden ages in medicine,–and he considered Fagon, the King’s physician, a bigoted and heartless quack” (24).
Such is the importance of libraries and the knowledge they hold within. Because of his studies and sense of history, Euclide “was not afraid of new ideas,–or of old ideas that had gone out of fashion because surgeons and doctors were too stupid to see their value” (23). These new doctors not only forget or debase old remedies, they embrace trendy, sometimes risky new ideas such as bleeding patients, which Euclide thinks is questionable. At least his remedies do no harm.
Euclide’s philosophy is challenged later by the new Bishop, Saint-Vallier. I enjoyed the exchange below between the two men:
“You are very advanced in your theories of medicine, are you not, Monsieur Auclair?”
“On the contrary, I am very old-fashioned. I think the methods of the last century better than those of the present time.”
“Then you do not believe in progress?”
“Change is not always progress, Monseigneur.” (96-97).
This short exchange speaks volumes about each man. Bishop Vallier didn’t take the time to observe how things were done in his new surroundings and see what was working and what could benefit from change. He didn’t stop to see the needs of the people or the flow of settlements, but rather simply insisted on imposing an old order that was not appropriate to the new conditions. He even goes so far as to remove books from the Seminary to “enrich his new Palace” (98).
But Euclide is not opposed to things just because they are new. Back in Paris he was often called to the Count’s personal library where the two men would sit and talk of New France. Euclide comes to see Quebec as a vast and free place, a possible refuge (25).
There are two other scenes when a personal “library” or book collection appear in Shadows. Specifically, book cabinets are mentioned. Prior to bookshelves, books were often kept in cabinets called presses or armariums.
|Example of an early press, or book cabinet.|
The first mention of a book cabinet is when Father Hector visits. Euclide has been holding his books and asks what he’d like done with them should he return to France before Hector returns again to Quebec:
“Auclair opened a cabinet and pointed to a row of volumes bound in vellum. Father Hector’s eyes brightened and he looked at them, but he shook his head.
“No, I shall not take them this time. If you go away, give them to Monseigneur l’ Ancien to keep for me. If they could be eaten, or worn on the back, he would give them to the poor, certainly. But Greek and Latin texts will be safe with him” (124).
Euclide’s safe keeping says much about the importance of the books and the trust between the two men. Hector’s comments are also revealing of Ancien’s priorities as well.
The second mention of a book cabinet is when Euclide returns home after having removed the Count’s heart after he dies so that it may be sent home to France and buried next to his sister. Euclide carries the heart within a rudely soldered lead box and put is it “in the cabinet where he kept his medical books” (211). Placing a cherished friend and protector’s heart where he keeps his books implies the great importance these books have in his life. He honors both his friend and his books by placing them together. This cabinet may be the closest thing to a sacred space in Euclide’s home at this time.
Both instances of book cabinets signify the time period and conditions. They also convey the importance of books to the owners and the value placed on books within certain segments of society at the time. These books were not kept lying around, nor did Euclide have just one or two books. He had enough books for a special cabinet.
Cather always includes accurate details that reflect the landscape, location, and time period about which she writes. This time I’ve noticed them so strongly thanks to the happy coincidence of the seminar I’m taking. These brief mentions of books and libraries show the reader rather than tell us what’s important to Euclide and how and why he thinks the way he does (and I didn’t even get into his teaching Cecile Latin). They also helped set the tone of the novel and provide information about the importance of books and knowledge in the new country.
Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think of Shadows on the Rock? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book, even if it’s just a sentence. Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.
If you’re interested in reading a contemporary novel set in Quebec, I highly recommend Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead (and the rest of her wonderful mystery series as well). If you’re interested in early libraries, check out The Care of Books by John Willis Clark.
Categories: Willa Cather