“The trouble with this whole country is that it’s divided up into little puddles with big fish in each one of them. I tell you something. Ten years ago I went across the whole of Canada. I saw a lot of things. This country is so new that you see it for the first time, all of it, and particularly the west, you feel like Columbus and you say to yourself, ‘My God, is all this ours!’ Then you make the trip back. You come across Ontario and you encounter the mind of the maiden aunt. You see the Methodists in Toronto and the Presbyterians in the best streets of Montreal and the Catholics all over Quebec, and nobody understands one damn thing except that he’s better than everyone else. The French are Frencher than France and the English are more British than England ever dared to be. And then you go to Ottawa and you see the Prime Minister with his ear on the ground and his backside hoisted in the air. And, Captain Yardley, you say God damn it!”
The speaker is Athanese Tallard and he represents the secular French side of the challenge. His family has resided for more than a century in St. Marc-des-Érables, an agrarian community some miles down the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. As the largest landowner, Athanese is effectively the “seigneur” of the settlement, the secular influence who offsets the power of the local Catholic priest. The words are spoken in 1917, shortly after the federal government imposed conscription on Quebec and began drafting French youths into the armed forces. As the area’s MP in Ottawa (a Tallard family member has been the MP for as long as anyone can remember), Athanese now finds life even more solitary — he supports the “Anglo” policy that is denounced by a large majority of his fellow Quebecois for sending their youth off to die in a foreign war.
Captain Yardley represents the Anglo solitude. A seagoing captain from Nova Scotia, his wife wanted the family to be as English as possible. Yardley is now a widower and, in retirement, has made a decision from his side of the solitude barrier that, like Athanese, isolates him even more — he has bought a farming property in St. Marc, something that “the English” just don’t do.
In a brief, apologetic foreward, MacLennan has already supplied a somewhat less vernacular description of the underlying conflict that he is trying to describe:
Because this is a story, I dislike having to burden it with a foreword, but something of the kind is necessary, for it is a novel of Canada. This means that its scene is laid in a nation with two official languages, English and French. It means that some of the characters in the book are presumed to speak only English, others only French, while many are bilingual.
No single word exists, within Canada itself, to designate with satisfaction to both races a native of the country. When those of the French language use the word Canadien, they nearly always refer to themselves. They know their English-speaking compatriots as les Anglais. English-speaking citizens act on the same principle. They call themselves Canadians; those of the French language French-Canadians.
Athanese and Yardley may find themselves on a very shaky bridge between the two solitudes (they take an immediate liking to each other), but MacLennan uses the opening scene of the novel to introduce examples of much more hard-line positions.
Yardley is accompanied on his first visit to the property by Huntly McQueen “whose name was well known in the financial circles of Montreal”. He knows Athanese from meetings in Ottawa and has offered to introduce Yardley to him (since no land purchase in St. Marc can be made without Athanese’s approval), but the wealthy Anglo industrialist has a bigger fish to fry. A tributary flowing into the St. Lawrence at St. Marc has a cataract of significant height — McQueen wants to put a power station on it to fuel a textile factory that will bring industry to the community (and many dollars into McQueen’s pocket).
For Father Beaubien, the local Catholic priest who holds almost as much, perhaps even more, power as Tallard in the settlement that is something that simply cannot come to pass. It is easy for him to exert authority over farmers and their workers — factory men are much more likely to forego participation in the Church for secular pursuits and the influence of the priest shrinks accordingly.
While MacLennan uses those four characters to illustrate the conflict of the two solitudes in the 1917-18 period, its continuation in the post Great War era is developed through the stories of the offspring of Athanese and Yardley.
The seigneur has two sons, by two different mothers. Marius’ mother was French, bore Athanese a son and then retreated into isolated religious contemplation before her early death. He remarried an Irish woman, much younger than himself, who gave birth to Paul. As Marius approaches maturity (he is conscripted and flees from the draft in the 1917-18 section), he becomes even more radical a nationalist, to the point where he refuses to acknowledge he can understand English. As a child of mixed Anglo and French blood, Paul finds himself from the start in the same no-man’s land between the two cultures as his father — but in his case, it is a product of birth not choice.
Yardley’s two granddaughters are the English side of that coin. His daughter, Janet, married into a wealthy Montreal Anglo family. Her eldest daughter is truly more English than the English, married to a Brit industrialist. The younger, Heather, finds herself in much the same uncertain world that Paul does — not really comfortable in either of the cultures.
The timeline in Two Solitudes extends to 1939 and the latter portions of the book focus on the story of Paul and Heather. Having said that, Paul is very much his father’s son and Heather her grandfather’s granddaughter — the way the author develops the two characters provides ample proof of how the conflict he is portraying finds itself extended into future generations.
It is also well worth noting that the French-English solitudes are not the only ones that MacLennan develops in the book. The period between the wars was one of rural-urban conflict as well (that troublesome textile mill in St. Marc, the forces of economic power in Depression-era Montreal) — one that is a troubling reality for the younger characters in the book. Economic development (and the Depression of the 1930s) also brought the “solitudes” of the two sexes into play — the roles that men and women comfortably fell into before the Great War just don’t work in post-War times and become even more confusing as World War II approaches.
Finally, it is worth noting that the story of this novel itself stands as an illustration of Canada’s two solitudes. MacLennan was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and went on to Princeton, trained in true English tradition as a classicist. His first two novels, set in Europe and the U.S., failed to find a publisher.
His wife convinced him that he should write about Canada, the country and culture (well, conflicting cultures) that he knew best. While there certainly had been novels set in Canada before, they weren’t really “Canadian” — they were books written about a frontier world by Englishmen. MacLennan’s first novel, Barometer Rising, the story of the 1917 Halifax Explosion published in 1941, is arguably the first-ever “Canadian novel” — Two Solitudes won the first of five Governor-General’s Awards for MacLennan, establishing him as the father of modern Canadian fiction.
When I first read this novel more than 40 years ago as a youth, I was impressed with the way it described a crucial period of Canadian history. This time around, I was more broadly impressed, not just with the history, but even more so with the way that MacLennan captures the pressures of the two solitudes on succeeding generations — first with Athanese and Yardley and even more powerfully with Paul and Heather. Having lived as an adult through half a century of ongoing French-English tensions in Canada, I can say with certainty it portrays conflicts which continue to this day. (And yes the current Quebec government’s proposed Charter of Values brings “Allophones” fully into the fray.)
I read Barometer Rising immediately after reading Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and that scheduling undoubtedly had an impact on my response to the novel. While Boyden portrays the aboriginal conflict and arrival of European forces, MacLennan’s book from half a century earlier explores the tensions between the “two founding nations” who eventually seized control. Anyone who seeks an understanding of what produced the Canada of today would be well-advised to invest the time in reading both novels.