Novelist Willa Cather visited Quebec City for the first time in 1928, passing through on the way to her summer home on Grand Manan Island. When her companion, Edith Lewis, came down with the flu, their overnight stay stretched to two weeks. While Lewis recuperated, Cather roamed the steep stone streets of the old city, admiring the Norman architecture of houses, shops, churches, and convents and reading local history in the library of the Hotel Frontenac. When Lewis was recovered, and they left the city, Cather was already planning her Quebec novel, Shadows on the Rock. Published in 1931, and awarded the French Prix Femina, the book is set in 1699 and populated with such historical personages as Count Frontenac and Jeanne le Ber, the hermit nun of Montreal. At its center is “an orderly little French household,” where a young daughter keeps house for her apothecary father. The father longs to return to Paris, but his daughter Cecile is becoming an ardent Canadienne. Cather wrote, “really, a new society begins with the salad dressing more than with the destruction of Indian villages. Those people brought a kind of French culture there and somehow kept it alive on that rock, sheltered it and tended it and on occasion died for it, as if it really were a sacred fire.”
Shadows on the Rock traces a year in the ritualized life of Quebec City, at the borders of a great river and a great inland wilderness. In 2008, as Quebec City observed its 400th anniversary, the Anglophone community in this Francophone province celebrated its history with a colloquium devoted to Cather’s Quebec novel. Four American Cather scholars presented talks and joined in lively discussions and readings in English and French, as well as a walking tour of Cather’s Quebec. John Murphy of Brigham Young University spoke about “Cather’s ‘French stronghold’ and ‘goal of . . . fantastic dreams;’”; Robert Thacker of St. Lawrence University discussed “Frontenac’s Smile: Shadows on the Rock and the Beginnings of Quebecois Culture.” Guy Reynolds of the University of Nebraska spoke about “Permanence and Transmission: Cather’s Cultures,” and my topic was “A Girl’s City, a Girl’s Vocation: Cecile’s and Cather’s Quebec.” My talk explored the ways in which Cather included the often enclosed and confined lives of girls and women in the frontier intensity of early Quebec life, and I used a recently discovered unpublished manuscript chapter of Shadows on the Rock to show how the immigrant girl Cecile’s love of her new town became a passionate vocation, not unlike Willa Cather’s own powerful commitment to place, demonstrated throughout her fiction. Our talks led to nearly two hours of intense and lively discussion, and we American scholars learned much about how Cather’s novel resonates for present-day Quebecois readers.
It was a stimulating day for all of us, and an apt celebration of the enduring stone city that captured Willa Cather’s imagination in 1928. My thanks to the English Department for supporting my participation in this colloquium. And one bit of advice: if you are planning a trip to Quebec City, be sure to take along a copy of Shadows on the Rock!
— Ann Romines
The four talks and walking tour from the Quebec City colloquium will be featured on the Willa Cather Foundation website, www.willacather.org.