The First Garden is not a book I would have chosen to appear on a list of essential reading.
There. I’ve said it. It’s not a bad book – it’s a very good book, as it happens. It’s just that Kamouraska is a better book and if you’re going to pick just one of Anne Hébert’s novels why wouldn’t you pick it? It would make sense. That was the novel that earned her France’s Prix des Libraires and the Royal Belgian Academy’s prize. It was made into a film by Claude Jutra using a screenplay on which she collaborated, and it established her as an international literary star.
It seems almost perverse to choose The First Garden, a rather slight (150 pages) novel Hébert wrote later in life about an aging Parisian actress who returns to Quebec to take part in a stage production of Beckett’s Happy Days. Does this sound as engaging as the story of a beautiful, impulsive woman who conspires with her lover to murder her husband? I thought not. As I said – perverse.
Checking out the contributors’ bios at the beginning of the book of lists, I found this: AB is “a former economist…and is completing a DPhil on Samuel Beckett…at the University of Sussex”. Aha! Well, that explains it. If the professor had been pursuing his doctorate in something else – violence against women, perhaps, or dangerous passions in 19th century Quebec – Kamouraska might have indeed made the list.
But it didn’t. So, back to The First Garden.
Flora Fontanges, the actress, abandoned Quebec 20 years ago for a larger stage. She has been successful, achieving fame and financial security in France, as well as giving birth to a daughter, Maude. Things have not gone well between her and her daughter; the young girl has run away several times and now it appears she’s gone missing from a commune in Quebec City. An offer to return to Canada to play Winnie in Happy Days is an opportunity as well to try to find her daughter. And, perhaps, mend fences.
While waiting for rehearsals to begin, Flora forms a platonic attachment to the young man who’s been living with her daughter. Together, she and Raphaël explore the city, searching for Maude, and summoning women from the past and giving them new life, if only momentarily. They begin with Barbe Abbadie, a woman who must have done something important as she has a street named after her. A 17th century merchant’s wife, they decide, “gripped by fear and respect”, who dies giving birth at the age of thirty. Then there’s Marie Rollet, the first European woman to settle in New France – “the mother of the country”. And little Renée Chauvreux, found dead in the snow on the fourth of January, 1670.
Renée was one of the King’s daughters – the young women who were transported to New France under the sponsorship of Louis XIV. Determined to honour them, Flora and Raphaël stand on the pier at Anse-au-Foulon and recite their names, like saying the rosary. Unfortunately, while doing so, Hébert perpetuates an old rumour about the filles du roi. New France had a bad reputation among French peasant women, she writes. And so the king turned to the Salpêtrière, a hospice for the poor of Paris and a prison for prostitutes:
“In the absence of peasant women, they must now be content with these persons of no account who have come from Paris, with a dowry from the King of fifty livres per head. …these filles du roi, fresh and young and without a past, purified by the sea during a long rough crossing on a sailing ship.”
In fact, there’s never been any proof that any of the King’s daughters were prostitutes. They were poor, for the most part, and many had been abandoned and had no future in France. They married and produced children and only one, according to the record, turned to prostitution in her new homeland, after being abandoned by her husband.
Increasingly, Flora is haunted by dreams and daydreams, a blend of real and imagined events. Old images of her childhood assail her. Against her will she finds herself back in the apartment on rue Bourlamaque, the home of her adoptive parents. M. and Mme Eventurel take her in after a fire at the Hospice Saint-Louis burned 36 other young girls. Rosa Gaudrault, a young maid – the only one to show love for the child – dies in that fire, risking her life to go back into the burning building and rescue as many children as she could. The Eventurels rename the child and raise her to conform to their idea of a model daughter, suited to their highly stratified society. But she rebels. Her vocation, she believes, is to be an actress. There is salvation in words – she can recreate herself with her gift of speech, of drama:
“Her deepest desire was to live in some other place than within herself, for just a minute, one brief minute, to see what it is like in a head other than her own, another body, to be incarnated anew, to know what it is like in some other place, to know new sorrows, new joys, to try on a different skin from her own, the way one tries on gloves in a store, to stop gnawing on the one bone of her actual life and feed on strange, disorienting substances. To shatter into ten, a hundred, a thousand indestructible fragments; to be ten, a hundred, a thousand new and indestructible persons. To go from one to the other, not lightly as one changes dresses, but to inhabit profoundly another being with all the knowledge, the compassion, the sense of rootedness, the efforts to adapt, and the strange and fearsome mystery that would entail.”
Over the years Flora has lived in many different skins: Ophelia, Miss Julie, Hedda Gabbler, Mary Tudor, Phaedra. And now she’ll inhabit Winnie, who’s determined to remain hopeful while buried first to her waist, and then her neck, in the detritus of her life. Preparing for this role, Flora is haunted by her own past and that of all those women who tried to conform … and were so often punished if they did not:
“And thus has Flora Fontanges in the past approached Ophelia, downstream among the drifting flowers, asking the same tormenting question of Ophelia as of Renée Chauvreux, about the bitter destiny of girls. Why?”
Why, indeed? There are no answers to be found. We never find out why Maude is always running away. We never learn why Flora was abandoned as a child, although we can guess. And we never get more than a brief, one-dimensional outline of any of those women summoned from the past.
As for Flora, she, like Winnie, goes back to doing what she knows best. She goes back into exile, returning to Paris with a letter in her bag offering her the part of Mme Frola in the Pirandello drama, Right You Are.
It’s a good read, as I said, but if you’re only going to read one book by Anne Hébert make it Kamouraska. I promise not to tell the professor.