Fictionalized history: representation and identity in Jan Henry Morgan’s A Chronicle of Lower Canada

It speaks to the enduring interest in the 1837 rebellion in Lower Canada that four essays in this collection engage with aspects of the larger context of this formative moment in the evolution of the colony’s history and, in so doing, contribute to the continuing discourse in contemporary Quebec on the relationship of the past to the present, the role of memory in shaping politics and popular culture, the nature of national identity, and various modes of national affiliation. However, whereas the contributions by my colleagues are conducted within the conventions of their respective disciplines, in this essay I wish to respond to a very different intervention in the identity debates taking place in Quebec in recent years.


Beginning in 1992 with Welcome Niall O’Donell, Emigrant! and followed successively in 1993 and 1996 with A Dangerous Direction, and A Damned Rebellion!, Jan Morgan’s three-volume A Chronicle of Lower Canada is a deeply personal and highly idiosyncratic revisiting of the events surrounding the 1837 rebellion. The degree to which the past in Quebec is a contested arena feeding into and informing contemporary versions of identity is underlined by the study referenced by Louis-Georges Harvey in his essay in this collection, which asked anglophone and francophone Québecois to construct a historical narrative of their separate communities and to identify key moments which help to define their identity. The quite distinct responses confirm how each community sees different historical events shaping their identity as Quebecers, and underscore the fractured and competing understandings of national affiliation that can co-exist. Other essays dealing with Quebec in this collection explicitly or implicitly make evident that all constructions of identity are susceptible to evolving political and cultural manifestations. For example, Erin Hurley analyses recent theatrical productions to explore how specific performances of identity can be read as an expression of the current moment.

In quite distinct ways, then, the essays dealing with the larger context of the 1837 rebellion – by Maurice Bric, Louis-Georges Harvey and Jean-Philippe Warren – each demonstrate how a wider understanding of specific historical forces can shed light on this formative moment in Quebec’s past. All three of these scholars interrogate history from a perspective informed by current historiographical practices or newly available archival sources. However, while the theoretical perspectives and methodological engagements of historians may evolve, and even co-opt those of other disciplines, the bedrock of their work remains the empirical evidence derived from archival sources, whether textual or material. Thus, for example, Louis-Georges Harvey draws on the current discourses on media circulations of empire to reconsider the events surrounding the 1837 rebellion, especially the comparative resonances with the conditions of Ireland as British colony, insistently brought to the public’s attention by several prominent Irish immigrant journalists.

A very different mode of accessing the 1837 rebellion and representing it for contemporary audiences is attempted by Jan Morgan’s A Chronicle of Lower Canada. Its publication dates over several years in the 1990s are themselves significant, since the Parti Québecois (PQ), the nationalist party committed to achieving independence from Canada, was elected in 1994 and, in accordance with its constitution, held a referendum on the issue in 1995. During an earlier period in government, from 1976 to 1985, the PQ held a first referendum in 1980, losing the vote by 59.56 per cent to 40.44 per cent. Morgan’s A Chronicle was researched and written, therefore, in a period of intense public debate on Quebec’s future and the nature of Quebec identity. A measure of the divisiveness of this debate was the extremely close result of the 1995 referendum, when the proposal to pursue secession was narrowly defeated 50.56 per cent to 49.44 per cent.

For readers not familiar with the specifics of Quebec’s recent history, the debates of the 1990s were a continuation of the 1960s Quiet Revolution when the province awoke to, and rapidly began to connect with, sweeping international social changes in attitudes to religion, language, cultural identity and global capitalism. The widespread shedding of religious affiliation saw a proportionate rise in nationalist sentiment, expressed as a passionate commitment to language, culture and political autonomy. Yet, with the evolution of such forces, Quebec society did not necessarily reflect a simple polarity between those seeking outright independence and those supporting a renewed form of federalism. An instructive outcome from the 1995 referendum was that ‘Exit polls taken on the night of the referendum demonstrated that … Quebecers who endorsed sovereignty believed that, in the aftermath of a “yes” victory, voters would still use Canadian currency, hold Canadian passports, and send ministers to Ottawa.’ This complicated understanding of their political options indicated the degree to which conflicting identities co-existed in the minds of those willing to consider leaving Canada.

As a history teacher and educational bureaucrat with an abiding interest in the complexity of Quebec history, Jan Morgan makes clear that her attempt to present an account of the 1837 rebellion would be distinct and highly personal, and that she would deploy a textual vehicle that would communicate historical data derived from multiple archival sources but would also be informed by her personal experiences as a public servant in Quebec’s educational sector. In the three distinct comments under ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of each volume, she emphasizes that she has reproduced unchanged actual archival documents but has interwoven them with much fictional material. In doing so, Morgan moves beyond the practices of the professional historians who, in the words of Canadian historian J.M. Bumstead, may revise what earlier historians have written by discovering new facts, but nevertheless, ‘they are still limited to those facts that have been recorded in some way’. Eschewing the conventional approaches of the historian, then, or indeed the forms of the autobiographer, memoirist or essayist, Morgan has devised an alternative means of representing aspects of history for a contemporary audience. The three-volume A Chronicle of Lower Canada is, then, her ambitious attempt to retell the events surrounding the 1837 rebellion in a unique textual form.

To facilitate a discussion of A Chronicle of Lower Canada – its content, modes of representation and thematic thrust – a brief overview of its long narrative is necessary. Central to the structure is a fictional character, Niall O’Donell, an Irish orphan immigrant, who, aged 14, arrives in Quebec in 1828. To recount the long story of his life and his growing involvement in public affairs in his adopted home, Morgan creates several narrative frames which facilitate her presentation of much historical information, actual archival materials, and significant fictional elements. She deploys the literary conceit whereby a supposed descendent of Niall O’Donell, Eliza McCrae, writing from Arrow Lake, Quebec, in 1992, reveals how she discovered three locked trunks belonging to her ancestor which contained, untouched all these years, ‘Great-Grandfather’s journals, kept more or less regularly from 1830 to 1856!’ McCrae goes on to exclaim enthusiastically that ‘Underneath was an even more exciting find, foolscap tied together in large bundles, Great-Grandfather’s memoirs – A Chronicle of Lower Canada. The other two trunks were filled almost entirely with folders stuffed with letters and clippings and other memorabilia, some dating as far back as 1828.’ In Morgan’s text, the fictional Eliza McCrae co-ordinates the formal arrangement of these diverse materials, including Niall O’Donell’s journal and memoir, letters by various figures, excerpts from literary works, clippings from newspapers, and reprints of government publications, as she inserts, re-arranges and summarizes materials in a multi-dimensional textual collage.

Much of book one deals with the old Niall O’Donell looking back in 1895 on his life, beginning with his forced emigration from Ireland as a boy, the death of his sister on the voyage, and the fortuitous encounter on the ship with Mr John Neilson, editor of the Quebec Gazette, who took him into his care. Having spent his first year on a habitant farm learning French, he progressed to become a reporter for the Gazette, a perspective from which the rest of this volume unfolds. Continually shifting in focus from the old to the young Niall, the volume recounts many of the political events and debates in Lower Canada in the early 1830s, especially the increasing frustration of the members of the Assembly with British colonial rule, personified by the authoritarian governor of Lower Canada. Against this public backdrop, the narrative also touches on Niall’s youthful romantic involvements, as well as various items of social news such as the cholera outbreak of 1832.

The second volume, A Dangerous Direction, covers events in the colony from 1832 to 1834, and follows the moderate John Neilson who, recognizing the increasingly extreme position of les Patriotes, reluctantly breaks from the leadership of Louis-Joseph Papineau and reacts to the presentation of the famous ‘Ninety-Two Resolutions’ and the tumultuous election that followed. This volume continues to focus primarily on the older Niall reflecting upon his journal entries of those far-away years, in which his earlier self, the young political reporter, expresses a maturing political ideology, along with his personal thoughts as he makes friends and pursues several love interests.

The final volume, A Damned Rebellion!, opens with Niall’s complicated marriage to John Neilson’s daughter, Agnes, and brings his story – and that of Lower Canada – from January 1835 to the end of the first rebellion in December 1837. The structure of this volume changes significantly, as Eliza McCrae, writing more frequently in third person, filters the materials of Niall’s journal and memoir, provides bridges between his reflections with letters by others, and weaves in various forms of public documentation. This third volume provides detailed accounts of key battles of the rebellion, as Niall moves between opposing forces, before ending on a somewhat positive note with Niall about to move to Montreal and hoping to be reunited with his beloved Julie.

To respond to the range of suggestiveness encapsulated by this three-volume, almost fifteen-hundred-page text, the aim in this brief essay is to reveal some of its many modes of textualization and their role in conveying the thematic essence it offers to contemporary audiences. The challenge for such a work is how aspects of the past can be evoked and represented in textual form, so their suggested implications can become part of current identity debates in Quebec. How might the issues driving public discourse and the forces shaping national affiliation in contemporary Quebec be considered in their larger, more nuanced contexts, if multiple strands of the past could be rendered through distinct new forms of textual representation?

From the outset, A Chronicle of Lower Canada serves notice that it is not a work of historiography while also insisting it is not historical fiction. In the opening sentence of book one, Morgan’s ‘Author’s Note’ throws down the gauntlet, as it were, with regard to her project of textually capturing aspects of the past for a contemporary audience: A Chronicle of Lower Canada, she writes, ‘is fictionalized history rather than historical fiction’. The distinctions between these two forms of writing, as well as the difference between Morgan’s work and conventional history raise several theoretical issues that can facilitate an appreciation of the rhetorical and formal procedures of A Chronicle of Lower Canada. Frederic Jameson, in his famous essay ‘On magic realism in film’, drew attention to what he called the ‘enfeeblement of historicity’ and went on to speak of alternate modes of accessing and rendering the past, specifically the use of magic realism in film and, by implication, in literature. His argument became the forerunner of debates among historians and literary critics about the relationship between historiography and historical fiction, in which these two textual modes of rendering the past are often viewed as opposites. In this dichotomy, writing history is considered empirical and scientific, producing a supposedly objective account of the past because the discipline operates within an understood framework of cause and effect, of continuity and progression, and is based on the concrete evidence of material sources. In contrast, fiction, including historical fiction, is understood as an imaginative symbolic discourse, which bears a figurative, rather than a strictly mimetic relationship to reality, a formal textual construct, conscious of its own procedures and representative modes. Such fictional works glean and re-configure eclectic content into coherent textual form, fusing data drawn from historical documents or other archival sources with non-mimetic materials derived from imagination; its ultimate thrust is to arrange all textual elements so that they adhere to formal considerations dictated by narrative, thematic and aesthetic concerns.

However, this reductionist dichotomy between history and fiction has been challenged in recent years by poststructuralist theories of historical discourse which posit that the scientific rationalism of historiography is undermined by its subjective and fictionalizing qualities, its tendency to select and reject, its urge to shape and emphasize, and its impulse to trace a narrative thread governed by a contemporary understanding of past events. Indeed, Hayden White has argued in ‘The value of narrativity in the representation of reality’ that the principles and structures of narrative are the instrument through which historians make historical discourse accessible, the very means by which they provide textual representations of the past. Historians do this, White argues, ‘out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary’. This debate about the mimetic dimensions of historiography, about the overlap between it and fiction has then, at the least, challenged the putative dichotomies of these two forms of writing and paved the way for some historians and others to experiment textually in their attempt to represent the past in written form.

With this appreciation of some of the formal and rhetorical modes of representation available to render the past textually, Jan Morgan’s A Chronicle of Lower Canada presents itself as a unique literary evocation of the past. In her ‘Author’s Note’ Morgan suggests some of the diverse impulses behind her treatment of materials: “Almost all the characters in the book are historical. The major exceptions are Niall O’Donell and his family … The Paradis family are also fictional, as are the Martineaus … The major historical characters express their own views as I found them in their letters, writings, reported speeches in the Assembly, and, in the case of John and Samuel Neilson, in their newspaper. While I have tried to make my account as close to reality as I could, I have in fact fictionalized all the characters. With men like Mr Neilson and Mr Papineau, and with all those mentioned in the story but who have no fictional part, I have stayed as true to life as possible. With others, notably Philippe de Gaspé, Ovide Perrault, Léon Gosselin, and Sydney Bellingham, I have taken more liberties.”

A Chronicle initially appears to share some features of the historical novel in its rendering of history through the prisms of scholarship and imagination, in drawing on the framework of an historical narrative, in digesting and re-imagining its salient events and characters but, ultimately, it becomes something more than a mere clothing of essential historical events in fictive forms. Morgan emphasizes that her work is not historical fiction but rather ‘fictionalized history’, by which she means a text that blends imaginative elements with accurate archival materials not subjected to any fictionalizing impulse. Within the text, such unadorned and historically exact materials function in their own denotative capacity to provide information on a particular historical event or moment but, in so doing, they also serve to anchor, contextualize and ultimately valorize manifest fictional materials. Morgan’s frequent and insistent inclusion of unalloyed and diverse archival documents achieves the multiple effect of reinforcing the legitimacy of her perspective on the past, while authoritatively anchoring and contextualizing her fictional elements and shifting narrative modes. Consequently, her multifaceted text demonstrates how a different form of rendering the past – informed by extensive use of archival sources and availing of the possibilities of enlarging the narrative through imaginative creation – can infuse new perspectives into current debates about the nature of identity in Quebec.

While it is not possible in an essay of this length to provide an extended discussion of the many dimensions of A Chronicle, it is instructive to focus on the central role Niall O’Donell plays in lending narrative coherence to otherwise unwieldy materials, while simultaneously synthesizing and projecting their thematic implications. O’Donell’s growing involvement in Quebec society and politics, from his arrival in 1828 until he writes his memoir in 1895, offers, then, the most ready access to the work. Of crucial significance is Niall’s initial identity: he is a young, poor, Irish orphan, a Protestant and English-speaking immigrant who, on arriving at a formative moment in Quebec history, is fortunate to find as mentor Mr Neilson, editor of the Quebec Gazette, who becomes a mediator who introduces him to the social, cultural and political life of the province. As an English-speaking Protestant, Niall logically gravitates to the Anglo community; yet his experiences of suffering, exploitation and eviction in Ireland, of being driven into exile as an orphan, make him sympathetic to les habitants, a sympathy that deepens as he learns French and begins to appreciate their unique cultural ethos.

By stressing this dual perspective, aligned with neither the French nor the English, Morgan emphasizes that he is a sympathetic observer genuinely attempting to understand the complicated world of Lower Canada in the 1830s, and therefore uniquely positioned to appreciate the nuances and complexities inherent in different ideological perspectives. She draws on Niall’s Irish background to widen readers’ understanding of Quebec politics by periodically evoking Ireland’s colonial condition as a ready parallel to Quebec’s. For example, when he learns certain aspects of Quebec history from Margaret Neilson, his teacher friend, Niall reminisces about his sister who died on the transatlantic voyage: ‘I often thought sadly of Jennie. Here I was, in that strange colony she was tempted by, being taught its history as she had taught me Ireland’s. In her place, there was now Margaret and in place of O’Connell there was Papineau, a man whom Margaret admired intensely, the Tribune of the people in Lower Canada.’ But Niall gradually learns that simplistic parallels do not readily apply: he comes to acknowledge, for instance, that the religious freedom enjoyed by Catholics in Quebec, along with the relationship of tenants to the seigneur, are in no way comparable to circumstances in Ireland. Speaking at the end of his first year spent on the Paradis farm, Niall writes, ‘I had experienced the rhythm of a country life quite dissimilar from that of my native Ireland. Here, though the work was hard and the winter climate much more hostile, the Habitant and his family, with the mutual support of their neighbours, were able to provide for all their needs. The Habitant was his own master – that was the difference.’

Morgan also uses aspects of Niall’s Irish identity to draw attention to the dichotomy between a rational and emotional analysis of the political forces taking shape in the lead-up to the rebellion. As someone intimately familiar with the suffering and death of family members stemming from British colonization of Ireland, Niall has an emotional appreciation of the desire of les habitants to throw off the forces of subjugation, to demand a role in shaping a more responsible and equitable society.

Looking back at his views in the pre-rebellion years, the older Niall writes: ‘I concentrated on being a political reporter, caught at that stage between the judiciously liberal views of my patron … and the emerging radical Canadien positions taken by the Speaker and his followers. Gratitude and admiration inclined me toward Mr Neilson’s position. My Irish heritage and youthful ardour gave me sympathy for les Canadiens (a sympathy I have never lost despite my disapproval of the prejudices and disputes of the past half-century).’ The flexibility of the rhetorical format in A Chronicle of Lower Canada facilitates the insertion of such balanced reflection by the older Niall writing in the 1890s, but the intended audience for such observations are Morgan’s contemporary readers.

Concomitant with Niall’s personal maturation is his increasingly nuanced understanding of Quebec society in the lead-up to the 1837 rebellion, when his position as reporter offers an intimate and indeed privileged perspective on the differences between the competing ideologies. His objectivity and neutrality as the Irish outsider who can understand both sides of the political divide allow Morgan to move her fictional character between the opposing forces – les Patriotes or les canadiens, on the one side, and government forces, both regular troops and volunteers, on the other. In this regard, Niall’s role echoes the actual historical circumstances of Irish-born journalists in Quebec such as Daniel Tracey and Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan, who, as Louis-Georges Harvey’s essay in this collection makes evident, played a key role in comparing the grievances of les Patriotes with conditions in Ireland. The versatility of Morgan’s narrative mode allows her to go on to conceptualize her fictional character becoming periodically embedded in the unfolding rebellion. For example, as skirmishes break out along the Richelieu River, in such places as St Denis, St Charles, St Eustache and Montreal itself, Niall provides vivid and intimate descriptions of these battles and individual participants in both military camps. At such moments, the narrative nimbleness and imaginative scope of Morgan’s work facilitate an interweaving of much archival materials with Niall’s biography, so that the story of the 1837 rebellion not only comes dramatically to life in terms of its violence, destruction and personal suffering but, most important from Morgan’s ideological perspective, suggests the complex distinctions in affiliation of the competing forces, and underscores that their political differences did not stem from a simple opposition between les habitants and an Anglo community buttressed by the colonial government. This cross-community entanglement emerges, for example, when, immediately after the rebellion, a Mr de Bleury, who had led a company of volunteers against les Patriotes, asks Niall, ‘Is it not odd to you that practically none of the military leaders at the end were Canadiens? Wolfred Nelson, Brown, Girod – only Chenier – and from what you say he was very much the second-in-command. And there’s O’Callaghan too, always pushing Papineau.’ ‘Yes, I noticed that, myself,’ I replied. ‘I suppose it’s because the English radicals expected and welcomed help from the United States, while the Canadiens feared the effects of American domination.’ ‘Exactement!’ He nodded emphatically in agreement. ‘We Canadiens, of all persuasions, are united in a desire to protect our language, our religion, and our customs. Many, even of the most Patriote [sic], have feared the dangers of insurrection.’ He sighed. ‘And now we must face the consequences of its failure, in spite of ourselves.’

In passages such as these, Morgan’s fictionalized history enables a closer examination of the intertwined allegiances on both sides of the conflict, to counter simplistic assumptions frequently associated in contemporary discourse with the opposing forces in the rebellion. As such, the thematic thrust of A Chronicle of Lower Canada resonates with, and in some instances, amplifies the overarching themes of this collection of essays, as reflected by historians Maurice Bric and Louis-Georges Harvey, sociologist Jean Philippe Warren, and performance critic Erin Hurley. Although grounded in different disciplines, each of these essays responds to the abiding presence of the past in public debates in Quebec, and the continuing need to interrogate how it is remembered and viewed as a shaping force in contemporary identity politics.

As Morgan’s long text moves towards its conclusion, crucial turning points in the 1837 rebellion are re-imagined and interwoven with the biography of Niall O’Donell, sometimes situating him, however implausibly, at the centre of formative events, such as the escape by Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan and Louis-Joseph Papineau from Varennes, at the moment when protests and highly charged speeches were giving way to actual violence. Because Papineau’s support of the rebellion seemed to vacillate and his decision to avoid the fighting at St Charles and St Denis continues to be a source of controversy and conjecture for historians, Morgan makes full use of these historical ambiguities by representing Niall as the agent of Papineau’s escape. On their supposed arrival in St Denis, Niall is questioned somewhat suspiciously by Dr Wolfred Nelson, who is operating as de facto leader of the rebellion, in contrast to the symbolic leadership of the aloof Papineau: ‘And you, Sir – aiding and abetting a felony, helping wanted men escape from justice – just where do you stand?’ … ‘I hoped, Sir, with my former employer, that matters could be solved without violence,’ I replied. ‘But feelings are so strong on both sides that doesn’t seem possible. I want to report what happens. I swear to you I will betray no one to the authorities and write nothing for publication until after the events.’ ‘I believe you, Mr O’Donell … We’ll find a place for you – and I’ll make sure people know you’re to be well treated.’ He was as good as his word, arranging for me to stay at the inn of one of his most enthusiastic supporters, Mr Pierre Bourgeois, who for Dr Nelson’s sake was prepared to put up with an Irishman of doubtful antecedents. ‘So we’ll win you over in the end, mon ami!’ he cried when I finished. ‘I was sure your generous Irish heart would win over your cautious mind.’

Here, even though the Catholic French are predictably sceptical of a Protestant Irishman, it is precisely his unusual identity – an orphaned Protestant driven by poverty and persecution from Ireland – that Morgan’s fictionalized history can tease out, lending nuance and qualification to seeming rigid ideological polarities. Her blending of the biography of an imagined character with specific historical details facilitates an understanding of the tension in Niall between heart and head,and constitutes another means of reinforcing this central motif in Morgan’s overall creation. His conflict continues to be foregrounded as the work moves to its conclusion, as for example, when he reacts to rousing speeches by a group of Patriotes: Most of all, Niall was struck by the enthusiasm of the men, those awkward platoons in their uniform of grey étoffe du pays, the red, white and green standards flapping in the breeze. He felt his Irish blood stirred in a way that it was not at St Charles. He finally slipped away, unremarked, caught, as so often in the past, between reason and emotion. As he rode Mamselle back to the stables, Niall found himself thinking about the people of the Colony. French Canadians were peaceful and law-abiding folk, not at all like the Irish, so often prepared to fight at the drop of a hat. The habitants enjoyed litigation; and it was not that they weren’t brave but they weren’t in the habit of fighting. Perhaps it came from their feeling of being so related. They were all descended, indeed, from the two hundred or so families who stayed when the French went home after 1759. Seeing them armed – even with wooden staves and ancient shot guns – and in military formation, brought vividly home to him how alienated they were from their conquerors almost 80 years after the Conquest. He was reminded again of his own people and their centuries of struggle against the British invaders.

Here, in the process of ostensibly providing the centre of consciousness of her fictional character, Morgan creates a contrapuntal echo with the historical conditions in Ireland, a resonance that lends a more nuanced understanding of the causes of the 1837 rebellion. As with the Irish, les Patriotes were alienated from their conquerors, and because their complaints regarding legitimate grievances were rebuffed, a violent response was warranted. Even though the Irish too had valid causes to rebel, sometimes their fiery and emotional responses precluded the presentation of reasoned demands for democratic reforms, for political changes that would allow for the expression of national identity. While acknowledging the provocation that led les Patriotes to rebel, Niall’s view of them as being more rational than the Irish reflects the degree to which Morgan’s fictional creation – despite its easy stereotyping of both Irish and French – attempts to make a case for rational public debate in contemporary Quebec. In her view, however, a pre-requisite to such deliberation about the past is recognition that the 1837 rebellion was not a moment of sharp polarities between French and English, the colonized and the colonizers, but a manifestation of shifting forces driven by multifaceted ideologies that superseded simplistic linguistic or community identities.

Towards the end of A Chronicle of Lower Canada, the rhetorical richness of Morgan’s narrative structure allows her to draw attention to her contemporary perspective, by shifting the focalization from the personal account of Niall’s journal to the wider view of his granddaughter, Eliza McCrae, with whose perspective the work began. Supposedly writing in 1995, she imagines Niall’s thoughts as he moved from Quebec city after the rebellion and set out for the new phase of his life in Montreal: He was absorbed in reflection as he trotted along, caught up in fears and hopes for the country, fears and hopes for himself. As he rode, the vibrant air, the clear sky, the dazzling white snow caused the fears to fade, and filled his heart with hope. Hope, first of all for Julie. She was destined to be his – he had never completely stopping believing that … His thoughts were also for the country – and there, fears and doubts outweighed the hopes. It was his country now, he realized at last. He was no longer the Irish emigrant boy, no longer felt he had to stand apart from his world. In his new life as Editor, he was prepared to be a Canadian, and prepared to act, to fight for the cause of his fellow Canadians. Niall laughed out loud, filled with a sense of well-being. With only the slightest of urging, Cinder broke into a canter, and horse and man raced along the river pathway in the bright sun.21

Here, on the last page of the work, Morgan’s narrative facilitates a transcendence of the specific historical consciousness of the 20-year-old Niall O’Donell writing in the aftermath of the rebellion, to project his 1890s reflections within the longer arc of Quebec history. By giving his perspective an aspirational dimension and interspersing her prose with positive patterns of imagery, Morgan suggests a vision of French and English cooperation within Canada, which in the 1890s remained more embryonic than real. By emphasizing that the Irish Niall no longer considers himself an immigrant, an outsider in Quebec, but a fully-fledged member of society, Morgan also underlines the contribution of the Irish in the early days of Quebec’s history.

At two earlier points in the narrative, the flexibility of the work’s structural format has both prepared for, and confirmed this turning point in Niall’s life. The most overt of these rhetorical gestures is the depiction of the older Niall, writing in the 1890s, after Canadian confederation was achieved in 1867, openly acknowledging that the aspirations of his fellow Quebecers have not yet been fully achieved. The narrative pretence that he is writing the memoir for the benefit of his extended group of descendants, who are a melange of French and English, gives Morgan another occasion to represent the past so it speaks in a specific way to contemporary audiences. In writing his memoir at the end of the nineteenth century, when he is all too aware of the outcome and long-term consequences of the rebellion, Niall creates a dialogue with the voice of his earlier self, expressed in the journal entries written during those heady long-ago days. The implication of the older Niall’s account of his own integration to Quebec’s social, cultural and political life is that all Quebecers, including immigrants, need to acknowledge and embrace a complicated history. Crucial to this process is recognizing the sympathetic and sometimes active participation of the English and Irish in the 1837 rebellion, that they too were motivated to fight side by side with les Patriotes against colonial obstacles to democratic reform and the full expression of community identity. For example, in speaking about his early mentor and benefactor, Mr Neilson, who had expressed qualified support for the aspirations of the French community, Niall writes in 1898, ‘I have, of course, written about Mr Neilson in later years, but never his biography. I regret it now, as he has been almost forgotten while Mr Papineau has become a national hero. So he should be, but so should Mr Neilson. If these jottings of mine serve only that purpose some day I will be content.’ By deploying this highly personal voice to underscore that moderate members of the English community, such as Mr Neilson, were sympathetic to the grievances of les habitants, even if unwilling to support rebellion, Morgan’s text attempts to widen the pantheon of public historical figures associated with the aspirations of les Patriotes in the 1830s. The range and diversity of Morgan’s materials in A Chronicle of Lower Canada and the flexibility of her fictional elements, then, facilitate a depiction of many more narrative strands of the rebellion than would be possible in a work of conventional historiography. Finally, to reinforce the complex contrapuntal relationships between past and present, Morgan stretches the rhetorical potential of her structural apparatus further, by including a series of supposed letters exchanged between Niall in old age and Sydney Bellingham, an actual historical figure. A conservative Irish immigrant businessman and anti-Patriote who fought against the rebels, Sydney Bellingham returned to his ancestral home in Ireland in his old age and, in Morgan’s imaginative account, corresponded with the aged Niall. In several letters, Bellingham strongly encourages him to write a history of his experiences during the rebellion, advice that Niall resists, preferring instead to write the personal memoir for his family. This pretence of exchanging letters affords Morgan the opportunity to counter the conservative views of Bellingham with those of another Irishman who was sympathetic to the aspirations of les Patriotes. In an 1898 letter, Bellingham chides Niall for failing to provide a written record of what he claims would be, ‘the first clear unjaundiced account of an episode which still induces puzzlement among political men … I remain convinced you owe it to your country to provide its citizens with an understanding of those fiery, cloudy years’. Even though Niall resists these importunities, Morgan’s A Chronicle is in fact an expression of what Bellingham sought, an intimate account of the issues surrounding the rebellion, presenting the views of someone neither French nor English, an immigrant Irishman who transforms his identity to become a Quebecer sympathetic to the province’s history, culture and traditions.

In shifting the modalities by which the past can be represented textually, Morgan’s text provides a distinctly personal road map to the events surrounding the 1837 rebellion, and, in doing so, complements the findings of the essays in this collection by Louis-Georges Harvey, Maurice Bric and Jean-Philippe Warren. The freedom afforded by presenting a biography of a fictional protagonist, along with the inclusion of an extensive collage of archival materials – parliamentary documents, newspaper reports, letters of public officials, illustrations of individuals and historical sketches of places – creates a unique portal through which to view this turbulent moment in Quebec history. In moving beyond the practices of conventional historiography, Morgan’s work reveals another means of textually recuperating history, of imagining and conceptualizing the relationship between past and present, so that additional factors influencing contemporary identity might be understood. In this regard, A Chronicle of Lower Canada also amplifies Gearóid O’hAllmhuráin’s examination of the manner in which Irish musical practices of a specific region contribute to the rich texture of Quebec identity, and indeed reinforces Erin Hurley’s insights into the manner that theatrical performances can be deconstructed to suggest how cultural and political influences can complicate and qualify the nuances of individual and national affiliation. Steeped in knowledge of Quebec history, intimately familiar with a prodigious body of archival sources, and eager to render the richness and ambiguity of the past to contemporary readers, Morgan has created a fictionalized history that is ambitious in its aims, bold in its conceptualization, and insistent in its desire for rhetorical flexibility. It does not necessarily foreground new empirical data nor does it reveal hitherto unknown archival documentation on the period of the 1837 rebellion. Rather, by breaching traditional disciplinary boundaries, by threading the biography of Niall O’Donell through her many archival sources, Morgan’s formal means of widening and deepening the account of the rebellion reveals both its larger dimensions and complicated nexus of individual relationships, and thereby hopes to challenge the received metanarrative that drives public discourse in Quebec. Her amanuensis-like character, Eliza McCrae, the re-arranger of the multi-sourced textual materials, is the most overt rhetorical instrument by which the work both explicitly and implicitly enters into dialogue with its readers. At the outset of A Chronicle, in describing her discovery of her great-grandfather’s manuscripts in 1992, she addresses his descendants in words that constitute a distinct intervention in contemporary Quebec and Canadian politics: ‘Could there be a more auspicious time for the Chronicle to resurface than in this momentous year when we Canadians are struggling to redraw our constitution and redefine ourselves! As you read of the Patriotes’ attack on the Legislative Council and consider the struggle of the colony to gain more powers from the government of England, I am sure you will be struck – as I was – with the similarity of the problem. It is a sobering thought, when you remember how the struggle ended, 155 years ago!’ While it is difficult to determine the scope of Morgan’s readership and therefore the impact of A Chronicle of Lower Canada, the strong thematic element of her work is echoed in more recent discussions of Quebec history. For example, the following editorial appeared in 2011 in The Gazette, the province’s largest English-language newspaper.

The ‘Patriote’ rebels of the 1837 uprising against British colonial rule in what was then called Lower Canada have been conscripted as brothers in arms by Quebec separatists since the movement’s modern inception. But there are some things about the Patriotes of which today’s young sovereigntists are perhaps unaware, and that they should certainly ponder.

Yes, English-French animosities played a significant role in the rebellion, and there was a separatist faction in the Patriote movement that wanted to establish the colony as an independent republic. But it was ultimately more of a classic struggle in support of democratic responsible government than an ethnic conflict. The facile parallel with the 20th-century separatist movement is belied by the fact that the Lower Canada Rebellion was mirrored by a simultaneous and similarly motivated uprising in anglo Ontario, then called Upper Canada. In both cases it pitted rising middle classes against bourgeois oligarchies that were the local arm of colonial rule. While the Patriotes were mostly French Canadian, Anglophones were numerous and prominent in the movement’s ranks, far more so than they have been in the latter-day sovereignty movement. The anglo likes of E.B. O’Callaghan, Thomas Storrow Brown and the Nelson brothers, Wolfred and Robert, were frontline commanders in the revolt and generally considered by the colonial regime as an even more rabidly subversive element than the francophones. The Patriote uprising was above all a quest for social justice inspired by democratic ideals, and was instrumental in the emergence of the Canada we know today. As such, it deserves to be celebrated by all Quebecers – indeed, all Canadians – not just be left to separatists for misuse or as a hobby horse.26

This editorial, accompanied by photos of the Nelson brothers, with the caption, ‘Patriotes all’, is a forceful reminder of the persistence of the past in Quebec public discourse, an instance of the intersection of contemporary politics with the meta-narrative of history, and an indication of how the processes of remembering and forgetting shape different understanding of identity and national affiliation. By insisting that the aims and full cast of participants in the 1837 rebellion be known and acknowledged in contemporary perceptions of the past, the editorial seeks to peel away some of the popular accretions that have become associated with Quebec history, especially since the emergence of the Parti Québécois as a potent political force in the 1960s.27 With the election of the Parti Québécois minority government in 2013, identity politics were again foregrounded, focusing on issues related to language, the teaching of Quebec history and the values that should be promoted, especially to minorities and new immigrants. The defeat of this government in 2014 and the election of a Liberal majority government have dampened but not ended the public debate about the shaping of Quebec society. Conventional historians and those, like Morgan, who are deeply knowledgeable about Quebec history, continue to attempt to participate in this conversation. Morgan’s ambitious, highly unusual work is premised on the belief that by representing history in the widest possible terms, by exploring social, cultural, religious, as well as political, influences and by including the story of an immigrant who learns to embrace the customs, beliefs and experiences of real families and situations, perceptions the past can be transformed. A chronicle of Lower Canada suggests that if the complex entanglements of Quebec history can be accurately unravelled, can become better known, in particular if the contribution of Anglo-Quebecers, including the Irish, to the evolution of the province are more fully acknowledged, then public discussion about Quebec identity and the political future of the province would, at the very least, reflect a more nuanced continuity between past and present. While such issues will remain contested and contestable, A Chronicle of Lower Canada suggests that, if the palimpsests of history can be unfolded in their most multifaceted dimensions, the inheritances of the past might become part of current discussions about individual identity and national affiliation.

  1. Including the present essay, these are: Maurice Bric, ‘Catholicism and empire: Ireland and Lower Canada, 1760–1830’, Louis-Georges Harvey, ‘The forgotten patriots: Ireland and the Irish in Lower Canadian political discourse and anglophone historical consciousness’ and Jean-Philippe Warren, ‘Detention and punishment in a time of legal reform: Lord Durham and the question of Lower Canadian political prisoners’.
  2. Jan Henry Morgan, A chronicle of Lower Canada: book i, Welcome, Niall O’Donell, emigrant!(Ottawa, 1992); book ii, A dangerous direction(Ottawa, 1993); book iii, A damned rebellion!(Ottawa, 1995).  
  3. See Louis-Georges Harvey’s essay in this volume.
  4. David Leyton-Brow (ed.), Canadian annual review of politics and public affairs, 1995(Toronto, 2002), p. 133.
  5. J.M. Bumstead, A history of the Canadian peoples(Don Mills, ON, 2003), p. ix.  
  6. Morgan’s three-volume work did not reach the wider audience in which it might have had significant impact. Published by a small press over a four-year period, its sheer length precluded the kind of commercial success that would have warranted translation into French. In addition, while receiving modest attention in the English-language press, the challenging hybrid nature of the text, along with its serialized publication, mitigated against conventional reviews and response. Ironically, then, the fate of A chronicle of Lower Canada reflects to some degree the core division between French and English communities that the work itself attempts to address.
  7. Morgan, A chronicle of Lower Canada, i, p. 1.  
  8. Ibid., p. 508.  
  9. Frederic Jameson, ‘On magic realism in film’, Critical Inquiry, 12:2 (1986), 303.  
  10. In recent decades, there have been several highly acclaimed historical novels dealing with nineteenth-century Irish emigration to Canada: Jane Urquhart, Away (Toronto, 1993); Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (Toronto, 1996); and Peter Behrens, The law of dreams (Toronto, 2006). However, each of these belongs more centrally to the genre of historical fiction, since factual details and historical figures have been subsumed in a far more totalizing manner than Jan Morgan’s insistent weaving of original and unalloyed archival documents into the texture of her narrative.  
  11. Hayden White, ‘The value of narrativity in the representation of reality’, Critical Inquiry, 7 (1980), 6–27.  
  12. Morgan, A chronicle of Lower Canada, i, p. 508.  
  13. The range of actual historical sources included by Morgan is suggested by her reproduction of extracts from the following: Thomas D’Arcy McGee, A history of Irish settlers in America (1867); W.L. Mackenzie,Sketches of the United States and Canada (1833); Captain Basil Hall, Travels in North America (1828); Thomas Hamilton, Men and manners in America (1834); Henry David Thoreau, A Yankee in Canada (1828); newspapers and magazines such as theLondon Times, The Gazette, Blackwoods Magazine; Andrew Stuart’s A review of the legislative session, 1831; Alexis de Tocqueville’s journal; letters of Louis-Joseph Papineau; sketches of John Neilson, Louis-Joseph Papineau, Norbert Morin, and places such as the quay at Waterford, Montreal’s Place d’Armes and Liverpool harbour; maps detailing the battle of St Denis; military reports; the assembly’s reply to the governor’s address, 3 Oct. 1836; minutes from the colonial office concerning the government of British North America, 30 Apr. 1836; and extracts from speeches by individuals such as Mr R. Collard and Lord Gosford.  
  14. Morgan, A chronicle of Lower Canada, i, p. 63.  
  15. Ibid., p. 75.  
  16. Ibid., p. 191.  
  17. Morgan, A chronicle of Lower Canada, iii, p. 460.  
  18. Papineau’s failure to take a more active role in the rebellion, and in particular his leaving St Denis at a crucial moment, are decisions still debated by historians. Fernand Ouellet writes that ‘The reasons for his leaving, or his flight, are not known for certain.’ Fernand Ouellet,Lower Canada, 1791–1840: social change and nationalism, trans. Patricia Claxton (Toronto, 1980), p. 305. In an earlier study, Ouellet had been more forthright: ‘How is such inglorious conduct to be explained? Fear, hesitation, attachment to family and property, and incapacity for facing his responsibilities – all these factors seem to have come into play from the moment the rebellion broke out … Papineau’s behaviour during the troubles is not, as certain historians seem able to believe, a mere accident. It is tied in with the weakness that he always showed in action’, Fernand Ouellet,Louis-Joseph Papineau: a divided soul (Ottawa, 1964), p. 15. Claude Baribeau, guest curator of an exhibition on Papineau and author of the accompanying booklet, is silent on the matter, merely noting that, ‘Having sought the advice of his family, Louis-Joseph Papineau, a warrant now out for his arrest, decided to leave Canada’, Claude Baribeau, Papineau: his life and times (Ottawa, 1986), p. 36. Joseph Schull, a widely respected historian and an accomplished writer, has provided his account of these events in his Rebellion: the rising in French Canada, 1837. Scrupulously drawing on historical documents but also using what the jacket describes as a ‘lively style’ to capture the course of events and depict the main characters, Schull gives supposed quotations of conversations between Wolfred Nelson and Papineau on the morning of the St Denis battle. But his conclusion is: ‘The stories twist and change but the facts remain. Whatever the words and thoughts of that bleak morning, a carriage left the village … Hooded in their capotes, their faces turned from the watchers, Papineau and O’Callaghan removed themselves to safety’, Joseph Schull, Rebellion: the rising in French Canada, 1837 (Toronto, 1971), p. 69.  
  19. Morgan, A chronicle of Lower Canada, iii, pp 387–8.  
  20. Ibid., p. 371.  
  21. Ibid., p. 476.  
  22. Ibid., p. 250.
  23. Ibid., pp 1–2.  
  24. It is ironic that Morgan decided not to write about the rebellion in an academic publication, preferring instead to aim for a popular audience by publishing in book form. However, as noted earlier, because its imprint was a small Ottawa press and it appeared in English, it was not widely distributed, received no mainstream reviews, and was not translated into French.  
  25. Morgan, A chronicle of Lower Canada, i, p. 2.  
  26. Editorial, ‘A holiday that all Quebecers can celebrate’, The Gazette, 23 May 2011. In the following month an article titled, ‘Missisquoi museum recalls Anglo support for Patriotes: villages were pitted against each other during the rebellion of 1837’, appeared in The Gazette, 18 June 2011. In the article, Heather Darch, the museum curator, is quoted: ‘The purpose of the exhibit is to show that the Rebellion was not just Patriotes against British, there were anglophones very much in favour of the Patriote movement.’  
  27. In 2002, the Parti Québécois government of Quebec changed the annual Victoria Day Holiday to Journée nationale des patriotes, so that, according to a press release from the office of Bernard Landry, premier of Quebec, it would ‘underline the importance of the struggle of the patriots of 1837–1838for the national recognition of our people, for its political liberty and to obtain a democratic system of government.’ (‘Ce jour férié soulignera la lutte des Patriotes de 1837–1838 pour la reconnaissance nationale de notre peuple, pour sa liberté politique et pour l’obtention d’un système de gouvernement démocratique.’) In French language publications, the range of perspectives on the relationship of the aims of les patriotes with the goal of Quebec independence is suggested by the following: ‘In a roundtable discussion at the 2012 Canadian Historical Association’s annual congress, Charles-Phillippe Courtois comments on Michel Ducharme’s Le concept de liberté au Canada à l’époque des révolutions Atlantiques, 1776–1838 (Montreal, 2010): ‘Ducharme distingue patriotisme et nationalisme. Or, le nationalisme comme nous l’entendons ne se développe que graduellement au XIXe siècle, au Québec aussi bien qu’à travers l’Occident. Les Patriotes ne tiennent pas ce discours plus ethnique et culturel, ils tiennent un discours très inclusif, mais patriotique néanmoins.’ (Ducharme distinguishes between patriotism and nationalism. Yet nationalism, as we understand it, only develops gradually over the course of the 19th century, in Quebec as across the western world. The Patriotes are not committed to an ethnic or cultural discourse. They are committed to a discourse of inclusion, but nonetheless patriotic.) Charles-Philippe Courtois, ‘L’importance oubliée du patriotisme des Patriotes’, The Canadian Historical Review, 94:1 (Mar. 2013), 87–92, doi: 10.1353/can.2013.0001, 90–1, accessed 3 Oct. 2013. ‘De 1806 à 1837, du Parti canadien au Parti patriote, on peut distinguer un objectif commun que les Canadiens appuient par patriotisme, la démocratie, à quoi s’oppose le Parti anglais par impérialisme. D’un côté la majorité des Canadiens vote, avec quelques alliés anglophones démocrates (parmi lesquels les Irlandais et les Américains sont surreprésentés), en faveur d’un parti qui lutte pour élargir leur contrôle du pouvoir par l’extension du principe électif, de l’autre, le Parti anglais hostile à l’identité canadienne, défend les privilèges de la couronne et du gouverneur, dont il tire profit.’ (From 1806 to 1837, from the Parti Canadien to the Parti Patriote, one can distinguish a common objective that Canadiens supported with their patriotism, democracy, which is opposed by the English party’s support of imperialism. On one side, the majority of Canadiens voted, along with a few Anglophone democratic allies (among them the Irish and Americans are highly represented), for a party fighting to extend power, and thus suffrage, unto them. On the other hand, the English party, hostile to canadien identity, defended the crown’s privilege as well as that of the governor, from whom it drew power.) Courtois, ‘L’importance oubliée du patriotisme des Patriotes’, 92.
    In a January 2013 Le Devoir article, Maria Mourani (Députée d’Ahuntsic Porte-parole du Bloc québécois en matière de justice, de sécurité publique, d’environnement, de transports, de langues officielles et de condition feminine) suggests an inclusive historical reading of the Patriotes’ legacy but nevertheless associates their aims with a desire for independence. ‘Au XIXe siècle, lorsque les Patriotes se sont donné un drapeau, celui-ci intégrait trois couleurs: le blanc, pour les Français, le vert, pour les Irlandais et le rouge, pour les Anglais … Le rêve patriote n’était pas de recréer la Nouvelle-France, mais bien de faire un pays affranchi. Le peuple fondateur du Québec de demain n’est pas celui d’une majorité historique, pensée réconfortante, mais inéluctablement éphémère. Les fondateurs du Québec moderne s’appellent aussi Nguyen, Nelson, Goldbloom et Mustapha. Ils ont les mêmes droits de cité. N’éludons pas cette réalité!’ (In the 19th century, when the Patriotes adopted a flag, it incorporated three colours: white, for the French, green, for the Irish and red, for the English … The Patriotes’ dream was not to recreate New France, but indeed to create a free country. The people founding the Quebec of tomorrow are not the historical majority, a comforting thought, yet inevitably ephemeral. Nguyen, Nelson, Goldbloom and Mustapha are among the names of those setting the foundations for Quebec’s tomorrow. They have the same rights of citizenship. Let us not elude this reality!). Maria Mourani, ‘Préférons l’“adhésion historique” à la “majorité historique”’, Le Devoir, 25 Jan. 2013,, accessed 3 Oct. 2013. This association of les Patrioteswith independence is reflected in the account of the 2013 celebrations for the Journée nationale des patriotesgiven by Hugo Pilon-Larose and Marie-Michèle Sioui in La Presse: ‘Dans les airs, les drapeaux du Québec et des patriotes flottaient, tout comme les paroles des indépendantistes. “Vive la prise en mains du Québec par la société québécoise!”, a lancé l’ex-porte-parole de Québec solidaire, André Frappier, à une foule toute en bleue réunie à la place du Canada. “Vive la liberté et l’indépendance!”, avait dit avant lui Mario Beaulieu, de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste.’ (Quebec and Patriote flags were flying in the air, as were the words of separatists. ‘Long live the claiming of Quebec by Quebec society’ exclaimed the ex-spokesperson for Quebec solidaire, André Frappier, to a crowd dressed all in blue at Place du Canada. ‘Long live liberty and independence’ said Mario Beaulieu of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste just before him.) Hugo Pilon-Larose and Marie-Michèle Sioui, ‘Le Québec célèbre la Journée des patriotes’, La Presse, 20 May 2013,, accessed 3 Oct. 2013.
    Pilon-Larose and Sioui go on to note: ‘Daniel Breton, député du Parti québécois, a de son côté livré un discours plus pragmatique, axé sur le travail que nécessite l’indépendance. “Ça prend des gestes courageux pour se défaire de notre dépendance”, a-t-il dit. “Mais quand ça va être difficile, quand vous allez être découragés ou avoir peur, vous penserez aux patriotes”.’ (Daniel Breton, Parti québécois deputy, gave a more pragmatic speech for his part, focusing on the work independence necessitates. ‘It will take courageous actions to undo our dependence’, he said. ‘But when it will be difficult, when you will be discouraged and scared, you will think of the Patriotes’.) Pilon-Larose and Sioui, ‘Le Québec célèbre la Journée des patriotes.’ All above translations are by Gabrielle Machnik-Kékesi.