From Gabrielle Roy: A Passion for Writing, published by XYZ Publishing in 2007 and translated by Darcy Dunton. In May 1979, André Vanasse upset Gabrielle Roy, whom he had met only by letter, by not following through on a small commitment. In September of the same year he sought out Roy at her home in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, where he stood on the front step and apologized.
Gabrielle had remained standing, framed by the half-open screen door of the porch. She hadn’t invited me into the house. I was at the bottom of the porch steps. It was in this position that our nightmarish conversation had taken place.
I had nothing more to say and neither had she. Finally, I mounted one of the three steps and held out my hand to bid her goodbye. What else could I have done, after promising her I’d make doubly sure she’d receive a thank-you letter from the Association, and that I’d buy her another work by Francine Gravel with my own money?
I was turning away when, in a faint, almost pleading voice, Gabrielle asked me to stay longer. “I’m too upset,” she said. “I need company. To tell you the truth, I don’t feel well.”
In fact, she looked awful: she was ghostly pale, and I thought I saw her lower lip trembling. I agreed to her request, only too happy to be of help—to offer her comfort and at the same time dispel my guilty feelings towards her.
Gabrielle seemed to hesitate during the few seconds that followed. Was she going to ask me to come in? She must have felt it wasn’t appropriate to bring me into her house: instead, she suggested that we sit together in the garden swing. She led me past the house and across the lawn to a red two-seater platform swing. We climbed into it and sat facing each other.
I was too intimidated to say a word. I waited for her to open the conversation—a conversation that, to all appearances, didn’t want to get going. When I couldn’t stand the silence anymore, I asked her how long she had lived there.
Gabrielle’s face very slowly lost its tight, angry look. I felt that she was calming down. She turned her lovely sea-green eyes on me and said, dreamily, “This house is my life. I come here in May as soon as the weather permits. I stay until October. It’s my cloister. This is where I wrote almost all my books, at least the ones published after 1957 , the year I acquired the house. You’ve admired the unobstructed view we have of the river? It’s magnificent! You can see Île-aux-Coudes from here. And do you see the mountains behind us? The scenery takes my breath away every time I look at it.”
Gabrielle stopped for a moment, lost in thought. She resumed speaking in an almost confiding tone.
“Besides that, I’m lucky enough to have an admirably unselfish woman looking after me here. Her name is Berthe Simard. She’s the daughter of the former owner of my property. Really, I don’t know what I’d do without Berthe. She takes care of everything. As soon as there’s the slightest problem, she hurries over to make sure it’s fixed up in no time. She always finds the right person to help me out. Not only that, but I hate to cook, and thank goodness, I can depend on Berthe. Every day at lunchtime, when I’ve finished my writing—I write from early morning until about noon—she brings me a meal that she’s prepared herself. Afterwards, we often take long walks together. We follow the railway tracks. I adore walking and going on our expeditions. It relaxes me. I really love this little woman; she gratifies my every whim.
“My whole life has been marked by a succession of women who have cosseted me. Isn’t it strange? If I’ve been able to write, it’s because of them. There was my mother, of course, to whom I owe everything. When I had to leave her, other women took her place, quite naturally. Perhaps I was searching for my mother wherever I went. The more I think about it, the more I believe I’ve never stopped running after her. Could it be because I suffered so much for having left her alone in faraway Manitoba?”
Gabrielle’s eyes misted over. The memory of her mother was obviously harrowing, and she drove it from her mind by telling me about Esther Perfect, whom she’d met in extraordinary circumstances. “It was thanks to Esther,” she confided, “that I knew I’d become a writer instead of an actress. I lived in Europe, you know—in France and England—for almost two years, studying theatre. My vocation as a writer gelled, so to speak, when I was at Esther’s. She took me in during the summer of 1938 when I was living in England. She lived in one of the Century Cottages on the outskirts of Upshire, in Essex, on the edge of Epping Forest. Meeting her was one of those lucky encounters that happen only rarely in our lives.”
Gabrielle proceeded to tell me how the meeting had come about. She described jumping onto a Green Line bus on impulse, just when the driver was pulling away from the curb. She’d suddenly found it odd that she’d never taken one of these buses that served the suburban greenbelt surrounding London. This should have been natural for her as she hated large cities and only really felt at ease in the countryside.
“Cities are the death of me,” Gabrielle said. “I’ve never been comfortable in them. I love solitude and fresh air, and I love open spaces even more. After all, I’m a Prairie girl.” There was an uneasy pause after these words, but a few seconds later, unable to resist the pleasure of telling a story, she continued describing the happy consequences of her fanciful flight.
Gabrielle Roy was a marvellous storyteller; the scene came to life as I listened. Her talents as an actress were clearly in evidence, drawing me wholly into the adventure of her serendipitous meeting with Miss Perfect. I heard how, acting on advice from the bus driver and even from the other passengers, she decided to get off at the Wake Arms, and, like in a fairy tale, she chose a path that vanished into the forest. What was she expecting to find? A castle? A prince, perhaps? Tom Thumb? Anything was possible.
She walked a good distance without knowing where the track led. At the end of it, she faced a little house that could have belonged to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was, Gabrielle said, a small English cottage overrun by climbing roses and blue delphiniums. It looked like a doll’s house. On a sign, crudely printed words announced: “Fresh-cut flowers, tea, scones, crumpets: one shilling.” Gabrielle’s sharpest memory was of the garden, full of buzzing bees attracted by the profusion of flowers, as in every proper English garden. And under an arbour, as if she had been expected, were a wooden table and chairs.
She knocked at the door. A short, stooped woman came to open it, and informed Gabrielle that she’d just been preparing tea and would serve it in a jiffy.
About fifteen minutes later, the tiny woman reemerged carrying a heavy tray laden with biscuits, bread, jam, and tea. Gabrielle, who was famished, ate up everything with unabashed gusto, then, enchanted but also dropping with fatigue, she fell into a pleasant doze.
When she awoke from her short nap, the prospect of going back the way she had come seemed beyond her strength. What Gabrielle longed for was to stay the night in this charming dwelling. Would it be possible? she enquired of her hostess.
The little humpbacked creature answered that the house was just big enough for her and her brother, but she knew a place where her visitor could surely find a bed for the night.
“It’s not much farther on, dear,” she said encouragingly. “Only a mile or so, and you’ll come to the village of Upshire. Look for Century Cottage. Once you get there, ask for Miss Esther Perfect. Tell her Felicity sent you.”
So, already exhausted, Gabrielle set off, hoping the walk wouldn’t take too long.
She finally reached her destination with thankful joy. The house was as pretty as Miss Felicity’s, but grander. The setting was just as enchanting: flowers grew everywhere amid humming bees. In trepidation, Gabrielle let fall the hammer of the front door knocker. What would she do if there wasn’t any room here either? She refused even to consider that possibility. “She’s got to say yes,” she said to herself.
A woman answered the door. She was dressed in the rather staid, severe manner of some Englishwomen, but it seemed to Gabrielle that her eyes were warm and her attitude welcoming.
Almost before Gabrielle, with a pitiable air, had opened her lips to ask for hospitality, Miss Perfect had taken her under her wing, treating her as if she were a stray kitten. From that moment onward, the episode unfolded as if in a dream: the introduction to Father Perfect (Gabrielle’s name for him), their conversation, the light supper, and finally, going to bed in a room that suited her fancy in every particular: the brass bedstead, the white lace curtains, the fireplace to light a fire if she wanted, the washstand with its little water jug, and—height of happiness—two large windows overlooking the rolling downs. “It was delightful, more beautiful than you can imagine. There, I experienced what people commonly call happiness, for that woman spontaneously adopted me. I’d become her long-lost child.
“I was young then, and, I won’t deny it, quite pretty. I had everything it took to appeal to people. You see how I look now,” she sighed, not without a touch of coquetry. “To be truthful, I was always a charmer. I’ve been criticized enough for it”—here, her expression grew sombre—“to be entitled to describe myself that way today.
“I was treated like a queen at Miss Perfect’s. It was quite natural for me to decide soon afterwards to go and live there, to tell myself it was a place where I could fully dedicate myself to writing. I was living in that house when I learned that Je suis partout, one of the most important Paris weeklies, was going to publish three of my articles. I was in heaven! Ironically, it was when I was in England that I made the conscious decision to be a French-language writer. Up until then, I’d hesitated quite a lot. I could write well in both languages, since I’d learned English by necessity at school in Manitoba, where we were obliged to master it perfectly. Officially, French wasn’t allowed as a language of instruction in our education system, even though it was taught at the Académie Saint-Joseph, run by the nuns of the Saints Noms de Jésus et de Marie order in St. Boniface.
“When I found out that my writing had been judged good enough by a French publisher, my happiness was complete. The fact that my articles were chosen gave me confidence that I had a certain mastery of the French language.
“I won’t hide it from you,” Gabrielle confessed. “To me, it was a consecration. It made me decide to write in French from then on, and I’ve never regretted my decision. Besides, I’ve always felt I wouldn’t be as close to my deepest roots if I wrote in English. Every time I tried it, it seemed like a game to me. It wasn’t serious. The English language was outside, not inside of me.
“I could be wrong. Who knows if I wouldn’t have succeeded just as well if I’d written in the language of Shakespeare? But we can’t bring back the past in any case. Especially at my age,” she added, again with her beguiling air.