Blurb for The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke
Set in Quebec City immediately after Wolfe’s conquest, this charming love story depicts in intimate detail the life of that city’s early English inhabitants. It is a comedy of manners played against a backdrop of the rugged scenery of the New World, a world in which wit and elegance are combined with “much hospitality, scandal, dancing, and good chear.” The dramatic strength of this novel springs from the author’s very personal and lively portrayal of the social life of the times, into which the intricate and often amusing involvements of three pairs of lovers are delightfully interwoven.
Another book club choice, I had never heard of this until it was brought up as a potential next read. It enjoys unofficial status as the “first Canadian novel,” though that title is hotly contested. While about half of the story takes place in Canada (or what was called Canada at the time, which was parts of Ontario and Quebec), Frances Brooke herself was an Englishwoman who lived in Canada for only about 5 years, writing and later publishing the novel on her return to England. The main characters too, are mostly English colonists/visitors to the continent, and while there is at least one named significant French-Canadian character, most of the native inhabitants of Canada (including the Acadians) are viewed through a distinctly western-European lens and judged on their “otherness,” whether as a positive or, more often, as a negative.
The novel takes place in 1763, pre-Canadian confederation, immediately following the Seven Years War. It is epistolary in structure, Brooke having taken inspiration from the technique of her contemporary Samuel Richardson in his work Pamela. But enough of the background. What’s it all about?
It’s a comedy of manners, as per the blurb, with elements of travel narrative woven in. The central conflict is a romantic one, and in case you weren’t sure of that, six of the main characters are paired into couples by the time we get halfway through the book. That’s right–six. We are dealing with not one, not two, but three different romantic couples in this story.
Lest you think that means everything in the book is fluffy and insubstantial, I assure you it is not. There are some very interesting perspectives on politics, religion, society, and even philosophy that various characters claim to espouse in their letters to one another. Perhaps the most relevant to the subject of the story are the views on what is essentially companionate marriage, emphasizing the need for friendship, respect, and mutual interest in one another intellectually rather than just romantically or physically. There are discussions of infidelity and intrigues, much of which has to be understood through the society of the time.
There is also a surprisingly universalist strain running through much of the serious religious discussion, coupled with the underlying assumption that the Church of England is still the best option, if only in matters of tastefulness of the service and ritual. I kid you not, they really said, “Yeah, probably everybody is basically good at heart, and there is no material difference of the intent or effect of any of the religions, but we stan the Anglican aesthetic.” Way to boil down centuries of blood, conflict, and holy wars into nothing more than a basic preference.
Pacing-wise, this book is very inconsistent, but generally it tends to move forward fast enough to keep you interested. At times, who is writing what letter to whom is a little hard to follow, but it is amazing how Brooke juggles her characters and manages to keep the story straight, while still conveying the confusing reality of having to wait for weeks for letters to arrive. Most of these letters are going back and forth across the Atlantic by ship so news is old by the time the recipient has gotten it, let alone had time to formulate and send their response.
With some incredibly unique and mesmerizing voices represented among the letter-writers, the humour reminds me of the subtlety of an Austen novel. Characters pivot and move within the confines of their societal roles and stations, while commenting on the restrictions of convention. They navigate expectations, ruminate on learned behaviours and human nature, and formulate personal beliefs in an attempt to reconcile their personal and public lives.
While Brooke is an early adopter of some novel writing cliches (such as having a romance develop with the “right” man while the woman is already engaged to one who turns out to be the “wrong” man, and a convenient unexpected inheritance plot after unknowingly reuniting with an estranged family member), I feel as though she is also an early innovator in other respects.
The whole novel, while primarily a romance, also spends considerable time developing the dynamic of a complex friend group: the women are besties, they all have unique personalities, fall for extremely different men, who also develop interesting comradeship with each other through the women they love. It’s so ingrained in the novel that I didn’t notice how intentional it was until I was literally thinking about it now, but I love the depth of this friendship theme, which extends from the importance put on friendship in marriage and into friendship in addition to/outside of marriage.
I found this book surprisingly enjoyable and informative as it presents aspects of the life, education, and opinions of the 18th century in a way that I haven’t often read, partly because it may be representative of Brooke’s own ideas or opinions rather than those of the common society. The drama, while contrived, was never extended so long as to be exhausting, and the miscommunications are logically resolved by the fact that, surprise, these people are actually very skilled communicators. And while there were some episodes between our primary pair of lovers that waxed purple and nigh-hysterical, they were eventually reined in by the humour and practicality of their friends, or by the intrusion of an external plot.
If you are interested in colonial, British, Canadian, epistolary, or comic-romantic literature, this volume provides something of all of the above, written in an accessible yet skillful way by a very intelligent and educated woman.
This has been my sixth Classics Club book review! Check out the rest of my list here.
2 thoughts on “I Am Writing This Letter: The History of Emily Montague Review”
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Thank-you for your comments on a distinctly Canadian book!
Your review is enticing.
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