Gabrielle Roy (1909–1983)
Gabrielle Roy was born on March 22, 1909 in St. Boniface, Manitoba. With deep auburn hair, and eyes of sea-green, her strong features became more pronounced with age, which gave her a stately and elegant quality.
Gabrielle was the youngest of eleven children born to Léon and Mélina Roy. Only eight of her siblings lived past adolescence. Her mother, Mélina, was a woman whom Gabrielle loved and cherished. She was the basis for many of Roy’s strong mother-figures in her novels. Although the Roy family had to do without many material things, Mélina made sure that the family was surrounded by stories of hope. She passed her aptitude for story-telling on to her daughter.
Gabrielle’s father was already 59 when she was born. Many of the other Roy children could remember him during happier times. He had worked for years resettling immigrants in Western Canada, a job which he enjoyed greatly. His affinity for diverse cultures influenced Gabrielle’s writing, as her works often celebrated people’s differences. However, in 1913 Léon was dealt a blow from which he never fully recovered. Six months before he was to retire and receive his pension, he was laid off.
For income, Mélina decided soon after that they would have to take in boarders. For such a proud family, this was a difficult sacrifice, yet necessary. The Roys had many financial problems during Gabrielle’s formative years. In many of her works she focuses on the poverty-stricken; something she truly understood.
After having an emergency appendectomy at age twelve, Gabrielle felt guilty for the money her family would have to spend on her, so had she promised her mother the only thing she could; she told Mélina that she would come first in her class in both English and French from then on. Within a few years she was receiving numerous awards for her performance in both languages. She won enough cash awards from her final exams that she was able to pay almost completely for her first year at the Winnipeg Normal Institute.
In spite of his influences on her, Gabrielle had never felt close to her father. Yet, when he died in 1929, she realized that she had much in common with him. In her autobiography, she said of their relationship The truth was that we were two of a kind, each living in fear of finding our poor, shy love for each other misunderstood. —Enchantment and Sorrow, p. 73
That same year she completed her schooling, and then spent a month teaching in the summer, before instructing for one year at a school near her Uncle Excide’s home. During childhood, the summers Gabrielle had spent at her uncle’s home had been a respite from the usual strain of her family’s financial woes. As a new teacher, she once again found a refuge at her Uncle Excide’s.
In 1930, after that first year of teaching, she was offered a permanent position in St. Boniface. Mélina was thrilled that her daughter had not only secured a job in the midst of the Depression, but that it was also a position in her home town. Gabrielle Roy was the only one among her eight siblings who held a full-time position during the Depression. Perhaps this was why everyone thought it so absurd when Gabrielle decided that she wanted to go to Europe for a year with the meagre savings she had managed to accumulate throughout her seven years teaching in St. Boniface. When asked, she would tell people that she was going to France and England to study Drama. She had been a member of a drama troupe, Le Cercle Molière, throughout her teaching years. Gabrielle’s dramatic flair, accompanied by the experience with her theatre group, made her announcement of studies in drama understandable, if not acceptable. Her mother was particularly opposed to the idea, as she thought her youngest child would be better off holding on to her coveted teaching position. Nevertheless, Gabrielle was so determined that she took a teaching post in the summer of 1937 to gain enough to survive in Europe.
Although she had first planned to remain in Europe only one year, her stay soon stretched into two years, and may very well have lasted longer, had the second World War not been looming. While in Europe, she stayed for a time with the Perfects. Their home became the sanctuary where Gabrielle made her first serious attempts at writing. She wrote a couple of articles and sent them to a French journal for publication. They were published, and perhaps this inspired confidence in Gabrielle, for when she returned to Canada in 1939, she resolved that, for better or worse, she was going to try her hand at writing. Yet, whenever she mentioned writing to her mother, Mélina argued that it was not a secure profession, and that Gabrielle would be much better off teaching. This may have been one of the reasons that Gabrielle decided to stay in Montreal, instead of returning to her mother in Manitoba. If she had gone back to Manitoba, she might have succumbed to her mother’s pressure to return to teaching.
Although she described her time as a teacher as the most beautiful years of her life, her full potential would not have been realized. So, for the next six years in Montreal, Gabrielle earned her living as a freelance reporter. Her first novel Bonheur d’occasion started out as a newspaper article, but soon took on a life of its own and, prior to editing, ended up at over 800 pages.
Unfortunately, Mélina Roy died in 1943, two years before her daughter’s acclaimed novel was published. Not only was Gabrielle greatly saddened by her mother’s death, she also felt a sense of guilt for having stayed away from St. Boniface. Later in her life, she would find that it was often necessary to make a choice between her family and her work. Although Gabrielle’s work often won her attention, her family members were never far from her mind. To make up for the lack of personal contact with her siblings, she wrote them often, and was prone to sending off cheques to help them out.
Bonheur d’occasion was published in 1945, and became an immediate success. In the next two years, much would change for Gabrielle. In 1947, she won the Prix Fémina from France for Bonheur d’occasion, and the Governor General’s award for the English translation, The Tin Flute. The same year also brought changes in her personal life, as she married Dr. Marcel Carbotte after three months of courtship. After their marriage, the two newlyweds went to France for three years for Marcel to pursue his medical studies. While back in Europe, Gabrielle took the opportunity to write once again at the Perfect’s cottage; the very place where she had started her successful career ten years before. It was here that she began writing her favourite novel, La Petite Poule d’Eau (Where Nests the Water Hen), which was published in 1950 after her return to Canada.
Two years later, Gabrielle and Marcel moved to Quebec City, and in 1957, they bought a cottage in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, not far from their permanent home. This was where Gabrielle spent every summer until her death, and where she did much of her writing. The year 1957 also brought Gabrielle her second Governor General’s award, this time for the English translation of Rue Deschambault (Street of Riches), a novel she published in 1955.
Understandably, it was necessary for Gabrielle to be isolated from others while she wrote. Yet, even when not embroiled in her writing, she disliked public appearances and kept her personal life as private as possible. Some have described her as antisocial, but she and Marcel seemed satisfied to spend time with close friends and those who genuinely like us —Letters to Bernadette, p. 17.
In the years following her second Governor General’s award, Gabrielle concentrated on both her professional and personal writing. Since her mother’s death, Gabrielle had been corresponding with her sister Bernadette, whom Gabrielle affectionately called Dédette. Even though their relationship only became close just before the cloistered nun’s death in 1970, out of all her siblings, Gabrielle was closest to Bernadette. Gabrielle wrote Dedette’s death would have caused me less grief if I hadn’t come to know her so well – yet I wouldn’t for the world have been deprived of that grief —Enchantment and Sorrow, p. 127.
For the next several years, Gabrielle was showered with awards and critical success, but it was not until 1978 that she won her third and final Governor General’s award for Ces enfants de ma vie (Children of My Heart). In this work, her love for children and the happiness she derived from teaching are evident. This was her final novel, although a compilation of some of her work as a journalist, and several children’s books followed this last book. Gabrielle’s autobiography La Détresse et l’enchantement (Enchantment and Sorrow) was not published until 1984, a year after her death.
Gabrielle Roy died on July 13, 1983 of heart failure. Perhaps her exemplary work and analysis of the human condition were possible due to the fact that her life was filled with both enchantment and sorrow.
Throughout her career Roy was the recipient of many prestigious literary awards. These included the Governor General’s Award, France’s Prix Femina, the Prix Duvernay, the Canada Arts Council Award and the New York’s Literary Guild Award. She was also the first woman to become a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1947), and was made the Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967.
Roy, Gabrielle. Enchantment and Sorrow: The Autobiography of Gabrielle Roy. Translated by Patricia Claxton. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Limited, c1987. 414 p.
Roy, Gabrielle. Letters to Bernadette. Translated by Patricia Claxton. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Limited, c1990. 218 p.