BESSETTE, ARSÈNE (baptized Moïse-Arsène), journalist and writer; b. 20 Dec. 1873 in Saint-Hilaire (Mont-Saint-Hilaire), Que., son of Moïse Bessette, a farmer and politician, and Valérie Lapalme; m. 16 Nov. 1907 Albina Lareau in Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), Que.; they had no children; d. 21 June 1921 in Montreal.
Arsène Bessette was the eldest in a family of eight. After attending the primary school in his native village, he obtained his classical education (1888–95) at the Collège Sainte-Marie-de-Monnoir, in particular through the generous support of Louis-Philippe Brodeur, the mp for the riding of Rouville from 1891. In 1898, as he was in no position to enrol in university – doubtless because of lack of funds – he embarked on a career in journalism, with a brief spell apprenticing at La Patrie. On 3 November of the following year, under the pseudonym Jean Rémuna, he published a story entitled “Michel Carabin” in Le Canada français/Le Franco-Canadien, a Saint-Jean weekly; its editor at the time was his friend Gabriel Marchand, the son of Félix-Gabriel Marchand*, one of the newspaper’s founders. The story relates how the eponymous hero, a staunch supporter of the Liberal party, prevents the tight-fisted Father Crétin, whose vote had been bought by the Conservatives, from getting to the polling station. On 28 June 1901 Bessette announced in Le Canada français that he was giving up Jean Rémuna, the pseudonym he had hitherto used, explaining: “[He] was neither big nor little, neither witty nor stupid, neither good nor evil; he was not a man, far less a woman, he was my pseudonym.” From then on he published articles under his own name on a variety of topics (including happiness, influenza, patriotism, and current affairs), as well as a small number of stories, anecdotes, and novellas. He remained a regular contributor to this paper until the end of 1917, apart from a brief interruption between 1903 and 1905 that can only be partly explained by his collaboration with the short-lived Montreal periodicals L’Étincelle and La Vie artistique.
Through the good offices of his friend Idola Saint-Jean*, he began in 1903 to correspond with a Breton teacher and, later, writer, Marie Le Franc, whom he invited to Canada in 1906 with decided intentions. No sooner had the young woman arrived in Montreal, however, than the idyll came to an end. On 16 Nov. 1907 Bessette married one of his colleagues at Le Canada français, Albina Lareau, who was known as Pimprenette.
Bessette, who had put on a one-act comedy in 1904 entitled “Les pantins,” which remains unpublished, wrote an article three years later in Le Canada français attacking censorship in the theatre. The nature of this piece was such that the chancellor of the archdiocese of Montreal, Émile Roy, was compelled to write a letter of protest to Gabriel Marchand on 7 Nov. 1907: “Monseigneur [the archbishop of Montreal], knowing the fine traditions of your family, is convinced that you do not share such opinions, and that they will no longer find expression in your newspaper.” Reprimanded at that time by his employer, Bessette stepped out of line again in 1909, when he pronounced himself in favour of the creation of a French theatre company in Montreal. This time he aroused the wrath of the Quebec ultramontane weekly La Vérité.
In 1914 Arsène Bessette had his only novel, Le débutant, published in Saint-Jean by La Compagnie de Publication Le Canada Français. It is not known if he had shown it to his friends, if the publisher of Le Canada Français had read the manuscript, or if Bessette himself sent the press release to La Presse, in which his work was described as a novel of the soil and an interesting portrait of social customs with most of the action taking place in the countryside. What is known is that the book was dedicated to “fellow journalists, to the sincere and upright men in public life, [and] to all those who have lost their illusions, before or at the same time as their hair.” The dedication was a premonition, for the author would quickly lose his own illusions when the critics ignored his novel. Since Bessette was on the members list of the masonic lodge L’Émancipation [see Adelstan de Martigny*] published in Le Devoir in 1910, not everyone would have been well disposed towards him, which doubtless explains why the publication of his novel – “the only work of fiction in Quebec literature inspired by masonic ideas,” according to Roger Le Moine – met with a conspiracy of silence. The fact that the book did not come out in one of the major urban centres is not enough to account for the critics’ indifference; on the other hand, their lack of interest may have discouraged Bessette from publishing the two further volumes that were announced when Le débutant appeared.
What is the novel about? Paul Mirot, the hero of the story, and his introduction to journalism, to the world of letters, and to love, was probably a projection of the author. Indeed, Paul has much in common with his creator, for, like Bessette, he is determined, courageous, witty, and intelligent. These qualities led the owner of Le Populiste to hire Paul as a journalist. Soon appreciated by both his employers and his readers, he also wins the heart of Simone Laperle, the beautiful and wealthy cousin of his best friend, Jacques Vaillant. Having become his mistress, the young woman introduces him to society. In partnership with Vaillant, Mirot founds a newspaper, in which he denounces the rigidity of society. He is also engaged in writing a novel that deals with the dangers of nationalistic ideology in literature. The newspaper is censured for its supposedly revolutionary ideas and ceases publication. Mirot’s novel is banned and he loses his job at the newspaper where he is then working. In addition, the death of Simone closes his love life. The novel ends in complete failure, yet the hero remains confident about the future, while attaching no importance to the past.
Contrary to what literary critics would assert for many years, Bessette himself did not lose his job at Le Canada français when Le débutant was published, nor was the novel condemned by the archbishop. The writer remained on the staff of Le Canada français until the end of 1917, when he moved to Montreal to work for Le Pays and La Presse. In 1920 he became an inspector for the Montreal Tramways Commission.
Arsène Bessette died suddenly on 21 June 1921 while visiting a friend. Notices of his death appeared in several newspapers, but Le Canada français, where he had worked for more than 15 years, had only a short article on the life of this writer who had dreamt of becoming famous but whose passing went unremarked. Yet Bessette’s only book, which was well written and carefully researched with regard to the political situation in the province, was distinctly superior to the other Québécois novels written by his generation. As well, by exploring the theme of free love, it anticipated Jean-Charles Harvey*’s Les demi-civilisés, which would cause a scandal when it came out in 1934.
[Arsène Bessette’s novel, Le débutant, was reprinted in Montreal in 1977, thanks to Madeleine Ducrocq-Poirier, and again in Saint-Laurent, Que., in 2002. The author is grateful to Marie-Frédérique Desbiens, a third-year literature student at the Université Laval, Quebec, for her assistance with the research for this biography. a.b.]
ANQ-M, CE602-S16, 21 déc. 1873. Centre de Recherche Interuniversitaire sur la Littérature et la Culture Québécoises, Univ. Laval, Arch. du projet DOLQ; Arch. du projet Histoire de la vie littéraire au Québec. LAC, MG 30, D135. Réjean Beaudoin, “La quasi-dissidence d’un débutant de 1914,” Le Jour (Saint-Laurent), 1er juill. 1977. “Il publiera un roman du terroir,” La Presse, 28 févr. 1914. La Presse, 23 juin 1921. René Dionne, “Un maillon de la chaîne: Le débutant d’Arsène Bessette,” Les Lettres québécoises (Montréal), no.6 (avril–mai 1977): 24–25, 31. DOLQ, vol.2. Madeleine Ducrocq-Poirier, Le roman canadien de langue française de 1860 à 1958: recherche d’un esprit romanesque (Paris, 1978). Hamel et al., DALFAN, 133–34. Pierre Hébert et Patrick Nicol, Censure et littérature au Québec (Saint-Laurent, 1997). Histoire de l’édition littéraire au Québec au XXe siècle, sous la dir. de Jacques Michon (1v. paru, Saint-Laurent, 1999– ), 1 (Jacques Michon, La naissance de l’édition, 1900–1939, 1999). Albert Laberge, Journalistes, écrivains et artistes (Montréal, 1945). Roger Le Moine, Deux loges montréalaises du Grand Orient de France (Ottawa, 1991). Mariages du comté de Saint-Jean (1828–1950), comp. Irenée Jetté et al. (Sillery, Qué., 1974). Les relations entre la France et le Canada au XIXe siècle (Paris, 1974). Normand St-Pierre, “La censure du roman Le débutant (1914) de Arsène Bessette: le texte et l’institution” (mémoire de ma, univ. du Québec à Montréal, 1984).