PETITCLAIR, PIERRE, notary’s clerk, writer, and tutor; b. 12 Oct. 1813 in Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, Lower Canada, son of Pierre Petit-Clair, a farmer, and Cécile Moisan; d. unmarried, probably 15 Aug. 1860, at Pointe au Pot (Pointe à la Peau), Lower Canada.
Although he came from a farming family of modest means, Pierre Petitclair had the good fortune to receive an education and become broadly cultured. After four years of study at the Petit Séminaire de Québec from 1825 to 1829, he was employed as a clerk in the court record office in Quebec, and under the guidance of notary Joseph-François Perrault* he received his initial legal training. However, the bar held no attraction for him, and three years later he became a copyist for another notary, Archibald Campbell*. A patron of the arts, Campbell owned a well-stocked library, was interested in both arts and sciences, prizing the humanities in particular, and enjoyed encouraging young people of talent. He was a real benefactor to Petitclair and undoubtedly exercised a great influence on him. But then he was dealing with a gifted person, for Petitclair excelled in mathematics, geometry, and philosophy, played the clarinet, violin, and guitar, sang magnificently, tried his hand at musical composition, appreciated painting, was adept with a brush, and above all was passionately fond of literature. He not only read everything that came to hand, but he himself had begun to write, first poems and then two comedies entitled “Qui trop embrasse mal étreint” and Griphon ou la vengeance d’un valet. He remained with Campbell for about five years, until 1837.
It was probably during this period that Petitclair had a love affair, about which little is known but which appears to have marked him deeply. In three poems, “La somnambule,” “À Flore,” and “Sombre est mon âme comme vous,” he dealt with the theme of infidelity, and in his plays he had a way of disparaging love which often went beyond mockery and satire to betray a good deal of bitterness. It appears, then, that a woman had disappointed his expectations and that the experience was a profound shock to him. It probably explains why he remained a bachelor and felt no regret at abandoning Quebec for the isolated north shore of the St Lawrence.
During the winter of 1837–38 Petitclair accepted a position as tutor in a family with 12 children. The father, Guillaume-Louis Labadie, spent his time fishing in summer and seal hunting in winter. Petitclair accompanied the family everywhere, and hence lived in a succession of places on the north shore and the Gaspé peninsula before finally settling with the Labadies at the Anse des Dunes near Blanc-Sablon. From then on he returned to Quebec only for short visits. He was there in the autumn of 1842; this was the period when he reached the peak of his literary career, publishing within a couple of weeks three poems, “Pauvre soldat! qu’il doit souffrir!,” “À Flore,” and “Le règne du juste,” and also a comedy, “La donation,” which was first performed on 16 November and was well received. Subsequently Petitclair produced only one more comedy, Une partie de campagne, performed at Quebec on 22 April 1857 and published in December 1865. This play, which had taken longer to shape than the others, is probably his best work. It portrays an anglomaniac who makes himself look ridiculous as much through naïvety as through pride. Consequently this comedy has lost none of its topicality.
Pierre Petitclair is now no more than a name in the history of Canadian literature, and with the exception of Louis-Michel Darveau*, who wrote a panegyric on him in Nos hommes de lettres, no one considers him highly talented. He is rightly criticized for failing in his poetry to free himself from the formalist stamp of the classical era, and for yielding too readily to pre-romantic sentimentality. As for his comedies, they contain a few good satirical scenes and might still amuse the young, but on the whole they reveal him to be a rather poor imitator of Molière, Jean-François Regnard, Eugène Scribe, and Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Petitclair’s work is not without interest. Reading a poem such as “Le règne du juste” or a short story such as “Une aventure au Labrador,” one discovers that Petitclair not only was aware of the problems of his time but also had the wisdom to laugh at them and the boldness to denounce those responsible. Hence one must be careful not to pass too hasty a judgement on his three comedies or to see them as no more than the experiments of an amateur bent merely on his own diversion. The conventional plot conceals the true purpose, which is satirical. And, even more surprising, Petitclair, instead of putting the blame solely on the despotic and all-powerful Englishman, took aim at his compatriots. Perhaps better than others, he was able to see that under the régime uniting the two Canadas the French Canadian was an innocent who allowed himself to be outwitted with an ease more incredible than disconcerting. Displaying an audacity rare in the 19th century, he even flung a few barbs at the church, which he held responsible for the ignorance and excessive simple-mindedness of the faithful in Lower Canada. Hence, although his work is disappointing as literature, Petitclair remains important as a keen observer of his century and his milieu. Cultured and perspicacious, he understood the forces pitted against each other and sensed who in French Canada were tipping the balance of ideas on the eve of confederation.
[Pierre Petitclair’s poems, “La somnambule” (1835), “Sombre est mon âme comme vous” (1839), “À Flore” (1842), “Pauvre soldat! qu’il doit souffrir!” (1842), and “Le règne du juste” (1843), were published first in newspapers, and then brought together by James Huston in Répertoire national (1848–50), vols.1–2, which also contains a comedy, “La donation,” previously published in L’Artisan (Québec), 15, 29 Dec. 1842. Two other comedies were also published at Quebec, Griphon ou la vengeance d’un valet in 1837 and Une partie de campagne in a posthumous edition in 1865; these two, along with “La donation,” are analysed by Jean Du Berger in DOLQ, vol.1. The manuscripts of the plays “Qui trop embrasse mal étreint” and “Le brigand” have not been located and were apparently not published. Petitclair also wrote the short story, “Une aventure au Labrador,” published in Le Fantasque (Québec), 2 and 9 Nov. 1840.
Except for biographical dictionaries, few works deal with Petitclair. There is a biography by Louis-Michel Darveau in Nos hommes de lettres (Montréal, 1873) and an article by Victor Morin, “Un pionnier de théâtre canadien: Pierre Petitclair,” in La Rev. moderne (Montréal), 14 (1932), no.2: 6, but otherwise Petitclair is now mentioned only as the first French-Canadian playwright. j.-c.n.]
ANQ-Q, CE1-17, 12 oct. 1813. ASQ, Fichier des anciens.