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CHEVALIER, HENRI-ÉMILE, journalist and man of letters; b. 13 Sept. 1828 at Châtillon-sur-Seine, Côté-d’Or, France; d. 25 Aug. 1879 in Paris.

Scarcely anything is known about Chevalier’s early years except that he enlisted in a regiment of dragoons in 1847, and that he stayed in it three years, at the same time contributing to various newspapers. The liking that he developed for this sideline prompted him to leave the army in order to devote himself full time to republican political journalism, which was then an occupation as hazardous as soldiering. An article he published in the newspaper he had just started, Le Progrès de la Côte-d’Or, landed him in Dijon prison. Republicans were sentenced to exile in great numbers by Charles-Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte [Napoleon III], after his coup d’état of 2 Dec. 1851. Victor Hugo, young Chevalier’s idol, went to Guernsey; his distant disciple chose to continue in the United States, the land of liberty, a career that he had barely started. He landed at New York in the spring of 1852, worked for the Courrier des États-Unis there, and left it after a few months because the director, Eugène Masseras, turned over the journal to the Bonapartist cause. At the end of 1852 or beginning of 1853 he came to Montreal, where he knew he would find affinities of language and where he hoped to find affinities of thought. His hopes were not to be disappointed.

In February 1853 he became editor of La Ruche littéraire et illustrée, started by George-Hippolyte Cherrier with the object of publishing exclusively Canadian works in monthly instalments of 64 pages. But La Ruche littéraire – starting with the March issue, it ceased to be illustrated, for want of good sketchers – could never be kept supplied with strictly Canadian material: until it finally disappeared in 1859 it reproduced French writings and translations of foreign works. Moreover, from August onwards, Chevalier and his contributors, mostly exiles like himself, could not resist the desire to give “an account of the diplomatic events of the two continents.” Entitled from then on La Ruche littéraire et politique, the paper published poems and pensées of Voltaire and Victor Hugo, gave generous place to romantic poetry, was a medium for republican and antibonapartist ideas, and condemned the intolerance that marked the tumultuous visit of Alessandro Gavazzi to Canada [see Charles Wilson]. Chevalier, now co-owner of La Ruche, published in this journal instalments of his own novels which had an historical flavour, for instance “L’Héroïne de Chateauguay,” “L’Iroquoise de Caughnawaga,” and “Le Pirate du St Laurent,” in which are to be found episodes taken from L’Histoire . . . by François-Xavier Garneau*, and “Les Mystères de Montréal,” a rather obvious imitation of the Mystères de Paris by Eugène Sue. The liberal character of La Ruche no doubt impressed contemporaries as much as did the ungainly manner of these first novels of Chevalier. A proof is that one reader even deplored the “pitiful political chronicles of a blood-red rougisme” that he read there. However, it was lack of funds that brought about the disappearance, in June 1859, of La Ruche, which the preceding month was said to be “at the peak of prosperity,” and not the “blood-red rougisme.” In the latter respect Chevalier had truly found in the Canada of the 1850s a well-disposed environment.

The Institut Canadien was showing itself at the time in its true colours: the divorce between its thinking and that of the church under Bishop Ignace Bourget* was pronounced, and the clash of uncompromising attitudes was sure to come into the open. Certainly the members of the Institut Canadien, a sort of popular university in Philippe Sylvain’s words, had a keen sense of material and social progress which they wanted to communicate to the country, as well as a desire to help the French Canadian community. They waged their fight to the beat of a drum; they blazened forth to the world their leitmotiv of “light, progress, knowledge.” They glorified revolutions and their “immortal principles,” they protested against the authoritarianism preached by the church and against the temporal power of the pope, they advocated the separation of church and state and even the neutrality of teaching, and, in the name of the right of peoples to decide their own fate, they heartily approved of Italian unification, which was in process of being realized. In their battle they faced the undisputed champion of the most stringent ultramontanism, Ignace Bourget, archbishop of Montreal, who waited for them with vizor lowered. For him, the church represented the supreme authority, and all Catholics owed obedience to its overriding power in religious, scientific, and political matters. This theocratic system, according to which revolution constituted the “absolute evil,” could not therefore accommodate a single one of the positions taken by the liberals of the Institut Canadien [see Doutre].

It can readily be guessed with what faction Henri-Émile Chevalier would side, especially since the church rallied whole-heartedly to Napoleon III, and since in Canada this sympathy continued until 1859. Shortly after his arrival in 1853, Chevalier was admitted into the Institut Canadien, which that year numbered 499 members. The library contained 2,701 volumes, and its reading room was stocked with 66 newspapers, Canadian, American, and European. The new arrival, full of fervour, used his persuasive powers to get the institute to receive French republicans who were passing through Montreal. In 1854 he gave two “lectures” there (and the apostate, Narcisse Cyr, three), was entrusted with a course of 18 lessons on French history and literature, and, an important point, was made librarian of the institute. He was still directing La Ruche, and found time to contribute to Le Moniteur canadien, La Patrie, and Le Pays. Moreover, in June 1859 he was to become editor of this last paper, which was the official organ of French Canadian liberalism. All his activities bore the stamp of rougisme, and Chevalier defined himself as follows: “What am I? A socialist republican. What do I want? Social reforms. What do I aspire to? The abolition of nationalities.”

This credo did not fit in at all with Bishop Bourget’s now belligerent ultramontanism. In 1858 the latter decided to curb the diffusion of revolutionary ideas by the Institut Canadien, and to proscribe books and papers which infected people with this poison. “Impious books” and “bad newspapers” (meaning Le Pays) were to disappear, and it rested with the bishop, backed by the decrees of the Council of Trent, to judge the nature of the works harboured by the institute’s library. The liberals saw in this a direct attack on their liberty, and one can ill imagine “citizen” Pierre Blanchet and Louis-Antoine Dessaulles* having their reading censured by the archbishop of Montreal. So the Institut Canadien kept its few hundreds of volumes deemed harmful by the Congregation of the Index, but lost 135 members who did not want to incur the anathema of their bishop [see Cassidy].

Chevalier did not appear among the dissidents. He had given up his post as librarian, but none the less continued to take part in the life of the institute. A proof of this is the lectures that he gave there in 1857 on “the history, climate, and produce of the Hudson Bay territory.” He held his meetings at the “café de la mère Lepère,” in the Ruelle des Fortifications, when his numerous activities permitted. For as well as directing La Ruche, working at the institute, and contributing to various newspapers, Chevalier wrote novels, translated others, translated also the reports of the Canadian Geological Survey, and even, for a fee, gave French lessons. It is not surprising that his health was undermined. (It seems that his financial situation was always precarious, but we do not know whether family obligations were a burden on his budget. We know that he married a Miss Sophronie Rouvier and that they had a still-born child at Saint-Rémi-de-Napierville.) Wearied by this toil, conscious perhaps that even beyond the ocean he could not compete with Louis Veuillot, he took advantage of the amnesty granted to political exiles by Napoleon III on 16 Aug. 1859. Less stiff-necked in his antibonapartism than Louis Blanc and Victor Hugo, Henri-Émile Chevalier left Canada on 17 March 1860. An old enemy, L’Ordre, exclaimed with a sigh of relief: “May the winds be propitious to him!”

Chevalier was only 31, but he was rich with an experience that he would try to turn to account in his own country. He worked on the staff of Le Progrès, and of L’Opinion nationale, a journal of left-wing Bonapartists. He also dabbled in politics, and represented the district of Grenelle on the Paris city council from 1871 to 1875. But it was the literary aspect of his career that was connected with Canada, and that consequently interests us.

James Fenimore Cooper’s success in France was sensational; the South American reminiscences of Gustave [Olivier Gloux] Aimard, dressed up in fictional form, still enjoyed great popularity. Chevalier, in a society where romantic literature was out of date and where his radicalism closed the doors of the great newspapers against him, quickly found the course to take: he would turn his American experience into cash. His drawers contained nothing suitable. Never mind about that! He dug up Les Trappeurs de la baie d’Hudson, a translation he had made himself of a work by J. H. Robinson and had published in La Ruche, changed the title and a few of the translator’s notes, and resolutely offered Les Pieds-Noirs by Henri-Émile Chevalier to the French public; it went through six editions in two years. In 1861, the same year, appeared a French translation of the Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America . . . , by Paul Kane. Given such an opening, he decided to write a series of novels, titled Drames de l’Amerique du Nord, of which Les Pieds-Noirs would be the first instalment. La Huronne would be the second stage. This Huronne is a queer medley: the first two chapters of the “Mystères de Montréal” formed the prologue, eight chapters of “La Huronne de Lorette” were added as they stood, and the rest was borrowed fairly liberally from Paul Kane. The plot is simple (in 1841 two young men leave Montreal for the west coast, to rescue the fiancée of one of them), and is a pretext for describing the geography and customs of Canada and for evoking its history. The two travellers meet a Métis, Poignets d’Acier, a central figure of the succeeding volumes (La Tête Plate, Les Nez-Percés, Les Derniers Iroquois, Poignets d’Acier), who is going to get rich in the gold mines, fight the Indians, direct the Fils de la Liberté during the 1837–38 insurrection, and undertake to drive the English out of Canada and Hudson Bay. The intrigue lacks probability, the figures do not stand out, characters get forgotten during the course of so many wanderings, and each heroine is carried off by Indians, but there is a profusion of “local colour,” and the volumes proved successful. By this time an authority on Canada, Chevalier published an historical novel on Jacques Cartier*, produced a very presentable edition of Le Grand Voyage . . . by Brother Gabriel Sagard*, and began another series of Canadian novels, this time without links between them. Examples are Le Chasseur noir, Les Requins de l’Atlantique, Peaux-Rouges et Peaux-Blanches, and La Fille des Indiens rouges (the story of a French explorer who preceded the Cabots in Labrador and Newfoundland in 1494).

It must be allowed that Chevalier has a brisk, lively style, and a fiery imagination, which unfortunately is spoiled by the absence of any kind of discipline in the construction of the plots. His characters act under the impulse of some vague caprice on the part of their creator, and often serve only to express his opinions and prejudices. Chevalier is not sparing of historical facts and details, but his concern for exactitude is too often akin to that of his illustrious predecessor Chateaubriand. His feverish urge to publish harmed the quality of his work and even adversely affected his intellectual honesty. “He writes at the dictates of the moment,” Edmond Lareau* said, speaking of his literary contributions to La Ruche, “at top speed, to fill the pages of the issue. You would think the publishers were wrenching the manuscript from his hands.” This judgement may also be applied to his later work.

In short, Henri-Émile Chevalier was one of the group of French republicans who came, as exiles from their country, to the banks of the St Lawrence, where they disseminated their ideas and set passions afire at the Institut Canadien. Having returned home, they held learned discourse on a country that they knew superficially. Not over scrupulous, but hard-working, scamping what he did but conforming to the taste of the time, Henri-Émile Chevalier was not out of place in this context.

Marc La Terreur

The principal fictionalized works of Henri-Émile Chevalier are: L’héroïne de Chateauguay; épisode de la guerre de 1813 (Montréal, 1858); Le pirate du St Laurent (Montréal, 1859). In the series entitled Drames de l’Amérique du Nord are: Les Pieds-Noirs (Paris, 1861); La Huronne (Paris, 1861); Les Nez-Percés (Paris, 1862); Les derniers Iroquois (Paris, 1863); Les requins de l’Atlantique (Paris, 1863); Peaux-Rouges et Peaux-Blanches; ou, Les douze apôtres et leurs femmes (Paris et Toulon, 1864); La fille des Indiens rouges (Paris, 1866).

    AJM, Registre d’état civil (notes biographiques fournies par J.-J. Lefebvre). F.-X. Garneau, Voyage en Angleterre et en France dans les années 1831, 1832 et 1833, Paul Wyczynski, édit. (Coll. Présence, sér. A: Le Saint-Laurent, Ottawa, 1968). La Ruche littéraire (Montréal), févr. 1853–1859. Pierre Larousse, Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle . . . (17v., Paris, 1865–90), XVI. Gustave Vapereau, Dictionnaire universel des contemporains . . . (5e éd., Paris, 1880). Théophile Hudon, L’Institut canadien de Montréal et l’affaire Guibord; une page d’histoire (Montréal, 1938). Lareau, Hist. de la littérature canadienne, 286–89. Sylvain, “Libéralisme et ultramontanisme,” Shield of Achilles (Morton), 111–38, 220–55. Beatrice Corrigan, “Henri-Émile Chevalier and his novels of North America,” Romanic Review (New York), XXXV (1944), 220–31. É.-Z. Massicotte, “Émile Chevalier et Montréal en 1860,” La Revue populaire (Montréal) (oct. 1910), 92–97. Robert [Philippe] Sylvain, “Lamartine et les catholiques de France et du Canada,” RHAF, IV (1950–51), 375–97.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Marc La Terreur, “CHEVALIER, HENRI-ÉMILE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/chevalier_henri_emile_10E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/chevalier_henri_emile_10E.html
Author of Article:   Marc La Terreur
Title of Article:   CHEVALIER, HENRI-ÉMILE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   April 16, 2024