Thursday, January 12, 2017

Old Bestseller: By the Good Sainte Anne, by Anna Chapin Ray

Old Bestseller: By the Good Sainte Anne, by Anna Chapin Ray

a review by Rich Horton

This book was not a major bestseller, but the author seems to have been somewhat popular in her day (the turn of the 20th Century, pretty much). Some of her books were explicitly aimed at young readers, with titles like Dick: A Story for Boys and Girls, and Teddy: Her Book: A Story of Sweet Sixteen. By the Good Sainte Anne, however, is for adult readers.

Anna Chapin Ray (1865-1945) was an American author, born in Massachusetts. As an adult, she spent summers in the US and winters (!) in Quebec, and a number of her books, including the book at hand, are set in Canada. She never married (Chapin is her middle name, and her mother's maiden name.) She was one of the first women to take the entrance exam at Yale, but she attended Smith College, earning a B.A. and an M. A., after which she turned to writing. She was close to her brother, Nathaniel Chapin Ray, an engineer, and some of her books involved engineering subjects, notably The Bridge Builders, about the collapse of a bridge on the St. Lawrence, modeled after an actual 1908 disaster. She often used the pseudonym Sidney Howard (called a male pseudonym in a source I saw, but as one of her books was called Sidney: Her Summer on the St. Lawrence, it's clear that (then as now) Sidney could be a woman's name, and that Ray would use it as such).

(cover by Alice Barber Stephens(?))

The illustrator of this book (just the frontispiece (and possibly the cover)) is not explicitly credited, but I was able to decipher the signature: Alice Barber Stephens. Alice Barber was born in 1858, and was an academically trained artist, studying under two of the great 19th Century American artists, Thomas Eakins and Howard Pyle (himself a famous illustrator, of course). She married a fellow artist, Charles Stephens, in 1890. Their one son, Owen, also became an illustrator. Alice Barber Stephens was a very well known artist in her time, known for illustrating a 1903 edition of Little Women. She died in 1932.

By the Good Sainte Anne is subtitled "A Story of Modern Quebec", and between that and the fact that the author spent her winters in Canada this qualifies, I think, as another example of Canlit, one of this blog's minor subthemes. My copy appears to possibly be a first edition, from Little, Brown, in 1904. It is inscribed "Helen C. Miller 620 Stewart Rd.".

The novel opens with the heroine, 19 year old Nancy Howard, reading a letter from a friend from New York, and feeling homesick. Her father is a doctor (her mother is dead), and they are spending a few weeks in Quebec, as Dr. Howard studies the evidence of miraculous cures at the Cathedral of Sainte Anne-de-Beaupré. They are currently in the town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, on the St. Lawrence some 20 or so miles from Quebec City. The Cathedral is in fact a real cathedral, dedicated to Sainte Anne (the mother of Mary, and the patron Saint of Quebec), and it is famous for miraculous cures, and to this day there are pilgrimages to it. (Much is made, later, of the notion that Nancy shares her name with the Saint, reminding me that in fact the given name Nancy was originally a nickname for Anne.)

(illustration by Alice Barber Stephens)
Nancy, on a whim, goes into town to see the current pilgrimage, though as a Protestant, she doesn't believe in miracles. At the same time, a young Englishman, Cecil Barth, has come from Quebec City to the cathedral, likewise as more of a tourist than a pilgrim. By mischance, on leaving the cathedral he falls and severely sprains his ankle, losing his eyeglasses in the process. Nancy jumps to help, and ends up volunteering her father's services to treat the ankle. And when no nurse can be found, Nancy spends the next week or so nursing Mr. Barth -- who proceeds to gravely insult her by tipping her! When he is well enough, he returns to the big city, where he is staying temporarily before moving to the West of Canada to become a rancher. Cecil is a shy young man, and his manners are very English and very stiff, and so he has not managed to make any friends, in particular antagonizing two other young men, an English Canadian named Reginald Brock and a French Canadian named Adolphe St. Jacques. (Much is made in the book of the contrast between the much easier manners of the three "colonials" (Nancy the American, Brock the Canadian, St. Jacques the French-Canadian), which are different to each other but somehow more mutually simpatico than the "Old Country" English ways of Cecil Barth.)

Soon Nancy and her father are in Quebec City as well, as her father's researches take him to Laval University (where both Brock and St. Jacques are studying). They stay at the same place as those two men, and while Cecil Barth is staying at a much nicer residence, he takes his meals there as well. (The place is run by a wise and kindly woman they call The Lady.) Nancy is shocked when Barth snubs her completely at dinner -- she does not realize that he doesn't recognize her at all (because he never truly saw her, due to his extreme nearsightedness and the loss of his eyeglasses. And, no, I didn't buy that either!) Soon Nancy and the other two young men are fast friends, while Cecil is enchanted by this pretty young American and puzzled when she seems very cold to him.

Well, you can see where this is going. What seems a love quadrangle becomes a triangle when it is clear that Reginald Brock wishes only to be a good friend to Nancy (he will soon be engaged to a woman from home). Nancy and St. Jacques are becoming very close, even as Nancy finally gets to know Cecil, and to understand the reasons for his prickly ways, and to forgive him for his failure to recognize her (not to mention the insult of the tip -- he had thought she was a hired nurse). In between the romance aspects of the plot we get a bit of a tourist guide to Quebec City circa 1903 or so. And it seems Nancy is really torn -- she is very fond of both Cecil and St. Jacques. St. Jacques' Catholicism is a bit of a problem for her -- and also the fact that both of them intend to stay in Canada is an issue, for Nancy is an American through and through.

After this setup, the resolution to Nancy's problem comes as rather a convenient -- if wrenching -- cheat, as a tragedy resolves the entire question. The problem of her eventual residence is too easily solved as well. But despite that disappointment, and despite the silly inital plot device involving Cecil Barth's failure to recognize a woman he has spent a week with on fairly intimate terms, I quite enjoyed this book. It's slight, of course (and fairly short), but that's OK. It's sweetly told, and the characters (all of whom are basically good people) are likable. The details of the setting are well realized, and the book bounces along breezily enough.

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