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Ursulas Convent or The Nun of Canada by Julia Hart

St. Ursula's Convent or The Nun of Canada, Julia Catherine Beckwith

Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart

Julia Catherine (Beckwith) Hart is credited as being the first Canadian novelist. She was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on 10 March 1796 to Nehemiah Beckwith, a United Empire Loyalist, and his second wife, Julie-Louise Le Brun de Duplessis, the daughter of a Quebec advocate and first cousin of the renowned early historian Abbe Ferland. Nehemiah Beckwith settled in New Brunswick in 1779 and founded a profitable shipbuilding business, through which he became largely responsible for establishing regular water transportation between Fredericton and Saint John. He was also known to have done business with Benedict Arnold. Julie-Louise may have been working as a governess at the residence of Thomas Carleton, Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, when she met and married Nehemiah in Fredericton. Julie-Louise abandoned her Catholic faith soon thereafter and adopted her husband’s Wesleyan Methodism with apparently little consequence to her relationship with her family, as she continued to travel to Quebec via canoe, later enduring the difficult trip with her children in tow in order to pay regular visits to her relatives. Nehemiah’s tragic death by drowning in 1815 left Julie-Louise solely responsible for the family’s welfare, making it necessary for Julia and her siblings to seek occupations that would enable independence from their widowed mother.

Though Julia Beckwith was well-schooled in reading and writing, very little is known of her education. She travelled to Kingston, Upper Canada, in 1820 to live with her aunt, “probably in order to lessen the burden on her mother” (Bailey). There she instituted a bilingual (French/English) boarding school for girls, which she continued to run for two years after her marriage to George Henry Hart, an English bookbinder, on 3 January 1822.

Julia Beckwith’s first novel, St. Ursula’s Convent, or, The Nun of Canada: Containing Scenes from Real Life (1824), was the first work of fiction to be published in Canada by a native-born Canadian. Though Julia wrote the manuscript in 1813, when she was just seventeen years old, she withheld it for eleven years before Hugh C. Thomson, a Kingston publisher, printed the first edition in two volumes. Although at least 200 copies were printed, only four are known to have survived (Lochhead, “Introduction” 2). St. Ursula’s Convent was published anonymously with an author’s preface, a dedication to The Countess of Dalhousie (the wife of the governor-in-chief of British North America), and a list of 147 subscribers, solicited in part through an advertisement placed by Thomson in the Upper Canada Herald on 10 June 1823. In her preface, the author acknowledges the writing’s crudeness in comparison with “the elegance and refinement which adorn the land of our forefathers,” but expresses the hope that her novel “may elicit others of real and intrinsic merit,” thereby initiating the important task of fostering Canada’s “native genius in its humblest beginnings” (i-ii). Based on the events surrounding the siege of Quebec, St. Ursula’s Convent is an epic tale that follows a young hero through fantastic escapades, including two shipwrecks and imprisonment in the silver mines of Mexico. The complex and convoluted plot, heavily reliant on coincidence and far-fetched circumstances, fuels much of the largely negative criticism the novel has received. Scholars unanimously regard St. Ursula’s Convent as melodramatic and deeply moralistic, but have more recently recognized its vital contribution to establishing Canada as a cultural locus independent of England, where valuable art inspired by regional experience could and should be produced. Douglas Lochhead suggests that the novel’s episodic chapters could be more usefully considered as a set of collected bedtime stories for children (“Editor’s Introduction” xxxiii). Scholars have also noted the significance of the novel’s unbiased attitude of respect for both French- and English-Canadian sentiments. Since Julia was born into a harmonious union of English Loyalist and Québécois families, and took regular visits to both her mother’s relatives in Quebec and her father’s in Nova Scotia, her unprejudiced attitude evidently arises out of her personal experience. St. Ursula’s Convent was reprinted by Carleton University Press in 1991 and is often included as part of the canon in Canadian literary studies, but still receives scant readership considering its monumental importance.

Hart and her husband moved to Rochester, New York in 1824, where she published her second novel, Tonnewonte, or, The Adopted Son of America: A Tale Containing Scenes from Real Life (1824). Once again, Julia refrained from publishing under her name and instead anonymously signed herself “an American,” perhaps to gain credibility among her American readership. Tonnewonte is a frontier novel that glorifies the honest pioneer way of life, displaying what Jennifer Dee Jeffries refers to as “the Wacousta Syndrome” through its portrayal of the North American Native as the uncivilized “noble savage” (vol. 1 xvi). By starkly contrasting life in the wilderness with life in “civilized” society, the novel heavy-handedly criticizes the social inequalities of the new settlements. Though Tonnewonte shows an increased maturity in Hart’s writing style, its contrived plot turns and moral overtones once again garnered unfavourable reviews among literary critics. As a result, the novel has since faded into relative obscurity.

When Julia’s husband secured a position working for the New Brunswick Crown Land Office in 1831, the couple returned to Fredericton, where Julia continued to raise their six children and spend the remainder of her life. During this time, she made regular contributions to James Hogg’s weekly paper, the New Brunswick Reporter, and completed the manuscript for a third novel entitled Edith, or, The Doom (c. 1851). Based on a legend passed down through Hart’s English lineage, Edith chronicles the tribulations of a cursed family through several generations. When a young woman is forced to marry an evil conqueror, a curse cast upon the family dictates that each subsequent generation is doomed to produce only one daughter, each an Edith reincarnate, until one of the Ediths grows into a mysterious maiden, doomed to wander the wilderness in search of “pure love” with a “congenial spirit” and thereby absolving her family of the curse (Bennet 322). Friends and scholars who read the manuscript remarked on its realistic portrayal of North American landscape and settler life (Jeffries, vol. 1 xv). Though Hart published excerpts from this manuscript in the New Brunswick Reporter and Fredericton Advertiser in 1848-9, the novel was never published in full.

Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart died on 28 November 1867 in Fredericton. The New Brunswick Reporter made mention of her passing, but neglected to indicate her important contribution to Canadian literature, which was further neglected throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. Today, however, historians and literary scholars recognize her pioneering pursuit as fundamental to the development of Canadian national identity. Projecting her doubled cultural heritage through the lens of early Canadian experience, Hart’s work provides an essential precursor to the multicultural nationalism that has become characteristic of Canadian literature. A bronze tablet commemorating Hart as Canada’s first native-born novelist was forged in 1954 and unveiled by historian Lilian Maxwell, one of Hart’s descendants, at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

Corinna Chong, Spring 2009
University of New Brunswick

Bibliography of primary sources

Hart, Julia Catherine Beckwith. Edith, or, The Doom. Ms, 1851. University of New Brunswick Archives, Fredericton, NB.

---. “Scenes from an Unpublished Work: The Three Courtships of Chas. M’Donald” [early excerpts from Edith]. New Brunswick Reporter and Fredericton Advertiser 29 Dec. 1848: 1, 5 Jan. 1849: 1, 12 Jan. 1849: 1, 19 Jan. 1849: 1, 26 Jan. 1849: 1.

---. St. Ursula’s Convent, or, The Nun of Canada: Containing Scenes from Real Life. 2 vols. Kingston: Hugh C. Thomson, 1824. Sackville, NB: Mount Allison University, 1978. Toronto: Cherry Tree Press, 1981. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1991.

---. “Supplement” [advertisement for Girls School]. Kingston Chronicle 20 Apr. 1821: 4.

---. Tonnewonte, or, The Adopted Son of America: A Tale Containing Scenes from Real Life. 2 vols. Watertown: J.Q. Adams, 1824. Albany: Daniel Steele & Son, 1825. Exeter: B.H. Meder, 1831.

BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SECONDARY SOURCES

Bailey, Alfred G. “Beckwith, Julia Catherine (Hart).” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Vol. 9 (1861-1870). Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000. 1 Apr. 2009 <http://www.biographi.ca/index-e.html>.

Bennet, C.L. “An Unpublished Manuscript of the First Canadian Novelist.” The Dalhousie Review 43.3 (1963): 317-32.

Chisholme, David. “Saint Ursula’s Convent or The Nun of Canada.” Canadian Review and Literary and Historical Journal 1 (1824): 49-53.

Christie, Alexander James, ed. “New Publications.” Canadian Magazine and Literary Repository 2 (1824): 463-64.

French, Donald G. “Who’s Who in Canadian Literature: Some Early Writers.” Canadian Bookman 8.3 (1926): 75-77.

Jeffries, Jennifer Dee. Edith, or, The Doom by Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart: A Scholarly Edition. MA thesis. 3 vols. University of New Brunswick, 1991.

“Julia-Catharine [sic] Beckwith.” Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 7 (1901): 369-72.

Lochhead, Douglas G. “Editor’s Introduction.” St. Ursula’s Convent, or, The Nun of Canada. By Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart. Ed. Douglas G. Lochhead. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1991. xvii-xli.

---. “Introduction.” St. Ursula’s Convent, or, The Nun of Canada. Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart. Ed. Douglas G. Lochhead. Sackville, NB: Mount Allison University, 1978. 1-9.

Loughlin, Dorothy Aileen. The Development of Social and Intellectual Attitudes As Revealed in the Literature of New Brunswick. MA thesis. University of New Brunswick, 1948.

MacCulloh, Lewis Luke (L.L.M) a.k.a. Samuel Hull Wilcocke. “Review of Publications.” Scribbler 5 (1824): 225-34.

MacFarlane, W.G., ed. “Hart, Mrs. Julia Catherine.” New Brunswick Bibliography. St. John, NB: Press of the Sun, 1895. 40.

Maxwell, Lilian M. Beckwith. “The First Canadian Born Novelist.” The Dalhousie Review 31.1 (1951): 59-64.

“The Collector.” Editorial. Canadian Bookman 12.9 (1930): 194-95.

Thomson, Hugh C. “Proposals for Publishing by Subscription: St. Ursula’s Convent, or, The Nun of Canada, Containing Scenes from Real Life.” Upper Canada Herald 10 June 1823: 3.