A Review of Hugh MacLennan’s “Two Solitudes”
I’m going to try something new here. In lags between new books, I thought I’d start reading the “classics” and pen reviews of such works from the angle of “Do they still hold up now?” So, first off the bat, I have the late Canadian author Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, which was originally published in 1945 and was a winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. If you are unfamiliar with the work, this is a sweeping family saga of English and French Canada. MacLennan was audacious in writing this book — though he is an English Canadian, much of the novel is written from the French-Canadian perspective. And he hits the nail on the head, largely, in summarizing French Canada’s grievances.
The story is set in the Quebec parish of Saint-Marc-des-Érables and also Montreal between the tail end of the First World War and the very start of the Second World War. The tale centers on the Tallard family: father Athanase is a Member of Parliament in Ottawa and is a major land owner in Saint-Marc. He has two sons: the teenaged Marius, from his first marriage to a French Catholic wife, and seven-year-old Paul, from his second marriage to an Irish Protestant woman. Athanase is something of a federalist, getting chummy with big English Canadian business interests, while his son Marius is a bitter, staunch French nationalist trying to evade conscription. At the outset of the book, an Englishman has made a home on Athanase’s land and the English, in general, see the land as being good for the erection of a factory, something that flies in the face of the devoutly religious French population who don’t want change in the small village. Their reason is a good one: the factories would be owned by the English bosses, while the French would perform slave labour at reduced wages and be perpetual servants to their Anglophone masters.
The second half of the book, meanwhile, focuses on the grown-up Paul and his relationship with a granddaughter of John Yardley, the English landowner in Saint-Marc, despite protestations from both character’s families on all sides who see this bit of race-mixing to be a dilution of their respective heritages. Not helping matters is that Paul is out of work due to the Great Depression, leading the English family to believe that he would sponge off them. Characters largely on the English side of the fence work hard to make sure that the relationship is not consummated by marriage.
As you can tell, this is a sprawling novel. There’s some plot that I’ve left out (and I don’t know what’s left to spoil in a book that is now more than 70 years old), but even though the book unfolds at a leisurely pace, there is much drama and tension within its pages. I found Two Solitudes to largely hold up — if this novel were published today, the background of the English-French conflict in Canada would be historically accurate. MacLennan even had the foresight to write the following about how Quebec saw its future: “A pure race, a pure language, larger families, no more connection with the English, no interference from foreigners, … with these conditions Quebec would reach the millennium.” MacLennan didn’t live long enough to see the near realization of that dream in 1995. Of course, MacLennan didn’t foresee the Quiet Revolution and its impacts, but Two Solitudes is hardly science fiction.
The book is an enjoyable and richly rendered read. At the time of its publication, Canada was seen as a literary backwater — meaning that MacLennan was a pioneering voice in CanLit. However, the book is so finely written that you sometimes forget that this is a novel that is distinctly Canadian. It could have easily passed as the work of an American writer, but, of course, no American could read the pulse of the Canadian landscape as MacLennan did.
There are some problems with the book, however. The John Yardley character easily bandies around the n-word fairly frequently, so Two Solitudes is not a politically correct volume for modern times. The book also ends on something of a cliff-hanger, with much of its plot unresolved. However, these are minor blemishes (on the political correctness angle, I acknowledge my white privilege but note that the language was probably in vogue at the time the character existed) in what is undoubtedly a major work of Canadian fiction. It is still possible to read and enjoy Two Solitudes in the year 2018. For one thing, it helped me in my understanding of why some Quebecois are so hostile, racist and bitter — even though we don’t get much backstory on the Marius Tallard character in particular. (We just know that he resents his Irish stepmother.) The book acknowledges the tensions that have existed between the two races — though, of course, there’s nothing about the volatile mix of the addition of indigenous peoples to the centuries-old conflict.
Overall, I most enjoyed Two Solitudes. It really feels as though it can stand on its own beside American and British powerhouse writers of the era. It is ambitious, and that ambition is largely realized. It is also slightly skeptical that the English and French would ever be able to fully get along, seeing as though the former had its conquest over the latter. The remnants of that conquest are still fully present today. Still, there’s a glimmer of hope by novel’s end that a bridge could form between the two worlds, and a new breed of Canadian would emerge. That foresight is largely true, at least here in Ottawa. Even though the issues that this work brings up are still relevant — also making this good reading for the current year — it suspects that someone like Pierre Elliott Trudeau was waiting in the wings. In the end, Two Solitudes is a fine novel by any writer, and any students wanting to know how Canada has been shaped would be wise to take a gander here.
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