Anne Hébert was born in the small summer home of her parents in Sainte-Catherine-de-Fossambault, a country village in Quebec province. The eldest of four children, she enjoyed a close relationship with parents who were both intelligent and cultivated. The family’s principal residence was in the city of Quebec, where Anne’s father, Maurice Hébert, pursued his career as a bureaucrat in the provincial government. Maurice Hébert was also an essayist and poet of some note; he wrote literary criticism of local interest and was a member of the honorific Royal Society of Canada. He is known to have been particularly insistent on correct usage of the French tongue—an issue that assumes particular importance in the population of French Canada.
Both of Hébert’s parents were interested in nature, but her mother is said to have been her particular guide to the forest and streams that surrounded their summer home. The summers spent at Sainte-Catherine-de-Fossambault also brought Hébert into close contact with her cousin Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau, four years her senior, who was destined to be a prominent poet, one of the first in his regional tradition to write in modern form and an initiator of the new dynamic of Québécois verse. His illness and premature death from heart disease in 1943, after the cold reception given his innovative verse by the conservative literary establishment in Quebec, made him a symbolic, tragic figure.
Hébert’s formal education was largely accomplished at home, under the supervision of her parents, with short stays in several Catholic girls’ schools in Quebec. Hébert later said that it was her father’s pride in her early poetic production (he copied her poems in a pocket notebook and carried them with him to show to friends) that was the first encouragement she received as a writer. Her verses and short stories began to appear in print in various magazines and newspapers in 1939, and her first collection of poems, Les Songes en équilibre, appeared in 1942. This volume, now regarded as a promising bit of juvenilia, won the Prix David and gathered very favorable notice for its graceful treatment in spare, free verse of themes of filial love, religious fervor, and the vocation of the poet. In many ways, the verses are reminiscent of those of Saint-Denys Garneau. Her next major publication, The Tomb of the Kings, while also written in short-line free verse, is much more intense and tightly knit and shows a new preoccupation with death, perhaps in part inspired by the deaths of Saint-Denys Garneau and Hébert’s own younger sister, Marie, in 1952.
Hébert worked for Radio Canada and the National Film Board from 1950 to 1954, writing scripts for various short features; probably her best-known work in this medium is the lyric text she wrote to accompany a short feature on the life of Saint-Denys Garneau, which did not appear until 1960. In 1954, she received a grant from the Royal Society of Canada, one of the first of a series of awards and stipends that enabled her to devote herself full time to her literary career. She used her...
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