Gabrielle Roy Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Gabrielle Roy was the youngest of eleven children of Leon and Melina Roy, eight of whom survived to maturity. For eighteen years, her father had been a federal Department of Colonization agent, helping immigrants settle in the Prairie Provinces. He was dismissed in 1915 by newly elected Conservatives shortly before becoming eligible for a pension. Gabrielle grew up in poverty in St. Boniface, a largely French-speaking suburb of Winnipeg. Despite winning best-in-province medals in high school, university education was unattainable. She attended Winnipeg Normal Institute, graduating in 1929, and worked at several schools before being hired in 1930 to teach first grade at Winnipeg’s prestigious Catholic boys’ academy.

In September, 1937, having obtained a leave of absence, Roy sailed for Europe. Brief attendance at a London theater school ended dreams of becoming a professional actress. Three articles accepted by a Paris weekly convinced her that she could succeed as a French writer. Roy returned to Canada in April, 1939. Despite objections of her mother, who could not understand abandoning a secure, well-paying job during the Great Depression, as well as the anger of her sisters who thought she was selfishly evading contributing to family finances, Roy settled in Montreal as a freelance journalist.

Roy’s work pleased editors of Le Bulletin des agriculteurs, a general-interest monthly magazine circulating mainly in rural Quebec. During the next five years, they regularly commissioned articles. In 1941, to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of Montreal, Le Bulletin des agriculteurs published four essays in which Roy toured the city. She did not focus on poverty, but neither did she ignore it when visiting slums along Montreal’s waterfront.

Hoping that the drama and tragedy she sensed in slum life could be turned into literature, Roy began a short story in 1941 that grew into an eight-hundred-page manuscript. Published in French as Bonheur d’occasion in Montreal in 1945 and in English as The Tin Flute in New York and Toronto in 1947, Roy’s novel became a financial and public relations success previously unheard of in Canada.

Montreal critics praised the novel’s thematic freshness. Readers responded...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Gabrielle Roy’s first novel established her enduring reputation as a major Canadian author. Her books exerted a powerful influence on later Canadian writers, encouraging them to deal realistically with Canadian life. The novels continued in print in both French and English editions into the twenty-first century, and her readers remained enthusiastic. Roy’s childhood home was turned into a museum, and an admirer leads walking tours of the places in Montreal described in her novels. When the Bank of Canada in 2004 introduced a new twenty-dollar bill designed to honor arts and culture, it included a quotation from Roy on the back of the bank note.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born into a large Roman Catholic, French-speaking family in Manitoba, Canada, Gabrielle Roy was educated in the French language at a time when French Canadians were considered by many to be second-class citizens of their native land. She was a gifted student who also became proficient in English while in school. For a time she aspired to an acting career and participated in a French-speaking theater group in Manitoba. Having to earn a living, however, she chose to enroll in a teacher-training program at the Winnipeg Normal Institute. This led to appointments in several elementary schools, including one in the most remote region of the province. Whatever the hardships, this remoteness would prove invaluable for her second novel, Where Nests the Water Hen.

A youthful Roy began to feel that Canadian provincialism was a burden, so she left Canada for Europe, living in both France and England for extended periods of time. During this stage of her life, like many other gifted North American artists who lived for a time in Europe, she studied drama and wrote reflective sketches of Canadian life. When she returned to North America, she was ready to concentrate on her literary calling. At the age of thirty-eight, she married Marcel Carbotte. Although initially the couple appeared to have much in common, and though they spent three years together in France—where Carbotte acquired his medical specialization in gynecology—they spent the last years of their marriage living separately. They had no children, and Roy always referred to her books as her progeny.

By 1952, Roy established residence in Quebec City, which she regarded as the Francophone center of North America. She continued to write and took an active part in the English translation of her books. Frequently consulted on matters of Canadian culture, she was selected to serve on the panel that gave Expo 67 its central theme. It was her proposal, “Terre des hommes,” which was inspired by the title of a 1939 book by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, that led to the exhibition’s theme. Roy died in Quebec City in 1983 at the age of seventy-four.