Elisabeth d’Aulnières, the only child of Marie-Louise d’Aulnières, a widowed teenager, has been reared by three unmarried aunts, whose imaginations are formed by romance reading and by piety. The household of Elisabeth’s childhood has been a feminine abode, notable by its absence of men. Shielded from the raw facts of life, Elisabeth has been taught that babies are dumped into the beds of ladies by “Indians.” In her daydreams, marriage is a swirling collage: the marriage at Cana of Galilee in the Gospels, the bride of Lammermoor in Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel, and the romantic French folk song “À la claire fontaine.”
Elisabeth’s aunts prepare their niece lovingly for the governor’s ball, where her beauty attracts the eye of Antoine Tassy, the squire of Kamouraska, a picturesque village four hundred miles from Elisabeth’s home in Sorel. Antoine’s mother, Caroline, asks Madame d’Aulnières for the hand of Elisabeth, and the proposed match is considered advantageous, despite the young squire’s admitted bad reputation.
The two are married.
Madame Tassy counsels her new daughter-in-law to ignore the drunkenness and debauchery of the squire, whom she pronounces basically “a good man.” Despite the affluence of the Tassys, their home is austere, dominated by the mother-in-law, a harsh woman with a club foot who insists on simple meals, rough clothing, and a Puritanical simplicity of residence. She dismisses all emotional displays.
After the birth of two sons, Elisabeth can no longer endure her husband’s drunkenness, carousing, and brutality. She retreats to her former home in Sorel and the protection of her three adoring aunts. There she meets George Nelson, an American physician practicing in Sorel. Nelson is from a royalist family that has converted to Catholicism so thoroughly that his brother is now a Jesuit priest, while his sister is an Ursuline nun. Nelson, however, soon undergoes a religious crisis when his sister appears to lose her faith on her deathbed. Consequently, he chooses to devote his life to science and to the alleviation of...
(The entire section is 870 words.)