Manitoba History: Francois Ricard, Gabrielle Roy: A Life

by Lise Gaboury-Diallo
College Universitaire de St. Boniface

Number 40, Autumn / Winter 2000-2001

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Francois Ricard, Gabrielle Roy: A Life, translated by Patricia Claxton, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999, 600 pp. ISBN, 0-77107-7451-4, $35.00.

Francois Ricard, Professor of French literature at McGill, is the author of several books such as La Litterature contre ellememe, 1985 (Governor General’s Award for non-fiction), and the highly acclaimed La Generation lyrique, 1992. His privileged relationship with Gabrielle Roy which evolved over the years, from agent to assistant and then friend, gave him an enviable position from which to become her biographer. And, as he admits in Gabrielle Roy, une vie, this work is the fulfilment of a promise made to a friend, an “agreement” as he states (p. 495) that he should tell her story once she was gone.

Gabrielle Roy, 1947. Pastel on paper by Pauline Boutal.
Source: Collection du Musee du Quebec

Originally published in French in 1996, several years after Gabrielle Roy’s death in 1984, this biography reveals the commitment of Ricard, who dedicated several years of research to this project. He has succeeded in gathering an imposing amount of information about Gabrielle Roy and weaving new or little-known facts of her life into a densely layered and compelling book. While his work is invaluable because of this, it will undoubtedly be considered by most readers a highly enjoyable read. And of course, this biography is another consecration of the importance of Gabrielle Roy in the Canadian literary canon.

Francois Ricard, whose style and approach to this biographical work reveal a sensitivity not unlike that of his subject, gives a moving portrait of Gabrielle Roy. And as John Lennox puts it: “The delicacy with which Ricard uncovers the condradictions and synchronicities of Roy’s life is a model of penetration and tact.” Although Ricard does reveal his personal links to Gabrielle Roy towards the end of this impressive volume, a fact many researchers already knew, he does not pretend to be able to better understand the mysterious and often extremely reserved author nor does he tactlessly flaunt any privileged information. On the contrary, ever true to Gabrielle Roy, he seems to have lifted the veil, opened the window so that all could see the complexity and yes, the enchantment and the sorrow of this special woman’s life.

The biographer was most fortunate to have had Patricia Claxton as the translator of this voluminous work. This was not her first foray into the world of Gabrielle Roy. Indeed, in 1987, this acclaimed Canadian translator received the Governor General’s award for her translation of Gabrielle Roy’s autobiography, La detresse et l’enchantement, which became under her pen, Enchantment and Sorrow.

Claxton’s translation of Gabrielle Roy, une vie was recently recognized by the Dainier-Taylor Biography of the Writer’s Trust of Canada. In the foreward of the English version of the biography, Patricia Claxton reflects on her role to capture and translate the essence of her work, “revealing with insight and perspicacity as well as compassion and affection, the many facets of Gabrielle Roy’s work and character.” (p. xi) She also explains some of the difficulties encountered such as trying to capture the exact meaning of an expression, or recreating a particular ambiance. However, she seems to have overcome most of these as they are so minor as to be unnoticeable. She reminds the reader of the numerous pitfalls awaiting translators: cultural references and variances, contextual nuances, particular usage of verb tenses in different languages, adaptations and manners of expression, language rhythm, etc. It is most useful to the reader to understand why the translation of a rather academic tone had to be taken into account and adapted to appeal to a large readership in English. Patricia Claxton feared that rendering the style, which in French is erudite but nonetheless very fluid style, might prove a daunting task, but one slides easily into her excellent translation. Her efforts are to be lauded, for she has maintained the delicate balance necessary to stimulate the reader. The book is appealing and. most will read this book “like a novel” as Robert Major states (“l’etude de Francois Ricard se lit comme un roman.”). And although the translator does slip occasionally into a more formal literary style, most readers will probably not be disturbed by this. They will grow accustomed to it and will appreciate the rich tapestry unfolding before them, gleening hundreds of minute threads which detail and give intricate texture to Gabrielle Roy’s story.

A multitude of these details are relegated to notes at the end of the book. Readers will be either impressed or distracted by their sheer number. However, although it is difficult to keep track of these references and maintain one’s concentration by flipping pages constantly, these numerous tidbits of information reveal Francois Ricard’s tenacious nature, his goal to strive for perfection and completeness. And, above all, it shows to what extent this very thorough research was necessary to enable the biographer, and ultimately the reader, to further his knowledge and understanding of Gabrielle Roy’s writing and her life.

In a biography where the genre has obvious historical overtones, one expects to follow the individual’s steps, (or retrace them as the case may be), as the subject’s life, Gabrielle Roy’s personal story, unfolds before us. The structure in Francois Ricard’s work is clear and logical, fulfilling our every hope. The biographer does focus on the 1945 period but the reader can easily accept and acknowledge the merit of this indulgence. The success of the publication of Bonheur d’occasion is of course the raison d’etre of Gabrielle Roy’s celebrity. One does regret, however, the lack of information on the final years of Gabrielle Roy whose reclusive tendencies were certainly one of the reasons Ricard had difficulty writing about this period of her life.

As Ricard himself states in his epilogue, it is virtually impossible to really know and understand another person, however close your friendship may have been. Indeed, although he has tried to remain objective, avoiding hagiographic undertones and telling the whole truth as it appeared to him, sometimes his interpretations of certain events, or even Gabrielle Roy’s reactions to these events, remain just that: subjective conclusions to be weighed and considered for their plausibility and interest. Some review-ers, like Francine Bordeleau for example, found that Ricard may have fallen prey to a rather facile analysis of the feminine psyche that is somewhat of a cliche or generalization. This may be unavoidable as the author himself has mentioned in narrating certain parts. How can one be sure then, to cite two small examples, if there is no formal documentation or proof available, that Gabrielle Roy was frigid or that she needed to be coddled and “mothered” whenever she set out to rest and write?

Regardless of these unavoidable limitations found in all biographies, this vast research condensed into an elegant text accompanied by a wonderful selection of photographs (which in themselves add immeasurable interest to the book since Gabrielle Roy seems to have been reluctantly if not rarely photographed) undeniably constitutes the most important work on Gabrielle Roy to date. This is a biography “worthy of her,” as Marcotte so aptly wrote. Francois Ricard has succeeded in revealing the complexity of the person, and his work will become an essential reference book for anyone desiring to better understand one of Canada’s great authors.


Bordeleau, Francine. Compte rendu du livre “Gabrielle Roy, une vie” de F. Ricard dans Lettres quebecoises, no 85, printemps 1997, p. 48.

Major, Robert. Compte rendu du livre “Gabrielle Roy, une vie” de F. Ricard dans Voix et images, 22, no 2, hiver 1997, p. 382-385.

Marcotte, Gilles. Compte rendu du livre “Gabrielle Roy, une vie” de F. Ricard dans L’Actualite, 21, no 19, ler dec. 1996, p. 91-92.

Page revised: 14 October 2012