SFU Royal Society of Canada: Seminar Series: "The Public and Private Lives of Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière: Writing a Life History as Anti-Biography"

Thursday, September 13, 2012
11:30 - 12:30

Dr. Jack Little
Department Of History, Simon Fraser University


I am of the generation for whom, as historian Geoff Eley writes, the writing of individual biographies was dismissed as old-fashioned and trivializing, and replaced by `the pursuit of structural or broadly contextualized materialist analysis.' But the eclipse of social history by cultural history, with its turn to subjectivity, has led to a resurgence of interest in biography, though with the goal - as Eley also notes - of revisiting individual lives `as complex texts in which the same large questions that inspired the social historians were embedded.' The aim of my forthcoming book on Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinire (1829-1908) is not so much to rescue him from obscurity as a notable Canadian as it is to use his life as a prism to shed light on important themes that have largely been examined in isolation from each other. In addition to investigating Joly's public role as a Liberal politician and premier of Quebec, prominent promoter of national unity, leading spokesman for the Canadian forest conservation movement, reform-oriented member of the Laurier Cabinet in Ottawa, and influential lieutenant-governor of British Columbia, my study examines his family life as well as his role as owner of a seigneurie and a lumber producer. Particular attention is paid to how Joly reconciled the conflicting forces that he was subjected to personally, and that strained society as a whole, for as a French-speaking Protestant he embodied the cultural duality of Canada as well as the tension between land-based aristocratic values and urban bourgeois ones. I argue that liberal as Joly's goals were, they also reflected his patrician sense of noblesse oblige, and that it was his gentlemanly deportment and skills in diplomacy as well as his family pedigree that made him such a respected figure in a young country still in the early stages of forging a cohesive and distinctive national identity. In short, I see this study as an example of what historian Alice Kessler-Harris refers to as anti-biography: `Rather than offering history as background, or introducing it in order to locate an individual in time,' the anti-biography asks `how the individual life helps us to make sense of a piece of the historical process.'