Wilfrid Laurier: It’s Complicated

Black and white photograph of Émilie Lavergne wearing a pale dress, sitting in a chair and reading a letter.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier had the largest unbroken term of office as Canada’s seventh prime minister. He was considered one of Canada’s greatest politicians, full of charisma, charm and passion, qualities that served him well in office, and also in his personal life. This passion is seen in many of the letters he wrote to his wife Zoé. But perhaps we gain a deeper insight into his character through his letters to Émilie Lavergne.

Duration: 1:00:57

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Publish Date: November 17, 2016

  • Transcript of podcast episode 32

    Geneviève Morin: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    Sir Wilfrid Laurier had the largest unbroken term of office as Canada’s seventh prime minister. He was considered one of Canada’s greatest politicians, full of charisma, charm and passion, qualities that served him well in office, and also in his personal life. This passion is seen in many of the letters he wrote to his wife Zoé. But perhaps we gain a deeper insight into his character through his letters to Émilie Lavergne.

    In this episode, we traveled to the Perth and District Union Library, in Perth, Ontario. We sat down with Mr. Roy MacSkimming, author of the historical novel, Laurier in Love, to gain some insight into these letters.

    The first thing we wanted to know was how Laurier met his wife, Zoé?

    Roy MacSkimming: When he was a young man, he was still finishing his law studies at McGill University. He actually took law in English and French at McGill and lived in a boarding house in Vieux-Montréal belonging to a Dr. Gauthier. One of the other boarders in the house, actually two of the other boarders were a mother and daughter. Zoé and her mother were both living there, having been more or less abandoned by Zoé’s father. He was an unreliable kind of guy who would show up for a while and then disappear. So the two women had to earn their own living as piano teachers to the children of Montréal families. It was there that Wilfrid first set eyes on Zoé. She was a very shy, petite, reserved, very well-brought-up young woman. He found her plain charming. He would sit in the living room of the boarding house listening to her play. For quite a while, he wouldn’t confess any special interest in her but soon, it became obvious that he was very interested. They would go for walks through the old city and eventually developed a close friendship.

    GM: We asked Roy what was the next step in their relationship.

    RM: The way their relationship evolved was a little odd really, certainly unusual. Wilfrid practiced law for a while in Montréal and continued to see Zoé but never proposed. They had a long courtship and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. Because he had a lot of health worries, he was very worried that his family history of tuberculosis would eventually take him away. One day, after a period of severe overwork, he collapsed at his desk, coughing blood. He was convinced from that, that he had what they used to call “consumption” in those days. His doctor advised him that the best thing for him to do for his health would be to move away to the country and get away from the city and all the polluted atmosphere, the smoke and the grime of Montréal. This would be in the late 1860s. He was a “Rouge” at the time politically, and part of the party that was very outspokenly liberal for the time—anti-clerical, rather anti-British and generally nationalistic. They had some newspapers that they published. There was one that they published in a town called L’Avenir in the Bois-Franc region of Quebec, which was kind of regarded by the Rouge as a sort of heartland where they hoped French Canada could keep its culture and develop and thrive in this setting, well away from the English. He went there to edit a newspaper. He interrupted his law career because he had political convictions of the Rouge persuasion.

    He was quite happy to edit the newspaper but it meant that he had to be away from Zoé. So he wrote her very affectionate letters but assured her that as sad as it made him to be apart from her, he had to be here for the sake of his health.

    Wilfrid Laurier: “I was right as rain the whole day long, except for a little weakness, but my chest was completely clear. I hasten to write to you, my beloved, for I know you will be disappointed if you receive no letter today. I beg you not to distress yourself. My illness is not at all serious this time. I am able to walk, go out for fresh air, and my colour remains unchanged! – Victoriaville, July 6, 1867” [translation]

    Source: Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds, MG 26-G, vol. 814a and 814b, MIKAN 3797648.

    RM: Zoé began to despair that Wilfrid would ever come through, so she began seeing another young man in Montréal, a young doctor who was very in love with her and who actually was ready to marry her. This put Zoé in a real quandary because she actually wanted to marry Wilfrid, if only he would get around to asking her. Yet she had this offer in hand from a perfectly eligible young doctor who was very sincere and would make a great husband. All of this was being observed by Wilfrid’s former landlord, Dr. Gauthier. Zoé was still boarding in his house. Gauthier sent a telegram to Wilfrid and basically commanding him to arrive the next day in the house. Wilfrid had no idea why but he could see it was some kind of an emergency and Dr. Gauthier was his good friend and sort of mentor. He got on the next train in the morning and went to Montréal, went into Dr. Gauthier’s house. Gauthier ordered him into his consulting room, told him to take off his clothes and examined him head to foot to see if he indeed had consumption, as he believed. His verdict was “Wilfrid, you’re suffering from a serious case of bronchial cough but you do not have consumption.”

    GM: So he’d been waiting all this time for nothing.

    RM: Yes. He’d been using the fear of the disease as a reason not to propose to Zoé because he said he didn’t want to lumber Zoé with a sick husband who might pop off any minute. Gauthier said you’ll be fine, you’ll live for years to come especially if you’re happily married. This young woman in my household has been weeping for days over you because she’s afraid that she might have to accept this other offer of marriage. I’m going to get her and bring her here. I think by this time Wilfrid had his clothes back on. I’m going to bring her in here and leave you alone together. He brought Zoé in, who was very timid and shy. She hadn’t been part of this plot or anything. Gauthier’s idea was these two actually do love each other and they should be together. He forced Wilfrid to tell Zoé what he’d just learned about the fact that he was healthier then he had thought and that actually, he was marriage material after all. He proposed on the spot and they ended up getting married very soon afterwards.

    GM: Wow! It’s like Dr. Gauthier jumped in as a father figure to watch out for her interest.

    RM: That’s right! He was a bit of a matchmaker. But he also felt like he was doing something for Wilfrid, that Wilfrid needed a kick in the rear end if he was going to do the right thing and not be so fearful. It does show you something about Laurier—a certain ambivalence about commitment, at least commitment to a woman. He liked female company very, very much. He had a very loving mother who had died, when he was seven, of consumption. Then his father married the housekeeper, as was quite common in those days, a couple of years later. The housekeeper became Wilfrid’s second mother, his stepmother; she was also very loving. He’d grown up with a great deal of female affection. He liked women, he was comfortable with women but he was leery of making a commitment. He and Zoé did get married and she moved east of Montréal to be with him. Eventually they ended up in the little town of Arthabaska, which is now part of Victoriaville; it was then a separate village. That was where he began practicing law once again and where they really made their home for many years.

    GM: Laurier wrote love letters to Zoé. Did they begin while he was away in the Bois-Franc area or was it later on that they started corresponding more frequently?

    RM: It was more when he was in the Bois-Franc and he had to leave Montréal. He was writing back to Montréal to her. He’d keep her on a string, if you like, with the letters without ever committing until that moment I described earlier.

    GM: Did that include talent as a poet? Did he attempt to woo her through literary skill?

    RM: Well, he did try his hand at poetry once in a while. He wrote one very lovely poem about a butterfly. Maybe it was a metaphor for himself because he had a way of alighting here and alighting there. Never quite staying in one place.

    But he did settle down in Arthabaska with Zoé and they had this very nice life and a large circle of friends. Until suddenly one day, a new arrival in town entered that circle of friends and turned their lives upside down.

    GM: And that was Émilie Lavergne.

    RM: That was Émilie Barthe, as she was first known, her maiden name. Her father had been a Rouge but very active in the 1837 Rebellion, a follower of Papineau. He’d been kind of an intellectual revolutionary, a writer and had gone into exile the way many of Papineau’s followers and Papineau himself had to do after the Rebellion was put down. Mr. Barthe had gone to Paris. Émilie, his daughter, had grown up in Paris acquiring a love of French literature and Parisian taste in fashion and food and books. She also spent one year in London. Her father thought she ought to experience the other language because she was going to be coming back to Canada. So she also imbibed the pleasures of metropolitan London. When she arrived as a single woman in Arthabaska, where she had some cousins who had invited her to go and stay there, she was quite a phenomenon. All the wives in their circle in Arthabaska worried about Émilie and how she might win their husbands. But Émilie’s interest was all for Wilfrid.

    GM: Oh!

    RM: She had her eye on Wilfrid from the start. Since he was already married, very inconveniently, she did the next best thing. She married his law partner, Joseph Lavergne and so she becomes Émilie Lavergne. They live in a house that was just across the street from the Laurier’s home on the rue de l’Église and four doors down. Both houses are still standing today. In fact, the whole street is gorgeous, almost a museum collection of different architectural styles that were popular in the second half of the 19th century.

    It was a very close little circle because right across the street from the Lauriers’ house was the office where he and Joseph Lavergne practiced law. Then four doors down to the left on that side of the street was the Lavergnes’ own home. Very soon, Wilfrid developed a custom because he and Émilie enjoyed discussing literature so much. He would rise in the afternoon, around teatime, put a book under his arm, and say to Joseph, who was sitting across the room at his desk, “Joseph, if you will permit it, I will go and visit your wife for a little while.” Joseph always agreed—he always said, “Oh of course Wilfrid, go right ahead.” He’d tuck his book under his arm and walk four doors down where Émilie would have the water boiling for tea. If it was a cold day, she’d have a little fire of birch logs going in the fireplace. They would sit together and commune over the latest book they were reading together—Victor Hugo or George Sand or Madame de Staël. They did share a love of literature. It did begin, apparently, as a literary or intellectual friendship. But many of us believe that it developed into something much more than that.

    GM: These literary meetings, if we’re to look at what we have left in terms of a documentary heritage, is that we have now these letters that are telling us that it did indeed bloom into something that was more than just a book club.

    RM: Exactly! Yes! It did not remain an innocent book club. The complicating factor—first of all, if it wasn’t complicated enough already—was that Wilfrid had also become a politician, a member of Parliament. He had to go away to Ottawa for several months at a time while Parliament was sitting and leave Zoé behind. And also, leave Émilie and Joseph behind. While he was in Ottawa, especially as the years went on, he wrote letters to Émilie that became more and more intimate, and more and more free and unguarded. Really, they were letters of which he spilled out a lot of his most intense and romantic longings. It’s very clear from the letters that there was something much more than just friendship between them. If one studies the letters closely, you really learn a tremendous amount about the relationship that he had with Émilie, but also about Laurier himself because he is so unguarded. This is a contrast to his persona as a politician because as a politician, his [persona] was the original “sunny ways” that charmed and won over the public; helped him to eventually win power in 1896 and become prime minister. His political method was really one of moderation and compromise and conciliation. He was always careful in his public life to rein himself in, keep things “sunny” and keep things harmonized—harmonize opposites and smooth over conflicts, particularly between the English and the French, particularly between Catholic and Protestant, which were very sharp divisions in those days. But in the letters, he is able to forget about all that and just be himself. We see him going to, kind of, the extremes of his emotions. We see that he’s actually a much more complicated and even troubled man, conflicted certainly, than he ever led on in public.

    GM: The word that came to mind for me when I read a few of the letters was “vulnerable.” He’s very easily hurt; he shares his most inner insecurities. I wonder if you might be able to share one of the letters with us.

    RM: Yes. There are a few little excerpts that are very typical. I should say first of all that, at one point, back in the 1970s, there was a collection of the letters published, the letters of Laurier to Émilie Lavergne under the title, Dearest Émilie: The Love-Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier to Madame Émilie Lavergne. There are about 40 of them and they’re written between 1891 and 1893. At that point, he’s the leader of the opposition, he’s not in government yet and he’s still, in some ways, conflicted about being a politician and the leader of the Liberal Party. They are many days when he would really rather give the job to someone else, it’s such a cross to bear. He’s not leading the kind of life he would ideally like to, which would be more of a life of the mind and a life of the spirit. Instead, he has to be a practical politician—get down and dirty with other politicians in Parliament.

    The other extraordinary thing is that almost all the letters to Émilie are written by Laurier in English. In the collection that’s been published under Dearest Émilie, there are only two letters in French. People have speculated, and I think there’s probably truth in this that he wrote to her in English partly because he was comfortable writing in English and expressing his feelings in English. But maybe for a very practical reason, which was that he was suspicious of the postmistress back in Arthabaska. If she opened the letters to see what’s Monsieur Laurier saying to Madame Lavergne this week, she wouldn’t be able to understand them because she didn’t read English. What gives some credence to that idea is that the second of the two letters in French that he wrote Émilie is all about how he is suspicious. He’s certain that his most recent letter to her had been opened.

    GM: Oh!

    RM: Something had been tampered with, something had been removed from it. He’s very angry about this. He writes all this in French, which he knew the postmistress could read of course. I think that’s the explanation. I think he was getting the message across, “Madame Postmistress, keep your hands off my correspondence.”

    GM: It wouldn’t be surprising. I’ve heard stories of this still happening today in smaller towns. As an archivist myself, when you have all these interesting papers passing through your hands, you can’t help but glance once in a while. Especially when the people are so interesting.

    RM: That’s right! And probably on a slow day in Arthabaska, there was lots of time for the postmistress to steam the envelope open and take the letter out.

    RM: On the other hand, Émilie’s letters to Wilfrid were all written in French. She was much more comfortable writing in French. The sad thing is that we don’t have those letters. She ended up putting those letters—her letters to Laurier, which he had given back to her when he became Prime Minister so they wouldn’t become an embarrassment to him, and they’ve never seen the light of day since. It would be a great archival discovery for Canadian history if we could come across those letters that Émilie had written to Laurier and match them up with the ones that we have of him writing to her. Then we could see both sides of the correspondence, both sides of the relationship from the two different points of view.

    He lived, in those days, in Ottawa in the Russell Hotel, which was the finest hotel in Ottawa, probably the only fine hotel in Ottawa. That was where a lot of parliamentarians had rooms during the parliamentary session. On Sundays, when Parliament wasn’t sitting, those were his days he reserved for himself. On Sundays, in the early 1890s, he would typically sit down and write a long letter, not to Zoé, but to Émilie back home in Arthabaska. In this one sentence, it imparts a couple of things, it imparts how he feels about her and also the fact that they’re having some disagreements, some conflict. He writes to Émilie, “I, also, my friend so dear, I long to see you; another incentive, apart from the pleasure of looking in your face, is a desire to answer all those questions with which you threaten me. – [Ottawa, Sunday] 17th [May 1891].”

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 48.

    RM: Evidently, Émilie was jealous. Émilie was demanding. Émilie felt he didn’t pay her enough attention or he had shown too much interest in some other female. She was, apparently, frequently asking for more from him. I suspect it wasn’t just that one particular little thing. It was a deeper craving that she had because ultimately, she wanted a relationship with him. She wanted an open relationship even if the laws of the day and the customs of the day and the church and so on made it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a divorce. She would’ve liked to see him leave Zoé, be with her and make a life with her. She was reprimanding him, I think, out of that kind of emotion. Again, we find this mixture of loving thoughts and reprimands that Wilfrid writes to her. He says, “If you only knew what your affection is to me, or even if you had for me the same unique affection that I have for you, never would such thoughts approach your mind. Could I only see you at this moment, could I only sit by you, I would, simply by looking straight in your eyes, make you ashamed of ever distrusting me. In former years, you well might distrust me, but for many years [line damaged] such doubt is an injury, I should say an insult to me. – [Ottawa, Thursday, May] 21st [1891].”

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 53.

    RM: He’s kind of going on the offensive and chiding her for expressing doubts about his affection, about his loyalty to her. Here they are sitting 200 miles apart for months at a time and trying to work these things out through letters. It’s obviously a much slower process than we have today, whether it’s long distance phone or email or texting or whatever. Long distance relationships do happen today maybe more easily and more frequently than in those days.

    GM: Kind of makes a lovers’ quarrel require a lot of patience when you wait for the mailman to get there and then “ok, what do they say next?”

    RM: That’s right! Yes, you must spend more time waiting. That gives you more time to worry and work up reasons to be worried. Then you unload your worries in your next letter and then your lover has to reassure you that your worries are unwarranted. But here’s something in that same letter that I think is really a fascinating discovery in these love letters of Laurier’s. He refers to a place that he calls St. Ann’s Hill. He says at the end of this particular letter in May 1891, “I sent you a book, I do not ask you to read it all. Read the chapter: “St. Ann’s Hill,” and you will understand that when I read it, my heart grew full of images indulged in, never realised. – [Ottawa, Thursday, May] 21st [1891].”

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 53.

    RM: A week or so later, in another letter, you can see this is really important to him. He says in the next letter, “Did you read the chapter on St. Ann’s Hill? Keep the book for me, do not send it back to me. I want to glance over it with you, & go over some of the passages which struck me, & which so vividly brought your dear self to me. – [Ottawa, Sunday, May] 24th [1891]”

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 57.

    GM: What was in that chapter?

    RM: Well, what was in that chapter—we don’t know exactly which book it is. Various scholars have tried to track down the book. But with a little help from Charles Fisher who was the original editor of these letters that appeared in the book Dearest Émilie, I was able to do some more online research. We have more tools now where we can dig these things up. Sure enough, as Mister Fisher surmised, the reference to St. Ann’s Hill has to do with the life of one of Laurier’s political heroes. He was a great admirer of the great English liberals—liberal political thinkers and politicians of his time and of the generation before him—people like John Stuart Mill who wrote on liberty. Laurier’s own beliefs in liberty—separation of church and state, freedom of expression, the freedom of the people to vote as they wished rather than being dictated to by the church, as happened in those days, in Québec especially. One of the leading English liberals that he especially admired was a man called Charles James Fox. He actually led the Whig Party, which was the forerunner of the Liberal Party in England in the late 18th century. This is a generation before Laurier’s. He’d been reading a biography of Fox and turns out that St. Ann’s Hill was the name of the country home of Fox’s mistress, a woman called Mrs. Armistead who had really been a courtesan in her day. She had had many lovers among the aristocracy in London, up to and including the Prince of Wales who was the future king. Eventually, she ended up with Charles James Fox who became so smitten by her and her beauty and her charm and her, apparently, wonderful personality that seemed to make men happy—that he said he wanted her all to himself and she agreed. She gave up her other lovers and they retired together to this country cottage in Surrey called St. Ann’s Hill where they lived a blissful life together. He was actually quite a dissolute man and apparently Mrs. Armistead—under her influence, he moderated some of his vices and learned to enjoy things like reading together and gardening together and walking through the village. It was a kind of idyllic existence at the end of the life of this man that Laurier admired so much.

    In urging her to read about this story and Fox’s happiness with Mrs. Armistead, he’s really painting for Émilie a vision of what they might have, in his mind. In his mind, he keeps coming back to it in the letters, referring to it and saying these are some of the things that I’ve dreamt about. Here’s the next letter, “Have you read St. Ann’s Hill? Put the book aside; keep it in readiness that I may point out to you what has most struck me, what would be my dream, what picture now haunts me. I would fondly dream of the rest of St. Ann’s Hill, after the toils in which I am engaged. – [Ottawa, Wednesday, May] 27th [1891].”

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 58.

    RM: Those are the toils of politics but also the toils of marriage.

    GM: It almost sounds like he’s using it to appease almost some little bit of the jealousy as well. He’s promising, as you say, a retirement. So if you’re patient enough, we can retire together.

    RM: That’s right.

    GM: We can have a similar life.

    RM: Yes, you’ve got it exactly. That’s what he’s doing, I think. He’s showing her that he does daydream about a future with her. If only he didn’t have this tiresome job of being leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and leader of the opposition. Not to mention this marriage to this perfectly wonderful, devoted Zoé whom he loved too. I think that’s the thing about Laurier, when I called my novel Laurier in Love, I wasn’t just referring to him and Émilie. I was referring to him and Émilie but also him and Zoé and him and Canada, because he loved Canada, and him and Quebec, and him and himself, because I think he really, when it came down to it, loved himself very deeply with a more or less healthy self-regard. In politics, he could try and reconcile opposite factions and provide a little bit to each side, enough to satisfy them in some sort of political compromise.

    In romantic life though, it wasn’t so easy. In the end, Émilie began to tire of his promises and his romantic visions that he would spell out in the letters. The next big turning point that affected their relationship was the general election of 1896, in which Laurier and the Liberal Party won a resounding majority. He became for the first time, Prime Minister of Canada. Canada’s first prime minister of French descent. Yet he won enough support, not only among French Canadians but English Canadians that he became Prime Minister. Very soon after he became Prime Minister, all his talk in his letters to Émilie about how he’s really weary of this job of political leader and he’d really like to find someone to take it away from him, someone else to do it. Then he could retire to St. Ann’s Hill or their version of St. Ann’s Hill. Suddenly, all of those sorts of references stop.

    GM: Oh!

    RM: He discovers that he actually enjoys being in power. Now that he’s got the top job, now that he’s got command of the government, politics becomes much more interesting to him and much more all-consuming. That’s a real challenge to his relationship with Émilie. She will try and find a solution. I portray this in Laurier in Love, in a fictional way but something like this did happen. She moved to Ottawa along with her husband because her husband, Joseph Lavergne, had been an MP in Laurier’s party during the previous term. After the victory of 1896, she moved along with Joseph to Ottawa. Zoé Laurier also moved from Arthabaska. So the Lauriers and the Lavergnes were now living together in Ottawa.

    GM: It seems almost impossible that both Joseph and Zoé didn’t know what was going on. Surely they were aware of this “friendship”?

    RM: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Joseph was aware that this was going on. He was perfectly aware of the letters arriving, sometimes two or three a week from Ottawa. So were his children—it was just a common place that Monsieur Laurier wrote letters to maman and they were such good friends after all. Joseph Lavergne’s attitude is really interesting and I portray it in the novel as being one of acceptance, of—to put a negative term to it—collusion. He and Zoé implicitly condoned the relationship between Émilie and Wilfrid. In Joseph’s case, he, I think, felt that he owed a tremendous amount to Wilfrid. Wilfrid had brought him in as his junior law partner, they built up the partnership and Joseph had prospered. Wilfrid had brought him into politics and urged him to run for Parliament. He’d become an MP for Arthabaska because Wilfrid’s own riding was in Quebec East in Québec City. But I think it’s wrapped up in the fact that Joseph was almost in awe of Laurier really. Even though he’d known him as a law partner for so many years. Laurier was an incredibly impressive authoritative man. He was a man of great intellect, great poise and charm. He was incredibly eloquent. Those sunny ways of his were not just superficial. He made people feel good. He could persuade millions of English-Canadian Protestants to vote for a French-Canadian Roman Catholic. Even though he wasn’t much of a Roman Catholic and even though he had drawn the ire of the church and been attacked in the past by the more ultramontanist elements in the Quebec church. Because of all these wonderful qualities, Joseph was just grateful to have Wilfrid in his life. Wilfrid had transformed his life in so many ways. If he also was rather intimate with his wife, well, that was kind of a price that Joseph had to pay. It all fit together, it was all a package.

    Certainly, that was the way Laurier saw it. Zoé had no incentive to put her foot down and demand an end to it because what if he walked out on her. She didn’t want to disrupt her marriage. Joseph didn’t want to disrupt his marriage. In the end, Laurier didn’t want them to disrupt their marriages either. Even though he talked a good line about going off into the sunset together to St. Ann’s Hill, he never did. He never did it.

    GM: Well, he had it all, if everyone stayed together.

    RM: He had it all. He was in the command seat.

    GM: Of a different kind.

    RM: Yes. He was not only Prime Minister of the whole country. I think he had everyone in his immediate circle playing the parts that he wanted them to play. He didn’t want to give up any of it. And he didn’t.

    GM: There were, and still are, rumors about Joseph and Émilie’s son Armand, bearing a striking resemblance to Laurier. We also see, in reading the letters, that Laurier took a very keen interest in both of the Lavergne children. Roy explains.

    RM: Laurier took a very open interest in both Armand and Gabrielle. Gabrielle was a couple of years older. As the letters go on, it’s interesting. Laurier is more and more preoccupied with the two children, as the letters go on.

    For example, about Gabrielle he says, “Speak to me at length of dear G[abrielle]. What a splendid girl she will be when I next see her. Tall, strong, elastic in frame, & the soft skin of her face well tanned by the sea breezes. I am sure, many times in the day your motherly vanity is tickled by the encomiums paid to that fine girl. – [Ottawa, Sunday, July] 26th [1891].”

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 69.

    RM: Then, he goes on in the next paragraph to talk about Armand: “As to your boy, I am still under the charm of his presence while here. – [Ottawa, Sunday, July] 26th [1891].”

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 69.

    RM: Now Laurier had hosted a visit by young Armand Lavergne at the Russell House and spent several days with him, showing him around Ottawa. He had been very, very impressed by his intelligence, his quick mind and his curiosity about everything. He saw great things ahead for Armand. He says, “I am sure that of mother, sister & son, he is the one to whom the sea will do the most good. – [Ottawa, Sunday, July] 26th [1891]”.

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 69.

    RM: Because they’re going away on a holiday to the sea—“That thin frame is a good recipient for all the ozone that can be gathered from water, forest & mountain. – [Ottawa, Sunday, July] 26th [1891].”

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 69.

    GM: You almost hear a little concern about the tuberculosis again there.

    RM: Yes. Sure. Because fresh air in those days was considered—and sea breezes were the remedy because there was no known cure. There’s a lot of faith placed in getting out in nature.

    GM: Some good old ozone.

    RM: This is another letter where he brings up Gabrielle. Here’s an old note I wrote to myself in the margin, “Was Gabrielle his child too?” I ask myself because he says, “As I am writing this, in my mind suddenly rises the picture of your sweet daughter. The dear child is just on the threshold of life. She is just like a young bird on the crest of the nest, tempted by space, but hardly trusting its wings. – [Ottawa, Sunday, August] 2nd [1891]”.

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 75.

    GM: He very much loves these children…

    RM: Yes.

    GM: … the way he speaks of them.

    RM: He says, “I am delighted that dear G[abrielle] enjoys her trip so much. I rejoice to know that she will profit by it immensely, both physically and mentally. As for the little man, what he wants is air, all the fresh air which his delicate frame can inhale. – [Ottawa, Sunday, August] 2nd [1891].”

    Source: Dearest Émilie, page 75.

    RM: So there, he’s expressing concern for them but he’s also expressed a lot of admiration for Armand, when Armand came to stay with him. I think the kind of joy he expresses—if you’ve been a father, you know how this feels. He’s not just a benevolent godfather, I don’t think. He feels a personal stake in these children’s lives and in their futures.

    GM: We asked Roy if their relationship ever came to an end.

    RM: Long before Laurier lost power in 1911—ten years before that—he actually took steps to put an end to their ongoing relationship. Émilie had become just a little too pushy, if you like. A little too trying. A little too hard to always be at the center of Laurier’s doings as Prime Minister and acting as if almost she was his consort or his wife number two. Of course, he tolerated it, he allowed it, but it got to the point where it was becoming an embarrassment and an impediment, I guess, for him in doing his job. He came up with a brilliant solution without having to let her down directly and tell her “I’m breaking this off and I don’t want you hanging around anymore.” He promoted her husband to a higher position in the court in Montréal. So Émilie had to move to Montréal with her husband because that’s what wives did in those days. They didn’t stay behind in another city.

    Once she was there though, he still kept up a little contact even though she was bitter and as she got older, she became more bitter. Eventually she at least wanted him to appoint Joseph to the Supreme Court and he didn’t. She became bitter and she imparted that attitude to her son Armand who was also bitter about it, who felt that Laurier had insulted his father. But Laurier still tried to keep things sunny. He wrote her a couple of letters, circa 1902 or 1903, from Ottawa to Montréal. The originals of those letters are in the Laurier papers at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. That’s where I saw them and I actually used them in the closing pages of Laurier in Love. I quoted him as writing this letter to Émilie, saying to her, “Although we are separated by so many miles, I want you to know you are in my thoughts always. I’m sure Montréal will be a much more stimulating environment for you to live in because that is our intellectual capital. That’s where all the poets, dramatists and musicians are; that’s where artistic life thrives. You can have a salon and you can be Madame de Staël in Montréal. And of course you have your wonderful children and they’re growing up to be such fine young adults.”

    Wilfrid Laurier: “Though there is now a long distance between us, my dear friend, I do not, one single day, forget you. The friendship of the past has been too close to be followed by an absolute separation.

    Separation there may be in one sense, and it is certainly one of the great misfortunes of my life. But in another sense, one can easily cross that space. Last month in Montreal I thought I saw you in the throng on that balcony at the Windsor Hotel. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, so I wasn’t sure. I hope they didn’t deceive me.

    The thought that preoccupies me now is how you are feeling in the new atmosphere that you breathe. May you be happy in that place! Many things will tend toward that end, above all your own admirable spirit. In one particular, at least, Montreal must be congenial to you. It is the city in which our country has reached its highest degree of intellectual development. I am sure you must find there a mental satisfaction that would not be obtainable anywhere else.


    Are you aware that I am now an old man? I have just crossed the last limit. The next one will be the end. It may be near, it may be far—probably far—but there it is, almost in sight: it is the law of nature. I should not complain, and I do not. I have every reason to be thankful to Providence. But I cannot help missing the good old times!

    Goodbye, my ever dear friend. All blessings to you and your own.

    Yours faithfully, W.L.”

    Source: Roy MacSkimming, Laurier in Love, a Novel, Thomas Allen Publishers, 2010, pages 267 to 269.

    RM: He’s still flying the flag of his romantic attachment to her but from a safe distance.

    GM: Sort of the disadvantage of the package deal, we were talking about earlier, is that when you break up with Émilie, you also have to push away the husband and send away the children. Clearly, it was horrible for Émilie; she had an awful time going through it. It must have been really hard for Wilfrid as well. He was losing his very good law partner and his, I’m presuming...

    RM: Friend.

    GM: … he’s losing a good friend.

    RM: Yes.

    GM: As well as the children.

    RM: That’s true. I guess he felt the time had come for him to make a sacrifice too. By this time, he had absolutely stuck his colours to the mast of politics and being Prime Minister. That was his life. He no longer talked about wanting to resign and get away, the way he used to when he was opposition leader. Now that he was in power, he enjoyed power, he enjoyed wielding power and he did it very well. He did great things for Canada. If we step out of his private life for a moment and look at his public record—the way in which he brought English and French together and made them see that they were equal citizens of a single country—that the whole idea of Canada was to embrace both cultures, both languages and both religions. Macdonald had started doing that and Laurier continued Macdonald’s work. That’s why they were the two great architects of the Canada we have now. For all their flaws—and there were many, I suppose, especially on John A’s side—they both had this vision of Canada as an inclusive place. He did a great many wonderful things for the country.

    GM: So Canada was his greatest love in the end.

    RM: I think, in the end, yes. I think Canada was what claimed so much of his energy, his passion and his life. He lived it. He couldn’t leave it. He couldn’t leave the political life. When he died in 1919, he was still leader of the Liberal Party and leader of the opposition. It’s incredible!

    GM: Yes.

    RM: He was in that office for thirty-some years, of which he was Prime Minister for fifteen. That’s a great record. But it’s also fascinating to get behind the icon and learn what we can learn from these letters…

    GM: Absolutely.

    RM: …about his private, human and emotional side.

    GM: You mentioned that you did find a few interesting letters at Library and Archives Canada. What part of the collection was helpful, where did you go hunting for your book?

    RM: Well, I did two things. Madam Hoogenraad, who’s now retired from Library and Archives Canada, was the Laurier specialist, so she was able to lead me to letters of Laurier’s to Émilie that I hadn’t seen. I had this book collection of the letters but they end in 1893. There were others on file so she retrieved them for me and showed me a few other Laurier memorabilia, which were helpful in my research. The other major source of help I got from Library and Archives Canada was from all the newspapers that are on microfiche, really going back to the beginnings of Canada. I found this with my earlier historical novel Macdonald about John A. I did the same thing with Laurier, which is to go to the microfiche collection and get the issues of The Globe and Mail—well The Globe in those days, not The Globe and MailThe Globe from Toronto, the Ottawa Citizen, the Ottawa Journal, Montreal Star, Montreal Gazette and look at the newspapers that were published on the days that I’m writing about. You’re able to get what the weather was like; you’re able to find out what it costs to buy a man’s suit or woman’s hat in the stores. Newspapers are full of advertisements telling you what people were buying, what people were selling and what kind of medicines were in vogue. You can find out also what’s happening in other parts of the world, which was useful because you want to have some point of reference maybe. So the Crimean War is going on in the 1850s and the novel that I just finished, which is still in manuscript and it’s with my agent at the moment, called The Secret History of John A., which I hope will be published next year. That takes place during the Crimean War so the newspapers were a good source of what would people be hearing, what would Canadians be reading about that was going on in the world at that time. It was really invaluable, to help me go back in time, to read those newspapers. That’s part of what you do, as an historical novelist is you really have to time travel and there’s a number of ways to do that. One good way is to visit the historic sites or the homes where your characters lived. I spent a lot of time in Laurier’s house where many of the scenes are set. But another way is to go into the newspaper archives at Library and Archives Canada and pretend you’re reading today’s newspaper from 1891. The place is full of riches. If you happen to be writing about a historical novel with a Canadian theme, it’s absolutely the place to go for research.

    GM: To learn more about the Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds at Library and Archives, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. To view images associated with this podcast, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast. And if you liked this episode, you are invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through iTunes, Google Play or the RSS feed located on our website.

    Thank you for being with us. I’m Geneviève Morin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Mr. Roy MacSkimming.

    For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.


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