Language is important in “Orphans’ Progress”, specifically the relationship between English-speakers in Ontario and French-speakers in Quebec (predominantly Montreal, with a reference to Chicoutimi).
It matters, immediately and lastingly, because the orphans, Cathie and Mildred, are the children of an English-Canadian man and a French-Canadian woman.
These distinctions do not matter at all to the girls, perhaps not ever, but, certainly not when the story begins, which is when they become orphans, at ten and six years old.
At that time, they are sent to live in Ontario. And it is explained to them that they called their mother ‘Mummy’ because she spoke to them in both French and English, whereas their father spoke only English.
There is judgement about the conditions they lived in during their earlier childhood. Between a social service agency and other relative and a maid, it is discussed that the girls were impoverished and vulnerable. Another writer might have called this story “Unsheltered Conditions”.
The maid’s accent is mocked, her enunciation blurred, but that doesn’t prevent her freely expressing her low opinion of the girls’ mother. The girls learn that “French is an inferior kind of speech”.
And if, in searching for a cause for some of the girls’ poor habits, “Ontario could not be blamed”, well, then, it’s clear that Quebec could – and should – be blamed.
And when Cathie is feeling poorly, she complains in French and later expresses feeling better in English. But, when the grandmother dies, the girls return to Quebec.
Throughout these seven pages, the girls age nine years. At the end of the story, they are nineteen and fifteen years old.
But perhaps because the biggest shift in their experience is the way in which they do (and do not) express their origins, their mother tongue, and certainly because it is Mavis Gallant writing their story, seven pages is enough.
And because it is Quebec, this origin story would not be complete without a peek into Catholicism. Where there are other sisters and other mothers, where Mummy collides with Maman.
In the Globe & Mail obituary following Mavis Gallant’s death, in Februrary 2014, Sandra Martin writes that “English was the language of her imagination”.
Regarding her relationship to English and French, Gallant explains: “I dream in both, but nothing ever comes to me in the way of fiction in French. Even if the characters are French and live in Paris, I write in English, but I know that they are speaking French and I know what they are saying.”
There is so much to think about in “Orphans’ Progress” that one barely notices that there is no mention of the deaths which usually precede children’s becoming orphans.
Home Truths Stories: Thank You for the Lovely Tea / Jorinda and Jorindel / Saturday / Up North / Orphans’ Progress / The Prodigal Parent / In the Tunnel / The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street / Bonaventure / Virus X / In Youth is Pleasure / Between Zero and One / Varieties of Exile / Voices Lost in Snow / The Doctor / With a Capital T
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the tenth story in Home Truths. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “In Youth Is Pleasure”.