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Friday, April 24, 2015

Language and Sin in 1806 Montreal

Taking boats, sitting in carriages, and wandering on foot, a man makes his way from Charleston to New York, then winds around Lake Ontario and Southern Canada. His adventures recall the excitement and the trials of modern travel: at one point he gets sick, and reluctantly stays in his room while friends go out and tell him about their day.

I was drawn to the generously-titled Journal of a tour from Charleston, So. Carolina, to New-York, Ballstown Springs, Falls of Niagara, down Lake Ontario and the River St. Laurence to Montreal; and the course of returning by Lake Champlain Vermont and New York in the year 1806 in the Rosenbach library because of one of the final destinations it mentions: Montreal. I’m Emily, a curatorial intern at the Rosenbach this spring and a graduate student of material culture. I did my undergraduate degree in Montreal, and thought I might explore the city again from afar through the lens of 1806.
The journal recalls a tour that covered a lot of ground. The anonymous writer pasted in a folded hand-drawn map at the end of the book. A shaky red line notes the travel path, sweeping across many miles on land and water. At the top right corner of the map is Montreal, marking the uppermost part of the loop traveled. 

Journal of a tour from Charleston... 1806. AMs 227/19 Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia
 After first arriving in Montreal, writer is quick to realize the possible mix-ups and amusements of visiting a bilingual city. “Upon first going out, I witnessed a curious effect of the diversity of language. I was lead through the marketplace, where my attention was caught by a laughable bargain going forward by interpretation.” A conversation is conducted between a French-speaking farmer and English-speaking ship captain, where the farmer was not receiving the price that he desired for his produce. “The greatest obstacle of the bargain was a command, which the farmer had received from “ma femme,” an authority which the waggish interpreter did not fail to enlarge upon in both the respects of length and loudness.”

Journal of a tour from Charleston... 1806. AMs 227/19 Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia
Language was but one element of Montreal’s character that the writer explains to his unknown audience, perhaps family or his own future reference. His facts may have come from other books, or tips from the acquaintances he made while paying visits to local homes. He explains that the population was around 12,000 people, mostly of French origin, and that the architecture was largely black colored stone placed on narrow streets. He lauds great public edifices, including a courthouse and a large cathedral, and describes the terrain of the island and mountain that he says gave the city its name.

The writer is especially interested in gaining access the convents in Montreal. He writes “The greatest objects of curiosity, which Montreal afforded, in my estimation, were the convents, but most of my acquaintance being Protestants, we had been several days in the city without finding any person who had the influence to procure admission.” Finally meeting some amenable hosts and former convent school pupils at a dinner, he is able to see three convents. 

Journal of a tour from Charleston... 1806. AMs 227/19 Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia
 The writer’s travel group talks with nuns and dines. They see living quarters, schools, and hospitals administrated within the buildings. During one tour, the narrator, evidently becoming quite comfortable with his host from the dinner, says “I saw an oblong box, resembling a projecting closet; and, addressing my informant, asked, if so small a space could contain all her sins.” Laughing, the two leave the confessional space and attend a final convent visit. The writer, after finding a few last meals and conversations, eventually leaves Montreal and makes his way slowly back to Charleston.
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Emily Pazar, is a curatorial intern at the Rosenbach this spring and a graduate student in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware.

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