The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Golden Dog (Le Chien D'or) a Romance of the Last Days of Louis Quinze in Quebec (1877)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Golden Dog: (Le Chien D’or) a Romance of the Days of Louis Quinze in Quebec was written by William Kirby. Kirby (1817-1906) was a Canadian writer. During his lifetime Kirby was the voice of Canadian Tories, a vigorous supporter of the British Empire who used his fiction and poetry as vehicles for his political beliefs. Kirby is best-known for The Golden Dog.
The Golden Dog is about the Old Régime of French Canada. The novel is set in 1748 when Great Britain and France are dueling for control of Canada. France’s mismanagement of its colony and the corruption which led to its loss to Great Britain are the backdrop to the story of five men and women. Amélie de Repentigny is a beautiful young woman only a year out of the convent. She is the daughter of the gallant Chevalier le Gardeur de Tilly, who died two years before the start of the novel. Amélie is sweet, innocent, pure, and a devout Catholic. She is also the brother of Gardeur de Repentigny, a handsome soldier who is brave and gallant but too easily swayed. One of those who sways Gardeur is Angélique des Meloises, a former classmate of Amélie. Angélique is beautiful, and loves Gardeur, but she is hugely ambitious, vain, a saucy flirt and a heartbreaker. She is intent on marrying into as much wealth and power as possible. Her ultimate goal is to replace Marquise de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV, as the power behind the King of France. Although Angélique loves Gardeur, she chooses the Intendant Bigot as her preferred route to power. Bigot is a corrupt villain whose machinations had previously lost France the Canadian province of Acadia. Bigot is intelligent and loves France, but he sees the country as doomed and believes that he is just one of many officials illegally making money from French Canada. Bigot is a power in France, but when Angélique takes aim at him he is already married, so Angélique connives to have Bigot’s wife murdered. Bigot’s enemy is Pierre Philibert, a preux chevalier and the son of the wealthy merchant Bourgeois Philibert. Bourgeois Philibert is the “golden dog” of the novel’s title. He is loved by the common people of Québéc. Pierre Philibert is a noble patriot, brave and true, who fights for Québéc’s future. Pierre is in love with Amélie, and during the novel they become engaged to marry, but Gardeur, besotted with Angélique, is persuaded by Angélique to kill the Bourgeois Philibert. The shock of her brother committing a murder hastens the end of Amélie’s life. Pierre leaves for France and dies valorously on the battlefield, his last thought of Amélie. Bigot’s power grows with the death of Bourgeois Philibert, but his corruption and that of his supporters lead to the fall of Québéc and Montreal, and he is punished by the King. Gardeur is eventually pardoned by the King and returns to Canada to fight for New France. When he sees Angélique again, he slaps her.
The Golden Dog was old-fashioned when it first appeared and will appear far more so to modern readers. Kirby modeled The Golden Dog on the historical romances of Walter Scott (see: Rob Roy, Waverley), and Kirby’s stylistic debt to Scott is obvious, and unfortunate. The influence of Scott on later historical romances was enormous and is not to be discounted. Although there were post-Scott historical romances which were written in different styles and were popular with readers, such as Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Scott’s remained the dominant paradigm in historical romances for decades after his death. Kirby wrote in the Scott style, which has not aged well and which most modern readers are likely to find tedious, ponderous, and even joyless. Kirby’s narrative style is formal and heavily structured. He is effusive in his descriptions, even flowery, and he is detailed in describing his world. Reading The Golden Dog is an immersive experience. But it is also a slow one; the lean swiftness of 1890s swashbucklers, like Stanley J. Weyman’s From the Memoirs of a Minister of France and Owen Rhoscomyl’s The Jewel of Ynys Galon, is absent from The Golden Dog. Nor does Kirby vary from Scott’s dialogue style, which is unblinkingly earnest, is lacking in any sort of irony or awareness, is lacking in naturalism, and too often is the vehicle for plot summary, character exposition, and the advancement of the plot. The morality of The Golden Dog is prim, so that even a simple drinking party incurs the smug disapproval of both Philibert and Kirby. And Kirby, following Scott, inserts tedious infodumps of historical and scientific information into the novel.
Most damning of all is Kirby’s overtly didactic intent. Kirby spent years doing research for The Golden Dog and wrote it to criticize France’s neglect of Canada and to justify England’s seizure of French Canada. (Kirby was an ardent Canadian patriot and a committed anti-American). Many authors have a didactic intent in mind when they write novels, but writers must handle this intent in a skillful manner so as not to bore or offend the reader. Most readers will probably not be bored by Kirby’s intent. His style will be sufficient to do that. Nor is offense particularly likely, not over a war fought over two centuries ago, although American readers might find it slightly uncomfortable to be in the position of the enemies who the novel’s heroes speak so lightly of humiliating. But an inevitable side-effect of didactic writing is to skew the truth in favor of one side and against another. In the case of The Golden Dog, Kirby grossly romanticizes Old Québéc and its inhabitants. Kirby’s intention is to persuade the reader of the glory of Old Québéc and the corruption and wickedness which led to its downfall. But he does this by making his characters too-perfect examples of nobility, and the reader will likely find them one-dimensional, unsympathetic, and surprisingly unlikable.
As mentioned, The Golden Dog is the result of years of research, and while not as immersive as Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô The Golden Dog still convincingly recreates the material aspects of Old Québéc and the physical experience of life in Québéc in 1748. But Kirby’s attempts at wit and characterization are clumsy, obvious, and neither entertaining nor interesting. Kirby’s attempts at portraying romantic relationships, which takes up the great majority of The Golden Dog, are unconvincing.
The Golden Dog is part of the Canadian canon. It was a critical and popular success on publication, and Queen Elizabeth herself read it. “Over the years it has continued to be recognized as a major work of Canadian literature.”1 Modern readers will question its inclusion in the Canadian canon and status as anything but a tedious, minor historical romance.
Print: William Kirby, The Golden Dog: (Le Chien D’or) a Romance of the Days of Louis Quinze in Quebec. Los Angeles, CA: Hardpress Publishing, 2014.
1 Mary Jane Edwards, “Kirby, William,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 6, 2018, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kirby_william_13E.html