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St. Ursula’s Convent and the birth of Canadian literature

For the week of Monday November 25, 2002

On November 28, 1864, Julia Catherine (Beckwith) Hart, the author of the first Canadian novel, died at 71 years of age. Like many of the female novelists at the time, she published her novel anonymously. Since her identity remained hidden until the 1890s, she died unaware that she would be immortalized in Canada’s literary history.

Julia Catherine (Beckwith) Hart

Julia Catherine (Beckwith) Hart
© LAC / C-000345

Julia Hart was born March 10, 1796, in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Her father, Nehemiah Beckwith, was a Loyalist pioneer from Connecticut and her mother, Julia LeBrun, was from Quebec. Much of Julia’s childhood was spent with her relatives in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, and in the province of Quebec. These visits inspired her to begin writing St. Ursula’s Convent; or, the Nun of Canada, when she was 17. The story focuses on the life of Mother St. Catherine and is based on stories circulated by Catholic relatives on her mother’s side. It is a complex plot with many characters, varying narrators, curious twists of fate and vivid descriptions. Like most novels written at the time, it is highly melodramatic, filled with romance, morality, adventure and tragedy that took her nearly 10 years to finish.

Following her father’s death in 1815, Julia moved to Kingston to live with an aunt. There she met and married George Henry Hart in 1822. It was perhaps through her husband, a bookbinder by profession, that she met Hugh C. Thomson, editor of the Upper Canada Herald. Thomson offered to publish her book by subscription and 175 copies were ordered throughout eastern Canada, England and the United States.

Cover page from the first<br> edition of <I>St. Ursula's Convent</I> (1824)

Cover page from the first
edition of St. Ursula's Convent (1824)

© Canadian Institute for Historical
Reproductions (CIHM)

Julia moved for a short time to Rochester, New York around 1826, where she published a second novel, Tonnewonte; or, the Adopted Son of America. She returned to Fredericton in 1831, where she continued to publish articles and short stories until her death. In 1895, W.G. MacFarlane established her identity as author of Canada’s first novel in the New Brunswick Bibliography.

Although contemporary reviews were critical of the book, claiming the plot was far too unrealistic, they noted its significance as Canada’s first novel. St. Ursula’s Convent remains a good example of the literary style of the early 19th century. Only six or seven, mostly incomplete, copies of the novel are preserved today.

Julia Catherine (Beckwith) Hart was designated a person of national historic significance in 1951 and a plaque commemorates her in Fredericton.

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