Sunday, February 17, 2013

Black Sheep Sunday: Séraphin Poudrier, Fact or Fiction?

What would you say if I told you that Séraphin Poudrier – the fictional character from French-Canadian literature – wasn’t so fictional after all?

Until I started researching a certain branch of my paternal relatives a few years ago, I didn’t know that Séraphin was based on someone who actually lived. I was surprised to find that the real Séraphin was related to me; in fact, he was a second cousin of my grandfather Fred Belair.1

The Novel

L’avare Séraphin (Seraphin the miser) made his first appearance in Un homme et son péché [A man and his sin], by Claude-Henri Grignon. This famous novel, published in 1933, later inspired a radio series, motion picture films, and the very popular Quebecois television series Les Belles Histoires des Pays d’en Haut, with its haunting intro melody.2

In Ste-Adèle of the 1880s-1890s, lived a man named Séraphin Poudrier. A pitiless miser, he lends money to those in need, but charges exorbitant interest rates. He makes the acquaintance of young Donalda, a devout Catholic girl from the village. They marry. Séraphin keeps tight control of the couple’s expenses, even to the point of not having children, because it would cost him money. When Donalda becomes ill, Séraphin delays in calling the doctor. At her death, Séraphin finds yet another way to save money: he chooses a too-small coffin for his late wife. Later, while attempting to save a wandering cow in the nearby river, Séraphin sees his house in flames. He rushes to the building, but cannot rescue the sacks of oats that he keeps hidden there. When his body is pulled from the smoldering ruins, the villagers see that the miser clutches a few gold coins in his fist.

The Author

Claude-Henri Grignon was born and raised in Ste-Adèle, a village situated about 70 km (43 miles) northwest of Montreal. Grignon’s father Doctor Wilfrid Grignon settled here after curé Antoine Labelle, a Roman Catholic priest known as the ‘King of the North’, helped colonise this region.

The Inspiration

Ste-Adèle is also where a certain Moïse Belair married and raised a family, including a son named Israël, who was born in 1867. Apparently, Israël was the inspiration for literature’s well-known Séraphin, according to Grignon’s daughter Claire. In an interview in 2002, she stated that: “Séraphin était inspiré d'un avare de Sainte-Adèle, Israël Bélair, dont la femme, comme Donalda, n'a vécu qu'un an et un jour après son mariage”.3

In the past, whenever Grignon was asked to reveal the name of the real Séraphin, he would reply that three men from his childhood in Ste-Adèle were the models for Séraphin. Claire explained that her father deliberately said three men instead of the actual one because “des descendants d'Israël Bélair vivaient toujours”.4

The Miser

Just how far would the real Séraphin go to save to money? One anecdote reveals that Israël Belair “[…] pouvait marcher des kilomètres pour marchander le prix de la saucisse, par exemple, entre le boucher de Sainte-Adèle et celui de Mont-Rolland pour n'économiser qu'un misérable sou.”5

The Research

It was inevitable that, after reading these and other online articles, I’d want to know more about Israël. I wanted to know if we were related, and if there were similar events in his life and that of Grignon’s character.

Here is what I found:

• Israël Belair was born on 6 September 1867 in Ste-Adèle. He was the second son among sixteen children of Moïse Belair, a farmer, and his wife Martine Guestier.6

• Bernadette Desjardins was a younger daughter of Israël Desjardins, the village blacksmith, and his wife Philomène Lapointe. She was born on 31 October 1876 in Ste-Adèle and baptised that same day; her godmother was her eldest sister Donalda Desjardins.7

• Israël and Bernadette were married on 15 January 1895 in Ste-Adèle.8

• The following year, Bernadette gave birth to a son on 5 June 1896. This unnamed boy was baptised at home by Doctor Wilfrid Grignon, but died within a few hours.9 One week later, on 11 June 1896, Bernadette died; she was 19 years and 8 months old.10

So far during the course of my research, I’ve found a convicted murderer on my grandmother’s side of the family (Madness Monday: A Cold-Blooded Murder) and now there's an infamous miser on my grandfather’s side of the family.

What other surprises will I discover about my family tree?

Sources:

1. ‘Séraphin’ and Fred are related through their common ancestor François Janvry dit Belair:

François Janvry dit Belair (ca 1731-1817) : Pierre Janvry dit Belair (1772-1848) : François Belair (1802-1878) :  Moïse Belair (1835-1919) : Israël Belair (1867-?)

François Janvry dit Belair (ca 1731-1817) : Pierre Janvry dit Belair (1772-1848) : Paul Belair (1822-1902) : Pierre Belair (1851-1941) : Fred Belair (1889-1991)

(Note: François (b. 1802) is Pierre’s son by his first wife Marguerite Quevillon, while Paul (b. 1822) is his son by his second wife Scholastique St-Michel.)

2. Claude-Henri wrote his story in the summer of 1933. It was available for purchase in bookstores that December. For a history of the author, his novel, and the subsequent films, radio and television series, see Un homme et son péché … l’oeuvre de Claude-Henri Grignon.

3. My translation of this quote: “Seraphin was inspired by a miser from Sainte-Adèle, Israël Bélair, whose wife, like Donalda, lived only one year and one day after her marriage.” Odile Tremblay, “Séraphin, un archetype qui ne veut pas mourir”, Le Devoir.com, 23 November 2002, Web edition (http://www.ledevoir.com/2002/11/23/13928.html : accessed 16 November 2005).

4. My translation of this quote: “descendants of Israël Bélair were [still] living [at this time]”. Tremblay, “Séraphin, un archetype qui ne veut pas mourir”, Le Devoir.com, 23 November 2002. Israël apparently left no descendants, but his surviving sister and brother did.

5. My translation of this quote: “[…] would walk kilometres in order to bargain the price of sausage, for example, between the butcher of Sainte-Adèle and the one in Mont-Rolland to save one miserable penny.” “Chroniques de Pierre Grignon et autres, année 2005”, Sainte-Adèle (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~meilleuro/adele.htm : accessed 22 November 2012), “Sainte-Adèle en fête – 150 ans de belles histoires”.

6. Ste-Adèle (Ste-Adèle, Quebec), parish register, 1867, p. 15 recto, entry no. B63, Israël Bélaire [sic] baptism, 7 October 1867; Ste-Adèle parish; digital image, “Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967”, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 11 February 2009).

7. Ste-Adèle (Ste-Adèle, Quebec), parish register, 1876, p. 17 recto, entry no. B64, Marie Bernadette Desjardins baptism, 31 October 1876; Ste-Adèle parish; digital image, “Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967”, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 11 February 2009).

8. Ste-Adèle (Ste-Adèle, Quebec), parish register, 1895, p. 2 recto, entry no. M2, Israël Janvry dit Belair – Bernadette Desjardins marriage, 15 January 1895; Ste-Adèle parish; digital image, “Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967”, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 11 February 2009).

9. Ste-Adèle (Ste-Adèle, Quebec), parish register, 1896, p. 10 verso, entry no. B34, Anonyme de Israël Bélair baptism, 5 June 1896; Ste-Adèle parish; digital image, “Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967”, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 11 February 2009). Also, Ste-Adèle, parish register, 1896, p. 10 verso, entry no. S20, Anonyme de Israël Bélair burial, 6 June 1896.

10. Ste-Adèle (Ste-Adèle, Quebec), parish register, 1896, p. 11 recto, entry no. S22, Bernadette Desjardins burial, 15 June 1896; Ste-Adèle parish; digital image, “Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967”, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 11 February 2009).

Copyright © 2013, Yvonne Demoskoff.

2 comments:

  1. I believe fact is not only stranger than fiction but better. When we are looking for family history, we never know where it will take us.

    Regards, Grant

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This family history 'journey' is certainly an adventure! Thanks for commenting, Grant.

      Delete

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