Marie de lIncarnation (Marie Guyart) was born in 1599 in Tours, France. At age 17 she married a master silk worker. Two years later, however, she lost her husband and was forced to provide for the needs of her six-month-old son alone. In 1631, Marie de lIncarnation entered the Ursuline novitiate at Tours after entrusting her son Claude to her sisters care. She took her vows in 1633.
After a dream enjoining her to leave for Canada, in 1639 Marie de lIncarnation decided to embark for New France with the goal of establishing an Ursuline congregation there. On 1 August, after a long and sometimes hazardous three-month crossing, she arrived in Québec with a few companions. She was to work for over 30 years in the colony until her death there in 1672.
The mission of the Ursulines arriving in New France was to educate the young daughters of French colonists as well as Aboriginal girls. With this in mind, Marie de lIncarnation instructed herself in Amerindian languages, in which she became so proficient that she wrote three dictionaries: French-Algonquin, Algonquin-French, and Iroquois.
In addition to being a nun, teacher and linguist, Marie de lIncarnation was also an administrator and counsellor. Many sought her spiritual advice and confided in her about colonial affairs. And, finally, this "active mystic" was a great letter writer: she produced a voluminous correspondence over the course of her life, estimated at some 13 000 letters, most of them written from New France.
This body of letters replete with details about the daily life and evolution of the colony is also an eloquent testimony to the state of communications in the 17th century. In the letters, Marie de lIncarnation describes at length the uncertainties of the mails under the French regime. For example, we learn that postal communications between New France and Europe were seasonal in nature.
There were, in fact, two different and successive seasons of correspondence, which required writers to work at different speeds. The first vessels out to the colony would leave France in March, and conversely the last ships bound for the motherland would leave the port of Québec in late fall. The sailing season would thus bring one to six vessels to New France, where they normally berthed for one month. The French colonists had to be quick to answer their European correspondents if they wanted to dispatch their letters in the same season of navigation. The rest of the year, the colony lived in isolation, cut off from Europe. Some took advantage of this interruption to write long, thoughtful letters that would cross the sea the next sailing season.
Marie de lIncarnations correspondence also teaches us about the modes of transport used for transatlantic communication. Merchantmen, small warships, shipping vessels, and fishing boats were all used to carry the mail of the founder of the Ursulines of New France. When she could entrust her correspondence to a traveller whom she knew directly or indirectly, she was quick to do so, considering this method to be safer.
The letters of Marie de lIncarnation speak of the problems involved in dispatching mail, such as frequent losses and delays. Many letters took a very long time to reach their destination; others never reached it at all. To prepare for every eventuality, Marie de lIncarnation would send several copies of her letters and by different means of transport. She also made a point of summarizing the content of the previous letter in any new piece of correspondence.
In summary, as Jane Harrison says in Until Next Year: "For Marie de lIncarnation, letter writing was a responsibility, a consolation, and an affirmation. ... Her letters provide us with one of the first and best glimpses of communications in the 17th century."
Chabot, O.S.U., Marie-Emmanuelle. "Guyart, Marie dite de lIncarnation." Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966, pp 351-359.
Harrison, Jane E. Until Next Year: Letter Writing and the Mails in the Canadas, 1640-1830. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997.
Oury, Dom Guy (ed.) Marie de lIncarnation, Ursuline (1599-1672): Correspondance. Solesmes, Abbaye St-Pierre, 1971.