An archive of significant national importance, more than 200 personal letters of James Wolfe (1727-1759), the general who defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham in the legendary Battle of Quebec, is coming to Canada, despite efforts to keep it in Britain.
The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, the largest academic library in Canada, has acquired the archive for £900,000 (approximately $1.5-million) thanks to the philanthropic support of Helmhorst Investments and the assistance of a Movable Cultural Property grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage, it was announced yesterday. Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages calls the archive “an invaluable addition to our national heritage.”
“These letters were written to his mother and are very personal. They are the major source of our understanding of him as a man,” says Margaret Ford, international head of group books and science at Christie’s in London, who spearheaded the sale. “They give insight into the daily life of a soldier, from the beginning when he was the lowest of the low solider in the ranks right up to when he was general,” she said in an interview. “I can’t think of anything that’s as compelling from that period.”
The letters, all signed by him, begin in the 1740s, when he 13, just before he set off for war and they end two weeks before his death in battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The French commander, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, also lost his life in the battle.
“The Marquis de Montcalm is at the head of a great number of bad soldiers and I’m the head of a small number of good ones that wish for nothing so much as to fight him,” Wolfe wrote in one of his last letters, with Quebec City in sight.
In August this year, British Culture Minister Ed Vaizey deferred granting an export licence for the archive following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England. It was hoped that a British institution would be able to raise the necessary funds to buy them. In September this year, The Times newspaper published a letter signed by prominent British historians, “Save Wolfe’s Letters,” to raise awareness of the risk of their export. Considered one of the most comprehensive series of letters from any significant military figure in the 18th century, they document an important time in British colonial history and army life as well as a decisive moment in the Seven Years’ War, which led to the development of the British Empire.
The story of Wolfe’s death during the Battle of Quebec is part of Canadian mythology. His reading of Thomas Gray’s An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard the night before the battle, and his declaration that he “would rather have written that piece than take Quebec tomorrow” are the stuff of legend.
But the letters reveal much more than his battlefield courage. “Everyone in those days was taught to write well, but Wolfe is quite gifted as a writer,” says Anne Dondertman, associate librarian for special collections and director of the Fisher library. “This is casual correspondence but his passion comes through. We all know he was a poetry reader. And he was quite critical of life. He had a melancholic take on life. He was a bit gloomy. So the material supports the myth,” she said in a telephone interview.
Wolfe’s letters home to his family are the main documentary source for his life. They have been in private hands since the death of his mother in 1764. “It’s not that they weren’t well looked after,” Ford said. “They were bound properly but they were in a private home not an institution. Recognizing that they had historic significance, the family wanted to share them. The archive was known. Some had been used for biography in the mid-19th century and the early 20th century. [But] the time had come to hand them over.”
The existing transcriptions of the letters were “not up to modern standards and had not been made available to the public,” Ford said. There were omissions, grammar and editing issues. The Fisher library plans to digitize the archive so the public can access them online.
“What this archive warrants is a Canadian historian to take this in its entirety and place Wolfe in the context of our own history. He played an important role in Louisbourg [Nova Scotia] as well as in Quebec, battles which had a huge impact on how we ended up and who we are as a nation,” Dondertman says. “He is more known here than in Britain, and we are so delighted to have the letters in this library and in the country.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story referred to the Times' "Save Wolfe's Letters" as an editorial.