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Detail from a portrait of Gen. James Wolfe, attributed to Joseph Highmore, a British painter who died in 1780. (Bonhams/CP)
Detail from a portrait of Gen. James Wolfe, attributed to Joseph Highmore, a British painter who died in 1780. (Bonhams/CP)

JOHN SAINSBURY

General James Wolfe, between the lines Add to ...

It’s good news that the University of Toronto has purchased an important collection of personal letters of General James Wolfe, the conqueror of Quebec, whose death on the battlefield at age 32 (fancifully rendered in Benjamin West’s famous painting) gave him a Christ-like status in the annals of British imperialism. The university and its financial backers beat back the challenge of a British consortium (that included Lady Antonia Fraser, the doyenne of historical biographers) that was trying to keep the collection in the United Kingdom.

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Formerly in private hands, the trove includes material that Beckles Willson, the Edwardian editor of The Life and Letters of James Wolfe, had excised in order to present his subject without blemish. Now scholars will be able to read Wolfe’s emotionally charged letters, free from editorial jiggery-pokery.

That’s the good news, not so much that the collection is being moved from Britain to Canada. Indeed, there is irony in the fact that the Wolfe letters are leaving the U.K, where Wolfe remains installed in the pantheon of national heroes, to come to Canada, where he’s been relegated to the margins of mainstream historical narrative. So, not surprisingly, there has been a bigger fuss in Britain about the “loss” of the manuscripts than there has been in Canada about their acquisition.

A childhood view, one I imbibed in my English primary school, is that heroes make history. But the truth is that history makes heroes, and it can break them too, when circumstances change. And once Canada began defining itself in opposition to empire, rather than as a loyal component of it, Wolfe’s days as a national hero were numbered. Dismissing Wolfe could also be construed as a tacit apology to Quebeckers for the unfortunate events on the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

The demythologizing of Wolfe began in 1936, with Prof. E.R. Adair’s verbal assault at the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. It reached a crescendo around the bicentenary of Wolfe’s final battle, drowning out, at least in academic circles, the predictable noises of Anglo triumphalism.

Demythologizing Wolfe brought with it the possibility that a real flesh-and-blood Wolfe could be recovered from the historical record. But for a while, it looked as if the mythic Wolfe would simply be replaced by his polar opposite.

Wolfe the military genius was transformed in a number of revisionist accounts into Wolfe the strategic bungler, who undeservedly triumphed in 1759 thanks to a combination of good luck, subordinate officers’ professionalism and the might of Britain’s Royal Navy.

Wolfe the martyred warrior – courageous, yet ethical and sensitive – became Wolfe the callous martinet, indifferent to his troops’ welfare and vengeful toward his opponents.

Partly driving this radical reassessment was a shift in historians’ attention from the grand designs of empire to the plight of its dispossessed inhabitants.

Consider the letter Wolfe wrote five years after participating in the slaughter of Highland Scots at Culloden in 1746, in which he envisages the vanquished Highlanders becoming useful auxiliaries in battling the Wabanaki Confederacy in Nova Scotia: “I should imagine that two or three independent Highland companies might be of use; they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.” (The phrase “no great mischief” will resonate with alert readers; Alistair MacLeod used it as the title of his novel about the lives of the said Highlanders’ Nova Scotian descendants.)

The letter is grating to modern sensibility, but more than 100 years ago, Willson included it in his sanitized account, likely without a moment’s hesitation.

In fairness to Wolfe, other letters portray him in a more positive light – as a compassionate man, genuinely concerned about the well-being of his troops.

But fairness to Wolfe has been in short supply in recent years, at least until the publication in 2006 of Stephen Brumwell’s biography: Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe. Determined to rescue Wolfe from the distortions of usable history, Mr. Brumwell, who had access to the materials subsequently purchased by the University of Toronto, uncovered the man behind the myths. The picture that emerged was of a conscientious career officer with tactical flair, someone who quickly grasped the unconventional character of warfare in the wilds of North America.

He had character flaws to be sure: He was quarrelsome and quick to anger (the result perhaps of chronic gastrointestinal disease), but not to the extent that his bold leadership was ever seriously compromised.

Mr. Brumwell’s biography offers a solid basis for more detailed enquiry. I suggest that future historians pay more attention to the fact that Wolfe was a boy soldier, first commissioned as a 14-year-old. By the time of his death, he was a seasoned veteran of numerous campaigns.

Yet in many respects, he remained the boy soldier, ever driven by a need to impress his parents. (His father was a general, too.) He had difficulty making adult friendships beyond familiar army circles. His two attempts at romantic courtship ended in humiliating failure. His mother remained the only woman in his life.

But, wait, on second thought, I withdraw the suggestion. I wouldn’t want to be implicated in any attempt to remythologize Wolfe for our therapeutic age.

John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.

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