He could be something of a Gloomy Gus, the so-called “conqueror of New France,” Canada’s “dauntless hero.”
Writing from Scotland to his mother in late 1751, Major-General James Wolfe, whose victory on Quebec’s Plains of Abraham eight years later assured British domination over most of North America at the same time as that battle claimed his life, bemoans how as “winter wears away, so do our years and so does Life itself. It matters little where a Man [spends] his days and what station he fills or whether he be great or inconsiderable; but it imports him something to look to his manner of Life; this day am I five and twenty years of age, and all this is as nothing . . .”
Such mournful sentiments are found in 233 letters Wolfe wrote between 1740 and 1759 to his parents, letters now in the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto. Their acquisition, a feat accomplished in the face of strenuous efforts to keep the trove in the U.K., was announced this week in Toronto and Ottawa.
The price tag for what is believed to be nearly 70 per cent of Wolfe’s extant correspondence? Almost $1.5-million, paid via Christie’s auctioneers to an unidentified British family that has held the letters since the death of Wolfe’s mother, Henrietta, in 1764. The lion’s share of the funds was provided by Toronto-based Helmhorst Investments, headed by philanthropist Virginia McLaughlin, with cash support from U of T Libraries and the Movable Cultural Property Directorate of Canadian Heritage.
Admittedly not celebrated or admired in Quebec, Wolfe is indisputably a pivotal figure in Canadian history, more famous here than in the country where he was born and for which he fought.
It is not the first time Canada has spent big on Wolfe. In 1988, the federal government granted the U of T almost $250,000 (U.S.) to buy a 1754 edition of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard that Wolfe annotated. Legend has it, in fact, that the general declared he “would rather have written [the elegy]” – with its famous line “the paths of glory lead but to the grave” – “than take Quebec tomorrow.” Until this week’s announcement of the acquisition, the Elegy was the sole work in the Fisher collection with Wolfe’s autograph.
The existence of the letters has long been known. But it was only about 18 months ago that Christie’s Toronto told the U of T they were for sale.
“It was for a lot of money, more than we could afford from our regular budget,” Anne Dondertman, associate librarian, special collections at the U of T Libraries, said on Thursday. “So it was clear we would need to do some fundraising if we wanted to acquire it.”
In September last year, Ms. McLaughlin heard U of T chief librarian Larry Alford speak of his desire to add the Wolfe letters to the university’s historic Canadian holdings. Intrigued, “the company by the end of the year determined it would be able to participate with a lead gift,” U of T communications librarian Margaret Wall said. (Ms. McLaughlin declined to be interviewed.)
Historians in the U.K. urged the government to stay the export of the letters to allow a British buyer to match or exceed the price. They were supported by the British government’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, which described Wolfe as “the greatest military hero of the second half of the 18th century.”
In late July, Britain’s culture minister imposed a two-month ban on the export, with a possible extension until early 2014, “if proof emerges of a serious intention to raise funds.”
However, as Sept. 30 loomed, the effort stalled, in spite of a letter to The Times by such prominent historians as Antony Beevor and Lady Antonia Fraser urging a further deferral. On Sept. 30, the culture minister approved the removal to Canada, just seven days after an annoucement that Jane Austen fans had raised more than $255,000 to keep a ring that belonged to the author in the U.K. U.S. pop singer Kelly Clarkson had bought the item at auction in 2012.