On Monday morning, January 30, 1713, Jeanne Marguerite Chevalier sat in her room and dictated her will. She was 69 years old and was now living in the home in Rivière Ouelle, Quebec, along the St. Lawrence River, where she had lived for so many years with her second husband, Robert Levesque. It now belonged to her second son with Robert, as a result of the agreement reached in July, 1705.
I found the copy of the will just by chance, 300 years later in the summer of 2013. I had spent many hours at the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s library here in Boston searching through microfilms for that 1705 agreement Jeanne had made with her sons. Since the 1705 agreement had been ratified in 1717, I had to continue going through the film. Fortunately, I remembered that Jeanne by that time was also known as “Madame de Bouteillerie” because of her third marriage. Otherwise, I might have missed the document. There it was — almost to the end of the reel: “Le Testament de Madame de Bouteillerie!” I hadn’t really been looking for it since there was no mention of it in the carefully researched book on her second husband. Besides, I had learned that wills were quite rare in early 18th century Quebec, for men and particularly for women.
I try to take myself back to watch the proceedings. The temperature in her part of eastern Canada would have been even colder than it is now. I am hoping she had a good fire burning. Her sons had promised to put a brick stove in her bedroom and supply her with plenty of wood.
Was she looking out the window at the view on the river Ouelle that snaked its way from the St. Lawrence through the village or was she concentrating on the men in the room, the Notary Etienne Janneau and the other two men who would be witnessing her will. As I trace the grain on my dining room table where I do a lot of my writing, I wonder what Jeanne’s table was like. What was she wearing? Her hair must have been grey by now, and it was probably still bound in a cap. Was she wearing a black woolen shawl on her shoulders against the cold like Cary Grant’s grandmother in “An Affair to Remember?”
Over the next couple of hours she would dictate her wishes to Janneau who wrote them down, in front of the witnesses. The notary included all the routine sentences about the state of her mind and soul. Jeanne had him describe the provisions for her funeral, burial, and the services to be held after her death and then list her bequests.
After declaring herself to be a good Catholic, she indicated she wanted a simple funeral to be held at the church in Rivière Ouelle without any ceremony and at the least expense possible. She asked for masses to be said for her soul, for those of her now deceased sons from her first marriage, and for her second husband. She referenced the agreement executed in July 1705 which had settled her estate with her three surviving sons. She left pledges for masses to be held at eight churches, churches located in places where she had lived or had had friends and family. She made a not-insignificant bequest to only one living relative: her god-daughter Marie Jeanne. There was no mention of her first or third husband.
The notary Janneau then read back to her what he had written, a routine procedure at the time since she could not read or write. She asked for six minor corrections to be made. They were noted in the margins of the original copy. Then the will was signed by Janneau and the two witnesses. Jeanne lived for nearly four more years, apparently leading an active life that included attending a baptism in the village of L’Ange Gardien on the north shore of the St. Lawrence where she had once lived, before the will went into effect.
The notary’s handwriting was difficult to read so I had to have her will transcribed. Even then, I still had to edit it to make sense of the run-on paragraphs and the old French spellings. When I was finally able to read her requests and bequests, chills actually went through my body.
Years ago, after Jeanne began her nightly visits to me and I started to dig into her history, I puzzled over how to tell her story. One variation I came up with had her narrating the story of her life to her grand-daughter on her death bed. I did some research and found that she had only one grand-daughter who would have been old enough to appreciate these memories. That was Marie Jeanne, her first grandchild and god-daughter, born in 1702.
Over the years since coming up with that idea and others that involved a book of fiction about Jeanne’s life, I had rejected that approach. I wanted the books to be non-fiction, so I put that idea so far in the back of my mind that I actually forgot about her god-daughter – until I read her will.