Luce Cuvillier, businesswoman and philanthropist (born 12 June 1817 in Montréal, QC; died 28 March 1900 in Montréal).
Luce Cuvillier, businesswoman and philanthropist (born 12 June 1817 in Montréal, QC; died 28 March 1900 in Montréal). The daughter of an important Montréal merchant, Luce Cuvillier has gone down in history as the “mistress” of George-Étienne Cartier, but the role that she played in Cartier’s life was far more than that of a mere corner in a romantic triangle. A cultivated woman and a great philanthropist, she has been described by historian Gérard Parizeau as Cartier’s muse, who guided and supported him throughout his political career.
Family Circle and Philanthropy
Luce Cuvillier was the youngest of eight children. Her father, Augustin Cuvillier (1779–1849), was an important auctioneer and importer of dry goods and one of the promoters of the Bank of Montreal when it was founded in 1817. He was the Conservative representative for Huntingdon in Lower Canada's legislative assembly. Although he opposed the union of Upper and Lower Canada and was a political ally of John Neilson and Denis-Benjamin Viger, he was chosen in 1841 as the first Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada because of his mastery of English and his extensive business relationships in both of its provinces. The reformists, led by Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, had hoped that if they chose Cuvillier as Speaker, he would rally the Tories to support the new union.
Luce Cuvillier’s mother was Marie-Claire Perrault (1785–1855), the daughter of Joseph Perrault and Anne-Marie Tavernier. Luce’s parents also took in and raised her cousin, Marie-Émilie Gamelin, née Tavernier (1800–51), who went on to found the female religious congregation now known as the Sisters of Providence. Luce was later deeply involved in this congregation in her own right. In the early 1860s, she chaired a lay women’s organization that supported the shelter that the Sisters of Providence operated for poor, elderly and disabled women. Starting in 1850, she and other charitable ladies began to hold annual dinners for these women. She organized at least three more of these dinners between 1869 and 1884. As the following description of the dinner over which she presided in 1884 indicates, a convivial atmosphere reigned at these events: “The charitable Miss Cuvillier attended and did the honours, assisted by seven sisters from the community whom chance had brought together there. When dinner was over, Miss Cuvillier sat amidst the worthy old women and drew out their stories while she herself passed around the tobacco.” On other occasions, Luce Cuvillier served as go-between for the congregation in business dealings — for example, in arranging to have a building erected at the corner of Rue Saint-Denis and Place Viger.
Through her mother, Luce Cuvillier was also connected to the Fabre family, one of the most influential in Montréal. Her aunt, Luce Perrault (after whom she was most likely named) married bookseller and Patriote Édouard-Raymond Fabre. One of their sons, Édouard-Charles, became archbishop of Montréal in 1876, while another, Hector, was appointed the first representative of Québec and Canada in Paris in 1882. On 16 June 1846, their youngest daughter, Hortense, Luce’s cousin, married George-Étienne Cartier, a Montréal lawyer with a well-established clientele.
Like the daughters of many other well-to-do families at that time, Luce Cuvillier was sent away to boarding school at the Ursuline Convent in Québec City. In adulthood, she became known in society as a talented musician and, above all, a woman with a very good head for figures. Her father Augustin died in 1849 and left his children a thriving business, Cuvillier & Sons (later known as Cuvillier & Co.), along with several landholdings. Luce appears to have drawn enough income from these properties to live comfortably in her house at 708 Sherbrooke Street in the Golden Square Mile, a fashionable district in the west-central section of downtown Montréal. She probably also helped her brother, Maurice Cuvillier, with his business affairs from time to time: as of 1850, he owned 5 stores and 16 houses in Montréal. She also owned Review Cottage, a small estate in Longue-Pointe, at the east end of Montréal Island.
Following the death of her brother-in-law, merchant George Burns Symes, in 1863, Luce was appointed guardian of his daughter, her 16-year-old niece, Clara Symes. Luce managed Clara’s fortune (estimated at $500,000 in her father’s death notice) and saw to it that she completed her education, sending her to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City to learn English. They then travelled together in Europe, spending much of their time in Italy. In August 1872, Luce’s efforts were crowned with success when Clara married into European high society, becoming the wife of Napoléon Maret, Marquis (later Duke) of Bassano, in a ceremony held in Kensington, England.
Companion of Cartier
It is hard to determine the precise date that the relationship between George-Étienne Cartier and Luce Cuvillier began. Some historians say it started in the early 1860s, or even earlier. Be that as it may, their families shared the same conservative political convictions, had known each other for many years, and frequented the same circles. Cartier went to school at the Collège de Montréal (see Sulpicians) with Luce’s brother, Maurice Cuvillier, to whom he entrusted his financial affairs from the mid-1860s on. Cartier became the Cuvillier family’s lawyer in 1857. As first cousin to Cartier’s wife Hortense, Luce participated in the major events in the Cartier family’s life. She also engaged in charitable work with ladies from Hortense’s father’s family, the Fabres.
In the late 1850s, Cartier and his wife rarely appeared in public as a couple. In one exceptional case, she accompanied her husband to the Québec Conference in 1864. By then, the couple had lived apart for many years. When Cartier was in Montréal, he slept at a hotel, or starting in 1869, at Limoilou, his 122-acre estate in Longue-Pointe, just steps from Luce Cuvillier’s own estate. In fact, Luce oversaw the planting of fruit trees at Limoilou and managed its employees when Cartier was away.
Luce visited Cartier during the Parliamentary sessions of 1864 and 1865, which were held in Québec City (prior to 1867, the seat of Parliament rotated among Montréal, Toronto, Québec City and Kingston). In his will, dated 10 November 1866 and made public after his death in 1873, Cartier praised Luce and encouraged his daughters to follow her advice, “given the wisdom and prudence that she has shown in the education of her niece.” While he bequeathed 150 pounds to her, on the condition that she have the priests of the Saint Sulpice Seminary say 25 masses “for the repose of his soul,” he threatened his daughters with disinheritance if they married members of the Fabre family.
According to historian Brian Young, Cartier and Luce Cuvillier lived together in the late 1860s (though they maintained separate addresses, for the sake of propriety), and their liaison was common knowledge in political circles. But none of his political adversaries ever used it against him, and journalists were content simply to report Miss Cuvillier’s presence at the social events that Cartier attended. In 1866, Luce was with him at the London Conference and then accompanied him to Rome. She was in London on 20 May 1873 when Cartier died there, surrounded by his wife and his daughters, who had been living in France since 1871. Before Cartier’s remains were brought back to Canada, his funeral was held in the French Chapel in London. Luce Cuvillier attended the service, while Lady Cartier was indisposed and her daughters were conspicuously absent.
An Unconventional Woman
An independent businesswoman and philanthropist, Luce Cuvillier is fascinating not only because she was the companion of an influential man, but also because she was an unconventional figure in the Victorian Montréal of the mid-19th century. Cuvillier never married. Her contemporaries described her as an intelligent woman who took an interest in politics and never hesitated to express her opinions. She read the poems of Byron and Baudelaire and the novels of contemporary female author George Sand and, like her, smoked cigars and sometimes wore pants in her garden.
Québec City and Montréal each now have a street bearing the Cuvillier name, but they were named after Luce’s father, Augustin, and one of her sisters, Marie-Angélique Cuvillier, the wife of Alexandre-Maurice Delisle, who was a member of the Québec legislature and sheriff of Montréal. Luce Cuvillier has been remembered both in the history books and in literature as Cartier’s mistress, the “other woman.” But the far larger role that she played in Cartier’s life, and the support that she gave him at some of the crucial junctures in his political career, make it far more apt to describe her as his muse, the term that Gérard Parizeau chose for her in his chronicle of the Fabre family.