It’s been almost 500 years since Marguerite de la Rocque de Roberval, a French noblewoman, was abandoned by her colonizer uncle, Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval, off the coast of Newfoundland. Her crime? Being a wild woman—the kind of wanton lady who dared take a lover on a transatlantic journey in 1542.
Her story of survival became the stuff of legend, and has inspired numerous artists over the years, including Canadian writer Douglas Glover. His book, Elle, a fictionalized account of de la Rocque de Roberval’s time marooned on the so-called Isle of Demons, won a Governor General’s Award, and it’s also the basis of Severn Thompson’s Dora Award–winning stage adaptation of the same name.
“I’d never heard that any European women came over in the first few journeys with the colonists and explorers,” Thompson tells the Straight over the phone from Toronto. The story blew her mind, and she was drawn to Glover’s reimagining of de la Rocque de Roberval’s experiences. “His exploration of this story was so inventive and the character itself that he created—there was something about her and her humour, and the fact that she was written as quite a misfit….She’s not perfect by any means, but her imperfection makes her quite human and relatable.”
In addition to adapting Elle for the stage, Thompson stars as Marguerite. She says she’s mindful that the role never falls into the troubling category of colonizer heroine; rather, Thompson sees Marguerite as simply having a thirst for adventure.
“Certainly, this version of her character, anyway, really came over without any expectations of settling in,” Thompson says. “I think she came for the exploration, just for the experience of it.”
Marguerite’s desire for excitement is something to which Thompson relates—along with her questioning nature, which led her to search beyond the standard fare offered to a woman of her social standing at that time. She also loves how, even with Marguerite’s many imperfections and relative lack of practical skills, she’s a survivor—literally. Unable to manage the wilderness, inclement weather, and lack of food, almost everybody around her died (both in real life and in the book/play), but she lived to tell her story.
“I imagine if I was out there I would feel very similar in having very few skills that would see me through to survive in the wild, so I really loved that,” Thompson says. “I also felt a kinship with her sense of humour when things went wrong. And they do go wrong a lot for her; it is just this sense of the humour, the bitter irony of it, that kind of keeps her going, and I certainly have used that at times to keep me going.”
It keeps Marguerite going even though the punishment was so out of proportion to the alleged crime. The “get thee to a nunnery”–style slut-shaming was to leave this young woman stranded on an island. For years. Simply because she engaged in consensual sex and was seemingly unapologetic about it.
“And we’re still going through that,” Thompson says, reflecting briefly on how the puritanical values of the 1500s echo through to the present day. “What I love about her is she can’t help herself. She does have some sense of guilt for religious reasons, but she has such a strong drive to live and to explore her sexuality and everything. She’s very impulsive and it’s interesting to see somebody like that. That’s kind of coded as a headstrong girl, which is still the case, right? Well, ‘headstrong’ is the nicest label, but still, there’s all these labels that women get, you know. ‘She’s so opinionated, she’s so…’ People are very quick to label, dismiss, and destroy if they can.”
But, like Marguerite, headstrong women will survive.
Elle runs from Wednesday (February 8) to February 18 at the Firehall Arts Centre.