Luce Cuvillier lived from 1817 until 1900.1 During her life she saw Upper and Lower Canada unite together and then with other colonies of British North America in Confederation. She is often mentioned as the mistress of George-Etienne Cartier, but she was much more than that.
Luce Cuvillier was the youngest of eight children, born to wealthy Montreal politician and businessman Augustin Cuvillier. Her cousin, who she was raised with, established a religious order known as the Sisters of Providence. Cuvillier worked with this organization, doing fundraising for their women’s shelters. She was one of the wealthy women who organized annual fancy dinners for the women in the shelters. Cuvillier would listen to the stories the old women told while passing around tobacco and generally being a friendly host. Suvillier also worked as an intermediary for the the Sisters on business and real estate deals.2
Her business dealings were one of the things which made Cuvillier unusual for a Victorian woman. After the death of her father in 1849, Cuvillier and her brothers inherited his business, and Cuvillier & Sons soon came to be called Cuvillier & Co. She was known to have a “head for figures” and assisted her brother Maurice with his five stores and 16 properties. Cuvillier managed her properties well and owned both a town and a country estate, where she would smoke cigars and scandalously wear pants while gardening. Her wisdom and competence were known among her friends, family, and acquaintances. She was unmarried but was still made guardian of her brother-in-law’s daughter after his death.3
While she never married, she had a long-term love affair with George-Etienne Cartier, one of the Fathers of Confederation. When they first started seeing each other he took to staying at a hotel near both their houses.4 By the end of the 1860s they were living together, and took trips to Europe together. She was with him when he died in France in 1873.5 Their affair was an open secret, and she often accompanied him to high society events in Montreal.6 It was through her that he developed an interest in country living, and she managed the estate she encouraged him to buy.7
Luce Cuvillier was a woman who defied convention in the Victorian era. Of course there were probably many such women in Canada at the time. It is a sad irony that their names are all but forgotten and hers is remembered only because of her relationship with a famous man.
1“Luce Cuvillier”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, online: <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/luce-cuvillier/>.
4Moira Dann, “Where were the Mothers of Confederation?”, The Globe and Mail (28 August 2009), online: <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/where-were-the-mothers-of-confederation/article4284401/>.
5Brian J Young, George-Etienne Cartier: Montreal Bourgeois (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1981), p 35.
6Ibid, p 34.
7Ibid, p 43.