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Mme de Genlis and the Annals of Virtue

July 22, 2017

Between episodes of Ol’ga N.’s “It Didn’t Come Off” (Не сошлись, 1867) I want to highlight a point Alex K. made in a comment and further developed here and here: the author of Annales de la vertu, the book that tormented young Nastya, is apparently the Mme de Genlis (1746-1830) found in Leskov’s “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” (Дух госпожи Жанлис, 1881). I’d completely overlooked this and was glad to be told about it. In both stories Mme de Genlis figures as an author a young woman is encouraged to read because she’s supposedly free of dangerous erotic motifs, though in Leskov’s story this doesn’t work out for the mother who pushes de Genlis on her daughter.

Alex K. also links to an 1850 piece on Mme de Genlis by the French critic Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869). It’s true, as AK points out, that Sainte-Beuve wrote that “she was destined by birth to be the world’s most gracious and gallant teacher of children” (20), but I think his portrait of her is not without mockery; the story of her going out on her terrace at age 7 to very seriously teach all she knew (“the Catechism, some lines from bad tragedies by a certain Mlle Barbier, and some music”) to the peasant children who had come to cut the bulrushes by a pond (21) is at best ambiguous, and I don’t think Sainte-Beuve is holding her up as a model when he goes on to say, “thus later, as she wrote, she would not miss a single chance to insert a precept or prescription, whether of morals or of medicine” (22), or concludes his essay by saying he’s imitating his subject by drawing a moral (37).

The earliest edition of Annales de la vertu that I can find is in 3 volumes from 1781. A random sample from the middle, on Egyptian history:

[…] Mycerinus, a good Prince, succeeded them [Cheops and Chephren]. Orsichis [=Asychis?]. This was the King who established the law on borrowing, according to which a son was not allowed to borrow unless he offered his father’s dead body as collateral.

After these reigns, there remains an interval of almost three hundred years until the reign of Sabacos the Ethiopian. M. Rollin put the following facts in this interval.

Pharaoh, King of Egypt, gave his daughter in marriage to Solomon, King of Israel, in the year 2991.

Sesac, also called Sesonchic. It was around the time of this King of Egypt that Jeroboam took refuge to avoid the anger of Solomon, who wanted to have him killed. Zerah, King of Ethiopia and probably also of Egypt, waged war on Asa, King of Judah […] (vol. 1, p. 160)

I wouldn’t have wanted to read very much of this at a stretch — you can see there might be interesting stories behind these sparse sentences, but except for the law on borrowing there isn’t much to pull you in. I’m spoiled by the time I grew up in, but more could have been done to convert Herodotus and Rollin into something that could capture the interest of a child.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2017 7:29 am

    Yes, Sainte-Beuve’s praise for Genlis is ironic but does not suggest she was a monster to her charges. You might be interested in the two articles about her in this collection (see the pdf link at the bottom).

  2. July 24, 2017 4:35 pm

    Mme de Genlis seems to have been quite the fixture in 19th-century Russia. From Обломов: “― А вот тут пишут, ― читал он еще, ― что сочинения госпожи Жанлис перевели на российский язык.” From Chernyshevsky’s Что делать?: “он взял французский словарь, да какие случились французские книжонки, а случились: Телемак, да повести г-жи Жанлис, да несколько ливрезонов нашего умного журнала Revue Etrangere…” From Война и мир: “И еще князь Андрей не успел выйти в дверь, как Кутузов успокоительно вздохнул и взялся опять за неконченный роман мадам Жанлис «Les chevaliers du Cygne».” From Leskov’s На ножах: “― Это прескверно-с, ― продолжал майор, ― и если бы вы, выходя замуж, спросили старика-дядю, как вам счастливее жить с мужем, то я, по моей цинической философии, научил бы вас этому вернее всякой мадам Жанлис.” And I’ve just gotten to this in Dostoevsky’s Униженные и оскорбленные: “мы тотчас же убежали в сад, к пруду, где стояла под старым густым кленом наша любимая зеленая скамейка, уселись там и начали читать “Альфонса и Далинду” — волшебную повесть.” Upon investigation (thanks, Prof. Google!), Alphonse et Dalinde, ou La féerie de l’art et de la nature : conte moral turns out to be by, yes, Madame la comtesse de Genlis. (I feel compelled to point out that the typically diligent but unhelpful Soviet annotation just says “Сентиментально-нравоучительная повесть ‘Альфонс и Далинда, или Волшебство искусства и натуры’ была опубликована в переводе H. M. Карамзина в 11– 12 частях “Детского чтения” за 1787 г. ” — no mention of Mme de Genlis!)

    • July 24, 2017 11:59 pm

      Thanks for this! I read those books (except for not finishing Oblomov to date, but I got farther than that chapter) before “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis,” and the allusions meant nothing to me. I like the juxtaposition of Kutuzov and the narrator of The Insulted and the Injured.

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