Madame de Genlis and Jane Austen

Madame de Genlis
Miniature of Madame de Genlis by Pierre Noël Violet, Courtesy of Christie’s

Stéphanie Félicité du Crest de Saint-Aubin better known as Madame de Genlis was born on 25 January 1746. She was french writer and educator appointed to oversee the education of the children of Louis Philippe II, Duke of Chartres (later Duke of Orléans) and his wife Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon. The Duke appointed her gouverneur (not governess) of his sons in 1781. The position of gouverneur at the time was something given only to men, so the appointment caused a stir.

As gouverneur, Madame de Genlis was zealous to the point of being overbearing. Part of the problem was her educational techniques were uncommon. Moreover, all the other tutors quit because Madame de Genlis would not share her power and zealously implemented her ideas. (To learn more about her educational ideas and techniques, you can read my guest post at Naomi Clifford’s blog. It is titled Madame Genlis: A Most Unusual Educator). In addition, in order to popularize her educational ideas, Madame de Genlis included them in many of her novels, which amounted to over eighty.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen, Public Domain

Because Madame de Genlis was a prolific writer, the famous man of letters and art historian, Horace Walpole, once described her as “the scribbling trollop.” One of her scribblings, titled Alphonsine, was a novel about illegitimate motherhood, and it was in that book that de Genlis decided to include some of her educational propaganda. The famous English novelist Jane Austen attempted to read Alphonsine, but found the book so offensive, she returned it to the lending library. In a letter to her niece, Caroline, Austen declared:

“We were disgusted in twenty pages, as, independent of a bad translation, it has indelicacies which disgrace a pen hitherto so pure.”

Although Alphonsine may have offended Austen, it did not stop Austen from reading other novels written by Madame de Genlis. In fact, in Austen’s book Emma, published in 1815, “the heroine fondly compares her own relationship with her governess, Miss Taylor, with that of the admirable Barrone d’Almane and Comtesse d’Ostalis, in Madame de Genlis’ Adelaide and Theodore.'” But there were many other elements from Madame de Genlis’s book that found their way into Austen’s Emma, as pointed out by one twenty-first century English professor:

“[T]he emphasis on matchmaking, the consideration of the connection between the imagination and love, Emma’s adoption of Harriet and her plans for reading, the misunderstanding of Mr. Elton’s admiration of the portrait’s creator rather than its subject, Harriet’s box of ‘precious treasures,’ even such details as Mr. Knightley’s and Frank Churchill’s ages, the living arrangements of Mr. Knightly and Emma after marriage, or the children’s games played by adults, under Frank Churchill’s disruptive influence — all find their source in Mme. de Genlis’s novel.”

Title Page from Northanger Abbey in 1818, Public Domain
Title Page from Austen’s Northanger Abbey in 1818, Public Domain

Another de Genlis’s novel that Austen found useful was the Duchess of C***, from the History of the Duchess of C***, published in 1798. It was a Gothic horror tale, and Madame de Genlis offered this tidbit to increase the reader’s horror: The Duchess was a real Italian Duchess (the Duchess of Girifalco) whose plight was based on truth. Austen relied on de Genlis’s work in her own novel, Northanger Abbey, and one lecturer from the University of Southampton points out how:

“In Northanger Abbey, ‘The Duchess of C***’ provides inspiration for Austen, by fuelling Catherine Morland’s imagination and leading her to misread past events at Northanger Abbey. The comic effect of Catherine’s flight of fancy must have been enhanced for Austen’s first readers, familiar themselves with Genlis’s tale in a way that the twenty-first century read is not.”

All in all, although Madame de Genlis would inspire Austen sometimes and annoy her at other times, Austen would never meet her. It is, however, interesting to think what a meeting between Austen and Madame de Genlis may have been like. Frances Burney, the English novelist, diarist and playwright, who did meet Madame de Genlis discovered she was no moral paragon and decided to keep her distance after losing esteem for her.  She wrote, “Poor Madame de Genlis! how I grieve at the cloud which hovers over so much merit, too bright to be hid but not to be obscured.” Perhaps, Austen would have felt the same way.

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