Near the end of Jane Austen’s Emma, the heroine alludes to a novel by a prolific French writer who is scarcely known today. It is Adèle et Théodore by Mme. de Genlis (1746–1830). Jane Austen’s comments on the French novelist’s work often have an ironic undertone, but she was indebted to it. When Emma was published in December 1815, Mme. de Genlis was alive and well in Paris, immensely famous throughout Europe as a playwright and novelist, and as a writer on education. She was also reviled in certain quarters for her involvement in revolutionary politics. She had been presented at the court of Louis XV; she had visited Voltaire (as who of consequence had not?). She lived through the Revolution, the Directory, the First Consulate and Empire of Napoleon, and the Restoration of the Bourbons; and she was to witness the ascent of her pupil, Louis-Philippe, to the throne of France as “the Citizen King” in 1830. In her long life she knew the extremes of poverty and wealth, power and exile, political influence and scandal.
It is a fairly common misconception that French society allowed as little scope for women to discuss and participate in politics as the world portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels. Mme. de Staël, when residing in England, viewed with distaste the ritual withdrawal of the English ladies after dinner, just when the conversation was becoming seriously interesting. As she privately told the disapproving Duke of Wellington, “For me, to talk politics is to live.” It might be thought that Germaine de Staël, daughter of an important minister of finance, was an exception. Not in the least. In the years before the French Revolution of 1789, everyone was talking politics, and that included women, since they ruled over the Parisian salons where the art of conversation was famously practised as nowhere else in Europe.
As usual, however, matters were not simple. In theory, the conventional forms of society demanded that women should be seen to play their ideal feminine role as perfect wives and mothers. Consequently, women who were known to have a hand in politics could always be attacked—often virulently—as ambitious meddlers who had forsaken their proper sphere. There was the situation as it existed in reality, and the lip service that had to be paid to the social ideal. Here was the quandary from which no intelligent woman could escape. It led to loud protestations of innocence and ignorance, public denials of any political involvement whatsoever, by women writers like Mme. de Staël and Mme. de Genlis, denials that should not be taken at their face value.
She enjoyed reading about rebellions and conspiracies, and she was thoroughly familiar with the memoirs of the Machiavellian Cardinal de Retz.
There were precedents for women’s involvement in political affairs in France, a country where the historical imagination counts for much in intelligent discourse. Nearly a hundred years before Mme. de Genlis was born, the civil wars known as the Fronde (1648–1653) saw highborn ladies like the duchesse de Longueville playing a visibly active role. As the last significant revolt of the nobles against royal power, the Fronde was certainly not forgotten. Leading actors in the Revolution of 1789 were inspired not only by their idea of ancient Rome, by the recent triumph of the American Revolution, and by the seventeenth-century civil wars in England and the grim precedent of the execution of Charles I, but also by the civil strife of the Fronde. The bizarre fluctuations of the Fronde, sometimes resulting from a nobleman’s change of mistress, could be followed in the highly entertaining memoirs of one of the leading conspirators, Cardinal de Retz. Mme. de Genlis who was largely self-taught, with the self-sufficiency that frequently distinguishes the autodidact, instructed herself in French history and literature. She enjoyed reading about rebellions and conspiracies, and she was thoroughly familiar with the memoirs of the Machiavellian Cardinal de Retz.
The rise of Mme. de Genlis from somewhat dubious circumstances to a position of eminence and political influence, was due to talent, intelligence, study, industry, single-minded ambition, a certain deviousness— and the system of patronage. She was also extremely attractive—eyes full of life, lovely chestnut hair. Her conversation enchanted her hearers, endowed as she was with the piquancy, wit, grace, and charm, without which (it is said) a Frenchwoman is unlikely to achieve anything in the power game. No ugly woman can succeed in politics, Edith Cresson was to declare unequivocally when she became France’s first woman prime minister in 1991.
Mme. de Genlis, née Caroline-Stéphanie-Félicité du Crest, was descended from an ancient Burgundian noble family whose menfolk traditionally served in the army. Her father was therefore often absent on service. Unable to settle his debts, he would spend some time in prison. His wife struggled to bring up their two children, Félicité and Charles-Louis. For a while, Mme. du Crest enjoyed the protection of a wealthy tax collector (whose wife had notoriously left him to become maîtresse en titre or the official mistress—and unofficial minister of state—of Louis XV, as the marquise de Pompadour). When this protector wearied of supporting the du Crest family, Félicité’s mother moved to the mansion (and possibly the bed) of another wealthy tax collector, a noted patron of the arts, who kept his own orchestra on the premises. At thirteen, Félicité was encouraged to pursue her passion for music: in particular, her proficiency on the harp was very much admired.
This period of relative security was shortlived. Mme. du Crest then tried to profit from her daughter’s musical gifts by taking her into gatherings of the upper crust, where the girl performed on the harp after supper. Félicité was never treated as a fellow guest. A fee would be discreetly passed to her mother. Sometimes, charity would take the form of dresses the hostess no longer wanted. The humiliation rankled so much that years later Félicité would give offense to one condescending benefactress whom she satirized in Adèle et Théodore. Félicité’s resentment would unite with the general resentment against unearned privilege that forms so potent a motive in revolutionary movements.
She might even have continued as a professional musician, thoroughly déclassée, but she was saved from this dismal fate. Her father, returning from an expedition to the French colony of Saint-Domingue, had been taken prisoner by the English. According to Félicité’s romantic account in her memoirs, he showed his daughter’s portrait to a fellow prisoner, a young naval hero, who—like Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute—promptly fell in love with the model. This was Charles-Alexis Bruslart, Comte de Genlis, scion of the younger branch of a powerful family. The couple were married in secret. His family was opposed to the match, and only relented on the birth of her daughter Caroline.
Through her husband’s relatives, Félicité had access to a different world. One was the granddaughter of Louis XIV’s great minister, Louvois, and her circle included a number of elderly survivors of the Sun King’s reign. Félicité was fascinated by their reminiscences, taking notes (a perennial habit), gathering firsthand information she was to use in her stories and novels. She found her role model (subject of one of her later, popular romanticized historical books) in Françoise d’Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon, whom some could well remember, bemused as they were by that lady’s phenomenal rise to power, and by the extent of her influence on state affairs. How Françoise d’Aubigné, modest widow of the disabled bohemian satirist Paul Scarron, a woman who had led an extremely checkered existence, came to be the morganatic wife of Louis XIV, the most powerful, formal, and remote monarch in Europe, astonished everyone. Appointed governess to the numerous illegitimate children of Louis XIV and his extravagant mistress, the marquise de Montespan, Mme. Scarron had charmed the aging king by her unswerving devotion to his children.
What profoundly impressed Félicité was the way in which Mme. de Maintenon established her school for impoverished young girls of the nobility at Saint-Cyr, controlling its rule, finances, and studies. From time to time Mme. de Maintenon, who always dressed soberly in black, would withdraw from the court to Saint-Cyr, enhancing her reputation for dignity, austerity, and piety. Power through gravity and educating the young—here was a lesson that Félicité would take to heart.
It was through her husband’s influential relatives that Félicité’s destiny was to be changed forever. One of them was instrumental in arranging a marriage between a wealthy heiress and Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc de Chartres (later to be notorious as Philippe-Egalité), heir to the duc d’Orléans, first prince of the blood royal. As a reward, positions were made available to the Genlis family: Félicité entered the handsome Palais-Royal as lady-in-waiting to the young duchesse de Chartres, a position that could be inherited by her daughters; while her husband became captain of the guards, a post with similar privileges for male descendants. Their joint salary was considerable: moreover, they had the opportunity to solicit positions for members of their family. Later, Félicité’s brother, Charles-Louis du Crest, would be appointed chancelier or treasurer to the duc de Chartres.
Félicité had occupied her new post only a short time when, as it were by droit de seigneur, the duc de Chartres made her his mistress. Louis-Philippe-Joseph was a figure of great elegance and charm, frivolous, dissolute, a close friend of the Prince of Wales (future regent and George IV), and famed for his Anglomania. One great cause of resentment for Louis-Philippe-Joseph was the fact that the present house of Orléans took its descent from an illegitimate daughter of Mme. de Montespan and Louis XIV who—at the instigation of Mme. de Maintenon, keen on the establishment of her charges—had insisted on the alliance, and the Sun King was not to be disobeyed. The leading members of the house of Orléans, the younger branch of the Bourbons, were usually bitter about their ill-treatment (real and/or imagined) at the hands of the senior branch, whose issue occupied the throne. The traditional Orléans role, followed by Louis-Philippe-Joseph, who inherited the title of duc d’Orléans in 1785, was to side with the Parlement in its conflicts with the king. A thorn in the flesh of Louis XVI, the ruling monarch, the duc d’Orléans—along with his circle—had no love for Queen Marie-Antoinette either: she was widely detested for her extravagance and her supposed debauchery, and many even maintained that the heir to the throne was not the king’s son.
Félicité was too intelligent to imagine that she could hold Louis-Philippe-Joseph’s attention for long simply as his mistress. Still, she could be the Egeria of a prince who was only too conscious of his lack of formal education, and who might easily become regent one day. After all, his licentious great-grandfather, Philippe d’Orléans, had ruled as regent after the death of Louis XIV. Moreover, remembering the egregious example of Mme. de Maintenon’s role in education at Saint-Cyr, Félicité could exercise influence over the next generation. To please Mme. de Genlis, Louis-Philippe-Joseph had a house built for her in the grounds of the convent of Bellechasse (quite close to where the Musée d’Orsay stands today). She retired there with his heir, Louis-Philippe, his daughter Adélaïde, and his younger sons. Félicité’s pupils included her own children, Caroline and Pulchérie de Genlis (her son having died at the age of five), and later, two “English girls,” Paméla and Hermine, rightly or wrongly assumed by scandalmongers to be the offspring of Félicité and Louis-Philippe-Joseph.
Mme. de Genlis was now graced with the high official masculine title of Gouverneur or tutor to the Orléans princes (not governess). She was the first woman to occupy such an important position, one usually allotted to a military man. This appointment gave rise to much savage satirical comment. “Is it because I am a woman?” she riposted with spirit. Could not women succeed just as well as men, and even better, in every sphere? she asked rhetorically. “There are women who have commanded armies, there are some who have reigned, who are still reigning gloriously.” She could have been thinking of the duchesse de Longueville, known as the moving spirit of the Fronde, who led armies; and of her own contemporary, Catherine the Great, empress of Russia. Clearly, Félicité’s thoughts were running on command, thrones, and glory.
At Bellechasse, Mme. de Genlis reigned supreme.
At Bellechasse, Mme. de Genlis reigned supreme, having complete control of the plan of education, keeping careful records of expenditure and daily conduct, and—like Mme. de Maintenon—accepting no remuneration herself. Her methods were innovative. Her favored pupil, Louis-Philippe, who came to love her, was to remember when “King of the French” how as a boy he had to sleep on bare boards, engage in strenuous physical exercise in all weathers, and learn to turn his hand to manual labor as carpenter, blacksmith, and groom—all of which, together with the study of modern languages, including English, served him well during his years of exile in the United States. There were visits to see how goods were made, meetings with craftsmen, and generous displays of charity to win popularity. Above all, Mme. de Genlis encouraged Louis-Philippe to despise the extravagance of the court, to scorn titles and privileges. She taught him to “seek the people’s love which alone builds the reputation of princes,” as she once expressed it. Consequently, when he ascended the throne in 1830, he dismantled the royal household, much to the loathing of aristocrats who lost their sinecures, and he sought to live as far as possible like his fellow citizens. (In general, the French were displeased, since what they really wanted was a monarchy of splendor and glory.)
Mme. de Genlis, no mean actress herself, wrote plays for her pupils to perform, as well as plays for adults. She wrote fiction together with books on history, morals, and education, including Adèle et Théodore ou Lettres sur l’éducation (Théodore becoming the pet name for Louis-Philippe, Adèle being that of his sister Adélaïde). Her role, her writings on conduct and education brought her widespread fame outside France. When she visited England in 1785 and 1788, she was feted by royalty, aristocracy, and notabilities in the world of literature, art, and politics, from Fanny Burney and Joshua Reynolds to Edmund Burke.
In an age before the formation of coherent political parties (which were to emerge out of the Revolution), and when the word parti meant little more than faction, the main center of discontent in 1787–89 was to be found at the Palais-Royal. For much of that time Félicité remained, if no longer the lover, the confidante of the duc d’Orléans, who employed his vast wealth in buying popularity (after the manner of Cardinal de Retz). Around the figure whom many then regarded as the “savior of the people,” there flocked genuine idealists as well as those eager for power and place, serious aristocratic reformers together with dissidents of all ranks and colors. Among them were not only Félicité’s husband and brother, but Talleyrand (whom she had known since she was a girl), Mirabeau (who claimed to be her lover), and La Fayette.
One of Félicité’s protégés was Brissot, onetime scurrilous journalist, whom she managed to rescue from imprisonment in the Bastille, and who remained forever in her debt. The future leader of the Brissotins, or Girondins as they are better known, wrote to Félicité’s brother:
Since the end of the civil war known as the Fronde, there has been only one triumphant party in France, that of the Court. The great art of leading a party, an art that the Cardinal de Retz understood so well and used so ill, has been lost through want of practice and all intrigues have been limited to a change of ministers.
Henceforward, a party of defenders of the people against ministerial despotism should be created on the English model. “The head of this party should be the house of Orléans,” Brissot proposed.
Much to her fury, Mme. de Genlis found her position of influential confidante undermined when Choderlos de Laclos, author of the sensational novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, was appointed private secretary to the duc d’Orléans. The rivalry of the two writers and their mutual hatred knew no bounds. He painted a portrait of her in vitriol; she, with Cassandra-like warnings, did her best to have him dismissed. Louis-Philippe-Joseph took no notice: “You deserve to be consulted on questions of history and literature,” he told her airily, “but you do not understand anything about politics.” He also suggested that she was incapable of appreciating the “new ideas.” All the same, a great ditherer, without any real principles of his own, he continued to ask her advice without always following it.
Mme. de Genlis was hoping that the States-General, which met in May 1789 for the first time since 1614, would culminate in the reform of many abuses, among them surviving feudal rights and the arbitrary lettre de cachet (by means of which, for instance, a husband could have his erring wife immured without appeal in a convent for the rest of her days). In her salon at Bellechasse, she welcomed writers and musicians on Saturdays, and the political world on Sundays. Among the habitués could be found great aristocrats keen to resign their privileges like Mathieu de Montmorency; or Talleyrand, the supreme opportunist; along with many of lesser degree whose names were to become familiar in the annals of the Revolution, like Brissot or the constitution-maker, abbé Sieyès.
In July 1789, hearing that people were tearing down the walls of the Bastille, stone by stone, Mme. de Genlis hastened to witness the scene with her pupils, the young Orléans princes. As an early example of radical chic, she took to wearing a medallion made of polished stone from the Bastille, set with jewels: in the center was the word “Liberté” in diamonds, surrounded by a garland of laurel leaves made of emeralds. Soon, she was visiting the clubs and listening to debates in the National Assembly with young Louis-Philippe. Her pupil would be found crossing out his title and signing documents as “French prince in expiation of his sins and Jacobin to his fingertips.” Brissot was later to say of Mme. de Genlis that in those heady days she held views “more republican than those of many republicans who are slandering her today.” Her enemies knew her as “la jacobine” or “that Jacobin woman.”
Conspiracy theories were rife: any upheaval was attributed to “Orléans gold.” The march of women of the lower orders on Versailles in October 1789, which Félicité witnessed, and which resulted in the humiliating forced return of Louis XVI and the royal family to Paris, was widely ascribed to an Orléans plot, whose aim was to establish Louis-Philippe-Joseph as regent. If he had dared, he might have seized power then. Instead, he departed hastily with Laclos for England (where he was to remain until July 1790), much to the disgust of supporters like Mirabeau, who decided that he was nothing but a weak reed. Mme. de Genlis seems to have drawn a similar conclusion. She published two addresses that caused a sensation. One, concerning the proper education of the heir to the throne, suggested the appointment of a suitably superior person (herself?) as tutor. The other favored adoption: the questionable heir apparent could thus be replaced by a more meritorious candidate— doubtless her own pupil, Louis-Philippe. “She should be advised in her own interest to leave political matters alone,” declared one angry critic.
The question of an Orléans regency would arise once again after the abortive flight of Louis XVI and his family and their capture at Varennes. Amid talk of dethronement, Louis-Philippe-Joseph could not decide whether to make a move. Notwithstanding his remarks on Félicité’s lack of competence in political affairs, he consulted her. She said she was against his promotion to regent, believing him to lack the character essential for the high position. (Besides, her thoughts were then running on the future of his heir.) He asked her to compose his formal deed of renunciation, which he signed and published. In desperation, Laclos conspired to have Louis-Philippe-Joseph declared regent in spite of himself, but Félicité outmaneuvered him. She sent her husband in haste to the mayor of Paris to denounce the plot. It was the end of Laclos at the Palais-Royal, with the unfortunate consequence that her husband replaced him as Louis-Philippe-Joseph’s chief personal advisor.
As the climate worsened, Mme. de Genlis urged Louis-Philippe-Joseph, as well as her husband, to leave for the United States while there was still time, but in vain. Both were elected to the National Convention. Like many weak people, Louis-Philippe-Joseph sought by extremism to give an impression of strength and consistency. Philippe-Egalité, as he was now known, sat with the Jacobins, who simply used him as their tool. He was to vote with them for the death of his cousin, Louis XVI. Félicité was horrified. It was an act that sullied his own name and all those associated with him. Her husband, though, honorably refused to vote for the king’s execution, and would die by the guillotine only a few days before Philippe-Egalité. At his trial, her former lover had been questioned about that “perfidious intriguer” Mme. de Genlis: he declared that she “did not deserve my trust.”
Mme. de Genlis was a revolutionary of the first hour, the early period of blissful dawn. When she wished to summarize the benefits of the Revolution, she declared (without much thought for the victims): “There are two things abolished for ever: lettres de cachet and the tyranny of classes and of feudal rights … I never thought people went too far, but I always thought they went too fast.” In her memoirs, published many years later in 1825, during the reactionary Bourbon Restoration, she regretfully observed: “My indignation against certain easily reformable abuses inspired me with a kind of enthusiasm for the beginning of a revolution whose consequences I did not foresee.” It is a refrain that echoes down to our own day.
Given the opprobrium that attached to the name of Philippe-Egalité and to anyone suspected of the “sin” of Orleanism, of seeking to promote an Orléans party, Mme. de Genlis tried to distance herself as far as she could from her former patron and his family. She had become an exile: her wanderings were to last some seven years, and would take her from Bremgarten in Switzerland to Hamburg, Altona, Silk, Hamburg again, and Berlin. At times, she was favored by German princes or members of the nobility; and she enjoyed the hospitality of cultivated well-to-do Jewish ladies in Berlin, to whom she gave lessons. Her talent as a musician and her piquant conversation always made her welcome among like-minded spirits.
In difficult circumstances, she was trying to earn her living and to lead an independent life.
In difficult circumstances, she was trying to earn her living and to lead an independent life, writing stories, novels, travel books—ready to turn her hand to anything, even to painting floral designs for textiles. At the same time, she was pursued by enemies who were influential enough to secure her departure from a place of asylum. Antagonists ranged from Jacobins to monarchist émigrés like the sharp-tongued Rivarol. He wrote luridly of her association with Philippe-Egalité, calling her with no little exaggeration the “moving spirit of his councils, instigator of his plans, apologist of his evil deeds, and corruptress of his children: a woman who left him only at the scaffold.” In this version, Philippe-Egalité had been merely the “vile instrument of a Fury” who was still living and active.
It would be surprising if Mme. de Genlis did not feel afraid. She had already published several attempts to justify herself. Now she tried again. Her account of her conduct since the Revolution, with the open “Letter from Silk” addressed to Louis-Philippe, can be regarded as a political act. She maintained there that Louis-Philippe’s ideas were more democratic than hers, that he was ardently republican, and that he held extreme views on equality. Her former pupil regarded these comments by his onetime revolutionary guide and mentor with no little irony. They had gone their separate ways, after a quarrel.
As for herself, she insisted (none too truthfully) she had always lived quietly in retirement, devoting herself solely to literature, submissive to every established government, “for such should be the conduct of a woman and it has always been my own.” She was eager to distance herself from Louis-Philippe and any Orleanist faction, in her desire for reconciliation with the Directory, so that she might return at last to Paris. Doubtless moved by her fears and her insecure situation, she stressed the folly of any desire on his part to be the leader of an Orléans party and a constitutional monarch, at a time when there existed a republic founded on morality and justice (odd terms to be applied to the Directory, that byword for immorality and illegality). Moreover, she added tactlessly, you have neither the talents nor the qualities necessary for the role. You have many virtues, suited to a domestic life, “but you do not have those required of great kings.” Rare were those who believed that she had really parted company from Louis-Philippe: they thought the Letter from Silk was part of some political maneuver. Its candid assessment of his character was to prove a gift to his enemies, and would be reprinted at various crucial moments in his political career.
The coup d’état of Napoleon Bonaparte on 18 Brumaire (November) 1799 opened the way for Félicité’s return to Paris. She arrived in 1800 to find everything changed, from street names to manners. Bonaparte’s close adviser, Talleyrand, had been corresponding with her during the years of their dispersal. Whenever he now called on her, she saw him in private. It soon came to General Bonaparte’s notice that Mme. de Genlis and her pen might be useful to him. She was granted a pension, and an apartment in the official residence of the Arsénal Library. There she held court, welcoming persons either connected with Bonaparte or favorable to him, while denigrating those— like Mme. de Staël—who were not.
In return for her pension, Mme. de Genlis was expected to write fortnightly to the Emperor on a subject of her choice (apparently, he never received her in audience). The fact was that the upstart conqueror of Europe would never feel secure. He had his paid hacks to uphold his policies in the subsidized press. He employed Fouché, one of the most renowned spymasters of all time, without fully trusting him (rightly as it turned out). Spies were everywhere. Any detail, however trivial, might yield a nugget of information about public opinion. According to Mme. de Genlis, she wrote to Napoleon on non-political matters of religion and morality, on methods for improving trade and providing employment, on the education and well-being of the people. However, this is not the whole story.
Talleyrand relates how he read aloud one of her reports to Napoleon soon shortly after the battle of Austerlitz:
She spoke of opinion in Paris, quoting several offensive remarks uttered in what was then called the faubourg Saint-Germain [that is, the neighborhood of the old aristocracy]; she named five or six families who, she added, would never support the Emperor’s government. Certain scathing remarks that she reported sent Napoleon into a paroxysm of fury: he swore, he thundered against the faubourg Saint-Germain … When? A few hours after a decisive victory over the Russians and the Austrians.
That she “named” five or six families would appear to confirm the view of those contemporaries who regarded her as Napoleon’s spy.
By April 1814, and Napoleon’s abdication, the tone had changed.
Meanwhile, an endless stream of books renewed her literary fame, which was used politically (like everything else in the First Empire). It served as a counterbalance to Mme. de Staël’s undeviating opposition to the Emperor’s authoritarian regime. All the same, even Mme. de Genlis herself fell foul of Napoleon’s censorship. She was not permitted to publish extracts from the memoirs of the marquis de Dangeau (a contemporary of Mme. de Maintenon’s) that she had discovered in the Arsénal Library. Nor would Napoleon allow her to publish her book on the first Bourbon king, the ever popular Henri IV, for the Emperor did not want anything that showed the Bourbons in a good light. Unlike Mme. de Staël, who resisted in public, Mme. de Genlis yielded in private. True, she did not have at her disposal Mme. de Staël’s considerable means; besides, she claimed to admire Napoleon, whose armies had ravaged Europe from Spain to Russia, as the restorer of “religion, order and peace”!
By April 1814, and Napoleon’s abdication, the tone had changed, and Mme. de Genlis was commenting to Talleyrand on this “long tragedy, this pretentious and bloodstained drama,” so ill planned and badly directed. Along with Talleyrand, prime secret mover of the Restoration, and countless others, she rallied to the Bourbons, whose virtues she had apparently loved devotedly all the time. Louis XVIII received her at court, but he was disinclined to accept her offer of regular letters. Her book on his remote ancestor, Henri IV, adorned with some unfavorable remarks on Bonaparte, was published—with most unfortunate timing—just as the usurper made his extraordinary escape from Elba in March 1815 and swiftly arrived in Paris. All enthusiasm, she began again writing letters to him, but he ignored them and did not restore her pension. After his defeat at Waterloo, and the return of the Bourbons, she was not long in expressing her undying devotion to them.
Mme. de Genlis was no more opportunistic than most of her masculine contemporaries, who frequently turned their coat. How difficult it was to keep on an even and consistent path when faced with that rapid succession of regimes upon which depended one’s financial survival, social standing, possibilities for place, action, and influence! Throughout the Bourbon Restoration, however, she would enjoy the patronage of her erstwhile pupil, Louis-Philippe, with whom she was now reconciled, and who had returned to the Palais-Royal. Producing fiction as well as didactic literary works, memoirs, books on manners and etiquette, she also grew deeply engaged in polemics in favor of religion, waging a futile war against the philosophes of the Enlightenment, including their disciple Mme. de Staël. Mme. de Genlis herself had moved from being “la jacobine” of 1790–91 to the ultra or extreme royalist of 1820–30, though she would on no account join those who thought the Revolution was all bad, or who wanted to return completely to the ancien régime as if nothing had happened.
Her trajectory from revolutionary sympathizer and activist to embattled conservative may look familiar, her inconsistency and her veerings often bizarre, yet in a climate openly hostile to women’s participation in political affairs, she could write in her memoirs: “I have known … women worthy of respect who had a taste for public affairs, and I approved of them for taking part,” because, she added, they had the temperament and the talents essential for success in that field. This approval was a considerable admission for her day, and might have been thought self-referential. On the contrary, it was followed by the usual disclaimers: for she could not possibly be included among such spirits; lacking ambition, too busy writing books, she had never engaged in politics, and she herself certainly had no gifts in that area. If only the lady did not protest so much!
In fact, Mme. de Genlis had not only held advanced political views—as a “democrat,” indeed, as a republican before Robespierre, if Brissot is to be believed— she had also ventured to translate them into publications and into action, at some cost to her reputation and even at times to her existence. Disconcertingly, though, she moved between impulsive courage and social timidity, as if reminding herself how, as a woman, she would be perceived in society. Without this burdensome limit on frankness, she could have revealed much more about what a frustrated reviewer of her intriguing memoirs in 1825 called her “complicity” with her age.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 1, on page 50
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