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Madame de Maintenon and the Literary Personality of Madame de Genlis: Creating Fictional, Historical, and Narrative VirtueBonnie Arden Robb The preoccupation of Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis with virtue has earned her scant praise. Genlis's contemporaries, noting a discrepancy between her moralizing writings and her worldly life, saw fit to judge, not only her texts, but her personal characteristics and conduct. While absolving her of hypocrisy, more recent criticism has deemed her moralizing works lacking in creativity. Both positions misconstrue the relationship between real and fictional virtue that Genlis established, while pointing nevertheless to its importance. Insight into that relationship, crucial to understanding Genlis's literary personality and appreciating her creativity, may be attained by examining her predilection for the historical novel and her cultivation of that genre in Madame de Maintenon. Real-life versus Fictional Virtue Genlis's "real-life" and fictional virtue is a pressing question because virtue was the principal theme of her literary work and the professed goal of her existence. Her contemporaries doubtless saw some justification in pointing out that moralizing seemed hypocritical from the pen of a woman who, named dame de compagnie to the duchess of Chartres at the Palais-Royal, became, within two weeks of her arrival there, the mistress of the duke (the future due d'Orléans and, during the Revolution, Philippe Égalité). Talleyrand accused Genlis of affecting moral austerity, while EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, volume 7, numéro 4, juillet 1995 352 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION pursuing a career which was actually all elegant intrigue and aristocratic gallantry. Rivarol, her political enemy, commented scathingly: "Jeune, elle usa de sa beauté; vieille, elle trafiqua de son esprit; mais le ciel [a] refusé le charme de l'innocence à sa jeunesse et la magie du talent à ses productions littéraires."' Sainte-Beuve, devoting one of his Causeries to her twenty years after her death, had the advantage of a longer perspective, but still felt it necessary to try to reconcile Genlis's fictional production with her life and reputation: "Mme de Genlis, parmi les noms vieillis, est un des noms les plus cités, les plus familiers à l'oreille, et l'un de ceux qui laissent , ce me semble, l'idée la moins nette dans l'esprit des générations nouvelles. Sa réputation a gardé quelque chose d'équivoque et de mal défini." As foremost among the causes of confusion, he cited "la diversit é de ses ouvrages et de sa conduite."2 He expressed, however, sincere admiration for Genlis in her capacity as gouverneur of the children of the due d'Orléans, giving preference to Genlis the teacher over Genlis the writer: "La manière dont elle conçut et dirigea, dès le premier jour, l'éducation des enfants d'Orléans, est extrêmement remarquable, et dénote chez l'institutrice un sens de la réalité plus pratique que ses livres seuls ne sembleraient l'indiquer."3 Sainte-Beuve perceptively suggested, nevertheless, that it was the interrelationship between the writing and the teaching that was at the heart of the matter, perhaps because the conjunction allowed him also to address the question of Genlis's supposed hypocrisy: Le désaccord qu'on s'est plu à noter entre sa conduite et les principes affichés dans ses écrits ne fait que mieux ressortir peut-être ce que ce talent d'instituteur avait en elle de naturel, de primitif et, si j'ose dire, de sincère. Il y avait comme plusieurs personnes en Mme de Genlis; mais, dès qu'elle tenait la plume, le ton de la personne intérieure et qui dominait toutes les autres, le ton du rôle principal prenait le dessus, et elle ne pouvait s'empêcher d'écrire ce qu'il faut toujours répéter de la religion, des principes et des mœurs quand on enseigne. Il en résulte que la pruderie, sous sa plume, était moins hypocrite qu'on ne le croirait.4 1 Antoine Rivarol, Le Petit Almanach de nos grands hommes, 2nd edition, Œuvres complètes, 5 vols (Paris, 1808; Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 1968), 5:303. 2 Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 351-372
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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