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  • The Perraults: A Family of Letters in Early Modern France by Oded Rabinovitch
  • Colin Jones
The Perraults: A Family of Letters in Early Modern France. By Oded Rabinovitch (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2018), 233 pp. $57.95

With a nicely judged show of bravura, Rabinovitch starts each of the chapters in this impressive monograph by citing one of Claude Perrault's famous fairytales. He neatly demonstrates that these episodes from "Puss in Boots," "Sleeping Beauty," and the rest revolve as much around issues in family relationships as did the life of their author and his brothers. The history of this distinguished family may well have been told as an assemblage of fascinating and divergent life-courses. Rabinovitch argues that [End Page 600] their lives and careers make better sense if seen as playing out the family strategy for social advancement initiated by their father, Pierre Senior (?–1652), the son of a royal embroiderer from Tours who arrived in Paris in the early seventeenth century.

Pierre Senior advanced two of his sons—Pierre and Charles—through legal training. Claude moved into medicine and Nicholas into the church. Nicholas was less involved in the family strategy, though his specialism in Jansenist theology gave him a vision of grace that eerily echoes the issues of patronage in which his brothers were immersed. Pierre, the elder brother, used his legal training to connect with the world of finance, with considerable success until the early 1660s, when he suffered solvency problems caused by the bad faith of some of Jean-Baptiste Colbert's minions. Not even the entreaties of brother Charles—by this time well ensconced in Colbert's employ—could win him grace or favor.

Rabinovitch suggests that Charles' career had thus far been subordinated to that of his brother. For example, Charles devised his literary pursuits, which he focused on the salon-like atmosphere that the brothers cultivated in their country seat at Viry from the 1630s until the 1660s, to offer his brother some of the cultural trappings of the aristocratic lifestyle that high financiers appreciated. Pierre's financial fiasco, however, necessitated a re-setting of the family strategy; Pierre now had to subordinate his ambitions to Charles and Claude's more cultural and intellectual pursuits. Charles' competence as "protobureaucrat" (Rabbinovitch's term, though "project manager" might have been more apt) in the service of Colbert's cultural campaigns in glorification of Louis XIV recalibrated the family strategy. Claude's similarly impressive competence within the Academy of Sciences, of which he was a founding member, to say nothing of his architectural work on the Louvre, provided added éclat.

Rabinovitch interweaves into his story a subtle and insightful consideration of the changing nature of authorship taking place in the period when his polymathic subjects lived, but he makes the family-strategy approach the heart of his book. He shows, moreover, that although the Perrauds' engagement in the court, the Académie française, and the Academy of Sciences could be seen as collective self-effacement before the imperatives of the monarchical state, the brothers, in fact, were able to use their engagements with these institutions to further their family and individual goals.

Although no smoking gun proves that the actors in this family drama consciously held the views that he ascribes to them, Rabinovitch's approach is highly plausible. It gains added traction from the fact that the promotional strategies that he describes mirror those mapped out in Marraud's fine work about the Parisian bourgeoisie, which surprisingly Rabinovitch does not cite.1 Marraud's families were largely from the world of trade; the Perrauds' cultural and intellectual eminence [End Page 601] comes as a bonus. But the underlying dynastic scripts are strikingly similar.

The brothers' apparent steering of their children's future away from finance, law, medicine, and literature toward service at court and in the army may not have been well-advised: The families in Marraud's study who chose to stake the next generation's futures on the state invariably did worse than those who stayed within the bourgeois world. In the Perraud case, the fates intervened, anyway. Virtually all Pierre's seven children were dead by the...


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pp. 600-602
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