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Chapter 1  Introduction

I got to thinking about how I would teach my children not to pull up wild flowers by the roots and destroy things, and then I wondered how I had learned myself. I decided I had learned from books to respect the world.[Hun00, pg. 53]

1.1  Historical Children’s Authors

Alongside other nineteenth century children literature’s authors, such as Oscar Wilde in England, The Grimm Brothers in Germany or Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark, Comtesse de Ségur continued the tradition of fairy tales that started in France in the seventeenth century by Charles Perrault with his Le Petit Chaperon rouge (Little Red Riding Hood). The term fairy tale, used nowadays as a generic label for magical stories for children, came from the French term conte de fées. La comtesse played an important role in generations of French children’s imagination. She created an imaginary world based on reality, using moralizing experiences and an uncomplicated sense of humour that brought her characters to life, a characteristic that very few of her contemporaries managed to achieve. It was a combination that had a great appeal to both children and adult readers.

Nevertheless, la comtesse’s books, published by Hachette in the famous bibliothèque rose series, were best sellers. Indeed, all of her works for children are still in print today. They included a collection of fairy tales, short children’s stories, a collection of plays, religious works based on the Bible, and a manual for young mothers entitled La Santé des Enfants. While Jules Verne was the most popular writer among young French boys, Comtesse de Ségur was the favourite of French schoolgirls. She influenced many of the important writers of the twentieth century, including Proust and Nabokov. Although few of her works had been translated into English, they are very rewarding to the reader of French, both as documents of her time and as timeless portraits of genuine children.

1.2  La Comtesse’s Unique Style

Comtesse de Ségur incorporated some autobiographical details into her fictional stories. She sought inspiration from her own life, using real characters in order to best convey her views on education. The children’s books were written under the pretext of education, where pleasure was only a pretext for transmitting a moral or, in other words, knowledge as it was seen in nineteenth century literature. While the children in other novels of the time were playing the roles of adults, les enfants du monde ségurien lived in a protected world in the middle of their families, albeit only an adopted one. Unlike most of her contemporaries, la comtesse did not write stories about perfect children behaving according to adult standards of conduct. Instead, her child-characters behaved like real children: they got dirty, they got hurt, they misbehaved, and they were punished. The books told the story of an authentic world, a domestic life in a true society, with true happenings, and different aspects of educating children, from both good and bad mothers’ point of view.

1.3  Focus of This Document

La comtesse’s books seemed to have a double goal: to amuse and to teach. She aimed to write enjoyable books for children, while writing useful books for the education of children. At one level it is possible to see how her readers are kept entertained by the adventures described in la comtesse’s stories, and on the other hand one can see the deeper meaning to all those happenings, in other words, the extent of her teachings that were drawn from a lifetime of experience. In this document, I am going to examine and discuss Comtesse de Ségur’s works from this last point of view. In particular, I will examine the following educational issues that la comtesse incorporated into her books in a subtle way:

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