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Chapter 2  Biography

A biography of Sophie de Ségur provides useful insights [Duf00] into her character. She earned her nickname, la Sophie bouffon, by being a mischievous girl who invented stories while being brought up by a harsh mother and a loving but, absent father in tsarist Russia. Later, in France she was a mother, grandmother, and an attentive and indulgent educator. As a writer, she created a whole world of children, angels and demons that embodied all the pulses of her extraordinary vitality. Her complex personality can make us laugh and quiver at the same time.

2.1  Life in Nineteenth Century Russia and France

Comtesse de Ségur was born Sophie Rostopchine on 19 July 1799 in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was the daughter of Comte Fédor Rostopchine, an adviser to tsar Paul I (who was Sophie’s godfather) and Catherine Rostopchine, a very cruel and strict mother who converted from Orthodoxism to Catholicism, whereas her husband remained an Orthodox. The mother forced some of her children, including Sophie, to convert to Catholicism. Sophie grew up at Voronovo, her father’s Russian vast country estate. The father was the governor of Moscow during Napoleon’s siege in 1812. Not willing to let Moscow fall into the hands of the invader, he burned down the city and went into political exile. The family moved to Paris, France, in 1817, when Sophie was 18. Sophie’s mother arranged for her to be introduced to the handsome Eugène de Ségur who was Catholic and from an old, socially respectable French family, even if the family were no longer very wealthy. At the age of 20, Sophie had an arranged marriage to Eugène.

Sophie and Eugène lived together in an apartment in Paris during the cold season and in the castle of Les Nouettes in Aube, Normandy during the warm season, that Sophie’s father bought for her. She spent a big part of her life in the castle, and that was where she wrote most of her books. The castle itself was described accurately, under the pseudonym of le château Fleurville in her trilogy of books: Les Petites Filles modèles, Les Vacances and Les Malheurs de Sophie. Although hers was an unhappy and unsatisfying marriage, she became the mother of eight children, and began writing only in her mid-fifties, after becoming a grandmother. She suffered 13 years of almost continuous ill health brought on by numerous difficult childbirths. She endured this period by living through and for her children. When she was bedridden and bored, she often told her children to jump on her bed to entertain her [Duf00, pg. 337].

2.2  La Comtesse’s Writing Career

What started out as stories for her grandchildren has transformed into an inheritance that has entertained countless children for 150 years. La comtesse’s first book aimed at children, Nouveaux Contes de fées, published in 1857, was her only book that contained fairy tales. Her later books contained children’s stories. She wrote the fairy tales to please her granddaughters, Camille and Madeleine de Malaret—alias Camille and Madeleine de Fleurville, les petites filles modèles—to whom the work was dedicated. When the children had to leave France to follow their parents abroad because their father was named Ambassador to London, the grandmother was deeply saddened, and she promised to write those fairy tales for them. And indeed she kept her promise. La comtesse sent the manuscript to London and a few days later it came back with some words from her eldest daughter, Nathalie Malaret, saying that the girls liked the stories very much, and that it was a pity other children would not have the pleasure to read those beautiful fairy tales. One day, Louis Veuillot, editor of a journal, visited his friend, la comtesse. When he saw the manuscript, he persuaded the writer to publish it.

The use of simple and direct language, and incidents taken from la comtesse’s own childhood, brought her immediate success with children. Comtesse de Ségur represented a psychologist, teacher, sociologist and observer of real life. Some of the paragraphs in her stories where controversial due to the excessive violence in beatings administrated to some of the characters, especially children. Her publisher, Hachette, asked her numerous times to cut paragraphs filled with cruelty, but the writer replied that those scenes were part of history—indeed many were autobiographical—and she could not possibly remove them.

Her fairy tales brought into light the qualities and the faults of real children: curiosity, disobedience, gratitude, repentance, affection, sincerity and so on. And her children’s stories were realistic, rich with actual sentiments and lifetime memories. Located in a castle atmosphere, her books were full of joy and wonder. She depicted daily life such as family, work, and children playing and interacting with each other. One can consider her writings for children like a source of models and values of the society of those times. The adventures of her real and fictional characters take us from towns to countryside, and from a cold Russia, her native land, to a warmer France, her adopted country.

2.3  Dedications

As discussed earlier, Comtesse de Ségur wrote for and about her beloved grandchildren. She even wrote dedications for most of her grandchildren. Here are just a few examples of personalized dedications written under the form of mini-lessons of education:

Chère enfant, je t’offre à toi, charmante, aimée et entourée, l’histoire d’un pauvre garçon un peu imbécile, peu aimé, pauvre et dénué de tout. Compare sa vie à la tienne, et remercie Dieu de la différence [dS90a, pg. 2].

Cher petit, quand tu seras plus grand tu verras, en lisant l’histoire de Gaspard, combien il est utile de bien travailler. Et tu sauras, ce que Gaspard n’a appris que bien tard, combien il est nécessaire d’être bon, charitable et pieux, pour profiter de tous les avantages du travail et devenir réellement heureux. Deviens donc un garçon instruit et surtout un bon chrétien. C’est ce que te demande ta grand-mère qui t’aime et qui veut ton bonheur [dS90b, pg. 198].

Mes très chères enfants, voici le contes dont le récit vous a tant amusées, et que je vous avais promis de publier. En les lisant, chères petites, pensez à votre vieille grand-mère, qui, pour vous plaire, est sortie de son obscurité et a livré à la censure du public le nom de la Comtesse de Ségur, née Rostopchine [dS90c, pg. 2].

In the Preface of Les Petites Filles modèles, Comtesse de Ségur told us about the link to the reality of the characters, Camille and Madeleine. The dedication that was written for Les Malheurs de Sophie was also very special as it showed us who Sophie really was:

Mes Petites Filles modéles ne sont pas une création ; elles existent bien réellement : ce sont des portraits ; la preuve en est dans leurs imperfections mêmes. Elles ont des défauts, des ombres légères qui font ressortir le charme du portrait et attestent l’existence du modèle. Camille et Madeleine sont une réalité dont peut s’assurer toute personne qui connaît l’auteur [dS90c, pg. 119].

Chère enfant, tu me dis souvent : ‘Oh ! grand-mère, que je vous aime ! Vous êtes si bonne !’ Grand-mère n’a pas toujours été bonne, et il y a bien des enfants qui ont été méchants comme elle et qui se sont corrigés comme elle. Voici des histories vraies d’une petite fille que grand-mère a beaucoup connue dans son enfance ; elle était colère, elle est devenue douce ; elle était gourmande, elle est devenue sobre ; elle était menteuse, elle est devenue sincère; elle était voleuse, elle est devenue honnête ; enfin, elle était méchante, elle est devenue bonne. Grand-mère a tâché de faire de même. Faites comme elle, mes chers petits enfants ; cela vous sera facile, à vous qui n’avez pas tous les défauts de Sophie [dS90c, pg. 272].

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