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Chapter 3  Education of Middle Class Girls

A critic once asked the following question that sums up Comtesse de Ségur’s work:

“Educatrice, mais de qui, des enfants ou des leurs parents ?” tout en refusant de séparer les uns des autres, “d’autant que pour une grand-mère les parents sont eux-mêmes encore des enfants.” [Mar99, pg. 23]

3.1  Education in Nineteenth Century France and Russia

Middle class society in nineteenth century France and Russia separated boys and girls for the purpose of education. Most boys learnt academic subjects such as history and mathematics at boarding schools (although Sophie’s own brother, Serge, was educated at home). In contrast, girls were taught at home by their mothers and focused on less academic skills such as how to play the piano and sew. This educational separation reflected the separate roles of the sexes. Boys were expected to become wage earners while girls were expected to become wives and mothers.

When reading la comtesse’s stories, the interaction between mothers and daughters is much more common than interaction with husbands or sons. This reflects the social norms of the times, but particularly la comtesse’s own life in which her father frequently travelled on business and her husband preferred living in Paris while his wife stayed in the countryside castle. The educational lessons contained in her stories are those that she felt were suitable for girls: sewing, playing the piano, dancing, foreign languages, some mathematics (though less than boys were taught), reading, elegant handwriting, and good moral behaviour.

The ages of 4, 7 and 15 were considered important. Children were taught to do household chores from the age of 4; it was believed that at age 7 a child could distinguish good from bad (the age of reason); and 15 was the age of maturity. Sophie the author was sewing her clothes when she was only four years old as did Sophie de Réan, the autobiographical character in la comtesse’s stories: “Elle aura bientôt quatre ans, dit Mme de Réan, il est temps qu’elle apprenne à travailler” [dS90c, pg. 296].

3.2  The Theme of Education in Fairy Tales

Many of the fairy tales touch on education directly. For example, in one fairy tale an evil king and queen did not love their daughter, princess Rosette, and did not want to burden themselves with her education. Their solution was to send her and her nanny to live in the countryside just a few days after her birth:

Rosette eût été mal élevée et ignorante, si sa bonne marraine la fée Puissante ne lui avait envoyé des maîtres et ne lui avait fourni tout ce qui lui était nécessaire. C’est ainsi que Rosette apprit à lire, à écrire, à compter, à travailler ; c’est ainsi qu’elle devint très habile musicienne, qu’elle sut dessiner et parler plusieurs langues étrangères [dS90c, pg. 41].

Rosette was also taught life lessons like being modest, keeping the faith and persevering when put to trial, and that doing bad to other people meant bad things would happen in return and be punished accordingly. Therefore, even within the fairy tales, the children were described as having received the education that was in accordance with their age.

Another fairy tale starts with the birth of a princess called Blondine. However, la comtesse was not very interested in writing about early childhood and the narration quickly jumped to the point where the princess was 7 years old (the age of reason). At this age, Blondine’s pageboy, Gourmandinet, accepted a bribe of a large crate of sweets from Blondine’s evil stepmother to abandon Blondine in the Forest of Lilacs. An accident with the heavy crate caused Gourmandinet’s death, thereby imparting the moral lesson that bad deeds are punished. While in the forest, Blondine was looked after by some good fairies who educated her in an unusual manner. Not wishing to bore her with years of studies, they put Blondine to sleep for 7 years and they taught her in her dreams. She awoke just before her fifteenth birthday (the age of maturity):

[…] et, quand elle se réveilla, il lui sembla qu’elle n’était plus la même que lorsqu’elle s’était couchée ; elle se voyait plus grande ; ses idées lui semblèrent aussi avoir pris du développement ; elle se sentait instruite ; elle se souvenait d’une foule de livres qu’elle croyait avoir lus pendant son sommeil ; elle se souvenait d’avoir écrit, dessiné, chanté, joué du piano et de la harpe [dS90c, pg. 12].

Unfortunately, soon after awakening, Blondine fell under the influence of an evil fairy who encouraged her to pick forbidden flowers. She had to repent for many months before she found forgiveness and was reunited with her father. Through Blondine’s misfortunes, the readers learn that obedience brings happiness while disobedience brings unhappiness: “[…] la sagesse est toujours récompensée […] soyez docile et bonne. […] Le repentir peut racheter bien des fautes” [dS90c, pg. 11 & 19].

In another fairy tale, Violette’s basic education was complete by the age of 10:

Violette avait appris bien des choses pendant ces sept années. Agnella lui avait montré à travailler. Quand au reste, Ourson avait été son maître ; il lui avait enseigné à lire, à écrire, à compter. Il lisait tout haut pendant qu’elle travaillait. Des livres nécessaries à son instruction s’étaient trouvés dans la chambre de Violette, sans qu’on sût d’où ils étaient venus [dS90c, pg. 85].

The two other fairy tales in Nouveaux Contes de fées also used education as a central theme. This theme also appeared in many of la comtesse’s children’s stories, as I now discuss.

3.3  The Theme of Education in Children’s Stories

In the nineteenth century, dolls were not considered to be just toys as they are today. On the contrary, a doll was a valuable teaching tool for young girls. The doll was looked after, was played with, was given an education, was cured, was fed, and was washed—just like a mother was taking care of her child. That process was not a smooth one though, and sometimes accidents did happen.

Many examples can be seen in Les Malheurs de Sophie, where little Sophie de Réan—alias the writer child—wanted to wash her doll because she knew that children were given baths, only to end up in washing away the doll’s paint; or another episode when she wanted to have her doll doing aerobics, and accidentally broke the doll’s arm; and yet again she wanted her wax doll to sunbathe, which unfortunately partly melted the poor doll. Sophie did not damage just her doll, but herself too when she did experiments on herself. For example, she remembered that one of les filles modèles, Camille de Fleurville’s hair got curlier when it was dampened; she thought that she could make her own hair curly by standing under the gutters when it was raining. If one should learn some lessons from those episodes, it is that education is never perfect and it is full of risks when you do experiments, but on the other hand, it is often that one learns from such experiments. Child readers, and this category includes mainly girls, learn as well that there is a fundamental difference between a human being and a mere doll.

Nowadays, girls’ stories are more and more read by boys of the same age because the gap between what a girl and a boy should know by a certain age gets narrower. In the last series of the trilogy, Les Vacances, la comtesse concentrated her writing also on the education of boys putting them into a masculine environment. Men—some cousins and a long lost husband—visited the castle Fleurville, which previously had been inhabited only by women. Cowardly boys were taught how to be courageous, and readers learnt a good lesson from young Paul, the survivor of a shipwreck, who lived for five years among wild people. That particular episode of his life was viewed as a privileged moment in the boy’s formation.

A form of exercise in the nineteenth century was physical games such as playing hide-and-seek. Comtesse de Ségur—alias Mme de Fleurville—played a lot with her children and grandchildren on the corridors and on the stairs, and disliked it when they played quiet and boring games:

[…] les mamans leur proposèrent une partie de cache-cache, qui fut acceptée avec des cris de joie ; Élisa, Mme de Fleurville et Mme de Rosbourg jouèrent avec elles ; on se cachait dans toutes les chambers, on courait dans les corridors, dans les escaliers, on trichait un peu, on riait beaucoup, et on était heureux [dS90c, pg. 214–215].

To contrast with all that physical exercise, the girls spent a lot of time reading: “[…] Camille et Madeleine, fatiguées de leurs jeux, prirent chacune un livre ; elles lisaient attentivement : Camille, Le Robinson suisse, Madeleine, les contes de Grimm […]” [dS90c, pg. 165].

3.4  Lessons on Misbehaviour and Punishment

A strong sense of right and wrong runs through all of la comtesse’s fairy tales and children’s stories: misbehaviour was severely punished. Sometimes misbehaviour was punished by an act of God. For example, as mentioned in Section 3.2, Blondine’s pageboy, Gourmandinet, accepted a bribe of a large crate of sweets to abandon Blondine in the Forest of Lilacs. Soon after, Gourmandinet was killed in an accident with the heavy crate. More frequently, misbehaviour was punished by a mother.

In Les Malheurs de Sophie, Sophie was only three years old, and had as a present a penknife from her father; the penknife itself a rather dubious gift. “Un jour son papa lui donna un joli couteau en écaille ; Sophie, enchantée de son couteau, s’en servait pour couper son pain, ses pommes, des biscuits, des fleurs, etc” [dS90c, pg. 280]. Sophie also had a miniature tea set and kitchen utensils. When playing, she decided to salt some food. She cut into pieces her mother’s goldfish so she could salt them. Sophie was severely punished for her cruelty. From her action and punishment, Sophie learnt that death was not reversible. Unfortunately she did not learn the lesson about cruelty very well. Later on, Sophie cut the head off a bee for all the stings that she suffered. Finding that so amusing, she continued cutting the poor bee into pieces:

Indignée de la cruauté de Sophie, Mme de Réan lui tira fortement l’oreille […] “Vous êtes une méchante fille, mademoiselle, vous faites souffrir cette bête malgré ce que je vous ai dit quand vous avez salé et coupé mes pauvres petits poissons” [dS90c, pg. 288].

The punishment was maybe even more cruel than the act itself: her mother made her wear the pieces of the dead bee on a necklace, thinking that would definitely teach Sophie a lesson.

Another time, she tried to be nice in offering her cousins some “play” tea made of chalk and water from the dog’s bowl. She got punished yet again! Her mother, Mme de Réan said that Sophie was not truly a bad girl. In reality, only misfortune happened to her as Sophie herself acknowledged: “moi, pauvre malheureuse” [dS90c, pg. 281].

Usually, the punishments that Mme de Réan was giving Sophie, along with sending her to her room, were in concordance with the mistakes she made. As an example, Sophie was forbidden to eat jam for as long as it lasted only because she ate it first without permission; she also could not ride her donkey for a month because she hurt him; and, as I have mentioned earlier, she had to wear the necklace made out of the dead bee that she brutally killed, until the parts fell off by themselves. These punishments came on top of the suffering that Sophie caused for herself. For example, she got badly hurt when she fell off her donkey; another time her donkey bit into her finger when she tried to feed him only half a piece of bread because she wanted to eat the other half herself.

However, in Les Malheurs de Sophie, Mme de Réan’s punishments were not justified because she never explained to Sophie why she was not allowed to do one thing rather than another, for example she did not explain to her daughter why she should not eat the horses’ bread, whereas in Les Petites Filles modèles, Mme de Fleurville gave justified explanations, though sometimes Sophie still could not abstain from biting into the pears, for example, even if Mme de Fleurville told the girls not to touch the pears until they were fully ripened. Usually children not lacking food would not misbehave, whereas those suffering from deprivation would cross the forbidden line.

3.5  The Limited Role of Fathers in Children’s Education

The fathers were usually not very present in la comtesse’s stories; they were either away on business or dead. Therefore, the mothers were responsible of the raising of their children. Perhaps the absence of fathers in Comtesse de Ségur’s stories was deliberate because during her childhood, most of the time, her father was away on business due to his demanding governmental job. Partly as well, because after getting married in France, the writer often remained alone with her children due to the fact that her husband preferred the abundant life in Paris to a quiet life in the countryside.

When he was at home, Comte Rostopchine, the writer’s father, could not take much care of the education of his children, especially that of his daughters because his wife was very strict in that respect. Even though at that time they were living in Russia, comtesse Rostopchine, the writer’s mother, talked only German and French with her children, therefore by the age of 4, Sophie spoke French, English, Italian and German better than Russian, her native language. One of Comtesse Rostopchine’s portraits showed her in front of a cage with a parrot, and on her arms she kept a female greyhound. Sophie’s father used to hate that picture because his wife seemed to show more love to her animals than to her husband and children. The punishments given by Comtesse Rostopchine, alias Mme de Réan, increased at the time everybody was gathering around the dinner table as the mother revealed to all present the silly things that Sophie, writer/character, had done yet again; and the mother sent her away to her room as usual to eat only some bread with soup for dinner. The father sighed; he could rarely cancel the cruel punishment.

One of Comte Rostopchine’s letters showed he did not agree with the punishments that his wife inflicted especially onto Sophie, but he was proud of the general knowledge education that the mother gave to her children. Catherine also took over her son’s education, and his patriotism was due to the maternal voice, unlike other families. The boy was good in drawing, mathematics, reading, and he spoke foreign languages like French, English, and German, along with his native language, Russian. The father’s presence seemed to soften the mother’s toughness. Le comte followed attentively his daughters’ progress as well. The girls had to improve their writing because it showed women’s elegance. They also studied foreign languages, literature, a bit of mathematics, music and household chores; those were the requirements for a young lady’s education. The doll helped with the learning of washing, ironing, and sewing. Therefore, the doll and its accessories were useful for the future mothers.

The letter shows the education of nineteenth century Russia, the extent of the mother’s influence on one side, and the lack of responsibility, but not necessarily lack of affection from the father’s side on the other hand:

“Serge, écrit fièrement Fédor [Comte Rostopchine], fait des progrès étonnants en géographie et en histoire” […] Sophie, dès quatre ans, “doit apprendre à ourler un mouchoir et à ranger toutes ses affaires” […] “Natacha, écrit Fédor, a un joli style et, à l’example de sa mère, aime toujours être occupée […] [Sophie] est remplie d’intelligence et aime à inventer des historiettes auxquelles personnes ne comprend rien” […] “Ayant fait une fois une faute en copiant un livre, elle [Sophie] imagina de corriger le livre lui-même.” L’encre a fait tache, Catherine découvre le crime et l’humilie sur sa vilaine écriture. Sophie ose répliquer avec la vivacité d’un pinson : “Mais qu’avez-vous besoin de lire ce que j’écris ? Vous avez tant des livres !” A cinq ans, elle a réponse à tout […] “Natacha sait se retenir mais la cadette [Sophie] se laisse aller à des mouvements d’impatience, malgré les sermons qu’on lui prodigue. Serge est entêté comme moi, quand on veut lui faire faire quelque chose de force. Sophie passe du rire aux plus violents désespoirs pour des broutilles. D’avoir laissé passer des mailles en tricotant, elle parle de se tuer : “A présent, je ne peux plus vivre, je doit mourir et je mourrai.” Malgré les remontrances de Natacha “lui ayant fait remarquer que ce qu’elle disait était (…) un grand péché”, Sophie s’obstine et argumente : “Dieu me pardonnera. Je suis une malheureuse.” “Tous les trois, conclut Fédor, sont sensibles au raisonnement et doués d’un couer excellent.” Leur physique et leur santé divergent. Seule, Sophie est solide. Son père s’en émerveille. “Elle a la santé d’une campagnarde robuste, remplit les fonctions de bouffon.” L’éducation à la dure de Catherine aurait-elle eu du bon ? [Duf00, pg. 52–53]

3.6  Revolutionary Ideas of La Comtesse

La comtesse had several ideas that, although they seem tame by today’s standards, were quite revolutionary for her time. She expressed several of these revolutionary ideas in her stories, as I now discuss.

The aristocracy emphasized the wealth of a person. Boys and girls were explicitly encouraged to marry for money. In contrast, la comtesse told her children to marry for love. In her stories too the characters often married for love, for example, at the end of Les Vacances.

It was common in households for children to not be allowed to talk at the dinner table. La comtesse’s opinion was quite the opposite: “La promenade leur avait donné bon appétit ; ils mangèrent à effrayer leurs parents. Le dîner fut très gai. Aucun d’eux n’avait peur de ses parents ; pères, mères, enfants riaient et causaient gaiement” [dS90c, pg. 377].

Charity was an activity thought appropriate for middle class women. Therefore it is not surprising that in one of the stories, Les Petites Filles modèles, girls demonstrated charity by helping a poor woman and her daughter. However, la comtesse used this incident to mention that the girls had pocket money (which was how the girls planned to fund their charity): “Je crois que nous pourrions leur venir en aide en leur donnant l’argent que nous avons pour nos menus plaisirs. Nous avons chacune deux francs par semaine” [dS90c, pg. 251]. The concept of pocket money was not widespread in nineteenth century France. Indeed, the suitability of pocket money for children was still being debated by the Catholic Church a century later [dS90c, pg. 251].

It was considered unladylike for a woman to earn money. Because of this, la comtesse’s publishers wanted to pay royalties for her books to her husband. However, la comtesse successfully fought for the royalties to be paid to her directly [dS90c, pg. LXXVI]. She succeeded in this goal five years after the start of her writing career, and one year after the publication of the Les Petites Filles modèles, in which girls were given pocket money. It seems likely that her desire for financial independence inspired the reference to pocket money in the story. La comtesse lived a frugal lifestyle and used the royalties for maintenance on the castle and to buy gifts for her grandchildren [Duf00, pg. 469].


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