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Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, French writer, 1746-1830

By Gillian Dow, University of Southampton and Chawton House Library

Few women writers of the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis’s wide appeal in Europe, or met with such a large reading public, both enthusiastic and critical. Of her 120 published volumes, many key texts were translated into all major European languages, as well as widely read in the original French. Nonetheless, critical reception in Genlis’s own age was frequently hostile to this ‘Mère de l’Eglise’ (Mother of the Church). Genlis’s own devout Catholicism and her hostility to the philosophes (in particular their perceived atheism), meant that her works quickly fell out of fashion as the nineteenth century progressed, although biographical studies and surveys of the Revolutionary period have never ignored her entirely. Indeed, interest in the minutiae of Genlis’s life has been at the expense of her publications: she is often discussed as a colourful historical character who happened to write some books. From almost the beginning of her career, there has been no shortage of biographical material on Genlis. Marie-Emmanuelle Plagnol-Diéval lists 129 studies of Genlis in the section of her bibliography entitled ‘Etudes Biographiques’, dating from 1785 to 1995, although not all of these studies are full-length, and Genlis often appears alongside other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women writers. In recent years, however, Genlis’s proto-feminism, and her tireless campaigning for education, and in particular, female education, has seen a resurgence in interest in this key figure.

Stéphanie-Félicité Ducrest de Saint-Aubin was born at Champcery near Autun in Burgundy in 1746, the oldest child of Pierre-César Ducrest and Marie-Françoise-Félicité Mauget de Mézières. Like so many girls in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Genlis’s early education was largely neglected - she was cared for by the staff in her parents’ house and taught a little Catechism. A taste for literature seems to have been part of her formative years: Genlis’s mother was fond of amateur dramatics, and even wrote comic operas and plays herself, as Genlis tells us in her memoirs. When she reached the age of seven, the Ducrest’s decided their daughter should have a governess, and appointed a Breton girl, Mlle. de Mars, who had some knowledge of the harpsichord. Together, the sixteen-year-old Mars and Genlis were let loose in Genlis’s father’s library, where they read Scudéry’s Clélie and Barbier’s Théâtre. Jean Harmand, one of Genlis’s early biographers, suggests that this choice of reading material was random, but it is possible that the young women were attracted to the work of female authors. Later in life, Genlis never misses an opportunity to point out that she is self-taught from this early reading, and her habit of supporting any published statement with extensive notes can be seen as evidence of an insecurity that stems from her lack of a formal education.

A financial disaster in Genlis’s early teenage years meant that the family could no longer pay Mlle. de Mars’s wages: Genlis and her mother eventually arrived in Paris, where they depended on La Popelinière’s benevolence in establishing themselves at his home in Passy, and encouraging Genlis’s training on the harp. Genlis herself, and all the published biographies, spend a great deal of time discussing her physical attractions at this time. She was graceful, with beautifully oval face, sparkling eyes, and thick glossy hair. It is little wonder that a colleague of her father’s fell in love with her simply from viewing a portrait, we read! In any case, the facts remain that in 1763, she married Monsieur le Comte Charles-Alexis de Genlis (later the Marquis of Sillery), and it was by her married name, Mme de Genlis, that she was to become known as a writer.

Genlis seems always to have been attracted to writing. During her first pregnancy, she wrote a work entitled Confessions d’une mère de vingt ans, although this work was never published. Genlis’s daughter Caroline was born in September 1765: another daughter, Pulchérie, was born the following year, and a son, Casimir, was born in 1768. Taking on the position of lady-in-waiting to the Duchesse de Chartres in the Palais-Royal in 1772, Genlis was also the mistress of the Duc de Chartres (later Duc d’Orléans, and Philippe-Egalité during the revolutionary years), a subject of much speculation and gossip. In 1777, Genlis was made governess to the family’s newborn twin daughters, and moved to an estate at Bellechasse. She was the first woman to be appointed as ‘gouverneur’ to Royal children, and, in 1782, the care of the sons, the Duc de Valois (later King Louis-Philippe) and the Duc de Montpensier was also entrusted to her. There has been great debate about whether two young English girls in the household, Pamela and Hermine, were actually the illegitimate daughters of Genlis and the Duc de Chartres. Although it has been proven that Pamela could not have been Genlis’s child, the same has not been established for Hermine. What is certain is that Genlis claimed that she adopted the girls to speak English with her young pupils: part of Genlis’s educational theories involved an emphasis on modern languages. After the Revolution, Genlis spent eight years in ‘exile’ on the continent, first in England, then in Switzerland and Germany. Returning to Paris in 1800, she took up residence in the Arsenal, and corresponded on a regular basis with Napoleon. Leaving the Arsenal for the rue Sainte-Anne in 1812, she was made ‘dame inspectrice’ for the primary schools in her arrondissement. She continued to live in Paris under the Bourbon restoration, moving to ‘La Maison des Carmes’, a residence for women run by nuns, in 1816, and staying for 18 months, before moving to the rue Faubourg Sainte-Honoré, and finally, rue Neuve des Petits-Champs. Genlis died in 1830, shortly after the ascent to the throne of Louis-Philippe, her former pupil.

Genlis’s publishing career spanned over five decades. Her first work, Théâtre à l’usage des jeunes personnes, was published in 1779, and was swiftly followed by the publication of several other volumes of plays for children. Adèle et Théodore ou Lettres sur l’éducation, an epistolary novel and treatise on education, was published in 1782. It was a pan-European success story: it was heralded by the English Review in 1783 as ‘by much the best system of education ever published in France’. Adelaide and Theodore clearly captured the imaginations of both British readers and publishers in the 1780s and 1790s: a new edition of the translation was published in 1784, and this was reprinted in 1788 and 1796, and Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Polish and Russian translations appeared at various points throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Genlis published essays on religion and education throughout the 1780s, and even during her exile she continued to write, claiming penury as her main motivation. Various Discours, a defence of her conduct during the Revolution, and several influential historical novels appeared before Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814). Her publishing career continued right up to her death in 1830; indeed, Athénaïs ou le Château de Coppet en 1807, a work which covers Germaine de Staël’s period of exile in Switzerland, was published posthumously in 1831. In England alone, her influence on women writers was extensive: she was read by authors as diverse as Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, Hannah More and Frances Burney, and both Maria Edgeworth and Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) chose to visit her in Paris. As a prolific, popular and influential writer in her own time who has been neglected since, she is a central figure to the COST ‘Women Writers In History: Toward a New Understanding of European Literary Culture’ project.


Key Works:

  • Théâtre à l’usage des jeunes personnes (Paris: M. Lambert et F.J. Baudoin, 1779-1780)
  • Adèle et Théodore ou Lettres sur l’éducation contenant tous les principes relatifs aux trois plans d’éducation des princes, des jeunes personnes et des hommes (Paris: M. Baudoin et F.J. Lambert, 1782)
  • Les Veillées du château, ou Cours de morale à l’usage des enfants, par l’auteur d’Adèle et Théodore (Paris: M. Lambert et F.J. Baudoin, 1782)
  • Mademoiselle de Clermont. Nouvelle historique (Paris: Maradan, 1802)
  • De l’influence des femmes sur la littérature française comme protectrices des Lettres ou comme auteurs. Précis de l’histoire des femmes françaises les plus célèbres (Paris: Maradan, 1811)
  • Mémoires inédits sur le XVIIIième siècle et la Révolution française (Paris: Ladvocat, 1825-1828)

Selective list of relevant publications:

Twentieth and twenty-first century editions

  • Mademoiselle de Clermont, ed. by Béatrice Didier (Paris: Régine Desforges, 1977)
  • Adèle et Théodore, ed. by Isabelle Brouard-Arends (Rennes: PURennes, 2006)
  • Adelaide and Theodore, ed. by Gillian Dow (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007)
  • La Femme Auteur, ed. by Martine Reid (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2007)


  • Marie-Emmanuelle Plagnol-Diéval, Madame de Genlis (Paris; Rome: Memini, 1996)


  • Gabriel de Broglie, Madame de Genlis (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 2001)
  • Jean Harmand, Mme de Genlis, sa vie intime et politique (Paris: 1912)
  • Jean Harmand, A Keeper of Royal Secrets, the Private and Political Life of Madame de Genlis (London: Nash, 1913)
  • Violet Wyndham, Madame de Genlis: a Biography (London: Andre Deutsch, 1958)

Criticism and Comparative analysis

  • Bonnie Arden Robb, Félicité de Genlis: Motherhood in the Margins (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008)
  • Anna Nikliborc, L'Oeuvre de Mme de Genlis (Wroclaw: Romanica Wratislaviensia, 1969)
  • François Bessire, and Martine Reid, eds. Madame de Genlis: Littérature et éducation (Mont-Saint-Aignan: Publications des Universités de Rouen et du Havre, 2008)
  • Penny Brown, ‘“Candidates for my friendship” or How Madame de Genlis and Mary Wollstonecraft Sought to Regulate the Affections and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness’, New Comparison, 20 (1995), 46-60
  • Gillian Dow, ‘“The good sense of British readers has encouraged the translation of the whole”: les traductions anglaises des œuvres de Mme de Genlis dans les années 1780’, in La Traduction des genres non-romanesques au XVIIIième siècle, ed. by Annie Cointre and Annie Rivara (Metz: Centre d'études de la traduction, 2003), pp. 285-297
  • J. C. Schaneman, ‘Rewriting Adèle et Théodore: Intertextual Connections Between Madame de Genlis and Ann Radcliffe’, Comparative Literature Studies, 38 (2001), 31-45
  • Suzan Van Dijk, ‘“Gender” et traduction: Madame de Genlis traduite par une romancière hollandaise, Elisabeth Bekker (Betje Wolff)’, in La traduction des genres non romanesques au XVIIIième siècle, ed. by Annie Cointre and Annie Rivara (Metz: Centre d’études de la traduction, 2003), 299-311

AsK October 2010

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