Tortured with Les Annales de la vertu

Erik McDonald is translating a novella by Sophie (Sof’ia) Engelhardt (Engel’gardt), nėe Novosil’tseva (1828-1894), a Russian author who published her fiction under the pen name Ol’ga N. In 2016, Erik translated another long story by Ol’ga N., The Old Man, now available as a free .mobi e-book.

The female narrator in Engelhardt’s story, published in 1867, grew up under the strict supervision of a French governess and her own mother, whose literary tastes were remarkable:

Speaking of books: at 17 I knew the name Pushkin only by hearsay, and in our house Gogol was called a “hayseed writer.” One understands that his works were not permitted in the drawing room.

The narrator is about the same age as the author, which puts her 17th birthday in the 1843-45 bracket. Pushkin died in January 1837 a nationally recognized, although still underappreciated, poet. In the 1840s, willful ignorance of his work on the part of an upper-class Russian family was, shall we say, deplorable. However, Gogol’s late masterpieces, The Dead Souls and The Overcoat, only appeared in 1842, so the general reading public might have still thought of him primarily as the author of Ukrainian folk stories.

As for our children’s library, it was composed, as if by design, of the dullest books, mostly French ones. I remember one in particular that was called Les Annales de la vertu. It was given to me on my name-day to distract me from my lessons, but they made an instrument of torture out of it. The moment you would do something wrong, the voice of the governess was raised: “Prenez à l’instant Les Annales de la vertu.”

The full title of the unfortunate book, first published in 1781, is

Les annales de la vertu, ou, Histoire universelle, iconographique et littéraire: à l’usage des artistes et des jeunes littérateurs, et pour servir à l’éducation de la jeunesse.

Three author was the illustrious educator and writer, Madame de Genlis (1746-1830). Among other things, she directed (in the 1780s) the upbringing of the young man who would become (in 1830) the “bourgeois king,” the last king of France, Louis-Philippe of Orleans. In 1850, Sainte-Beuve would claim that she was destined by birth to be the world’s most gracious and gallant teacher of children. In the hands of a less gracious, obedience-worshipping pedagogue, any book can easily turn into a torture device.


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