Felicity’s ghosts

Madame de Genlis appears twice in War and Peace. First, as the author of books for children, “de nombreux ouvrages édifiants à l’usage de la jeunesse” to quote Wikipedia, much disliked by some of her involuntary readers for her oppressive moralizing. Here is the first mention of de Genlis in War and Peace, from the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude:

And she [Natasha] added, turning to Véra, “You’ll never understand it, because you’ve never loved anyone. You have no heart! You are a Madame de Genlis and nothing more” (this nickname, bestowed on Véra by Nicholas, was considered very stinging), “and your greatest pleasure is to be unpleasant to people! Go and flirt with Berg as much as you please,” she finished quickly.

Vera is the Rostovs’ eldest daughter, a beautiful, sensible and well-mannered young lady. She doesn’t get much love either from the author or from her siblings or, worst of all, from her mother. Too much propriety and self-control, you see.

“Well, now you’ve done what you wanted,” put in Nicholas – “said unpleasant things to everyone and upset them. Let’s go to the nursery.”

All four, like a flock of scared birds, got up and left the room.

“The unpleasant things were said to me,” remarked Véra, “I said none to anyone.”

“Madame de Genlis! Madame de Genlis!” shouted laughing voices through the door.

The handsome Véra, who produced such an irritating and unpleasant effect on everyone, smiled and, evidently unmoved by what had been said to her, went to the looking glass and arranged her hair and scarf. Looking at her own handsome face she seemed to become still colder and calmer.

The episode above is part of Book 1: 1805. Mme de Genlis’s second entry, seven years later (in Book Ten: 1812), is more felicitous:

He [Kutuzov] had in his hand a French book which he closed as Prince Andrew entered, marking the place with a knife. Prince Andrew saw by the cover that it was Les Chevaliers du Cygne by Madame de Genlis. […]

Again he embraced and kissed Prince Andrew, but before the latter had left the room Kutúzov gave a sigh of relief and went on with his unfinished novel, Les Chevaliers du Cygne by Madame de Genlis.

The novel’s title, The Knights of the Swan, makes one think of the medieval lore than would lead to Lohengrin but, apparently, it’s a Gothic novel. It first appeared in 1795 in Hamburg and re-appeared, much revised, in 1805 in Paris. The first edition was entitled Les chevaliers du Cygne ou La cour de Charlemagne: conte historique et moral. However, as Lesley Walker observes, the moral got relaxed somewhat in the 1805 version:

[I]n her 1805 l’Avertissement de l’Auteur, Genlis declares that, thanks to the new regime, that is Napoléon’s, there is no longer any need to look to the past for political exemplars:

Aujourd’hui, de grands exemples offerts sous nos yeux, rendent inutiles les fictions morales… (Genlis’s emphasis).

Genlis “seeks to reframe the novel as merely entertaining fiction,” says Prof. Walker, but perhaps the experienced author had switched to more sophisticated, less explicit moralizing. We don’t know which edition Kutuzov was reading in 1812 in War and Peace but I hope it was the 1805 one, “merely entertaining fiction.” That would suit Kutuzov’s character – my idea of it, let’s be honest – but it’s all fiction so we’re free to make whatever we want of it.

Back to Leslie Walker’s article:

[A]s the actual Terror recedes in time, Genlis exorcises its rawest elements from her fiction: a long note that justified her activities during the Revolution is omitted; a subtitle that explicitly links the novel to the Revolution is left out in the 1805 edition; and eventually the bloody ghost—the most controversial aspect of the novel—is relegated to the hero’s over-active imagination à la Ann Radcliffe.

The bloody ghost! That’s one detail missing from the discussion of Leskov’s great little tale, The Spirit of Mme de Genlis. The grand old lady was not only a moralist – a conservative Rousseauist, some say – but also the author of a 1,200-page ghost story.

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