"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A French Children’s classics : Les Petites Filles Modèles, by the Comtesse de Ségur (1857)

Illustrated by Bertall.

Portrait of the Comtesse de Ségur circa 1840I am translating the dialogue of the film adaptation of Les Petites Filles Modèles, a classic of French children’s literature, written by Russian-born author Sophie Feodorovna Rostopchine, Comtesse de Ségur.

The mother of eight children, the Comtesse de Ségur wrote Les Petites Filles Modèles (“The Perfect Little Girls”), her first novel and a resounding success, in 1857, at age 58. All her books were published by Louis Hachette in a newly-launched series for young children, the now mythical Bibliothèque Rose Illustrée – which over the years grew with many other enduring children’s classics, such as Enid Blyton’s works in translation.

Les Petites Filles Modèles depicts the peaceful life of Camille and Madeleine de Fleurville, two very well-behaved little girls aged eight and seven, under the strict moral guidance of their widowed mother. After a coach accident, the small family welcomes the two new members into their manor house: Mme de Rosbourg, who is without news of her husband lost at sea, and her young daughter Marguerite. They sometimes receive the visit of Camille and Madeleine’s orphaned neighbour Sophie, who, though good at heart, is selfish and dishonest as a result of the abusive treatment received at the hands of her stepmother. As the stepmother, Mrs Fichini, sets out for a tour abroad (eventually marrying a Count Blagowski in Italy), Sophie come to stay with them, and the rest of the book is devoted to her transformation into a good little girl.

The book is part of a trilogy made up of Les Malheurs de Sophie ("Sophie’s Misfortunes", 1859) - which portrays events preceding those of Les Petites Filles Modèles – and of Les Vacances ("The Holidays", 1859), a sequel. The precise date is never specified, but most likely the action takes place roughly at the time of writing, either during the Second Empire or immediately before, during the Third Republic. It is said that Mme de Fleurville’s husband “died in a fight against the Arabs, six years ago” (Petites Filles, Chapter IV), most likely a reference to the colonial war for the conquest of Algeria; there was for example a major battle in at Sidi-Brahim in 1845, during which all but 11 French soldiers were killed.

Chapter 20: La Pauvre Femme (The Poor Woman)
Like Blyton’s books the Comtesse de Ségur’s works are marvellously un-PC, with their moralizing tone, militant Christianity, conservative morality, sentimentality, and rather paternalistic attitudes towards the poor – the finely-clad ladies giving alms to poor deserving women crying of gratitude. The modern squeamish reader might be further put off by the description of Sophie’s cruelty towards animals – disapproved of, not the Christian thing to do - or the numerous instances of corporal punishment – criticized: not sound as a general method of education, but justified in some cases ; he might cringe or laugh at the medical treatments advocated – leech and bleeding are the best of cures, except when you have been bitten by an enraged dog, in which case bathing in salted water and eating garlic will make you whole again (Petites Filles, VI).

Chapter 11: Jeannette la Voleuse (Jeannette the thief)
This all sounds terribly dreary (well, except the leeches and the garlic of course) yet mysteriously, Les Petites Filles Modèles et les Malheurs de Sophie continue to fascinate entire generations of French-speaking little girls - English-speaking children have Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, which seems terribly unfair. Maybe the appeal lies in that it is so outlandishly different from the life of the child reader – Chapter X in Les Petites Filles begins for example with a list of all the different clothes and accessories of Marguerite’s doll, filling up three drawers and two pages.

More essentially, Les Petites Filles Modèles et Les Malheurs de Sophie are not just rigid morality tales (although they are certainly that too). There is subtle subversion at work (arguably very, very slight) in the evident complicity of the author for the ever-inventive Sophie, her namesake, with which the reader is bound to sympathize, despite her propensity to mischief, or precisely because of it. The books are also lit by discreet humour, such as this passage in chapter XVI, in which Sophie says that she regrets her gluttony, which made her sick, to which Marguerite replies with guilty honesty: “It’s true; Mama, always tells me that when one eats oneself sick, one looks like a little pig.” “Sophie”, the narrator adds dryly, “did not appreciate the comparison and became to become restless in her bed.”

See my other posts on the works of the Comtesse de Ségur:
Mothers (and fathers) in Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie.
Les Malheurs de Sophie: plot summary and extract in English (Chap.15)
Corporal and moral punishement in Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie
Les Petites Filles Modèles: extract in English (Chap. 16)

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