"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Les Petites Filles Modèles /2: Mother Power.

Mme de Fleurville had invited a few neighbours for dinner.
Men... but where are they ?! The neighbours in Chapter IX  of Les Petites Filles Modèles

It is stricking how men, or more exactly husbands and fathers, are conspicuously absent from the universe of Les Petites Filles Modèles. Mme de Fleurville’s husband was killed in action; Mme de Rosbourg’s husband is lost at sea; Mme Fichini became a widow soon after marrying Sophie’s father. One of the poor women helped by Mme de Rosbourg lost her husband on the same ship. Even Hurel the butcher, a positive masculine figure – he finds Sophie and Marguerite lost in a forest, and hands safely to Mme de Rosbourg – drowns a few chapters later. Although Sophie’s father is still alive in Les Malheurs de Sophie, he is mentioned only twice – the second time in absentio, through a present sent to Sophie from Paris; Sophie’s education is left entirely to her mother.

Interestingly this is not reflected at all in Bertall’s illustrations of Les Petites Filles. Out of 19 illustrations, 13 feature men, and 4 out of them even feature only men, mostly absent or unimportant characters, such as the seafarer lost at sea with Mme de Rosbourg’s husband, the Count Blagowski, a schoolteacher, or musicians at a party. The “few neighbours” that Mme de Fleurville receives for dinner in Chapter 9 are represented by a group of four smart men with proud demeanours, giving the impression that beside Mme Fichini all her guests are men – which is unlikely to be the case for a respectable widow like Mme de Fleurville.

On occasions however Bertall’s drawings are are a perfect incarnation of De Ségur’s text. The illustration immediately following, depicting the arrival of Mrs Fichini, is one of the most interesting, in my opinion. The three main adult characters of the book are represented together; Mme de Rosbourg and Mme de Fleurville - the good mothers - in the left side of the picture, facing the abusive stepmother Mme Fichini. The fat figure of Mme Fichini, made even more enormous by her ridiculous flounced dress, eclipses the small figure of Sophie, literally reduced to a shadow.

Here I am my dear ladies, she said, getting off the coach.
Full moon... Mme Fichini in Chapter IX of Les Petites Filles

Mothers, or mother-like figures, are indeed, omnipresent in De Ségur’s two books. For example, Sophie’s mother is the only character, beside Sophie herself, to appear in every single chapter of Les Malheurs.

Eugène de Ségur is said to have nicknamed his wife, who gave him eight children, "la mère Gigogne", or "Mother Gigogne" in reference to wooden Russian dolls that nest one inside the other. Les Petites Filles Modèles shows a different side to this image of the Mother Gigogne. It is interesting to note that the little girls Camille and Madeleine are conferred maternal authority over the younger Marguerite by their own mother: “You will be responsible for [Marguerite’s] education, under the guidance of her mama and me”, says Mme de Fleurville to her daughters (Chap. 4). It is not long before Camille exercises her authority upon Marguerite, ordering her to take some fresh air against the young girl’s wishes. In Chap. 2 the symbolic relation between the two older girls and their new companion is even explicitly stated. In their first conversation together, Madeleine and Camille try to get the name of Mme de Rosbourg, still in a coma, out of Marguerite. Eventually Camille and Madeleine introduce themselves, and Marguerite answers: “You will be my little mamas. Mama Camille and Mama Madeleine.” The chapter ends with Mme de Fleurville asking Marguerite “to play with her two little mamas, so that her big mama may sleep.”

See my other posts on the works of the Comtesse de Ségur:

Les Petites Filles Modèles: plot summary and review.
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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