"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Comtesse de Ségur /4 : Corporal punishment in Les Petites Filles Modèles

Cruel but Just.

Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie , the 19th century best-selling books by the Comtesse de Ségur, are all about education. Corporal punishment features prominently in them, not surprisingly as it was still very much part of the norm in the 1850s. The Comtesse de Ségur's denunciation of senseless and cruel punishements such as those administered by Mme Fichini or Mother Léonard, is common to many of her contemporaries (see for example Dickens' portrayal of abusive stepfather Murstone in David Copperfield).

She swooped down on Sophie and flogged her violently
Don't spare the rod, spoil the child... Madame Fichini and Sophie in Chap. 8.

Chap. 8 of Les Petites Filles Modèles is a particularly horrific case in point. Sophie almost drowns because of carelessness; when her stepmother discovers what happened she is furious, because Sophie spoilt her dress:

Before anyone could react, she took a strong birch rod from under her shawl, swooped down on Sophie and flogged her violently, in spite of the poor girl’s screams, of Camille and Madeleine’s tears and supplications, and of Mme de Fleurville and Elisa’s indignant condemnations. She ceased to strike her only when the rod broke in her hands; then she threw the pieces and left the room. Mme de Fleurville followed her to express her displeasure at such unfair and barbarous punishment. “Believe me, dear ladies” Mme Fichini replied, “this is the only way to bring up children; the whip is the best of teachers. As for me, I never use any other.”
By punishing Sophie all the time, for a wrong reason or no reason at all, Mme Fichini encourages fatalism and empties the punishment of all meaning, thereby preventing remorse. This is particularly clear in the scene in which Sophie wrecks havoc in the penance room in which she was locked by Mme de Fleurville and is momentarily scared by the consequences of actions:

“What will Mme de Fleurville say”, she thought, “What punishment will she inflict on me? For she is sure to punish me. Oh well ! She will flog me. My stepmother flogged me so much that I’m used to it now. Let’s not think about it anymore; let’s try to sleep. (chap. 16)
The Comtesse de Ségur's attitude towards corporal punishment is slightly ambiguous however; she justifies it in some circumstances. Madame de Réan, Sophie’s mother, described as a positive figure of authority in Les Malheurs de Sophie, occasionally uses it:

Without a word [Madame de Réan] took Sophie and whipped her as never before. In vain did Sophie scream or beg for mercy; she was whipped soundly, and it must be said that she deserved it.” (Les Malheurs de Sophie, Chap 18)
 Both Madame de Réan and Madame de Fleurville however prefer to bring about repentance in the child, by a reflection on the consequences of bad behaviour. Punishment, as remorse, becomes internalized.

Mme de Fleurville even explicitly states that she never uses corporal punishment (Petites Filles, Chap. 15), which does not make her any less formidable or severe; indeed quite the reverse. The scene of Sophie’s "conversion" – there is no other word for this – in chap. 17 is, in fact, extremely violent, only the violence is mental. Sophie, as we saw, was only superficially frightened by the possibility of being flogged. But she is seized by real terror when Mme de Fleurville’s leaves her after her extremely severe sermon; she is terrified of being left by Mme de Fleurville, and of going to hell – abandoned by God.

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