"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Comtesse de Ségur /3: Les Malheurs de Sophie (1859), extract.

Sade explained to my daughter.

Les Malheur de Sophie ("Sophie's Misfortunes") describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not - by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.

The punishments administered by the mother are as varied as Sophie’s mischief. They range from from lenient (admonition, small fine) to very harsh (corporal punishment, in just one instance). While apparently not as harsh, the punishment devised by the mother in Chap. 6 is rather outlandish, and not little cruel, which is paradoxical, given it punishes an act of crualty:
Outraged by Sophie’s cruaulty, Mme de Réan pulled Sophie’s ear forcefully. Sophie cried out, sprung up and stood trembling in front of her Mama.

“You are a wicked girl, miss, torturing this bee in spite of what I told you when you salted and cut my poor little fishesto pieces.
SOPHIE. — I forgot, Mama, I swear I forgot.
MADAME DE REAN. — I will make sure that you remember, Miss, first by taking this knife from you, which will be given back to you in one year, not before; and also, by making you wear the pieces of the bee on a ribbon around your neck, until they turn into dust.”

In vain did Sophie beg her mama not to force her to wear the bee around her neck; the mother called the servant, asked her to bring a black ribbon, slipped the pieces of the bee unto it and attached them to Sophie’s neck. (Sophie, Chap. 6)
Chapter 15, departs a little from the usual narrative pattern. It adds an intermediary frame: the moral lesson derives from the mother’s tale about another disobedient little girl. Whereas Sophie’s punishments mainly come from outside (although she is also sometimes plagued by remorse) here the child inflicts the punishment on herself, in an act of almost sadistic violence. What is even more striking (forgive the pun) is that the gesture is lauded by the mother, who channels Sophie’s reactions by introducing her tale with the words: “Listen carefully; this is a noble gesture from Elizabeth.”, words echoed by Sophie at the end: “That was a very noble thing for Elisabeth to do.”

Here is my translation of the passage. The original text in French can be found here.

Les Malheurs de Sophie, XV - Élisabeth.

One day Sophie was sitting in her small armchair, looking thoughtful.

“What are you thinking about ?” asked her Mama.

SOPHIE. — I am thinking about Elisabeth Chéneau, Mama.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — Why are you thinking about her?

SOPHIE. — Why, I noticed yesterday that she had a long scratch on her arm, and when I asked her how she received it, she blushed, hid her arm and told me in a whisper: “Hush; I did this to punish myself.” I am trying to understand what she meant.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — I will explain, if you wish; for I too noticed this scratch, and her mama told me how she came to receive it. Listen carefully; this is a noble gesture from Elizabeth.

Sophie, delighted to be told a story, pulled her small armchair closer from her mother to listen better.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — You know that Elisabeth is a good girl, but that unfortunately she is prone to anger (Sophie looked down) Sometimes during her fits of anger she even hits her maid. She is sorry afterwards, but she only thinks about it after, not before. Two days ago she was ironing her dolls’ clothes and linen. Her maid would put the irons into the fire, lest Elisabeth burnt herself. Elisabeth was annoyed not to be able to heat them herself; her maid forbade her, and stopped her every time she tried to do so. At last Elizabeth managed to reach the fireplace, and was about to put down the iron when the maid saw it, removed the iron and said:

“I forbid you to iron, since you won’t listen to me; I’m putting the irons back into the wardrobe.”
“I want my irons”, shouted Elizabeth, “I want my irons”!
“No, miss, you won’t have them.”
“Mean Louise, give them back to me”, said Elisabeth angrily.
“No, you won’t have them. See! They’re locked away”, added Louise, removing the key from the wardrobe.

The furious girl wanted to grab the key from the maid’s hands, but couldn’t. Then in her anger she scratched Louise’s arm so fiercely that the blood ran. When Elisabeth saw the blood, she was sorry; she begged Louise to forgive her, she kissed her arm, she bathed it. The kind Louise, seeing her affliction, assured her that her arm didn’t hurt.

“No”, sobbed Elisabeth, “I deserve to suffer what I did to you; please scratch my arm as I scratched yours, so that I suffer as much as you.”

You can imagine that the maid refused to do what Elisabeth was asking, and the girl did not insist. She was very kind the rest of the day, and went to bed very quietly. The following morning, when the maid woke her, she saw blood on the sheet, and looking at her arm, she saw that it was horribly scratched. “Who hurt you thus my poor child”, she cried out.

“I did”, answered Elisabeth, “to punish myself for scratching you yesterday. When I went to bed, I thought only fair that I should suffer like you, and I scratched my arm until the blood ran.”

The maid, feeling moved, kissed Elizabeth, who promised she would be a good girl from now on.
Do you understand now what Elisabeth told you and why she blushed?

SOPHIE. — Yes, Mama, I understand very well. That was a very noble thing for Elisabeth to do. Yes,. I think she will never get angry again, now that she knows how wrong it is.

MADAME DE RÉAN, smilling. — Don’t you ever do things that you know to be wrong?

SOPHIE, embarrassed — But I am younger, Mama; I am four, and Elizabeth is five years old.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — It is does make much difference; remember how one week ago you became angry with Paul, who is such a nice boy.

SOPHIE. — You are right Mama ; but still I believe that I won’t do it again, as I know it is wrong.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — I hope that you are right, Sophie, but be careful not to think yourself better than you really are. This is called pride, and you know that pride is a very bad fault.

Sophie did not answer, but she had a satisfied smile which meant that she would, undoubtedly, always be a good girl. Poor Sophie was soon humbled, for this is what happened two day later…

See my other posts on the works of the Comtesse de Ségur:
Les Petites Filles Modèles: plot summary and review.
Mothers (and fathers) in Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie.
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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