Genlis, Stéphanie-Félicité, Comtesse de (1746–1830)
Genlis, Stéphanie-Félicité, Comtesse de (1746–1830)
Prodigious writer of novels and educational treatises who became the first woman to serve as the governor of royal princes when she was appointed to direct the education of the children of Philippe, duke d'Orléans. Name variations: Countess de Genlis. Born Stéphanie-Félicité Ducrest de Saint-Aubin on January 21, 1746, at Champçéry in Burgundy, France; died on December 31, 1830, in Paris, France; daughter of Pierre-Cèsar Ducrest or du Crest (a French noble who squandered most of his family fortune) and Marie-Françoise de Mézière; married Charles Alexis, Comte Brûlart de Genlis, later Marquis de Sillery, on November 8, 1763; children: Caroline de Genlis (1764–1783); Pulchérie de Genlis (b. 1766); Casimir (1768–1773); rumored to have given birth to two illegitimate daughters with Louis-Philippe Joseph (Philippe-Egalité), Duke d'Orléans: Pamela (1773–1831), the future Lady Edward Fitzgerald; and Hermine (1776–1822).
Married (1763); introduced into Parisian society (1765); became lady-in-waiting to the Duchesse d'Orléans (1769); made governess to her daughters (1777); made governor of the sons of the Duke and Duchesse d'Orléans; published Adèle de Theodore ou lettres sur l'éducation (1782); published Discours sur l'éducation publique du peuple (1791); lived in exile in Europe during the French Revolution (1793–1800); published Madame de la Vallière (1804), Souvenirs de Félicie (1806), and Mémoires (1825).
Stéphanie-Félicité Ducrest de Saint-Aubin was born in the last years of the reign of King Louis XV of France. The daughter of Pierre-Cèsar Ducrest, a member of one of the oldest noble families in France, and Marie-Françoise Ducrest , Félicité was born into a privileged élite who dominated the politics and economy of pre-revolutionary France. Her father was a known spendthrift, however, and her mother had come to the marriage without a dowry, so her father traveled the country in search of money while her mother dragged Félicité and her brother to a succession of country homes owned by friends and cousins in search of shelter and financial support. Félicité received little formal education in her youth; her father preferred to allow her to run around outside in boys' clothes to encourage her to be adventurous and hardy. Largely as a result of her mother's love of the stage, Félicité was introduced early to acting, dancing and playing music. She became a virtuoso on the harp.
Félicité was married at the age of 17 to Charles Alexis, Comte Brûlart de Genlis, a naval officer who had met her father while overseas. Genlis, according to rumor, had seen her portrait and had fallen in love with her on the spot. Delighted with the prospect of marriage into Genlis' prominent family (his uncle, the Marquis de Puysieux, was Minister of Foreign Affairs), Félicité agreed to the marriage. Charles' relations were infuriated by his marriage to a girl without a dowry, and so for two years they refused to recognize the union. It was only after the birth of Caroline de Genlis , in September 1765, that Charles' relations decided to recognize the marriage and introduce Félicité at court. Although her in-laws were initially cold towards her, Félicité soon won them over with her charm, vivacity, and tact.
Félicité's acceptance into her husband's family opened the doors to the most exclusive social circles in France. Her musical talents and gift for amusing conversation won her many allies during these years. Félicité gave birth to two more children in quick succession: her daughter Pulchérie de Genlis was born in 1766 and her son Casimir in 1768.
Soon afterwards, in 1769, she met Louis-Philippe Joseph "Egalité," known as Philippe, duke d'Chartres, who was the son of the duke d'Orléans. This meeting would change the destiny of her entire life. A romantic affair between the two began. At the time, Félicité was 22 and married; Philippe was 21 and negotiations were being feverishly conducted for his marriage to Louise Marie of Bourbon , daughter and only heir of the wealthy duke de Penthiévre. Upon Philippe's marriage to Louise Marie in April 1769, the duke d'Orléans gave the couple the Palais-Royale in which to set up their household. Félicité was named lady-in-waiting to Louise Marie and the duke de Genlis received an appointment as the duke's Captain of the Guard.
Thus began a 19-year relationship between the Genlises and the heir to the Orléans house. Monsieur de Genlis developed a true friendship with Philippe and remained loyal to him until their deaths in 1793. Félicité attracted the loyalty and friendship of the younger Louise Marie, who seemed naively ignorant of Félicité's relationship with her husband. For several years, Félicité held the affections of both the husband and the wife.
As first princes of the blood, the Orléans family were nearly as prominent and wealthy as the royal family. The duke and duchesse of Chartres made the Palais-Royale the center of Parisian social life, where they entertained courtiers, literary figures and the intelligentsia of Europe. Félicité flourished in this environment. Older, more beautiful and more socially adept than Louise Marie, Félicité dominated the social scene at the Palais-Royale and soon became one of the most sought-after women in Paris.
The correspondence between Félicité and Philippe at this time reveals the intense passion shared between the lovers, as well as Philippe's submission to Félicité's stronger personality. In 1772, while Félicité was in Forge attending Louise Marie, who had recently given birth to a stillborn child, the lovers sent frequent letters to each other. At the beginning of their separation, she wrote:
Yes, I am in despair. It seems to me that you have left me for always, that we shall never see each other again, or anyhow that the time of our happiness is over….
Why do I lose my head for a matter of one month? But you yourself, my love, what a state you were in yesterday; really I am alarmed by it. Well, I had more strength yesterday.… No, I do not live away from you. Oh! My child, my heart, to love each other to such an extent, to give oneself up to it so entirely that one should be sure of never having to leave each other for more than two days.
How amiable, tender and charming you are, my child. Your letter enchants me, it is sad but consoling. Oh! Yes, it is true that we shall never be much to be pitied.
It gives me a strange pleasure to see that we both write to each other the same thing at about the same time.… I count the hours, the moments, and when I go to bed I am glad that another day has gone.
Philippe had little sympathy for his young wife, who had developed a toothache and had to have two teeth pulled. On hearing the news, he responded, "I would like the Chevalier to let me know tomorrow that they have pulled out the whole jaw and if the tongue went too I wouldn't mind." Félicité gently rebuked him, "Madame la Duchesse de Chartres has a beautiful soul. How pure, honest and tenderhearted she is!"
She would have invented the inkstand, if the inkstand had been uninvented.
The affair between Madame de Genlis and the duke de Chartres became an object of speculation among the members of the aristocracy, especially when Félicité suddenly left the country with little explanation in 1773. Her son, Casimir, had died in a measles outbreak that year, but after his death she left France for Brussels, where she stayed for six weeks. When she returned, rumors circulated that she had borne a child of Philippe's. Another absence in 1776 provoked similar gossip.
In October 1773, Louise Marie gave birth to a long awaited heir, who was destined to become king of France as Louis-Philippe I in 1830. Other children quickly followed: Antoine, who became duke de Montpensier (1775), Louis-Charles, Comte de Beaujolais (1779), and twin daughters, though only Adelaide (1777–1847) would survive infancy. Upon the birth of the twins, Philippe suggested that Félicité be made their governess. Félicité vacated her lavish apartments in the Palais-Royale and took the 11-month-old girls to live under her care in a pavilion designed by her in the grounds of the Convent at Belle-Chasse. In her memoirs, Félicité notes that she willingly moved out of her rooms at the Palais-Royale because at Belle-Chasse she could be away from malicious eyes: "I felt only joy in entering that peaceful sanctuary where I would be exercising such sweet rule." Monsieur de Genlis had already moved out of the Palais-Royale several years earlier to take apartments nearby with his mistress, Madame de Buffon .
Félicité continued to attend social events at the Palais-Royale, and even hosted visits from the best-known men of arts and letters at Belle-Chasse. At 31, she began not only her long career as a governess of royal children, but also a career as a writer, one which she would continue until her death. Many of her earliest writings contain her theories on education, but she also produced romances and a volume of comedies. Félicité's reputation grew more respectable as her writings became widely circulated.
Philippe shocked Parisian society when, in 1782, following the tragic death of one of the twin princesses, he dismissed the governors who had been in charge of the education of his sons and made Félicité the governess of all his children. Never before had a woman been named governor of royal princes. Public opinion, noted an observer, "murmured, then was silent." Louise Marie was opposed to the scheme, but she had never been a match for the strong wills of her husband or Félicité.
Madame de Genlis proved herself a rigorous instructor. She trained the princes not only in academic subjects like geometry and mathematics but also in how to "bear heat, cold, wind and rain, to sleep on bare boards, endure fatigue and fend for [themselves]." Louis-Philippe later recalled, "She brought us up with ferocity." Félicité later said of Louis-Philippe, "He was a Prince and I made him a man, slow and I made him
clever, a coward and I made him brave, but I could not make him generous." Félicité stressed the importance of charity and good works among the poor, which gave the Orléans princes enduring popularity among the people of France during and after the Revolution.
In 1785, two little girls were brought over from England to join Félicité's household. The eldest was named Pamela and the youngest Hermine de Genlis . The official explanation given by Madame de Genlis and the duke was that the girls had been taken from English families who could not provide for their upkeep. But public rumor maintained that the children were none other than the illegitimate daughters of Félicité and Philippe, who had been spirited off to England after their birth and were now being reunited with their mother. Although Félicité showed little interest in Hermine and gave her to her daughter Pulchérie to raise, Pamela became Félicité's favorite, rivaled only perhaps by Félicité's eldest daughter Caroline, who had married but died soon after in childbirth in 1783.
Philippe succeeded to the title of duke d'Orléans upon the death of his father in 1785. Showing considerable political foresight, Félicité took pains to teach the Orléans children the importance of popularity among the French people. She made the girl pupils dress as "Grey Sisters" and go out ministering to the poor. She convinced Philippe to sell the contents of his gallery at Palais-Royale and announced in the Journal de Paris in 1788 that the eight million francs brought by the pictures was to be spent in helping women in childbirth and distributing bread to the poor.
By 1789, widespread poverty and the impact of the new views of the philosophes were creating growing resentment of Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette . An Orléanist party arose which championed the idea of putting Philippe on the throne of France in a constitutional monarchy. When the Estates-General met that year and began the process of revolution, Philippe gave up his place at the head of the Princes of Blood Royal and instead walked in procession in the last row of the representatives of the Third Estate, to public acclamation.
As increasing numbers of ambitious politicians drew around Philippe, Félicité found her influence on him waning. Madame de Genlis' role in the French Revolution has remained unclear. In 1791, she published a call for reform in education, Discours sur l'éducation publique du peuple, which pushed for universal education of both boys and girls, although she maintained that nobles and the masses should be educated separately, using the same moral principles but different subject matter. She enthusiastically supported the reformers of the Orléans party, especially their plans for the creation of a Constitutional monarchy, but when the Revolution took a turn toward the more radical Jacobin party, Félicité seems to have abandoned the Revolutionary cause. As the Jacobins grew in power and influence in Paris, she took several of her young charges with her to the relative safety of England.
With growing unrest and anti-monarchical sentiment in Paris, Philippe found himself in a difficult position. In 1790 his son, Louis-Philippe, now a young man of 17, joined the anti-monarchy Jacobin club, to the distress of his mother, who blamed Félicité for her son's radical sympathies and begged her husband to dismiss her. Despite Louise Marie's vehement pleas, Philippe refused to remove Félicité from her post as governess. At Philippe's refusal, Louise Marie banned Félicité from the Palais-Royale. There is some evidence that she had finally been convinced of the affair between her husband and her children's governess. By this time, it is doubtful that Félicité and Philippe were still lovers in the full sense of the word, but Louise Marie's test of Philippe's loyalty placed him squarely on the side of Madame de Genlis. The conflict escalated as Louise warned her husband, "The person who, since she has had my children in her hands, has never ceased to cause disunion between us, is now going to separate us for ever." She insisted he choose between her and Genlis. After a terrible scene, Philippe shocked Parisian society by turning Louise out of the Palais-Royale with nothing but the clothes on her back. In 1791, Louise Marie returned to live with her father and asked for a separation from her husband.
Contrary to Philippe's wishes, Félicité bowed to public pressure and resigned her post. As the situation in France deteriorated, Félicité wrote from England to her husband, "I see that the good cause is very nearly lost. You can take one of two courses; either that of supporting the constitution and perishing in its defense; or that of accepting the changes that are proposed.… France will not be the freest country in the world, but it will not be under such a despotical government as before the Revolution." She advised him to sell their property and settle in England. Still loyal to Philippe, her husband Monsieur de Genlis refused.
Fitzgerald, Pamela (1773–1831)
Daughter of Mme de Genlis. Name variations: Lady Edward Fitzgerald. Born in 1773 (some sources cite 1776); died in Paris, France, in 1831; daughter of Stéphanie-Félicité, Comtesse de Genlis (1746–1830) and Louis-Philippe Joseph, duke d'Orléans (Philippe-Egalité); married Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1763–1798, son of Emily Lennox ), on December 27, 1792.
It states in her marriage contract to Lord Edward Fitzgerald that Pamela Fitgerald's parents were from Newfoundland. However, it is popularly supposed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Madame de Genlis and Louis-Philippe Joseph (Philippe-Egalité), duke d'Orléans. Brought up as a ward in the Orléans household, Pamela journeyed to England in 1791 where she met Sheridan. The following year, she met the future Irish rebel Edward Fitzgerald in Tournay; that same year, Edward was ousted from the British Army for attending a revolutionary banquet in Paris where he toasted the abolition of all hereditary titles. Pamela married him in 1792 and accompanied him to Ireland where he became politically active, joining the United Irishmen who by then were openly calling for an independent republic. In 1796, Edward accompanied Arthur O'Connell to Basel to negotiate with General Hoche for France's help. He then led a military committee that made preparations for the French invaders. On May 19, 1798, Edward was shot in the arm while being arrested by Major Henry Sirr. Pamela attended to her husband in Newgate Prison but he died of his wounds on June 4. Pamela then left Ireland and eventually remarried, but she retained the name Fitzgerald.
Her advice to Philippe during this critical time was no better received. After her return to France in October 1792, she warned Philippe that he was being used as a tool of the Jacobins and implored him to leave France with his family at once and flee to America until the Revolution was over. Philippe remained silent. The following day he sent Félicité, his daughter Adelaide, Hermine and Pamela away from Belle-Chasse to Tournay, where he hoped they would be safer. On the way, they were met by an Irish noble, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who had met Pamela while she was attending the theatre with Monsieur and Madame de Genlis. Edward had fallen madly in love with Pamela and had intercepted the party to ask for Pamela's hand in marriage. Félicité gave her approval on the condition that Edward's mother, the widowed Emily Lennox , duchess of Leinster, was not opposed to the match. Edward rushed back to England to get his mother's approval. Edward's family assumed that Pamela was the daughter of Madame de Genlis and the duke d'Orléans, and despite their disappointment that Pamela had no dowry other than a small annuity settled upon her by Philippe, they welcomed the match. Edward hurried back to Tournay, where the marriage took place at the palace of the Bishop of Tournay on December 27, 1792. Both Félicité and Philippe signed the marriage contract, although little was said of the marriage publicly. Pamela left the party of exiles to join her husband in Ireland.
Events in Paris moved with increasing speed after Louis XVI and his family were caught trying to flee the country in 1792. The king was put on trial for treason, and the Jacobins called for his conviction and execution. Félicité heard the outcome of this tragic turn of events when Louis-Philippe left camp to bring her the news that his father, Philippe, desperate to save his own life, had voted for the death of the king. Félicité and Louis-Philippe were outraged at the duke's lack of courage and conviction. Rumor soon reached them that Philippe, in his panic, had told the Jacobins that he was not the son of the late duke d'Orléans at all, but of a coachman who had been his mother's lover. No one believed the story, and ultimately it did not save his life. After being interrogated by the Revolutionary Tribunal, Philippe was guillotined on November 6, 1793.
It must have been some consolation to Félicité to hear of her husband's actions. She received a letter from him shortly after the vote that condemned the king was taken. Monsieur de Genlis had refused to vote for the king's conviction and published his reasons in the newspapers: "I did not vote for death (1) because he does not deserve it, (2) because we have not the right to judge, (3) because I think their judgment the greatest political mistake that could be made. I know perfectly well that in pronouncing this opinion I have signed my own death warrant." Genlis gave himself up at the Abbaye Prison when he left the Assembly. He was executed with the other Orléanists in November 1793.
During this horrifying time, Félicité solicited help from friends to spirit her charges out of the country. Disguised as English ladies, the party journeyed through Germany and into Switzerland, where Félicité searched for protection. Many houses and convents were reluctant to take in a party of Orléanists, and Félicité found herself denounced by all sides. She was hated and slandered by the Revolutionaries, who considered her too aristocratic and too devoted to the Church, and by most of the French aristocrats who had fled the country, who accused her of influencing Philippe to vote for the death of Louis XVI.
Madame de Genlis would live in exile from her native country for seven years. Hounded by her political enemies and criticized publicly in the press, she kept her emotions in check and her finances secure by continual writing. Several lengthy novels and shorter works, many of which defended her educational methods, appeared during this time. Her writings were as popular as ever, even among those who claimed to disapprove of her. Félicité tutored the children of some of the wealthiest families in Berlin for a time as a way to support herself and her charges. Finally, in June 1800, her name was removed from the list of emigres, and she was allowed to return to France.
She brought with her a young boy she had adopted in Germany, whom she called Casimir after her own son who had died in childhood. As her own children and the Orléans children she had raised grew to adulthood, her relationship to them was often conflicted. Her adopted daughter Pamela had been widowed when Lord Edward died in an uprising of the United Irishmen in 1798. Upon Félicité's return to France, Pamela, anxious to remarry after two years of widowhood, confronted her about her true parentage. Félicité refused to acknowledge her as the child of herself and Philippe, holding to the story that Pamela was the daughter of a poor washerwoman who had sold her for a cash payment. Pamela was distraught, and she distanced herself from Félicité for many years afterwards. Two of Félicité's charges, Antoine, duke de Montpensier, and Louis-Charles, Comte de Beaujolais, died soon after, in 1807 and 1808. To make up for these losses, Félicité continued to adopt several other children until well into her old age, including a niece, Georgette Ducrest , and a grandson, Anatole de Lawoestine, son of her beloved oldest daughter Caroline.
Félicité's return to Paris was bittersweet. The inevitable changes caused by the Revolution distressed her. Her social position among the returning aristocrats was diminished by the role that Philippe had played in the Revolution. Her economic position was no longer secure; she found that her husband's property had been confiscated and sold by the Revolutionary Tribunal. Luckily for Madame de Genlis, the First Consul and soon-to-be-emperor Napoleon Bonaparte admired her literary reputation and took pity on her. He granted her an apartment in the Arsenal, adjoining the library, and offered her a modest annuity in return for a fortnightly letter from her, covering any topic she chose to write about.
The year 1804 saw Madame de Genlis' star begin to rise again. Her new book, Madame de la Vallière, was a fantastic success. Parisian newspapers described her newest work as "charming" and "ravishing." It was even said that the book brought tears to the Emperor Napoleon's eyes. Félicité found herself, at 58, once more becoming fashionable. Her salon was again crowded with the literary and intellectual élite of Paris. She continued to write prolifically, producing one of her most enduring works, Souvenirs de Félicie, in 1806. She also produced a number of historical works celebrating life under the early Bourbon rulers. In that year, she began a friendship with the 18-year-old Comte Anatole de Montesquiou, who exchanged letters with her daily and would remain her steadfast friend and ally for the rest of her life. Although 42 years apart in age, many of her contemporaries believed that Anatole became her last lover.
Félicité's frugal life could not compete with the luxury she had enjoyed in her early days at the Palais-Royale and Belle-Chasse, but she enjoyed the company of her children, her adopted children, and a growing brood of grandchildren. On several occasions, she took money from her own small funds to pay off the debts of one of her relations who had gotten into trouble. She wrote frequently to them, particularly to her adopted son Casimir, instructing them in how to get ahead in a society still driven by privilege and birth, even going so far as to draft letters of thanks for Casimir which she insisted he copy and send as his own. She was much relieved when Casimir married Adèle Carret , a young girl with a good dowry, in 1811, and settled down to the life of a country gentleman.
The fall of Napoleon in 1814 led to the end of Félicité's annuity, but the Orléans family was finally recalled from exile and she was reunited with Louis-Philippe and his younger sister Mademoiselle Adelaide, the only surviving children of the duke and duchesse d'Orléans. Napoleon's return for the Hundred Days in 1815 necessitated the flight of the Orléans family for another two years, and Félicité spent that time prudently out of harm's way at the country home of Casimir and his wife.
When Louis-Philippe again returned to France in 1817, he renewed his close ties with his former governess. His mother Louise Marie had taken up with a commoner after Philippe's death, much to the chagrin of her son. Her desperation for a rapprochement with Louis-Philippe was so great that, after years of enmity towards Félicité, she agreed to meet with her former rival. Louise Marie had aged considerably through her ordeals: "Her face was small and much wrinkled, her dress expensive but eccentric." Félicité, now 69, was "thin and worn but her eyes were still bright and her teeth were perfect." Félicité and Louise Marie patched up their differences, and Félicité found herself again within the circle of the Orléans family.
By 1819, Félicité's last pupil had grown up and left her alone. She moved to a succession of small rooms accompanied only by her maid, but she remained something of a celebrity. Crowds followed her to visit wherever she lived, regardless of her humble surroundings. At the age of 76, she announced that she intended to rewrite the Encyclopedia from a religious point of view. The restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII was delighted with the prospect and offered her an annuity of 1,500 livres. In 1825, she published her own Mémoires. Although they shed no light on the scandals of her youth, they were praised in literary circles for their "purity of style and natural charm."
Félicité celebrated her 80th birthday in 1826. In reviewing her own life, she wrote to Anatole: "In rapidly going over in my heart the long succession of years, with what faith and what repentance do I implore the divine mercy! What heed-lessness and what guilty steps! What agonizing sorrows, what misunderstandings by my own fault, what sadnesses of every kind did I bring upon myself! To what a point did I spoil my own destiny! How happy and beautiful it would have been had I had more sense and virtue!" In her last years, she was often sad and introspective, but she continued to write feverishly; during the final five years of her life, she published eleven new works. She remained an object of fascination among the literary circles of the day.
Political storms began to gather anew by 1830. The last Bourbon monarch, Charles X, had alienated the people with his reactionary policies. By July, Charles had been forced out of the country and Louis-Philippe, remembered as a hero of the Revolution and a friend of the people, was made lieutenant-general of the new republic. On December 31, messengers brought Félicité the news that her former pupil had been named king of France. She is said to have murmured, "I am very pleased." The following morning, when her doctor arrived, he found her sitting up in bed, her handkerchief pressed to her lips. He did not realize she was dead until he found her pulse had stopped.
Madame de Genlis was buried with great pomp and circumstance, at considerable expense to the new king, Louis-Philippe. Toward the end of her life, she had claimed, "I have tasted all the joys of the soul and all the griefs that can rend it and that Fate has heaped both blessings and sorrows upon me." She had published over 100 books and claimed to have brought up and educated 19 children. She inspired admiration and friendship among the greatest minds of her day. Although her works fell out of favor soon after her death, many modern scholars see her as an important bridge between the 17th and 18th centuries. Feminist scholars have praised her for supporting rigorous academic preparation for both men and women. She was one of the first educators to call for universal education for children of all classes up to the age of 16. Even her greatest detractors gave her credit for the education of Louis-Philippe, who not only survived the French Revolution but gave his country 18 years of peaceful rule during the tumultuous 19th century.
Dobson, Austin. Four Frenchwomen. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1893, rpt. 1972.
Eifler, Margaret, ed. Women in an Intellectual Context. Rice University Studies. Vol. 64, no. 1. Winter 1978.
Harmand, Jean. A Keeper of Royal Secrets: Being the Private and Political Life of Mme. de Genlis. London: Eveleigh Nash, 1913.
Sartori, Eva Martin, and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman, eds. French Women Writers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Stewart, Joan Hinde. Gynographs: French Novels by Women of the Late Eighteenth Century. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Wyndham, Violet. Madame de Genlis: A Biography. London: Andre Deutsch, 1958.
Kimberly Estep Spangler , Associate Professor of History and Chair of the Division of Religion and Humanities at Friends University, Wichita, Kansas
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