Two novels worth knowing: Pauline Guizot’s Les Contradictions (1799) and La Chapelle d’Ayton (1800), by Nanette LeCoat

Nanette Le Coat, Trinity University

What characteristics should a novel possess to be “must” of the French Revolution?  Should it critique the Revolution by sensationalizing the horrors of a recent past?  Or should it avoid awakening the memories of what Germaine de Staël called “ce temps incommensurable” by a creating an exotic fantasy world?  Must it express nostalgia for a regime where the cultivation of feeling became a fashionable indulgence? Or must it imagine a new era with where the pursuit of happiness is earnest and egalitarian?  Must it content itself with recombining old forms to new effect or should it strive instead to find forms of expression fitting a new era?

Pauline de Meulan’s post-Revolutionary novels Les Contradictions (1799) and La Chapelle d’Ayton (1800) do not portray the life of aristocrats struggling to remake their lives on a foreign soil.  Revolutionary events, either heroic or bloody, do not figure as a backdrop.[1] Nor indeed do their young protagonists, like many of the college students we teach, seem more than dimly aware of recent historical and political events so preoccupied are they with their own fear of failing to find a position in life and a companion to share it with.

Meulan’s political allegiances are expressed indirectly in her post-Revolutionary fiction.   While the locale of the Chapelle d’Ayton may reflect Meulan’s anxiety about locating her story in the seismic terrain of post-Revolutionary France, her novel is situated in England for the simple reason that her heroine is English. More interesting than the question of why the English locale, is the question of why Meulan chose to translate and appropriate as her own an English novel which unabashedly rewrites the narrative of the most notorious French novel of its day–La Nouvelle Héloïse.

La Chapelle d’Ayton, ou Emma Courtney is the story of a young woman who loses successively her mother, her beloved aunt and uncle with whom she is sent to live, her father, and finally and most tragically, the one great love of her life.  The novel relates a concatenation of circumstances—including a mysterious “obstacle insurmountable”—conspiring to prevent Emma from marrying Auguste Harley.  As Meulan’s narrative evolves it progressively adopts diverse subgenres of the 18th-century fictional repertoire—the memoir, the epistolary novel, the novel of manners, and the gothic romance.  But in this hybrid architecture—symbolized by the central structure that gives the novel its name—echoes of Rousseau’s influential novel are always heard.  Emma, like Julie, is prevented by paternal interdiction and social prejudice from marrying Auguste.  She marries instead the austere and older Mr. Montague who, suspecting that Emma is still in love with Auguste, exacts a promise from her that she will no longer write to August and that she will distance herself from him by moving to the Ayton estate.  Here, Emma keeps her marital promise to live a virtuous life.  She devotes herself to good works and to the education of Montague’s daughter from an earlier marriage.  The novel ends on a bitter-sweet note that is no more convincing than Julie’s attempts to persuade Saint-Preux of her happiness: “Si quelquefois la mélancolie venait s’emparer de son cœur, Emma connaît les moyens de se distraire; elle redouble d’activité pour le Bonheur de ce qui l’environne; le nuage se dissipe, Emma peut dire encore: Je suis heureuse.”(267)

In  her preface to the first edition of her “translation” Meulan claimed that her decision to translate this particular novel was a matter of chance implying that she could very well have chosen another instead.[2] This claim, I believe, was disingenuous. For Mary Hays, the author of whose novel inspired Meulan’s, the decision to translate the French story of a young woman’s moral dilemma into an English context was clearly a political.  I believe that for Meulan, too, the choice was also political.  Rousseau’s novel, in the eyes of contemporary British critics, was fraught with dangerous implications, for as Claire Grogan, Katherine Binhammer and others have pointed out, La Nouvelle Héloïse had the reputation of having made novel reading seductive for women while at the same time exposing women’s fatal vulnerability to such seductions. In the decade of the 1790s (Hays’s novel was published in 1796), the critique of Rousseau became a major weapon in the arsenal of conservative British educators and critics whose anti-Jacobin screeds were bent on demonstrating the baleful social and moral  influence of the French philosophes on both French and British society.[3] While Hays elected to the explore the complexities of women’s identification with Rousseau’s fictional characters some of her contemporaries, such as Elizabeth Hamilton in her Memoir of Modern Philosophers, chose rather to viciously satirize the female types who too readily fell into his seductive trap.  Critiques of Rousseau were not merely incorporated into satiric novels; they also generated sustained commentary on the pernicious influence of French philosophy from in such journals as the Anti-Jacobin Review.

An anti-Anti-Jacobin novel

Fluent as she was in English and familiar as she was with the British literary scene, Meulan could scarcely have been unaware of the controversy that Rousseau-inspired fiction generated across the Channel.   Nor was she unaware that the French Counter-Revolution like the Counter-Enlightenment which had preceded it, made the critique of the philosophes the core of their campaign to restore France to ancien régime glory.  Meulan’s own views on the Revolution were moderate.  Like most people who had survived the Terror, her life had been inalterably changed and, as Sainte-Beuve observed, she looked back on the late stages of the Revolution as “un affreux spectacle qui blessait toutes ses affections et ses habitudes.”[4] Nonetheless, like the Thermidoreans, she refused to abandon her faith in the Revolution’s early ideals.  This political independence earned her the respect of Suard, the Enlightenment man of letters, who published Le Publiciste and hired her there as a regular journalist.  In this role she refused to bow to the critical orthodoxy of either the Right or the Left and her assessments of writers as diverse as Collin d’Harleville, La Harpe, Germaine de Staël and Louis de Bonald were notable for their dry wit and judiciousness. Because Meulan was politically savvy, she must certainly have anticipated the critical reactions her text was likely to provoke when she undertook to translate Hays’s novel.  To amplify and expand upon a novel whose themes were so obviously indebted to Rousseau was then, consciously or not, a gesture of defiance to the Counter-Revolutionary Right and an implicit reaffirmation of the French revolutionary ideals.

Reading Rousseau

As James Swenson has argued, there are many ways that Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse was retrospectively interpreted as prefiguring revolutionary ideas: its affirmation of a personal conception of God independent of orthodox religious pieties, its vision of a utopian space in which nature both shapes and is shaped by human will,  its reinvention of virtue.[5] But the influence of Rousseau’s novel did not derive exclusively from abstract ideals. The novel provided a way for its readers to understand their own lives by drawing out the connections between their imaginative and affective inner experience and their social existences.  Through the reading and writing of letters, Rousseau’s protagonists fashioned their own moral identities.

Both the French and English versions of Emma Courtney’s story make plain the foundational role of reading in her moral development.  Emma’s early contact with literary texts creates the essential lineaments of her character and establishes her most significant affective ties.  Emma’s aunt, having lost her infant son, lavishes her maternal feeling on her young niece.  Mme Melmoth “se plaisait à développer et à faire ressortir une sensibilité, déjà plus vive qu’elle ne l’est ordinairement dans l’enfance” (10).  Whereas Emma’s uncle loves poetry and introduces her to best examples of ancient and modern verse, Mme Melmoth, has an inordinate predilection for novels—a taste which she transmits her niece:  “Son goût pour les romans allait jusqu’à la fureur.  Elle employait à cette dangereuse occupation tout le temps qu’elle ne donnait pas à ses études, ou à la société de sa tante. Tout son petit revenue passait à se procurer des livres [. . .] tous les personnages du plus fade roman saisissaient tour à tour son imagination; elle se mettait à la place de chacun d’eux; la position la plus extraordinaire était toujours celle qu’elle choisissait de préférence. .  . ” (11-12).

The reading tastes of her surrogate mother, and to a lesser extent her uncle, prove to have a negative effect on Emma’s character.  In the assessment of Meulan’s stern narrator, these character flaws reveal themselves at an early age for while Emma is tender, affectionate, and intellectually curious, she is also flighty and incapable of self-discipline.  Through her choice of reading, her aunt has transmitted to her niece her own moral shortcomings.  While Mme Melmoth is kind and generous, she is also pampered, complacent and ignorant of the world.  She has no real judgment, no intellectual interest, and no fortitude.  As Emma becomes a young woman, her aunt’s example becomes increasingly dangerous for the “maternal” education she has provided has ill-equipped Emma to be strong in the face of adversity, to learn the skills she needs to be independent, or to negotiate the treacherous ways of polite society.

When Mr. Melmoth dies, Emma’s father belatedly accepts his paternal obligations.  Having spent his life pursuing pleasure in fashionable society, Mr. Courtney has taken no real interest in his daughter, but fearing the prospect of a lonely old age and discerning in his daughter some intellectual aptitude, he attempts to make amends by overseeing her education. “M. Courtney paraissait mettre le plus grand soin à former le jugement de sa fille, à rectifier ses idées, à détourner sur des objets utiles l’activité d’une imagination ardente.” (30)

Emma, suspecting that her father’s newfound interest in her is motivated solely by as sense of duty, is at first reticent.  But she is soon absorbed by the texts to which her father introduces her.  At this stage in the narrative Guizot introduces another scene of reading reminiscent of Rousseau’s most intimate writing. The text Mr. Courtney chooses to inspire Emma to abandon her novels and take up more serious reading is Plutarch’s Lives. This stage in Emma’s education mirrors a similar transition in Rousseau’s formation.  The author of the Confessions recalls that after his mother’s death, he and his father would indulge in the guilty pleasure of staying up all night reading the novels she had left behind.  This “dangereuse méthode,” Rousseau confesses, gave him a misshapen education: he knew everything about feelings and nothing about things. The novel reading period of Rousseau’s education soon came to an end, however, when he and his father had exhausted all the books in his mother’s library.  It was now time to turn to his father’s library.  “Plutarque surtout,” Rousseau explains, “devint ma lecture favorite. Le plaisir que je prenais à le relire sans cesse me guérit un peu des romans.”[6] Yet despite Rousseau’s acquisition of more philosophical reading habits, the impressions created by his first reading experience leave an indelible imprint on his character. The confused feelings awakened in him by his mother’s novels do not alter his as yet-to-be-developed reason but “elles m’en formèrent une d’une autre trempe, me donnèrent de la vie humaine des notions bizarres et romanesques, dont l’expérience et la réflexion n’ont jamais bien pu me guérir.”

Similarly for Emma, the novels and tales which inspired her early identification with romantic heroines leave a lasting impression on her imagination and shape her responses to new experience.  Emma’s new paternal education will be tested when her father invites her into his social world.  Mr. Courtney’s worldly friends are impressed by his daughter’s literary sophistication, but condescending regarding her social skills.  Emma’s instinctive reaction is to reject the pretensions, egotism and falseness her father’s stylish circle.  At the same time, she is astonishingly naïve regarding the intentions of the people who offer her their friendship. Emma has learned to read, but she has not yet learned to decipher the codes of polite behavior or to conform to social expectations.  This incomplete education will lead Emma to become a victim of many misunderstandings and deceptions.  It is only when she has acquired the discernment born of long experience of the world that Emma finally succeeds in overcoming the obstacles which thwart her happiness.

Gender and genre

What are we to make of the contrast Meulan draws between “maternal” and “paternal” educations?  Is Meulan saying that novels are the frivolous indulgences of women whereas works of history, philosophy and the natural science reflect the interests and more systematic mental training of men?  Do Emma’s early reading experience incite her to imagine and then to enact passionate sexuality by offering herself to Augustus before marriage?  And if Meulan intends to suggest a linkage between frivolous reading and immoral behavior how does her view distinguish itself from the anti-Jacobin posture?

In the British context, there was in fact considerable consensus about the dangerous seductiveness of Rousseau’s novel; disagreement amongst critics and the novelists who were inspired by him focused on assessments of women’s capacity to resist this textual seduction and what views on what means should be favored to counter the novel’s influence.  As Claire Grogan noted, the remedies that were proposed were of three types: censorship, guidance, and knowledge.[7]

Meulan, not surprisingly, takes the middle stance favored by Mary Hays.  Emma’s “paternal” instruction provides a corrective to the lax novel-reading upbringing given to her by her aunt.  Mr. Courtney intends the intellectually demanding readings and critical debate he engages in with Emma to develop her analytical skills so that she might resist the suasions of imaginative fiction.  Though Meulan suggests that the effect of imaginative literature has not been altogether beneficial in the development of Emma’s character, and though she proposes an alternative form of reading and an alternative style of instruction, she does not seem to suggest that novel reading be banned altogether.  Nor does she draw a strict dichotomy between the male and female reading provinces.  It is, after all, Emma’s uncle who instills in her a love of poetry, a genre which like the novel, had been viewed as a slightly feminine.  Meulan also suggests that the “serious” form of instruction offered by Emma’s father is not entirely successful unless Mr. Courtney succeeds in establishing a closer rapport with his daughter.  Mr. Courtney’s coldly intellectual approach initially backfires.  His mocking tone and sarcasm initially cause Emma to refrain from discussing her enthusiasms with him. It is only when he learns to listen to her in a respectful manner that she becomes more receptive to his lessons. Emma’s most enduring and powerful lessons derive not from a particular literary genre, but from the affective relations she has with her teachers.  Mme Melmoth’s unconditional devotion to her niece and her affectionate, accepting attitude reinforce Emma’s passion for certain kinds of reading, much in the same way that Rousseau’s early slightly illicit reading sessions with his father help to palliate the loss of his mother and her affection.  Ultimately, the shaping of Emma’s moral character depend both on the cultivation of her feelings and imagination and her capacity to negotiate the social world through rational discernment.

On the surface at least Les Contradictions, ou ce qui peut arriver, a novel Meulan published a year before La Chapelle d’Ayton, are quite different novels.  Meulan’s first novel is the story of a young man’s struggles to marry a woman of equal fortune and status.  The marriage is constantly deferred by a series of social obstacles of varying degrees of seriousness –rainstorms, elopement, miscarriage and the death of an aunt.  Whereas Emma’s story has a dark romantic tone enhanced by gothic elements such as the brooding ambiance of the Chapelle d’Ayton and the appearance of ghostly apparitions, Les Contradictions is told in a breezy style.  While its characters experience misfortune, they display throughout the comic resilience of the protagonists of Voltaire’s Candide, and the reader never really doubts that their story will have a satisfactory resolution.   Indeed the novel ends when the hero marries a suitable young lady leaving his servant, Pierre, to conclude with the Panglossian observation:  “Dieu fait tout pour le mieux.”(275)

Huguette Krief has remarked on the heterogeneity that characterizes Pauline de Meulan’s oeuvre.[8] I would suggest, however, that these two novels reveal essential continuities.  They share the standard topos of sentimental fiction—marriage— and the plots of both novels are driven by the deferral of desire.  More importantly, both novels illustrate the importance of choice in the moral formation of the young and an invitation to the young to participate in the creation of their own moral identity.

From the novel to moral philosophy

In the prefaces to both the first and second editions of La Chapelle d’Ayton, Mlle de Meulan, soon to be Pauline Guizot, displayed an ambivalent attitude towards her progeny.  As Antoinette Sol has remarked, this ambivalence reflects a diffidence concerning the hybrid nature of her production for her version of the Emma Courtney story was neither fully a translation of another’s work, nor fully an original production.[9] Her ambivalence stemmed as well from a critical attitude to the form she had adopted:  “. . . j’ai fait un roman et une préface, après avoir juré vingt foi que si je faisais jamais un livre, ce ne serait point un roman, et n’aurait point de préface.”(vi)  Meulan’s translation/imitation is as Sol, suggests, at once a mémoire de roman and a roman-mémoir; it is also, I would suggest, an experimental novel.  Meulan adopts Hays’s novel expanding and adding many characters and episodes not in the original.  It is in this material that the most significant generic shifts occur.  In elaborating Hays’s novel Meulan tries on the themes and preoccupations which would become truly her own in her subsequent work.  Through this experimentation with genre Meulan identifies her own literary niche.  The role Meulan elects is that of the “moraliste.” As her contemporary, Charles de Rémusat, commented: “toutes ces compositions prouvent un penchant visible à tout ramener au point de vue moral.” (74)   Meulan’s choice is important. In the first few years of the nineteenth century, the eighteenth-century was in ill repute.  Many writers expressed their contempt for the philosophical tendencies of the previous century by celebrating and imitating the literary genres of the Siècle de Louis IV.  The choice to adopt the role of moraliste in the tradition of La Rochefoucauld, Pascal or Chamfort, might be interpreted as a gesture of conformity with the retrograde tendencies of the time.  Such is not the case.  Meulan may well have taken up the literary genre of an earlier period, but her orientation was decidedly modern.  What made it new was her audience—one which hitherto had largely been ignored by the literary world.  In the years 1802 until her death in 1827, Pauline Guizot produced a stream of moral tales destined for children which bore the titles L’écolier, ou Raoul et Victor, Le pauvre José: conte dédier à la jeunesse, Jules ou le jeune précepteur, or my particular favorite, L’éducation de Nanette.   This work culminated in her most admired text—L’Education domestique, ou lettres de famille sur l’éducation—which won her literary validation in the form of the prize in moral philosophy from the Académie française in 1828.

Pauline Guizot’s literary trajectory typifies the work of early nineteenth-century women writers who adopted eighteenth-century genres to the political and social ambitions purposes of the new century. Guizot’s skeptical attitude regarding the implausibility and excess of sentimental fiction inspired her to embrace its plots with a provisional and ironic attitude.  Whatever its perceived flaws, the novel would remain for nineteenth-century women writers a capacious and flexible receptacle for wide ranging reflections on politics, history and new social roles for women and the young.


[1]Both novels were published Chez Maradan in 1799 and 1800 respectively. The second edition of La Chapelle d’Ayton appeared Chez Maradan in 1810.

[2] “Je voulais traduire un livre anglais; le hasard me fit tomber sur un roman en deux volumes, nommé Emma Courtney”, Préface de la première édition, v.

[3] See Claire Grogan, “The Politics of Seduction in British Fiction of the 1790s: The Female Reader and Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 11, Issue 4. 1999 and Katherine Binhammer, “The Persistence of Reading: Governing Female Novel-Reading in Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers in ,”Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 27, Number 2, Meulan2003. For a discussion of the Anti-Jacobin reaction to Rousseau, see M.O. Grenby, The Anti-Jacobin Novel: British Conservatism and the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[4] Sainte-Beuve, Charles, “Madame Guizot,” in Portraits de Femmes, (Portraits lIttéraires, vol. 2) Paris: Gallimard, 1960, 1180.

[5] James Swenson, On Jean-Jacques Rousseau Considered as One of the First Authors of the Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1964, 8

[7] Grogan, 6.

[8] Huguette Krieff, Vivre libre et écrire: une anthologie des romancières de la période révolutionnaire 1789-1800. Oxford /Paris: Voltaire Foundation, 2005.

[9] Antoinette Sol. “A French Reading and Critical Rewriting of Mary Hay’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney” in Strategic Rewriting, vol. 8 edited by David Lee Rubin Early Modern Fiction, vol. 8, 2002.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s