Les Chevaliers du Cygne, by Lesley Walker

Les Chevaliers du Cygne ou la cour de Charlemagne: A Must of

French Revolutionary Fiction, by Lesley Walker, Indiana University South Bend

In the first edition of the Les Chevaliers du Cygne ou la cour de Charlemagne (1795), Stéphanie-Félicité Ducrest de Genlis informs the reader that she writes to help France exit the catastrophe of the French Revolution.  She chose the court of Charlemagne because she wanted to give her contemporaries an example of great deeds performed by men and women of the past: “Enfin, j’ai voulu rappeler, par de grands exemples, à ces vertus antiques et sublimes qui ont honoré des siècles que nous nommons barbares. Je n’ai point eu le projet de rétablir la chevalerie, mais j’ai cru que la générosité, l’humanité, la loyauté des anciens chevaliers affermiroient mieux une république que les principes de Marat et de Robespierre. »[i] For Genlis, the heroic French past should serve to illuminate the path for the present; it should instruct by offering great examples of virtuous deeds performed by les grands hommes and, importantly, femmes or great women of the past.  In this manner, her moral fiction is harnessed to the public good and provides her contemporaries with models as they strive to remake France.  Included in this moral prescription are women; for Genlis, women too have a role to play in reforming the nation.

Skip forward ten years, however, and in her 1805 l’Avertissement de l’Auteur, Genlis declares that, thanks to the new regime, that is Napoléon’s, there is no longer any need to look to the past for political exemplars:

Aujourd’hui, de grands exemples offerts sous nos yeux, rendent inutiles les fictions morales ; le tableau de la vie guerrière de Charlemagne, les justes éloges donnés à son zèle pour la religion, à son infatigable activité, et son goût pour les sciences, pour les lettres et pour tous les arts, à ses sollicitudes paternelles pour l’éducation de la jeunesse, ne sont plus des leçons, et ne paroitroient maintenant que des allusions, si cet ouvrage étoit nouveau. (Genlis’s emphasis).

As Napoleon’s victories accumulate and his regime self-legitimates, the heroic past no longer provides models of exemplary behavior to be imitated by the present.  Instead, the past offers a kind of prophetic preview of the greatness to come—the legend of Charlemagne anticipates the advent of another equally enlightened Emperor.  In the 1805 edition, then, Genlis seeks to reframe the novel as merely entertaining fiction, stating that Les Chevaliers du Cygne no longer offers up moral lessons.  Indeed, as the actual Terror recedes in time, Genlis exorcises its rawest elements from her fiction: a long note that justified her activities during the Revolution is omitted; a subtitle that explicitly links the novel to the Revolution is left out in the 1805 edition; and eventually the bloody ghost—the most controversial aspect of the novel—is relegated to the hero’s over-active imagination à la Ann Radcliffe.

As any of us who were in graduate school studying French literature in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s know, the period that corresponds to the Revolution is a kind of black hole in the literary canon.  Typically after Laclos, we skipped forward in time to Chateaubriand; from 1782, we leaped to 1802.   But as today’s panel makes obvious, there was literature produced between 1789 and 1795— plays, poems, songs and even novels continued to be written despite the political turmoil.   But the Revolution does loom large as the site of immense epochal change and literature can seem beside the point.  Indeed, after the Terror, the Swiss novelist Isabelle de Charrière would write: “pour qui écrire désormais?”  Julia Douthwaite’s formulation of the “musts” of the Revolution invites us to consider a whole host of questions that confront literary studies, I think, more generally today.   As we undertake this excavation, what are we looking for?  Answers to thorny historical questions? Significant data sets to explain the behavior of specific social groups?  Or are we interested in discovering new masterpieces?  I have no intention of answering these questions; I’ll leave them to Julia, who has much to contribute to that particular conversation.  But I will ask what can this three-volume, 1200-page novel tell us that about this period that we don’t already know?   In other words, why is it a “must read?”

So why read Les Chevaliers du cygne ou la cour de Charlemagne ?   On the one hand, what we discover is, in fact, continuity with certain ideological and literary concerns of the pre-Revolution.  In 1794, Genlis’s editor P.F. Fauche was willing to gamble that the novel would sell well when he paid her the handsome sum of 6,600 pounds for the three-volume work.  The evidence seems to indicate that Fauche’s gamble paid off.   According to the catalog of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, there are six different editions of the novel—1795, 1797, 1799, 1805, 1811, and 1825. Each volume of the 1797 edition is embellished with an engraving that depicts a dramatic scene in the novel.  An English translation, by a certain James Beresford, appears in 1796.  The novel also seems to have been widely reviewed in both France and England.  In her Mémoires, Genlis claims that, due to the popularity of this novel, she was the first female author to make her living as a writer. To what, then, did Genlis owe her success?  In Robert Morrissey’s excellent book, Charlemagne and France, he explains that, despite the acerbic critique by Voltaire of past French kings including Charlemagne, the emperor as both historical figure and myth grew in prestige throughout the eighteenth century.   At the same time, interest in troubadour literature was also on the rise as evidenced by the publication of the Bibliothèque universelle des romans in 1775.  Morrissey notes that the first novels of the series were primarily medieval; and its aim was to craft a national patrimony out of the French Middle Ages, exploiting les chansons de gestes and romances, for instance.[ii] Morrissey offers Genlis’s novel as evidence to bolster his claim that France was yearning for a “Great King,” who would embrace constitutional monarchy, well before Napoléon strode upon the historical stage.

Although Morrissey is certainly correct to place Genlis’s novel within a late Enlightenment context of growing interest in specifically national history and literature, Genlis herself argued that her novel represented significant innovation.  In addition to relying on recent historical works such as the four-volume Histoire de Charlemagne by M. Gaillard or Les Observations sur l’histoire de France by the Abbé de Mably, Genlis defends adamantly her choice to tell a ghost story not only on ethnological grounds but also on esthetic ones.  That is, what is innovative about the novel, according to its author, is to have killed off the heroine in the first pages while still maintaining readerly interest in her throughout the work’s three volumes.  This bloody ghost struck a nerve: critics tended not to like it.  For the first three editions, she resists giving into their judgment; but by 1805, she rewrites the ghost scenes to please her critics.  I want to consider briefly the implication of this choice.

In the 1795 edition of the novel, Genlis says that she wrote the first nine chapters before the Revolution.  In the Epitre Dédicatoire to that edition, she explains that the idea for the plot came from a work entitled Voyage de la caverne de R***, probably penned by the Comte de Tressan, who was one of the editors of the Bibliothèque universelle des romans.  From the beginning then, the novel combined a chivalric plot with elements of the roman noir that were both apparently popular genres before the Revolution.  We also learn in the 1795 Epitre Dédicatoire that the novel was originally called Les Petits Talons.  These petits talons will suffer multiple erasures as Genlis rewrites and reframes the novel to fit into imperial shoes.

As the title indicates, the novel is set during the reign of Charlemagne in the ninth century. Our two heroes Oliver and Isambard  represent « la générosité, » « l’humanité, » and « l’amitié. »  Reminiscent of the opening scene of La Princesse de Clèves, the court of Charlemagne is peopled by many young and beautiful men and women. In addition to a long description of our two heroes, the sublime Célanire, daughter of Vitikund, chief of the Saxons who is eventually vanquished by Charlemagne, is introduced, as well as the scheming coquette Armoflède, who causes much unhappiness.  Olivier quickly falls in love with Célanire and has reason to hope that he will be able to marry her.   Because he saved the life of her father Vititkund, he expects to be rewarded with her hand.  But, unfortunately, she has already been promised to Albion, an old and faithful friend of Vitikund.   Despite this parental interdiction, these two young people decide to marry in secret, which is always a bad idea in Genlis’s novels!  The reader is then treated to a full-blown gothic wedding: a storm, multiple faintings, underground passage-ways, candles blown out, and of course a priest.  This marriage is clearly ill-fated.  Due to the machination of Armoflède, the ever-credulous Olivier comes to believe that Célanire is having an affair.  He surprises Célanire in the midst of what he believes to be an amorous assignation: he takes out his sword; his supposed rival flees; and « à bras forcené » he kills Célanire before running himself through with his own sword [see image 1].  The frontispice of the 1797 edition reads : « On la trouva baignée dans son sang. »  In this dramatic fashion, Célanire dies but fortunately for the reader and Olivier, it turns out that he is only wounded again.  He will eventually recover physically from this wound, but he will never recover from the horror of his deed.

The reader only discovers what “really” happened to Célanire about half way through, that is, 600 pages into the novel, thanks to Isambard’s detective work.  In the meantime, the knights encounter a series of other characters (Giafar, the English King Egbert, the Caliph Aaron, and Ogier le Danois), who relate their stories and delay the discovery of Olivier’s crime.  Although we see the ghost within the first 50 pages of the novel, its true origin and raison d’être are not revealed until hundreds of pages later.  Eventually, however, Olivier reveals his mysterious secret to his friend.  The first night of their exile, Isambard is surprised that Olivier intends to sleep alone (apparently it was customary for frères d’armes to share the same bed).  He assumes that Olivier has made a secret assignation with Armoflède.  His curiosity thus piqued, he decides to spy on his friend.  Later in the evening, he hears the sound of les petits talons of a woman who enters his room and slips into bed with our hero.   Yet what at first appears as a scene of libertinage turns quickly into a nightmare when Isambard realizes that the person in bed with Olivier is in fact the ghost of Célanire.  The nocturnal visits of a bloody skeleton are meant to be the eternal punishment for his heinous crime.

What interests me about this apparition is that, at least in the first three editions, the ghost is real; that is, it is not mere a figment of Olivier overly active imagination.  Isambard, as witness, not only sees and hears it, but he also mops up its blood.  The ninth chapter, entitled Affreuse découverte, opens with these words : « Mais qui pourrait exprimer le saisissement et l’horreur qu’il éprouva, à l’aspect terrible du tableau surprenant qui frappa ses regards ! Il vit un affreux squelette ensanglanté, qui s’éloignait avec lenteur en gémissant sourdement . . . »  Genlis knew that this vivid ghost story might fall foul of certain critical expectations.   In a long footnote to the first edition, she defends her choice to include the supernatural in her tale by arguing that she is writing about a different world, the Middle Ages, that possessed different beliefs, which included the supernatural.  She rightly points out that classical and Renaissance literature is replete with ghosts and magical beings.  Indeed, many of the novel’s chapters begin with an epigraph from Shakespeare.  As a kind of ethnographer avant la lettre, she insists that the novel is “historically” accurate and should not be judged by eighteenth-century standards of verisimilitude.  « Je place une apparition dans un siècle où la croyance universelle consacrait ce grand moyen de terreur. »  And, moreover, she explains that she had very specific esthetic reasons for including this apparition.  As I have already stated, what she claims to be her most significant innovation was to have killed off her heroine in the first pages of the novel; yet the novel is nonetheless concerned with her throughout—hence the necessity of the ghost and eventually a double.   What this long footnote suggests is that the novel is as much about Célanire as it is about the knightly brothers of its title.

If the first half of the novel is about Oliver’s secret, the second half concerns the transformation of his unhappy passion into something productive and useful.  As wandering Knights errant, Olivier and Isambard decide to assist a princess who finds herself and her lands, the duchy of Clèves, besieged by a band of confederated princes who insist that she cannot rule alone but must marry one of them.  If she refuses to do their bidding, they will take her and her lands by force.  Such conduct convinces the Princess Béatrix that any one of these princes would be a despot to her and her people.  In order to defend their freedom, she makes a general appeal for help to all brave knights, to which Olivier and Isambard respond—as well as a host of others.   With two armies amassed on either side of the city’s walls, Olivier is introduced to Béatrice and promptly faints because she is an exact double of Célanire.

It is with the young and enlightened Princess Béatrix that the novel takes an explicitly political turn.  Confronted with a difficult choice, Béatrix consults her people to decide whether she should abdicate and place her lands under the protection of Charlemagne or if she should fight and risk the lives of many good men.  Her people elect to fight under the banner of their enlightened princess rather than submitting to the laws of a foreign king.  Béatrix is thus represented as a leader worthy of the highest respect and patriotic love of her people.  Indeed, as with Charlemagne, Béatrix is also represented as one of the novel’s exemplary monarchs who respects the will of the people, is reasonable and just, and is highly cultivated.  (Under Charlemagne, France of the ninth century had legislative assemblies and royal academies of the arts and letters).

In addition to being an exemplary ruler, Béatrix is also the double of Célanire.  Due to time constraints, however, I won’t detail the extraordinary plot twists—the gifts, portraits, tear-filled nights, disguises and so forth—that comprise Olivier’s and Béatrix’s doomed love affair.  It is enough to say that after vanquishing the army of the confederate princes, Olivier is mortally wounded by Theudon who mistakes him for Isambard.  On his death bed, Olivier insists that Béatrix marry his frère d’armes, Isambard.  The two are married and Olivier dies.  On his death bed, Olivier will again faint away into Isambard’s arms : « Tout à coup Olivier entr’ouvre des yeux languissans ; il voit, il reconnoît son frère . . . . O mon ami ! dit-il . . . . A ces mots, il laisse tomber doucement sa tête sur le sein d’Isambard, ses yeux se referment pour jamais . . . il expire ! »  This last scene of the novel, a kind of pieta, recalls Girodet’s painting, the Entombment of Atala, (1808) [image 2]. The difference, however, is that it is not the woman’s dead body over which we are asked to grieve; but it is the aestheticized body of the dead hero that causes tears to flow.   Instead of the female figure being sacrificed for the sake of the male protagonist’s lonely quest à la Chateaubriand, here, the hero dies to reestablish order and re-institute the reign of virtue.  Through death, Olivier opens the possibility of a better future for the couple of Isambard and Béatrix as well as for Béatrix’s people.

The original conception of the novel is then structured by two sets of doubles: Olivier/Célanire and Isambard/Beatrix.   The tragic pairing of Olivier and Célanire is superseded by a virtuous and blameless couple, who can capably manage the political interests of the duchy of Clèves.   As other critics have suggested this denouement can certainly be understood as a political allegory, but it is not yet about the advent of another “Great King.”  If Genlis wrote an allegory, that allegory is as much about the centrality of feminine moral agency as it is about constitutional monarchy.  Accordingly, it is the ghostly presence of Célanire throughout the novel that drives Olivier to accomplish the necessary sacrifices that will save the Duchy of Clèves (France?) from her enemies and unite Isambard and Béatrix in marriage (national reconciliation?).  The bloody skeleton of Célanire is the terrifying agent that literally propels the plot.  The haunted Olivier finally dies for the sake of friendship and the greater good.  In so doing, he releases the Célanire/Beatrix character to marry and rule over a peaceful and prosperous homeland.  Importantly, Beatrix is not only the double of Celanire but, is herself a wise and generous ruler; she is also the double of Charlemagne.  Thus the agency granted these female characters should not be underestimated.

By 1805, however, Genlis reframes the novel and introduces another couple, Charlemagne and Napoléon, who takes the place of Isambard and Béatrix as the ultimate solution to the tragic events recounted in the novel.  Genlis thus domesticates past terrors by turning them into mere ghost stories that serve as light entertainment   In the preface to the 1805 edition, she writes: “Mais enfin ce spectre a déplu, et je l’ai retranché.”  Isambard would no longer scrub floor boards clean of the bloodstains left behind by a ghost that he had seen.  This act of rewriting not only erased the traces of the bloody skeleton, which caused offense, but it also diminishes the active role of the novel’s heroines.  It was certainly true that after Ann Radcliffe’s Mysterious of Udolpho (1794), the supernatural in fiction, despite deceptive appearances, demanded a rational explanation.   Thus, as with Radcliffe’s ghosts, women rulers are also relegated to a distant and superstitious past, turned into characters of someone else’s over-active imagination.  These fanciful stories would no longer make any claim on real-life events—the new regime would take care of the present and future.

To sum up, then, Les Chevaliers du cygne provides a relatively extensive historical and esthetic record of significant ideological continuities and shifts over the course of the Revolution.   As we have seen, Genlis, an accomplished writer during the ancien regime, began the novel before the Revolution; its original nine chapters clearly link the 1770s and 80s to post-Revolutionary tastes and concerns. As Morrissey explains, Charlemagne became an idealized and popular figure of enlightened monarchy during the last thirty years of the eighteenth century.  In literary terms, we also note that the roman noir tradition of bloody skeletons and hauntings precedes the Revolution—despite the often repeated comment by the Marquis de Sade to the contrary.  The presence of strong female characters as active agents of social transformation likewise continues an Enlightenment tradition.  In this light, the novel also allows us to understand Genlis’s political views and esthetic opinions as less reactionary and conservative than often claimed.  The 1805 edition does, however, portend a significant shift: les fictions morales are declared inutiles.  I want to suggest that this is an enormous shift, particularly for a woman novelist.  Are we witnessing literature become “mere” entertainment?  And as she makes this move, the agency of the female characters is also diminished.

It has been said and repeated innumerable times that there is a necessary gap between momentous historical events and good literature. But literature, as Don Delillo’s the Falling Man illustrates, can also provide compelling and poignant eye-witness accounts from those who live to write the tragic tales of these events.  The spectacle of a bloody skeleton chasing our good-hearted, brave, but guilty hero throughout Europe strikes me as a fitting image for 1795: the bloodstains are still wet; guilt and innocence remain unclear; and the ghosts demand to be seen.


[i] Madame de Genlis, Les  Chevaliers du Cygne ou la cour de Charlemagne, Conte historique et moral, pour servir de suite aux Veillées du Château, et dont tous les traits qui peuvent faire allusion à la révolution française, sont tires de l’Histoire. (Hambourg: P.F. Fauche, 1795).

[ii] Robert Morrissey, Charlemagne and France: A Thousand Years of Mythology, (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame Indiana, 2003).  Also should cite work from other folks Grossman for example.

2 responses to “Les Chevaliers du Cygne, by Lesley Walker

  1. A brilliant posting, thank you! It’ll help me in teaching ‘War and Peace’ this term… Adam Potkay

  2. Thanks, Adam! I’ve passed along the good word to Lesley. It is funny to see how Mme de Genlis shows up in “War and Peace,” isn’t it?!

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