Rare texts and images from early modern France
This is no fairy tale but a true story. It is based on archival sources that have lain dormant for centuries and, to my knowledge, never been published or discussed. Like Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, the time has come for this secluded file to be awakened and to speak again. (Warning: there will be no happy ending.)
This is the story of Marie-Madeleine, the firstborn child and only daughter of French writer Charles Perrault (1628-1703) and his wife Marie Guichon (1653-1678). Her very existence has been a subject of debate and disagreement. While church records attest the baptism of three sons, no such evidence seems to have survived for a daughter.1 The only textual trace traditionally cited by scholars is a 1695 publication by Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, who dedicates her tale Marmoisan to “Mademoiselle Perrault” and praises the fine education she and her brothers receive from their father. But given the apparent lack of factual information about such a daughter, this dedication itself has sometimes been read as a metaliterary game, “a potentially ironizing invention of a fictional fourth sibling,” rather than a reference to a real person.2
Notarial documents kept in the Archives Nationales in Paris offer unambiguous proof that Mademoiselle Perrault did exist, while also raising many questions about her life and relationship to her father and brothers. They indicate that Marie-Madeleine was born in 1674, probably in the spring or early summer, about a year after Marie Guichon’s first pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage.3 In 1699, she attained legal majority, and issues of inheritance became pressing and contentious. The archives are tangled but appear to reveal a family drama in five acts, leading from a filial act of resistance to a paternal deed of reconciliation.
On November 7, 1699, a woman named Catherine Dumesnil brought the notaries a document sent to her by Marie-Madeleine Perrault. In this one-page autograph note signed “M Perrault,” she protests against any deeds which could indicate that she is renouncing part of her inheritance; if she signed any papers to this effect, she “did so only because of the authority of my father his ill treatments and the threats of my oldest brother.” She goes on to declare:
I did not find the opportunity to protest earlier since I have been detained for the past month and have attended mass only on holy days being always under the guard of my father who has not allowed me to see or speak to anyone and has even had the door barred to all those who have asked for me
Marie-Madeleine’s protest led to serious legal action. On January 5, 1700, a court order enjoined Charles Perrault to establish a complete inventory of the property owned jointly by him and his deceased wife. Meanwhile, his daughter authorized an attorney to represent her and moved to the convent of Port-Royal de Paris. It was there that she signed, on July 10, a deed of renunciation relinquishing her claim to the communauté de biens between her parents, apparently persuaded by the inventory that this was in her best interest after all. In the meantime, her youngest brother Pierre had died, leaving as only sibling her oldest brother Charles-Samuel, who had now attained majority himself.
Mademoiselle Perrault was still staying at Port-Royal on September 4, when she signed the contract of her marriage to Louis Le Gentil, a young écuyer from the town of Coutances in Normandy. She was assisted by the abbess, while her father, the bridegroom, and the other witnesses (among whom was the playwright and academician Thomas Corneille) gathered in the nearby Perrault residence.
Far from providing a harmonious denouement, the marriage contract prompted new legal disputes. On October 13, the newlyweds obtained the rescission of the July 10 renunciation and of Charles Perrault’s ensuing calculation of his daughter’s inheritance. This led finally (on December 16) to an elaborate deed of partage et donation aimed at giving Marie-Madeleine and Charles-Samuel a truly equal share of the family property – a settlement said to express the father’s desire to “maintain the peace and union between his two children and, in the name of the good friendship that he feels for them, contribute to their advancement as much as a good father must do.”
All’s well that ends well? Alas, this young woman’s story has a sadly familiar ending, which is attested by the parish registers of Saint-Nicolas de Coutances. On July 21, 1701, the priest recorded the burial of an unnamed son for Louis Le Gentil and his wife “Marie Madelaine Preaux.” On July 25, the mother herself was interred, one day after her death.
Having outlived his three siblings, Charles-Samuel became the sole heir of Charles Perrault, even without the help of any forced or voluntary renunciations. It was thus for him alone that his father, in 1702, wrote his (unfinished) Memoirs of my life. Marie-Madeleine does not appear in them, nor anywhere else in his works, at least not openly. But it is surely her juvenile likeness that is preserved and endlessly reproduced in the famous frontispiece to Stories or Tales of Times Past. Will the whole story behind this image ever come to light?
December 31, 2017
1. Auguste Jal, Dictionnaire critique de biographie et d’histoire, 2nd ed., Paris: Plon, 1872, p. 1321. Jal transcribed records which are now lost, and appears to have made a mistake: Charles Perrault’s second son (who died young) was named Claude, not Charles.
2. Ruth Bottigheimer, Fairy Tales Framed: Early Forewords, Afterwords, and Critical Words, Albany: SUNY Press, 2012, p. 131. Cf. Ute Heidmann and Jean-Michel Adam, Textualité et intertextualité des contes: Perrault, Apulée, La Fontaine, Lhéritier, Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2010, p. 72-80.
3. The miscarriage is mentioned as a recent event in a letter by Christiaan Huygens dated September 22, 1673, and quoted in Jacques Barchilon, “Les Frères Perrault à travers la correspondance de Christian Huygens,” XVIIe siècle, no. 56, 1962, p. 23. The marriage had taken place on May 1, 1672. See also Marc Soriano, Les Contes de Perrault: culture savante et traditions populaires, Paris: Gallimard, 1968, p. 318-320.