Rare texts and images from early modern France

On Madame d’Aulnoy

When I started this blog in February 2017, I did not expect it to be dominated by Madame d’Aulnoy, the prolific French writer best known for her fairy tales. It was later that year, while preparing a library session around early editions of European fairy tales, that my long-standing general interest in d’Aulnoy became more acute and prompted intensive research. Modern critical editions of her tales all state that the first editions have almost completely “disappeared” and that not a single copy survives in libraries today. Having had some experience seeking, finding, and analyzing rare seventeenth-century books, I simply could not accept such a negative conclusion. Tracking down copies of Les Contes des fées and Contes nouveaux ou les fées à la mode became an obsessive pursuit, which yielded wonderful discoveries but also new riddles, as summarized in these first two posts published in April and October 2018:

Les Contes des fées

More Madame d’Aulnoy

It was perhaps unavoidable that this bibliographical quest soon branched out into biographical sleuthing. While early editions of d’Aulnoy’s fairy tales are excessively scarce, the story of her life is replete with scandal and mystery. In the 1920s, it had attracted the attention of two distinguished French scholars, Raymond Foulché-Delbosc and Jeanne Roche-Mazon, who unearthed many important documents and debated their significance. But more recent criticism largely ignored or dismissed these efforts, instead repeating ingrained legends or declaring that nothing certain could be known. In 2017, I had already become intrigued by the case of Marie-Madeleine Perrault (the daughter of Charles), whose marriage contract, preserved at the Morgan Library in New York, led me to an extraordinary “protestation” buried among the millions of files kept at the Archives Nationales in Paris. I was convinced that Madame d’Aulnoy, as a noblewoman who had inherited her father’s fief, married a sketchy baron, and left four daughters, must have also left many more traces in the archives than Foulché-Delbosc and Roche-Mazon had been able to find. And indeed, for starters, the date of her birth, which for centuries had been open to conjecture, can now be more reliably deduced from the parish register of Barneville-la-Bertran coupled with a surprising inscription in an old book preserved at the French National Library:

The birth and beginnings of Madame d’Aulnoy

As for the scandals and crimes imputed to d’Aulnoy, they can be at least partially reconstructed by perusing judicial and notarial records and government correspondence. Whereas past biographers put most of the emphasis on the lurid events of 1669 – when d’Aulnoy and her mother plotted to have her abusive husband executed (or at least jailed) –, I have been more interested in later periods, especially those of her literary career and renown:

Madame d’Aulnoy’s productive confinement

The realization that d’Aulnoy spent her most productive years confined to a convent by order of Louis XIV also sheds new light on her religious writings. My bio-bibliographical quest thus extended to her two books of psalm paraphrases, to which must be added an edifying short story that she published anonymously in the periodical Mercure galant:

Sentiments of a penitent soul

This research on Madame d’Aulnoy, then, has been incremental and fragmentary and is far from “completion.” Seeing that it will take much more time and travel, and that meanwhile other tasks and projects also require attention, I decided to publish some crucial initial findings through this blog. To alleviate the resulting fragmentation, the present page aims to provide a synopsis of the posts dedicated to d’Aulnoy; it will be updated as appropriate.

Volker Schröder

October 4, 2021