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

Update 1 (November 2021)

2022 promises to be a banner year for d’Aulnoy studies. New publications in the US will include a special issue of the journal Marvels & Tales, Gabrielle Verdier’s translation of Travels Into Spain, and Rori Bloom’s Making the Marvelous. In France, nine of d’Aulnoy’s fairy tales – chaperoned by the prose tales of Charles Perrault – are part of the corpus to be mastered for next year’s agrégation de lettres, the highly competitive national examination for aspiring teachers and professors of literature.

This increased interest and activity has made me delve back into some archival materials that I gathered in Paris and Caen in 2018-19 (with research assistance by Matthew McDonald, a doctoral candidate in History at Princeton, who retrieved and photographed several batches of files for me). In addition to the issues discussed in earlier posts – her date of birth, her arrest, her convent stay – these documents reveal various other unknown facets of Mme d’Aulnoy’s existence, in particular regarding her financial situation and the relationships with her husband and her daughters. Two new posts attempt to deploy some of this archival evidence in order to elucidate the question of her title of nobility:

Baroness or Countess d’Aulnoy?

and to highlight her connections with (and lawsuits against) the illustrious Beringhen family:

Madame d’Aulnoy and Monsieur le Premier

Disclaimer: I am not a trained social or legal historian and may be getting parts of the story wrong; all corrections or suggestions are welcome.

Update 2 (April 2022)

The winter brought the expected surge of activities related to the French agrégation exam, whose programme for 2022 includes (for the first time ever) fairy tales by d’Aulnoy and Perrault. A comprehensive overview of relevant discussions and publications (in French) can be found on the blog of Tony Gheeraert, professor at the University of Rouen. In January, the magic of modern technology allowed me to participate in a one-day conference held in Paris and streamed live on YouTube; my talk (in French) focused on some bibliographical, iconographical, and philological discoveries yielded by the analysis of the rare first editions of Perrault’s and d’Aulnoy’s tales.

In a similar vein, I published a new blog post (based on a conference paper presented in October 2021) about a very early, and hitherto neglected, German translation of d’Aulnoy’s first eight fairy tales, printed in Nuremberg in 1702:

The first German translation of Les Contes des fées

In the meantime, Madame d’Aulnoy was featured as “Fairy Fatale” on the blog of The Paris Review. The author Chantel Tattoli interviewed several American academics (including Jack Zipes, Rori Bloom, and myself) and graciously incorporated my archival research in her essay. I hope to further elaborate some of these biographical elements, and lay out the extant evidence, in my next posts on this blog, to be published over the course of the summer perhaps.