Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy c. 1650-1705

(Born Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville) French novelist, memoirist, and fairy tale writer

Madame d'Aulnoy became known as “Clio, the Muse of History” for her travel writings, and the “Queen of the Fairies” (Reine de fées) for her fairy tales (contes de fées). Though she married a baron, she was generally called Comtesse d'Aulnoy, a name that conjured up images of romantic intrigue, even titillating scandal, and exoticism for the reading public. Her novels, memoirs, and fairy tales were tremendously popular not only in her native France but also in Italy and England, and were republished for decades after her death. D'Aulnoy was also one of the leaders of the women's salons of Paris, where the cultural and social elite met to discuss literature and ideas. Her reputation as the author of serious literature suffered under the derision of some Enlightenment philosophes, but modern scholars have accorded d'Aulnoy new respect as an original, influential writer of unusual humor and self-awareness.

Biographical Information

The known facts comprising d'Aulnoy's biography are scant. She was born in 1650 or 1651 in Barneville-la-Bertrand, in Normandy. In her mid-teens she gave up the name of Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville upon her marriage to the baron d'Aulnoy, thirty years her senior. The marriage was apparently not a loving one: Madame d'Aulnoy was considered a flirt and was an admitted adulteress who eventually separated from her husband after she unsuccessfully attempted to accuse him of treason. By some accounts, the baron d'Aulnoy was an abusive husband, and he cut d'Aulnoy from his will shortly before he died. Unsubstantiated, but widely recounted, additions to her biography suggest that she may have traveled to England as a spy and that she bore from one to three illegitimate children. Whether in spite of or because of her notoriety, d'Aulnoy was a popular, well-connected figure in the literary culture of Paris. She was among the women whose salons attracted the major writers and thinkers of the era, and her own writings were widely read both in France and abroad. She did not begin publishing until she was nearly forty years old, releasing her first work, the novel Histoire d'Hypolite, Comte de Duglas (Hypolitus Earl of Douglas,) in 1690. The novel was an immediate success, and several other successful works followed swiftly after it. The two-volume Mémoires de la cour d'Espagne (1690; Memoirs of the Court of Spain) and the three-volume Relation du voyage d'Espagne (1691; Travels into Spain) suggest that at some point d'Aulnoy traveled to Spain, but this trip has been a point of some contention. Raymond Foulché-Delbosc, one of d'Aulnoy's chief twentieth-century biographers, maintained that d'Aulnoy never traveled there and used textual sources for the entirety of the two works. Others, however, have maintained d'Aulnoy likely visited Spain some time between 1679 and 1681, ten years before writing the memoirs. In either case, the Spanish travel narratives were popular in France as well as England and Italy, where she was eventually made a member of the Academy of Ricovrati of Padua. Her next two works are among the most unusual, and least read, in her corpus: the paraphrases of Psalms in Sentiments d'une âme pénitente (1691; Impressions of a Penitent Soul), wherein she admits an extramarital affair, and Le Retour d'une âme à Dieu (1692; A Soul's Return to God). She then returned to Spanish themes with her 1692 novel Histoire de Jean de Bourbon, Prince de Carency (The Prince of Carency) and the Nouvelles Espagnolles (1692; Spanish Novellas). Later works take place in England, although the only suggestion that d'Aulnoy ever went to England is the unproven rumor that she was a spy. The Mémoires de la Cour d'Angleterre (1695; Memoirs of the Court of England), despite the “memoirs” of the title, was most likely written entirely from other sources. Le Comte de Warwick (1703; The Count of Warwick), d'Aulnoy's last novel, was also set in England. In 1697 d'Aulnoy began publishing in the genre for which she is still best known. The four-volume Les Contes de fées (1697-98; Tales of the Fairies) placed d'Aulnoy at the forefront of a literary trend that peaked between 1690 and 1710. Fairy tales aimed at adults enjoyed a brief span of popularity among the French literate public, and d'Aulnoy published more in this genre than any other author during that period. The success of the Tales of the Fairies led to the publication of another four-volume collection in 1698, Contes nouveaux ou les fees àla mode (New Tales, or Fairies in Fashion). D'Aulnoy died in January 1705.

Major Works

D'Aulnoy's works can be easily classified into three main genres—novels, memoirs, and fairy tales—but the classifications obscure the close relationship among these types. The novels contain fairy tales set within the larger stories and the fairy tales appear in novelistic framing narratives. The memoirs bear a closer resemblance to the pseudo-autobiographical epistolary novels of the eighteenth century than factual travel narratives, while the novels take some of the appeal from the obsession with the foreign that made travel narratives popular. Of d'Aulnoy's three novels, two are set in England—The Earl of Douglas and The Count of Warwick—and the third, The Prince of Carency, travels from Spain to Morocco. In terms of plot, they are effectively romances, following the story of an unfortunate heroine beset by multiple obstacles to fulfilling her desire for the hero. Both heroes and heroines are possessed by strong, but generally chaste, passions that conflict with social codes—incest taboos, class status, religious differences—that would keep them apart. Though her characters are not strongly psychological, they are uniquely complex and include strong heroines willing to go against prevailing mores for the sake of love and honor. Not often studied by modern readers, d'Aulnoy's memoirs were a central part of her reputation among her contemporaries. It was for her memoirs that the Academy of Ricovrati gave her the title of “Clio, the Muse of History.” For d'Aulnoy and her era, however, “history” meant something different from what later readers, even in the later eighteenth century, would come to expect. D'Aulnoy's memoirs were valued not for their factual accuracy but for their exoticism and their ability to bring a foreign location to life. Using a variety of literary devices, including the fictional letter, d'Aulnoy gave psychological depth to such “characters” as the Duke of Buckingham and Marie-Louise of Orleans, the wife of Charles II of Spain. D'Aulnoy authored twenty-five fairy tales, but she established herself as one of the most important writers in this genre not merely by the quantity but by the wit and complexity of her tales. Many of the tales are marked by a self-reflexive quality more sophisticated than in fairy tales written for children. The tales, usually based on well-known legends, often appear to step back and comment on the genre, particularly its treatment of gender and authority. D'Aulnoy's humor, however, is more fanciful than subversive. Many of her tales depict anthropomorphized animals and plants, even a talking cabbage. The language of the tales is often playful as well, with clever names that characterize her heroes and villains, strong use of rhythm and repetition, and neologisms that express the animal-like qualities of the characters.

Critical Reception

D'Aulnoy was immensely popular in her day, both personally and professionally. She was widely read, and her salon was among the best attended in Paris. However, as D. J. Adams has observed, later in the eighteenth century, although her works continued to sell successfully, the literary elite of France disdained her work and the fairy tale genre in particular. The rationality and neo-classicism of the Enlightenment did not appreciate the magical fantasy of d'Aulnoy's novels and tales, and her memoirs were acknowledged to be “false”; the censure of Voltaire ensured the decline of her reputation. It was a decline from which she was slow to recover: even as fairy tales became more interesting to later readers, d'Aulnoy was not included among the important figures in the development of the genre. For many years, literary history favored male rather than female fairy tale writers, particularly Charles Perrault. As later critics have observed, Perrault's fairy tales are more straightforward than d'Aulnoy's, lacking her irony and—significantly—lacking the self-reflexive, sometimes subversive qualities that distinguish her writings in this genre. D'Aulnoy's fairy tales have also suffered from being misclassified as children's literature, a marginalized genre generally beneath the notice of serious scholars. Only since the latter half of the twentieth century have scholars begun to recognize d'Aulnoy's historical position as the leading author of the sophisticated, adult French fairy tale. What has most interested modern critics is d'Aulnoy's approach to gender issues. Patricia Hannon, Anne Duggan, and Holly Tucker are among the leading scholars who have worked to bring renewed attention and respect to d'Aulnoy's fairy tales, finding in them women who are carving out a niche where they can have power and express themselves fully. As Duggan has suggested, that textual space is not unlike the literary salons that women, including d'Aulnoy, were creating in French society. D'Aulnoy's novels and memoirs have not received the same attention as her fairy tales, particularly as the memoirs, like the fairy tales, were long misunderstood. In a series of essays on d'Aulnoy's popular reception, Melvin D. Palmer has asserted that too much emphasis on the factual accuracy of the memoirs and travel narratives has been an obstacle to assessing the importance of those works. Palmer, for instance, has argued that the popularity of d'Aulnoy's travel works in England suggest their influence on the development of epistolary and pseudo-autobiographical novels in English. Shirley Jones Day, in a study of early women's fiction, has also contended that d'Aulnoy's innovations in her novels call for greater attention to the influence she may have had in shaping women's writing, both formally and thematically. Palmer, Adams, Day, and other modern critics have been consistent in claiming that a reevaluation of d'Aulnoy's place in the literary canon is long overdue.