Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy Essay - Critical Essays

d'Aulnoy, Marie-Catherine


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.

Principal Works

Histoire d'Hypolite, Comte de Duglas [Hypolitus Earl of Douglas] (novel) 1690

Mémoires de la cour d'Espagne 2 vols. [Memoirs of the Court of Spain] (memoirs) 1690

Relation du voyage d'Espagne 3 vols. [Travels into Spain] (memoirs and letters) 1691

Sentiments d'une âme pénitente [Impressions of a Penitent Soul] (prose) 1691

Histoire de Jean de Bourbon, Prince de Carency [The Prince of Carency] (novel) 1692

Nouvelles Espagnolles [Spanish Novellas] (novellas) 1692

Le Retour d'une âme à Dieu [A Soul's Return to...

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Renée Riese Hubert (essay date fall 1963)

SOURCE: Hubert, Renée Riese. “Poetic Humor in Madame d'Aulnoy's Fairy Tales.” L'Esprit Createur 3, no. 3 (fall 1963): 123-29.

[In the following essay, Hubert discusses d'Aulnoy's use of humor in her fairy tales, including humor directed toward the genre itself.]

Perrault, the famous author of Ma Mère l'Oye, so skillfully imitated the apparent simplicity of folklore that the underlying sophistication of his tales can easily be overlooked. Perrault's aristocratic contemporaries, Mme d'Aulnoy, Mme Murat, Mlle de La Force do not even require the services of an imaginary homespun narrator. They show fondness for detailed descriptions and contempt for straight...

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Melvin D. Palmer (essay date summer 1975)

SOURCE: Palmer, Melvin D. “Madame d'Aulnoy in England.” Comparative Literature XXVII, no. 3 (summer 1975): 237-53.

[In this essay, Palmer details the reception of d'Aulnoy's writings in England, focusing on her travel narratives and memoirs.]

In the fourteen years from 1690 to 1703, Marie-Cathérine Jumelle de Barneville, Mme d'Aulnoy, wrote ten works that were translated into English by 1721 and came to occupy an important place in the history of French-English prose fiction in the formative years that saw the rise of the modern novel.1 These include three pseudo-autobiographical accounts of travel translated as The Lady's Travels into Spain,...

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Jane Tucker Mitchell (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Jane Tucker. “Style and Humor.” In A Thematic Analysis of Mme. d'Aulnoy's Contes de fées, pp. 110-23. University, Miss.: Romance Monographs, 1978.

[In the essay below, Mitchell outlines the major characteristics of d'Aulnoy's style in her fairy tales, including the personification of animals and other aspects of the natural world, wordplay, and the use of rhythmic repetition.]

The themes of love and metamorphosis, coupled with an insight into the manners of seventeenth-century France as revealed in Mme. d'Aulnoy's Contes des fées, are enhanced by her imaginative style, her unusual vocabulary and her natural flow of language. Edmond Pilon,...

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Michèle L. Farrell (essay date fall 1989)

SOURCE: Farrell, Michèle L. “Celebration and Repression of Feminine Desire in Mme d'Aulnoy's Fairy Tale: La Chatte blanche.L'Esprit Createur XXIX, no. 3 (fall 1989): 52-64.

[In this essay, Farrell questions the power of d'Aulnoy's tales to subvert gender stereotypes.]

Mme d'Aulnoy's Contes des Fées (1698) can be read as a register of aristocratic feminine desire inscribed against a sober charting of privileged woman's place in the social order at the end of the 17th Century.1 Her “wish-fulfilling narratives” afford an intimate glimpse of woman imaging herself in the veiled security of the marvelous and suggest discrete early answers...

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D. J. Adams (essay date autumn 1994)

SOURCE: Adams, D. J. “The ‘Contes de Fées’ of Madame d'Aulnoy: Reputation and Re-evaluation.” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 76, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 5-22.

[In the following essay, Adams gives an overview of socio-cultural themes in d'Aulnoy's fairy tales in order to demonstrate that modern critics have wrongly classified them as merely children's literature.]

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, and for much of the eighteenth, the contes de fées enjoyed great success, particularly in France and England. While they were to some extent neglected during the intervening period, they have benefited in recent years from...

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Adrienne E. Zuerner (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Zuerner, Adrienne E. “Reflections on the Monarchy in d'Aulnoy's Belle-Belle ou le chevalier Fortuné.” In Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, edited by Nancy L. Canepa, pp. 194-217. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

[In this essay, Zuerner considers d'Aulnoy's depiction of masculinity, focusing on the story of a cross-dressed girl in Belle-Belle ou le chevalier Fortuné.]

One of the principal creators of the literary fairy tale in seventeenth-century France, Mme d'Aulnoy was one of the most read and appreciated writers during her lifetime.1 Author of an impressive corpus of fairy tales,...

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Anne E. Duggan (essay date April 1998)

SOURCE: Duggan, Anne E. “Feminine Genealogy, Matriarchy, and Utopia in the Fairy Tale of Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy.” Neophilologus 82, no. 2 (April 1998): 199-208.

[In the essay below, Duggan argues that d'Aulnoy created a fairy-tale version of salon culture in her stories as a means of envisioning a utopian space for aristocratic women.]

The rise of Louis XIV's absolutist regime marks the fall of both the nobility of the sword and the précieuses of the salons. Over the course of the seventeenth century, all hopes of retaining a feudal or feudal-like order were lost; consequently, the nobility lost the legitimate foundation of its political, social and...

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Anne L. Birberick (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Birberick, Anne L. “Fatal Curiosity: d'Aulnoy's ‘Le Serpentin vert.’” Papers in French Seventeenth-Century Literature XXVI, no. 51 (1999): 283-88.

[In this essay, Birberick looks at d'Aulnoy's adaptation of the classical story of Psyche and Cupid in the fairy tale “Le serpentin vert.”]

The word curiosité calls to mind the idea of an intense, at times uncontrollable passion for knowledge. As the Dictionnaire universel informs us “[le curieux est] celuy qui veut tout savoir & tout apprendre”. Yet the desire to know and to learn is not always portrayed in a positive light, for the same dictionary also makes a distinction between...

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Shirley Jones Day (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Day, Shirley Jones. “Tracing Out New Paths: Madame d'Aulnoy.” In The Search for Lyonnesse: Women's Fiction in France, 1670-1703, pp. 169-239. Bern, Germany: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In this excerpt, Day studies d'Aulnoy's first novel, Histoire d'Hypolite, Comte du Duglas, in the context of women's fiction after Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette, author of the influential novel La princess de Clèves (1678).]

The case of Mme d'Aulnoy is perhaps the most perplexing of the three women novelists, followers of Mme de Lafayette, who are studied here. Her life, with its supposed scandals, was the object of a serious biographical study published over seventy...

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Anne E. Duggan (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Duggan, Anne E. “Nature and Culture in the Fairy Tale of Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy.” Marvels and Tales 15, no. 2 (2001): 149-67.

[In the following essay, Duggan examines the tales “The Bee and the Orange Tree” and “Gracieuse et Percinet” to consider how d'Aulnoy employs cultural notions about women's nature.]

Fairy tales of late-seventeenth-century France are replete with images of nature. Stories often take place in forests and idyllic gardens serving as the backdrop for the actions of animal-like characters, as well as princes and princesses momentarily metamorphosed into animals. At the same time, these tales put forth ideals of behavior that seem...

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Holly Tucker (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Tucker, Holly. “Fairies, Midwives, and Birth Spaces in the Tales of Madame D'Aulnoy.” In Classical Unities: Place, Time, Action, edited by Erec R. Koch, pp. 89-94. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2002.

[In this essay, Tucker draws a parallel between the depiction of fairies in d'Aulnoy's fairy tales and contemporary beliefs about midwives.]

In oral and literary contes de fées, fairies are no strangers to the drama of birth. Fairies do more than attend the birth scene in these tales, they also orchestrate every stage of reproduction. They predict conception and, if angry, cast spells of infertility. They determine the circumstances and the...

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Further Reading


Seifert, Lewis C. “Marie-Catherine le Jumel de Barneville, Comtesse d'Aulnoy.” In French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, edited by Eva Martin Satori, pp. 11-20. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

Gives a brief biography of d'Aulnoy and an overview of her works; lists major publications in French and English.


Carpasso, Ruth Carver. “Madame d'Aulnoy and the Comedy of Transformation.” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 14, no. 27 (1987): 575-88.

Describes fanciful transformations as the center of d'Aulnoy's humor in her fairy tales, focusing...

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