Madame d'Aulnoy Charms the British

By Jones, Christine A. | The Romanic Review, May-November 2008 | Go to article overview

Madame d'Aulnoy Charms the British


Jones, Christine A., The Romanic Review


In 1969, a graduate student at the University of Maryland wrote a potentially groundbreaking dissertation on the reception of French literature in England in the early decades of the eighteenth century. Curiously, it was not a study of Madame de Lafayette, or Charles Perrault, nor even Montesquieu or Antoine Galland. The subject of Melvin Delmar Palmer's dissertation, entitled Madame d'Aulnoy in England, was the infamous countess at the court of Louis XIV who was best known in France as a writer of fairy tales. Palmer set out to show that Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy had transformed England's literary landscape in the first decades of the eighteenth century with her innovative work in prose fiction; namely, romantic novels, fairy tales, and nouvelles. (1)

According to Palmer, d'Aulnoy inspired the British sensibility for the fairy tale, laying the groundwork for the philosophical tale. She contributed, more than any other French writer, to the developing form of the novel of sensibility, and had also been the source of inspiration, from the exotic setting to the macabre detail, for the earliest gothic novelists, such as Walpole. In short, Melvin Palmer argues that Madame d'Aulnoy may have done more than any other writer in France (or in England for that matter) to influence the forms and popularity of the modern English novel.

His claim seems extraordinary, but his arguments are persuasive. English translations of d'Aulnoy's books saw more eighteenth-century reprints than the combined total of translated editions of Madame de Lafayette's Princesse de ClOves and Antoine Galland's Mille et une nuits in the first 30 years of their publishing history. The British editions of D'Aulnoy's ten works number thirty-six before 1740 (Palmer, diss. 4). (2) In addition, at least half a dozen other stories attributed to her in England saw multiple reprints during this period. Her popularity in England was, as Palmer puts it, nothing short of remarkable--more remarkable, in fact, than her popularity in France, if we use the number of assumed editions as a guide.

Furthermore, three translations (with several reprints) of Madame d'Aulnoy's fairy tales were published before Charles Perrault's Histoires et contes du temps passe (1695) were translated in 1729. As Palmer puts it, "Mine d'Aulnoy's fairy tales constitute a major chapter [...] in the late seventeenth-century French vogue for fairy tales, but she constitutes almost the entire history of the corresponding though less ambitious vogue in England in the early eighteenth century" (diss. 25). As for her popularity in the latter part of the century, he points out that Clara Reeves acknowledged d'Aulnoy's enduring renown as late as 1785. Both Alexander Bicknell and Horace Walpole arguably borrow plot details from her work, while Ann Radcliff appears to have taken the names if not the sensibilities of her hero and heroine in the Sicilian Romance from d'Aulnoy's first romantic/historical novel, Histoire d'Hypolite, comte de Duglas (179-180, 182).

Yet, few critics today cite d'Aulnoy in discussions of the gothic novel or reference Melvin Delmar Palmer and his unorthodox history of English prose fiction. Indeed, Palmer's dissertation (3) still represents a unique attempt to account for the popularity of d'Aulnoy's novels and fairy tales in England. (4) In this article, I return to Palmer's claims to sketch out d'Aulnoy's eighteenth-century British personae and what they might tell us about her role in the eighteenth-century British fascination with French literature. (5) My argument focuses specifically on the prefaces to the early eighteenth-century translations of d'Aulnoy's novels and fairy tales and how publishers characterized the French author and marketed her stories to English readers. (6) The aim is to understand how her personae were constructed and reconstructed, and what the enduring success of her stories can tell us about the role ascribed to France in the formulation of bourgeois aesthetics in England. …

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