Children’s fiction in the late Enlightenment was often presented in dialogue, as a sort of play. Some of these publications are surprisingly engaging, with comic characters, little dramatic subplots, and even minor stage directions. This kind of dialogue provokes interesting questions about how young people might have interacted with the text and one another, in an age when reading aloud was still more common than not.
But those stories are definitely the exception. For the most part, these exchanges between “real children” are as didactic and forced as other early children’s literature. It’s odd, though, to see even a two-dimensional, paper child expressing opinions about their own learning, when I’m so urgently seeking any scraps of evidence about real children’s reading subjectivities. I need to spend more time thinking about the relationships between historical readers and these dramatis personae.
Here’s an example from perhaps the most famous French periodical for young people, Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s Magasin des Enfans, which I finally got around to reading in the BnF last month. Take a look at this exchange between two friends about their dolls and trinkets:
Lady Spiritual: It’s been more than six months since I threw all these things in the fire: I begged Papa to give me all the money that he had spend on these bagatelles so that I could buy books and pay all kinds of teachers.
Lady Babiole [name of a fairy tale princess from Mme. d’Aulnoy]: I’m not of your taste: if I were the mistress, in place of giving two guineas a month to my geography teacher, I would have the most beautiful things in the world brought from Paris; this would amuse me very much, instead of this man boring me to death; when I see him, I can’t stop yawning at every moment: he tells Mama, she scolds me, and that makes me hate the teacher and geography even more.
Lady Spiritual: You don’t like reading stories?
Lady Babiole: No, honestly, my dear; still, it’s necessary that I read, because Papa wants it: but when I’m grown up; and can do what I want, I assure you that I will never read.
I suppose there’s a way in which we could read these characters as together demonstrating a range of opinions that more or less does represent girls’ feelings in 18th c. France. But the problem is that the rest of the story is obviously intended to persuade its contemporary audience that Lady Spiritual’s position is the only one moral and true. Hmm. Before I leave this passage to percolate, I want to point out how radical it is that even the sanctimonious Spiritual is shown to be making her own choices about her time, education, money, and consumption!
[Below is the original text. French experts, forgive any errors I’ve made in my quick translation. Better yet, suggest any changes in the comments!]
Lady Spirituelle. Il y a plus de six mois que j’ai jeté toutes ces choses dans le feu: j’ai prié papa de me donner tout l’argent qu’il employait à ces bagatelles, pour acheter des livres, et payer toutes sortez de maîtres.
Lady Babiole. Je ne suis point de votre goût: si j’étais la maîtresse, au lieu de donner deux guinées par mois à mon maître de géographie, je ferais venir de Paris les plus jolies choses du monde; cela m’amuserait beaucoup, au lieu que cet homme m’ennuie à la mort; quand je le vois, je ne puis m’empêcher de bâiller à tous momens: il le dit à maman, on me gronde, et cela fait que je hais encore davantage le maître et la géographie.
Lady Spirituelle. Vous n’aimez donc pas à lire des histoire?
Lady Babiole. Non, en vérité; ma chère; il faut cependant que je lise, car papa le veut: mais quand je serai grande; et que je pourrai faire ce que je voudrai, je vous assure que je ne lirai jamais.
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2 notes: First, is it possible that there’s a relationship between the French gronder, to scold, and the American sense of “being grounded”? Or is the latter simply a borrowed metaphor from aeronautics? And second, though I haven’t even gotten through the posts from my first stay in Paris, I’m now back in the city for one night (perfectly timed with a transit strike) before flying back across the ocean. To be close to the train station, I’m staying in a delightfully disreputable hostel near Montmartre. It’s very vie bohème. At least in my head.