Dani Berrow, “Madame de Genlis and the Landscape of the Early Nineteenth-Century French Nation”

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At the time of the workshop, Dani Berrow was a PhD candidate in the School of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews.

Madame de Genlis (1746 -1830) was a prolific and influential author of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Having lived before, during and after the Revolution, her extensive didactic works, both of fiction and non-fiction, offer a picture of social reality as it was and as she thought it ought to be – works which both portrayed and encouraged a rapid and decisive movement of the educated nobility towards the rural, peasant ideal. Beyond a re-imagining of nineteenth-century France presented through a body of writing, my paper argued that Madame de Genlis’s instructional texts form part of her literary project to (re-)construct the édifice social of the early nineteenth-century French nation. Inextricably linked to the idea of the édifice at this time is the landscape in which it sits, both literally and figuratively. My paper discussed Madame de Genlis’s textual depiction of landscape, with particular emphasis on the way in which these depictions may or may not contribute to a sense of constructing a unified post-Revolutionary nation.

Madame de Genlis’s presentation of the rural landscape, in its designed and natural form, is presented as an extension of the édifice social which involves a re-appropriation of art and culture. It becomes the means for the educated nobility, returning émigrés in particular, to maintain a sense of superiority in an altered France. The paysan community may hold the key to accessing the potential economic wealth of the rural landscape, but the émigrés believe themselves to be justified in returning as ‘colonises’ of a new France because they possess the ability to read the landscape. They can imbue the landscape with spiritual, aesthetic or symbolic value through their (exclusive) understanding of certain principles in art and culture. This is transformed into a new hierarchy of values which informs the construction of the early French nation and shapes emerging social divides. It is a value system which is expressed through intangible codes of ethics and aesthetics, rather than on the material wealth which could be cultivated from the productive landscape.

W. J. T. Mitchell states that the aim of his momentous study Landscape and Power (1994) is to change ‘landscape’ from a noun to a verb, suggesting that landscape should not be read as a visible object or a text, but rather, as a ‘process by which social and subjective identities are formed’.[1] The fecundity of Madame de Genlis’s texts fiction and non-fiction, as well as their often hybrid nature – in which fiction and non-fiction is found side by side within a single text – allows for Mitchell’s two possibilities to occur simultaneously, or in other words, the rural landscape which Madame de Genlis depicts can be read as a socio-cultural artefact as well as being a process central to the formation of social identity in rural nineteenth-century France. Her post-Revolutionary texts in particular, instructional texts (such as her Maison rustique of 1810), which invite the reader’s participation through consideration of moral precepts which are intended to inspire social engagement, can be read symbolically as well as functioning as a process for forming identity.

 

[1] W. J. T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power (University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 1.