Caroline’s review of Féicité Ducrest de Saint-Aubin, Madame de Genlis

Caroline’s review of Féicité Ducrest de Saint-Aubin, Madame de Genlis,
Les Chevaliers du Cygne, ou La Cour de Charlemagne. [*]

Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1796) 32 (Thursday, 28 January 1796) 253–56:

Hamburg: Fauche: Les Chevaliers du Cygne, ou La Cour de Charlemagne: Conte historique et moral pour servir de suite aux veillées de chareau, et dont tous les traits qui peuvent faire allusion à la Revolution Françoise, sont tirés de l’histoire. By Madame de Genlis. Vol. 1, xx and 387 pages. Vol. 2, 310 pages. Vol. 3, 510 pages. 1795. 8vo (2 Rthlr. 12 gr.).


Although this novel does differ from the authoress’s numerous earlier pedagogical writings through a stronger influence of the powers of imagination, it nonetheless generally remains well within the genre. Nowhere does the authoress set aside either the didactic tone that has become second nature with her, or rather that constitutes her nature as such, or the sure guide of moral considerations.

The particular shortcoming this circumstance imposes on her piece to the extent the latter is viewed as a free work of art, is joined by yet another through which, as with the earlier as well, she seems intent on providing a meritorious service, namely, the laborious use of the historical period of the novel’s setting for the sake of incessant allusions to recent events. Such allusions are, successfully or not, everywhere engaged and are generally accompanied by digressions that utterly destroy any illusion.

Neither historical truth nor fiction gains through such coercive treatment, and the artistic device of conveniently imputing familiar names to characters as needed can rarely be engaged without compromising more serious requirements. Here it is especially the overall impression that suffers from the authoress’s painful recollections, above which she has been unable to elevate herself despite attempts at mitigation through various asseverations. —

That said, the story’s protagonist and the story itself do stand on their own. Here Frau von Genlis can boast not only of the most rigorous morality, but also of the most novel of invention. To wit, she occupies us through three complete volumes not, as is customary, with a living beauty, but rather with the deceased beloved of Olivier, one of the
Knights of the Swan.



He murders her in the very first pages in a crazed fit of crazed rage and jealousy. In what follows relates her story; her grisly ghost pursues him with nocturnal visits until shortly before the end. Had it been up to her, one would hope she would have pursued him in a less ghastly form; but she was condemned to the torment of tormenting him to atone, together with him, the transgression of an alliance kept secret from her father that had not yet been sufficiently avenged by death at the hand of her own spouse. She ceases from him only after he sacrifices a new beloved to the friendship and memory of his love and his deed. Because the temptation, though already overcome, returns, this unresolved struggle ends with his death in a feud he has taken up for his friend.

Thus the main threads of the plot, which includes several genuinely moving and attractive situations alongside not a few painfully awkward and indifferent ones as well. Names and customs have been borrowed from the age of Charlemagne, whereas the characters, language, and emotional tenor derive from the world of more recent French novels of virtue (with which the authoress flatters herself in the preface at the expense of others). It is not just the ladies, but also the entire host of knights who often faint and bathe themselves in tears.


Readers who deal more conscientiously with their age than with their book can with good justification pass over entire pages full of moaning monologues and dialogues after the fashion of [horror author François-Thomas de Baculard d’]Arnaud [1718–1805].

Charlemagne, who likely knew more about his tillable fields and agricultural equipment than about the world of scholarship, nonetheless speaks like a royal academician drawing from eighteenth-century experience. And the Saxon Wittekind [Vitikind] like Diderot’s paterfamilias [Le Père de famille (1758)]. The most successful portrayal is that of a Franconian Armida, namely, the courtesan Armoflede, who seduces and deceives one knight after the other, and who also initiates the bloody deed at the story’s beginning.

The remaining characters are presented in the usual colors, notwithstanding that here and there one does encounter features intended to throw them into more noticeable relief but which sooner betray the authoress’s familiarity with the grand world than her ability to enter into the simpler world of earlier times. The plethora of episodes, moreover, some of which seem rather alien to the material, fatigue both one’s memory and one’s attention level. In volume 1, the well-known romance “Robin Grey” is expanded into a lengthy sentimental narrative. 
She seems unfamiliar with the translation found in the Nouvelles nouvelles [1792] of [Jean-Pierre Claris de] Florian that comes much closer to the original despite not quite measuring up to the German translation under the name “Martin Grau.”

Nor was she more successful with the story of Eginhard and Emma, instead doing everything possible to weaken our interest. Emma’s devotion to Eginhard seems to derive merely from sulkiness and ill-humor, and he seems to have courted her merely out of stubborness.

The interspersed verses compliment Frau von Genlis’s poetic talents less than the generally doubled and tripled proverbs at the beginning of each chapter do her extensive reading and her memory. The writing style in general, much to the advantage of the piece, keeps its distance from poetic presumption; only in the dramatic sections does one occasionally encounter passages of declamation. The authoress does not forget to inform us in the preface that her works have been translated into all the current European languages. Should this novel, too, find a willing translator — which can hardly be doubted — we would recommend considerable abridgment.


[*] Illustrations: frontispieces to vols. 1–3; color illustration of a Knight of the Swan: Gottlieb Böttger der Ältere, Schwanritter (1805); Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. A1: 258. Back.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott