The Comtesse de Ségur: Catholicism, Children‟s Literature, and the 'Culture Wars' in Nineteenth Century France
This thesis analyses the comtesse de Ségur (1799-1874), France's best-selling children's author, both as a cultural icon and as a historical subject. Although Ségur became the best-selling author for young children in the twentieth century, and a publishing phenomenon, her work has often been overlooked by Anglophone historians. This is because she is perceived to be a part of a school of didactic authors derided as “governesses”, and who are usually characterised as bigoted spinsters, in possession of little in the way of real literary talent. The recent tendency in French academic research has therefore been to play down the comtesse de Ségur's politico-religious agenda, in order to distance her work from that of her colleagues, and to explain her enduring popularity. However, such an approach is based upon a questionable reading of such “governess” authors, and is an indication that Ségur's politics recall a part of their history that many French people would prefer to forget. In contrast, it is the contention of this thesis that the comtesse's work must be understood in the context of the religious antagonisms of Second Empire France. Ségur was closely involved with one of the most influential religious propaganda networks of the Second Empire. The informal nature of their activities meant that Ségur's gender did not prevent her from engaging in the political fray. The thesis examines the immediate production of her work in the context of the Catholic drive to propagate „good books‟, and highlights the importance which the religious revival attached to the child and to children‟s literature; it looks at the myth-making process which generated the comtesse de Ségur as a symbol of ideal Christian womanhood, and the role that this played in the politics of identity in the second half of the nineteenth century; and finally it asks what her legacy has been for feminine culture in France. In restoring the comtesse de Ségur to the intransigent Catholic movement, this thesis brings to light a neglected aspect of the Franco-French culture wars, namely the important contribution made by women authors such as Ségur to the massive surge in religious print culture in the mid-century. It questions the old stereotypes that have long surrounded Catholic women, and shows just how engaged they were in the struggle for the nation's soul that raged in post-revolutionary France.