The Young Countess
Introductory Note: “The Young Countess” is a short story loosely based on the early life of Stéphanie-Félicité Ducrest, Comtesse De Genlis. De Genlis was a French educator and writer who achieved a widespread appreciation and following in England. Her literary output was impressive, with works ranging from historical fiction to educational reform treatises. While many of the characters in this tale bear the names of real men and women from Madame de Genlis’ life, much of the narrative is unsubstantiated, and overall this work must be viewed as a piece of historical fiction.
De Genlis was, indeed, from a poor aristocratic French family, yet basing a morally didactic biographical sketch on her was, perhaps, a slightly ironic move. British readers often held her in high respect, assuming she was a reflection of many of her morally angelic characters. In reality, the Comtesse was not the expected paradigm of Victorian morality, having several illegitimate children.
The author of the story is unknown, not uncommon in Eliza Cook’s Journal; although Eliza Cook herself wrote many of the works in her miscellany, she rarely signed them, and it is unclear whether “The Young Countess” was of her own creation, or just her choice for inclusion. Either way, this story is a prime example of Cook’s recurring efforts to foster literature that tries “to break free from the societal limitations imposed on her class and gender.” When viewed with this idea in mind, “The Young Countess” provides a fascinating commentary on class distinctions, specifically, what it really means to be a “lady.” For an audience largely comprised of lower to middle class women, decidedly not aristocratic, questioning accepted norms of nobility is an interesting premise. The story clearly presents the idea of true gentility as being far more than money or titles: instead, it is based on moral character and strength—traits women of all classes could develop.
“FELICIA, close your harpsichord, if you please,” said a lady, who, seated at a small table, was writing on large sheets of stamped paper, and paused for a moment to seek in the calendar the day of the month.
“The 20th November, 1759,” replied a little girl, about thirteen years old, without stirring from her place.
“There! that’s finished,” said the lady, rising. “Felicia,” she continued, “put on your mantle, give me mine, and see if the carriage which your aunt kindly lent us, is at the door.”
“Are you going out?” asked Felicia.
“Yes, into Paris,” replied her mother.
“But we shall return to dinner, mamma?”
“I hope so,” said the lady, in an absent tone, as she counted the papers she had written.
“Ah, we must, dear mamma,” insisted Felicia, with the air of a spoiled child; “recollect that my admirers dine here to-day, M. Marmontel, M. Helvetius, M. Mondorge, and the Abbé Antoine.1Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799) was a French poet, dramatist, novelist, and critic. Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771) was a radical philosopher. Antoine-François, Abbé Prévost d’Exiles (1697-1763) was a novelist, editor, and translator. I intend to wear my beautiful new dress, and after dinner to recite Rousseau’s ‘Ode to Fortune.’ Then I will sing my last new song, and play my brilliant cantata on the harp. You’ll see that I shall be the first and most admired girl in the drawing-room. No one will look at the other young ladies while I am present, for I excel them all in beauty, riches, and talent. Ah, mamma, how happy I am!”
A deep sigh was the only answer to this conceited speech; but the young girl was too much occupied with herself to remark her mother’s sadness, and the tears which ran down her cheeks, as taking her daughter’s hand, she led her down stairs. They entered the carriage, and the lady said to the coachman, “drive to No. 12, Rue Traversière, St. Honoré.”
Then turning to Felicia, she said,
“We are going to pay a very important visit; and I trust, Felicia, you will be particularly gracious and affable towards the daughter of the person whom we are going to see.”
“How you say that, dear Mamma! Are they princes of the blood?”
“No,” said her mother, “but be silent now, for I want a little leisure to reflect.”
Not another word was spoken until the carriage stopped at the entrance of a narrow passage.
“Are we going in here?” asked Felicia, with surprise.
“Yes,” replied her mother, and descending from the carriage, she led Felicia a few steps down the alley, and knocked at a wicket gate. It was opened by an old woman wearing a dirty apron, and from the culinary regions within, proceeded a strong odour of roasted onions, which was far from agreeable to the refined visitors.
“Is M. Pierre Cannelle at home?” asked the lady.
“Yes,” replied the old servant, “you may come in; he’s in the garden with his daughter.”
“Announce us,” said Felicia, haughtily.
“Announce who, what?”
“The Marchioness of St. Aubin and the Countess de Lancy.”
“I see one of them plain enough,” remarked the woman; “but where’s the other?”
“I am the other, the Countess de Lancy,” replied Felicia, proudly.
“Ha! ha!” laughed the servant; “you little rogue, what a fine countess you’d make, indeed!”
At that moment a pretty young girl, very neatly dressed, appeared, saying, “Who is it, Gothon?”
“Two fine ladies, who want to see your father, Jeannette; take them into the garden, for I must go look after my soup.”
“Please to come with me, madame,” said Jeannette, politely. “I trust you will excuse the manners of my old nurse. She has taken care of me since I was born, and forgets that I am no longer a baby; but she is an excellent creature, we are very fond of her.” Thus speaking, she led them into the garden, where a man of about fifty years old was busily employed pruning the fruit trees. He was meanly dressed, and in the place of a hat, wore on his head a crimson cross-barred handkerchief, folded like a turban.
Pierre Cannelle, for it was he, advanced to meet the ladies with an air of mingled surprise and civility.
“The Marchioness of St. Aubin, papa,” said Jeannette.
The red handkerchief was immediately doffed. “I can guess what has caused me the honour of your ladyship’s visit,” he said, with a smile. “Will you please to come into my office, and the little girls can remain here.”
“The little girls!” repeated Felicia, as she saw her mother, with a timid, almost supplicating air, following this mean-looking man. “The little girls! Whom does your father mean, Mademoiselle?” she added, fixing her disdainful eyes on Jeannette.
“He means you and me, Mademoiselle.”
“Say Madame, if you please,” said Felicia drily.
“Madame!” and Jeannette laughed merrily; “are you, then, a married lady?”
“No; but I am the Countess de Lancy, and so have a right to be called Madame.”
“Madame, be it,” replied Jeannette, carelessly; “but while our parents are speaking on business, will you come into the house and accept some fruit?”
“The house appears to be as ugly as the garden,” said Felicia, contemptuously. “However, if you were a musician, and could play on the harp or guitar, I would ask you to do me the honour of performing.”
“Oh! in our rank of life,” said Jeannette, “we have no time to learn useless things.”
“And what may your rank of life be?”
“My father is a grocer, and keeps a large shop in the Rue St. Honoré; but I believe he intends to retire from business.”
“Then,” said Felicia, “it is really very strange what business my mother, the Marchioness of St. Aubin, can have with a grocer, who bears the very plebeian name of Cannelle.”
“Not at all,” said Jeannette, “I can understand the business they are speaking of; for, as I am thirteen years old, I keep my father’s books, and write many of his letters.”
“I am also thirteen years old,” said Felicia, “but I have very different things to attend to. My music occupies me six hours a day; then dancing, drawing, languages, dressing, and visiting—but, I suppose, Mademoiselle, you don’t understand these things; and no wonder, when I am so rich and you are poor.”
At these last words Jeannette gave a look of such mingled surprise and compassion that Felicia turned very red, and was about to ask for an explanation; when the grocer’s daughter turned off the subject by once more inviting her visitor to enter the parlour.
It was a small square room, perfectly clean and neat, but very plainly furnished.
“Do you live here?” asked Felicia, as she gave a scornful glance around.
“Yes,” replied Jeannette, smiling.
“I should die here.”
“My grandfather died here also,” said Jeannette; “but then he was ninety-four years old!”
At that moment the door opened, and the Marchioness of St. Aubin appeared, followed by M. Pierre Cannelle.
“Then, Monsieur,” said the former, “it is arranged that you and your charming little daughter will dine with us to-day.”
“Thank you, Madame, replied the grocer, “I shall only ask time to clean myself a little. Jeannette, my duck! go put on your best bib and tucker. We’re to dine at the Chateau!”
Jeannette blushed deeply as she saw the ironical smile with which Felicia listened to her father’s vulgar expressions. But she bowed gently without speaking, and hastened to place chairs.
The Marchioness thanked her, but declined sitting down; and taking polite leave, withdrew with her daughter.
“Come, Victoire,” said Felicia to her maid, “you must dress me beautifully, for I want to dazzle the eyes of that grocer’s daughter who is to dine here to-day.”
“That will be easily done, Madame.”
“Indeed I should hope so,” said Felicia, who did not perceive that her attendant was making behind her back various gestures expressive of ridicule; “for certainly few young ladies in Paris can be compared to me in beauty and accomplishments, not to speak of my splendid fortune! But tell me the names of the guests who are already arrived.”
“First, Madame, there is the gentleman who invented a method for teaching a person to read in six weeks with a box of counters, and a letter of the alphabet on each counter.”
“Ah! M. Bertrand, the Principal of the Institution where my brother is placed.”
“Then there is your uncle, M. de Mezière, and Messieurs de Marmontel, de Mondorge, Gossek, your teacher on the harp, Vaucanson, the poet Bertin, the painter Latour, d’Alembert, and many others, both ladies and gentlemen.”2Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782), inventor of robot devices important for modern industry. Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), philosopher and writer, particularly famous for being an editor and contributor to the Encyclopédie.
“Well, Victoire, make haste, fasten these flowers and feathers in my head-dress, and give me my handsomest ornaments. Are the grocers come yet?”
“Oh! indeed they are, Madame, and if you could only have seen them getting out of their shabby old hackney-coach! The little girl is dressed in a plain white frock, without a single ornament in her hair.”
“Then, Victoire, shan’t I astonish her with my splendid costume?”
“Certainly, Madame, you’ll make her cry with envy!” said the maid, who found it her interest to flatter the foibles of her spoilt young mistress.
The toilette of Felicia being completed to her entire satisfaction, she went to seek Jeannette in the garden, M. Cannelle having been from the moment of his arrival closeted with the Marchioness. The young Countess gathered a nosegay, which she graciously presented to her guest, and then invited her to enter the drawing-room, where the visitors were assembled. As they approached the door, Felicia heard one of the gentlemen pronounce her name. “Praising me already!” thought she. And unwilling that Jeannette should lose a breath of the sweet incense offered up to her vanity, she whispered to her to wait until her hair was a little better arranged. Jeannette was of a frank, unsuspicious disposition, and not understanding the manœuvre, readily consented. Felicia caused her to kneel down, and began busily to arrange the glossy curls of her hair, listening meanwhile to the conversation of the guests. What a disappointment! it was of the grocer’s daughter they were speaking!
“She is a sweet little girl,” said M. Marmontel.
“So simple and so modest,” added M. de Mondorge.
“And such a lively intelligent countenance,” said the painter, Latour.
“I have known her from her infancy,” said the Abbé d’Olivet; “it was I indeed who made M. Cannelle known to the Marchioness; and what I admire most in his daughter is her admirable steadiness. When very young she lost her mother, and since then has devoted herself to promote her father’s comfort. She keeps his accounts, and manages his house, as well as if she were thirty years old.”
“Come,” said the gentle voice of M. Gossek, “we have talked enough of this young stranger; tell me now, what you think of my pupil?”
“Oh!” said M. d’Alembert, “I don’t think I ever met a more ridiculous, vain, disagreeable animal than this young girl, who desires to be called ‘the Countess de Lancy,’ just as if she were not quite absurd enough without that addition.”
Two or three times during the progress of her own praises, Jeannette had tried to escape from her position, but Felicia, who hoped that they would afterwards speak of herself, and who was holding her companion by the hair, forced her to remain where she was and listen. As soon, however, as the attack on Felicia commenced, Jeannette, with her hair but half arranged, stood up resolutely.
“Stay,” said Felicia, with the courage of despair, “stay, my friend; perhaps I need this lesson, and I will submit to it.”
“I have made a great many automata in my time,” said M. Vaucanson, “but I should feel thoroughly ashamed, if the springs and wheels of any one of them were as visible as those which move both the mind and body of this little premature woman. She does nothing naturally; all about her is made up and artificial.”
“Besides,” observed M. Rameau, “her mother, who is as conceited as herself, dresses her in the most absurd costumes. At one time she used to appear as Cupid, with a bow and quiver; then in a semi-masculine costume. Now, I believe, she affects the robes of a countess.”
“Well, well, gentlemen,” said Gossek, “in spite of all these follies, which, after all, proceed in great measure from our flattery, you must confess that my pupil has naturally a sensible, courageous mind, together with considerable talent and beauty.”
“Yes,” replied d’Alembert, “a fine disposition spoiled; a rose eaten up by caterpillars.”
“And we are the caterpillars,” said the Abbé d’Olivet.
Once more Jeannette made an effort to get away; but Felicia, looking at her with tearful eyes, said softly, “I am justly punished, dear friend; for my motive in detaining you here, was to make you hear my praises, and now they have said nothing of me but evil. This is the first time I ever heard the truth; may I have the courage to profit by it!”
So saying, Felicia quietly removed the mass of feathers and artificial flowers which disfigured her pretty head, and having dried her eyes, smoothed her hair, and taken off her rings, bracelets, and necklace, she appeared suddenly metamorphosed into a graceful, modest little girl.
A moment afterwards, she entered the drawing-room, holding Jeannette by the hand, and the guests who had just spoken of her so freely, were amazed at the change in her appearance.
After having sung and played the harp, Felicia quietly retired to her place, and when one of the gentlemen approached her with the usual compliments, she replied in an humble tone, “Monsieur de Marmontel, please not to flatter me. If my music has given you any pleasure, I am glad of it; but I know I am only a child, and if your praises should make me fancy myself a prodigy, perhaps you would laugh behind my back at my silly credulity.”
Man of the world as he was, Marmontel felt confused at this home-thrust, and turned away without replying.
Dinner was announced, and after it was over, and the servants had retired, the Marchioness de St. Aubin thus addressed her guests:—
“A sudden reverse, my friends, has taken place in my fortune; and in the support of religion and the assurance of your sympathy, I seek consolation. I have no longer a right to my title, for I have sold the property which conferred it. This gentleman,” she added, pointing to Pierre Cannelle, “has become its purchaser.”
Had a thunder-bolt burst over the head of Felicia, she could not have felt more astounded.
“Oh, my mother!” she cried, “are we then ruined?”
“Yes, my child, we have lost all our possessions except a small yearly pittance, and now are without a roof to shelter us.”
“Oh! Madame,” cried the grocer, “don’t say so; you are heartily welcome to occupy my house in the Rue Traversière as long as you please.”
For a moment no one spoke, until Felicia, bursting into tears, exclaimed:
“So many humiliations in one day! All the illusions of vanity gone, and my fortune gone with them! And then to be thankful for the offer of that small mean house which, a few hours since, I so heartily despised!”
“My child!” said her mother, “my child, let us say of our fortune what King David said of his child: ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken it away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!’3Job 1:21. Henceforth I am no longer the Marchioness de St. Aubin, but Madame Ducrest.”
“Forgive me, my mother, forgive me!” cried Felicia, embracing her. “This weakness is unworthy of your daughter. See, it is over now; and with the help of God, I will employ the accomplishments of which I was so vain, for your support and comfort.” Then, with a radiant smile, she seated herself at the harp, and accompanied her clear sweet voice in a splendid cantata.
All present were filled with astonishment at the strength of the mind and soberness of judgment displayed by this young girl, whom they had hitherto regarded as the spoiled plaything of a doting mother.
“M. de Mezière,” said Marmontel, “your niece will one day be a remarkable woman.”
“Ah!” replied her uncle, “a noble nature is always proud in adversity—it is in the crucible that we recognise the pure gold!”
Marmontel’s prediction was fulfilled. After the loss of his property, Mademoiselle St. Aubin’s father went to St. Domingo, leaving his wife and daughter in France. After a short time he realized some money, and when returning with it, was seized by the English, who were then at war with France, and carried a prisoner to England. Among his companions in captivity was a young man, the Count de Genlis, to whom the ex-Marquis de St. Aubin became much attached, and frequently showed him the letters which he received from France. The greater part of these were written by Felicia, who was fondly attached to her father, and wrote to him with inimitable grace and talent. After a time, through the instrumentality of M. de Genlis’ uncle, who was minister of foreign affairs, both the prisoners obtained their liberty, and returned to France. There the young Count became acquainted with Mademoiselle de St. Aubin, and shortly afterwards married her.
Presented at the court of Louis XV., Madame de Genlis became universally admired. The Duchess of Orleans attached her to her person, and entrusted her with the care and education of her children.
The eldest of these, Louis Philippe, became afterwards King of the French, and together with his brothers and sister, both loved and revered his early instructress.
Madame de Genlis wrote several valuable works, chiefly on education. She lived to witness the first revolution, and the restoration of the Bourbons to France, and died in the year 1830, at the age of eighty-four.
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
"The Young Countess." Eliza Cook’s Journal, vol. 2, no. 28, 1849, pp. 19-21. Edited by Catherine Christensen. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 20 October 2021, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/the-young-countess/.
22 November 2016
18 October 2021
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|↑1||Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799) was a French poet, dramatist, novelist, and critic. Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771) was a radical philosopher. Antoine-François, Abbé Prévost d’Exiles (1697-1763) was a novelist, editor, and translator.|
|↑2||Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782), inventor of robot devices important for modern industry. Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), philosopher and writer, particularly famous for being an editor and contributor to the Encyclopédie.|