Was Madame de Genlis Napoleon’s spy?

Madame de Genlis by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1790

Madame de Genlis by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1790

Madame de Genlis was a popular and prolific writer of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Her works were widely read throughout Europe, as well as in her native France. As governor to the children of the Orléans branch of the royal family – a rare position for a woman – Madame de Genlis became known for her innovative approach to education. After losing her husband and fortune in the French Revolution, Madame de Genlis turned to Napoleon Bonaparte for support. In return, Napoleon required her to write him regular letters. This led to suspicions that she was Napoleon’s spy.

Musical prodigy

Stéphanie Félicité du Crest was born into a family of minor nobility on January 25, 1746 at Champcéry near Autun in Burgundy. Félicité’s parents – constantly in debt – were not particularly attentive to her education. Her musical skill and taste for literature developed when she and her mother were compelled to stay with relatives in Paris while her father tried to make some money in Saint-Domingue. By the age of 15 she was considered a virtuoso on the harp.

When she was 17, Félicité married Charles-Alexis Brûlart, the Comte de Genlis (later the Marquis of Sillery). Genlis was an aristocratic colonel of grenadiers who had been imprisoned in England with Félicité’s father. The new Madame de Genlis made up for the gaps in her education by adopting a rigorous schedule of learning: she took up drawing and painting; she practiced music; she read avidly; and she began to write a diary. She also gave birth to two daughters, Caroline (b. 1765) and Pulchérie (b. 1767), and a son, Casimir (b. 1768), who died of measles at the age of five.

Educational innovator

In 1770, at the age of 24, Madame de Genlis became a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Chartres. The Duchess and her husband – the future Duke of Orléans, also known as Philippe-Egalité – were members of France’s ruling Bourbon dynasty. The Duke entered into a brief affair with Madame de Genlis, and contemporaries believed that the couple had an illegitimate daughter.

In 1777, the Duke and Duchess made Madame de Genlis governess of their newborn twin daughters. In 1782, the Duke extended her position to include governorship of the couple’s three sons. This caused a scandal. Women in France did not typically oversee the education of adolescent aristocratic boys, let alone princes. The eldest son later became the Duke of Orléans, who poses a threat to the ruling Bourbons in Napoleon in America. In 1830, he became King Louis Philippe of France.

At a time when French education consisted mainly of instruction in traditional disciplines like classics, history and mythology, Madame de Genlis taught her charges natural history, geography, physics, anatomy, modern languages (Italian, English and German instead of Latin and Greek), and manual trades. She took them on field trips. She instructed them in religion, music and theatre. She also wrote prodigiously. In 1779, she published Théâtre à l’usage des jeunes personnes, a book of plays for children.

These dramas are mere treatises of morality put into action, and it is hoped the Young may find them not devoid of interesting and persuasive lessons: besides, from learning by heart, and representing these Plays, many advantages will result; excellent principles will be graven on the minds of the Performers, their memory will be exercised, their pronunciation formed, and they will acquire grace and a pleasing deportment. (1)

This was followed by more volumes of plays, along with numerous pedagogical tracts, pamphlets and articles. In 1782, Madame de Genlis published a long epistolary novel, Adèle et Théodore ou Lettres sur l’éducation, which became popular across Europe.

The French Revolution parted Madame de Genlis from her pupils, and took the life of both her husband and her employer. She went into exile, first in England, then in Switzerland and Germany. Madame de Genlis supported herself by writing and painting. Among other things, she published a bilingual guidebook (in French and in German – later expanded to include English, Italian, Spanish and Russian) that provided phrases helpful for travel at the time. For example, here is some suggested dialogue in the event of “a warrior in an enemy’s country and asking victuals in a private house.”

[The warrior:] My friends, don’t be afraid, we will do you no harm. We want victuals without any delay. Give us bread, wine, brandy, beer and potatoes. Make haste. We must have them and don’t force us to search your house violently….

[The resident of the house:] Brave warrior, may you be blessed by God as you are blessed by your enemy! (2)

Madame de Genlis returned to France in 1800. As her husband’s assets had been dispersed, she continued to live by her pen, writing on education, morals and religion. Though she remained a supporter of monarchy, she did not write about politics, and (unlike her counterpart Madame de Staël) she did not criticize Napoleon Bonaparte. Instead, Madame de Genlis sought Napoleon’s favour.

Napoleon’s spy?

In 1802, Napoleon provided Madame de Genlis with an apartment in the Arsenal Library. After becoming Emperor in 1804, he granted her a pension of 6,000 francs a year. In return, Napoleon required that Madame de Genlis write him regular letters. Some thought this was a pretext for her to act as Napoleon’s spy among partisans of the ancien régime. French Foreign Minister Talleyrand (not always a reliable source) recounted how, on the evening of the Battle of Austerlitz, he read to Napoleon the “report” of Madame de Genlis.

It was long, and written entirely in her own hand. She spoke of the spirit of Paris, and quoted a few offensive conversations held, she said, in those houses which were then called Faubourg Saint-Germain; she named five or six families, which, never, she added, would rally to the government of the emperor. Some rather biting expressions which Mme. de Genlis reported set Napoleon in an inconceivable state of fury; he swore and stormed against the Faubourg Saint-Germain. (3)

However, according to Napoleon’s private secretary Baron Méneval, the letters were simply intended to make Madame de Genlis feel that she was not living on imperial charity.

Madame de Genlis…on her return from exile, had found herself like many other honourable exiles, in a state of destitution. The Minister of the Interior, M. Chaptal, gave her an apartment in the buildings of the Arsenal library. Madame de Genlis lived there on the income produced by her numerous books, and some assistance which she received from the funds reserved for literary people. When Napoleon became Emperor he ordered Lavalette to pay her five hundred francs a month, and, in order to spare her feelings, had told her that he wished her to write to him every fortnight on matters of literature and morality. The help which Madame de Genlis received from Napoleon’s generosity, the help which was afterwards extended to her by Queen Julia of Naples, and the resources procured from the sale of her works, did not prevent her from being invariably in embarrassed circumstances. She used to apply to me when she wanted some advance on the income allowed her by the Emperor…. (4)

Napoleon never met with Madame de Genlis. Their relations were confined to letter writing. While the letters do not appear to have survived, Madame de Genlis jotted down some of the “Subjects of Notes for the Emperor.” These included:

On injustice in general. The thing it is most difficult to endure.
On Magnetism.
On the sorceresses of Paris – Mlle. Normand.
On dreams, etc.
On the house of M. de Choiseul.
On the newspapers. (Keep this clear of politics.)
On the inns of Spain
On the occult sciences. (5)

She also described her relations with the Orléans family, related accounts of Court in the pre-revolutionary days, and provided Napoleon with advice on the primary education of girls. In 1812, Napoleon appointed Madame de Genlis inspectress of the schools in her district of Paris. He did not, however, sufficiently trust her to educate his nieces, Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte.

M. Sabatier…had introduced Madame de Genlis to the virtuous Julie Bonaparte [wife of Napoleon’s brother Joseph], at that time Queen of Naples, and had advised his friend at the same time to ask to be allowed to take charge of the education of the Queen’s daughters. Madame de Genlis, who thought herself born with the vocation for teaching and guiding her neighbour by inculcating her opinions and principles, had jumped at this idea. She wrote in consequence to the Emperor to obtain his consent in the matter. This application was contained in her fortnightly paper, and was accompanied by protestations of gratitude and the expression of her wish to show her gratitude for the kindness of the august head of the family, by assiduous attention in carrying out the duties which such a post would impose. But this letter was not answered, and Napoleon, on the contrary, told his sister-in-law that such a choice would displease him. The Queen on her side had far too much tact to wish to put her neck in such a yoke. She also knew that King Joseph would be very reluctant to give his consent. This consideration would have sufficed to hold the Queen back, even if she could have made up her mind to entrust the education of her daughters to a woman of admitted talents, no doubt, but who was totally unfitted for such a post by associations and prejudices which were incompatible with the new imperial government. To console Madame de Genlis for the Emperor’s refusal, Queen Julia, with that feeling of goodness and generosity which characterized her, accorded her a pension of three thousand francs from her private purse. No allusion, as far as I know, to this act of kindness, is contained in the memoirs of the woman who benefited by it. (6)

When Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome, was born, Madame de Genlis composed a song for the baby.

The notes of this lullaby were represented by little roses, which had been delicately drawn and illuminated by her hand. This little composition altogether was carried out with the neatness and elegance which Madame de Genlis displayed in her manual work. (7)

Madame de Genlis also established a correspondence with Napoleon’s sister Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Grand Duchess of Tuscany. Among other things, Elisa consulted Madame de Genlis on the choice of a governess for her daughter Napoléone. Madame de Genlis recommended her niece, Henriette de Sercey, Baroness de Finguerlin, who took up the post in early 1812 and held it until Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814. Meanwhile, Madame de Genlis and Elisa kept up a regular correspondence. Madame de Genlis wrote and illustrated at least two instructive notebooks for young Napoléone. She also wrote a book for Elisa on court etiquette during the ancien régime, which Elisa used as a guide in administering her own court.

When the Bourbons returned to power in 1814, Madame de Genlis offered her services to King Louis XVIII. In 1816, the Irish novelist Lady Morgan visited her and asked about the Napoleon letters.

I had been told in Paris that Madame de Genlis had carried on a secret correspondence with the late emperor, which is another term for the higher walks of espionage. I ventured one day to talk to her on the subject; and she entered on it with great promptitude and frankness. ‘Buonaparte,’ she said, ‘was extremely liberal to literary people – a pension of four thousand francs, per annum, was assigned to all authors and gens-de-lettres, whose circumstances admitted of their acceptance of such a gratuity. He gave me, however, six thousand, and a suite of apartments at the Arsenal. As I had never spoken to him, never had any intercourse with him whatever, I was struck with this liberality, and asked him what he expected I should do to merit it? When the question was put to Napoleon, he replied carelessly, ‘Let Madame de Genlis write me a letter once a month.’ As no subject was dictated, I chose literature, but I always abstained from politics. Madame de Genlis added that though she never had any interview with him, yet on her recommendation he had pensioned five indigent persons of literary talent. (8)

Final years

Madame de Genlis continued to write right up until her death. In 1825, she published her memoirs. Dorothea Lieven expressed her opinion of them to Clemens von Metternich:

Madame de Genlis’s fourth volume is detestable. Her style is watery and feeble. It hasn’t an idea in it; in short, she bores me. The first two volumes interested me in spite of their puerility, or possibly because of it; for they give one an idea of the careless happiness the French enjoyed before, and almost up to the very moment of their bloody revolution. (9)

After living long enough to see her former pupil, the Duke of Orléans, become King Louis Philippe, Madame de Genlis died in her sleep on December 31, 1830 at the age of 84. Her remains were transferred to Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1839.

Madame de Genlis authored over 100 books, many of which are available for free on the Internet Archive. For more about Madame de Genlis as an educator, see “Madame de Genlis’s Ideas of an 18th Century Education” by Geri Walton. Geri has also written an excellent article about Madame de Genlis’s influence on Jane Austen.

You might also enjoy:

When Napoleon met Goethe

What did Napoleon like to read?

Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon’s artistic niece

Dorothea Lieven, a diplomat in skirts

  1. Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis, The Theatre of Education, a New Translation from the French, Vol. I, (London, 1807), p. viii.
  2. Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis, The Traveller’s Companion for Conversation, being a Collection of Such Expressions as Occur Most Frequently in Travelling and in the Different Situations of Life, Fifth Edition (Florence, 1821), pp. 440-442.
  3. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Memoirs of the Prince de Talleyrand, Vol. 1, edited by Albert de Broglie, translated by Raphaël Ledos de Beaufort (London, 1891), p. 226.
  4. Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. II, edited by Napoleon Joseph de Méneval (New York, 1894), pp. 436-437.
  5. Jean Harmond, A Keeper of Royal Secrets: Being the Private and Political Life of Madame de Genlis (London, 1913), pp. 324-325.
  6. Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. II, pp. 437-438.
  7. Ibid., p. 393.
  8. Sydney, Lady Morgan, France (Philadelphia, 1817), p. 360.
  9. Peter Quennell, ed. The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826 (New York, 1938), pp. 351-352.

17 commments on “Was Madame de Genlis Napoleon’s spy?”

  • Irene HARTLMAYR says:

    Thanks a lot for this article! It is well-known that Mme de Genlis wrote reports on society to inform Napoleon (although it is also said that he never read them!), but the rest of her life is usually never mentioned. I think she had very modern ideas on education, way ahead of a lot of other people of that time. A pity that she didn’t have more influence to implement them.

  • Geoffrey says:

    I have a small watercolour by her, of flowers (chaeronia) and a butterfly, inscribed “peinte par moi d’apres nature” and dated 1805. It is pretty, but not up to the standard of Charlotte Bonaparte as a teenager, I think.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      How lovely, Geoffrey. I’ve just been searching online to see if there are any examples of Madame de Genlis’s paintings, but have not been able to find any.

  • Forrice says:

    I enjoy your historical knowledge.

  • Hels says:

    Thank you! We might have thought that being born into the nobility (albeit minor) would have worked for the children’s advantage, but it would seem that sons were advantaged, not daughters. Stephanie’s talents in music, literature, teaching and family formation did not seem to count very much.

    Interesting comparison with Madame de Staël.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article, Hels. As talented as Madame de Genlis was, one wonders how far she would have got had she not had married into a wealthy and well-connected family (it was through them that she entered the Court circle). I haven’t looked into it, but I wonder how she got along with Madame de Staël (not that well, I suspect).

  • Geoffrey says:

    It’s me again! I should have pondered a bit before sending my last, as there is more interest in it than I realised. I think I have previously mentioned my gt.gt. grandmother Henriette Girard‘s album, which contains very early works by Charlotte and a fine drawing of the Campagna by Zenaide. These must have been acquired by Henriette in America, from one or both of the princesses. She must have got Madame de Genlis’s w/c from them also, and they must have got it from Madame, which shows there had been social actual contact between Madame and Joseph’s family, where she wanted to be governess. I do not know what other sources reveal about such contacts.
    I also note elsewhere on the net that Madame is supposed to have provided inspiration for Jane Austen, especially in”Emma”, but I think as a target for some gentle mockery.
    Again, thanks.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      That’s interesting, Geoffrey. Actually, what originally drew my attention to Madame de Genlis was a remark in the catalogue from the exhibit of Charlotte’s artwork (thanks again for pointing me to that), which suggested that Julie Bonaparte had turned to Madame de Genlis for guidance regarding her daughters’ education. So it sounds like there was some contact between them. In Madame de Genlis’s memoirs (which tend to be self-aggrandizing), she makes out that she was actually offered the post of governess to Joseph’s daughters, but turned it down out of respect for the House of Orléans.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Geoffrey, I was just reading through Madame de Genlis’s letters to Elisa Bonaparte (see the new paragraph added to post). In one of them, dated 5 July 1812, Madame de Genlis refers to visiting the Queen of Spain (Julie Bonaparte) often at the Luxembourg Palace during the latter’s illness, noting the anxiety it caused her because Julie was dear to her (Madame de Genlis’s) heart. In another letter, Madame de Genlis refers to a story she wrote for Zénaïde. These provide further evidence that your supposition about the social contact between Madame de Genlis and Joseph’s family is well-founded.

  • Christoph Fischer says:

    Thanks for another fascinating article

  • Paula Wilcox says:

    You have so much knowledge of this topic and era. I am in awe. Thank you.

  • Geoffrey says:

    Have only just seen your remarks of 15th and 19th January.
    It’s fascinating how history can be built up from tiny, but connected, facts.

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I had been told in Paris that Madame de Genlis had carried on a secret correspondence with the late emperor, which is another term for the higher walks of espionage.

Sydney, Lady Morgan