Catherine Bernard

Salon des dames by Abraham Bosse

Catherine Bernard (1662 16 September 1712) was a French poet, playwright, and novelist. She composed three historical novels, two verse tragedies, several poems, and was awarded several poetry prizes by the Académie française. Bernard established the fundamental aesthetic principle of the French literary conte de fées popular in the salons of the late seventeenth century with the dictum: "the [adventures] should always be implausible and the emotions always natural".[1] Her works are appreciated today for their psychological nuance.

Biographical résumé

Catherine Bernard was born in 1662 in Rouen to a Huguenot family of wealth and comfort. She was related through her mother to the brothers Pierre and Thomas Corneille. Bernard was precocious and began writing at a young age, earning praise from her cousin, the author and critic Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. At eighteen, she left her home in Rouen to pursue a literary career in Paris.

In 1685 at the age of twenty-three, she converted to Catholicism and was well enough known at that time to have received notice in the Mercure galant for her "ouvrages galants". The romance Frédéric de Sicile (1680, by Pradon?) was attributed to her as well as her cousin's L'Ile de Bornéo.[1][2][3]

Bernard produced three historical novels, two verse tragedies, and several poems. She was saved from abject poverty by monetary prizes awarded her work. She died 16 September 1712. Her works continue to be appreciated for their stylistic and psychological depth.[1][2]



Bernard's first novel Eléonore d'Yvrée was published in 1687 with a dedication to Louis, Grand Dauphin and a moralizing preface. In its use of history, narrative structure, and theme of dutiful sacrifice of passion, the novel followed in the tradition of Madame de La Fayette's La Princesse de Clèves. In the Mercure galant of 16 September 1687, Fontenelle praised its economy of plot and structure, its concise style, and its psychological nuance. The book was followed by Le Comte d'Amboise in 1689 and her last and most adventurous novel Inès de Cordoue in 1696. Both elaborated upon the "sacrifice of passion for duty" theme. All three novels were reprinted in the Bibliothèque de campagne in 1739 and 1785.[3]

With Inès de Cordoue, Bernard established the fundamental aesthetic principle of the French literary fairy tale popular in the salons of the late seventeenth century with the dictum: "the [adventures] should always be implausible and the emotions always natural".[1] The novel is set in the court of King Philip II of Spain and features a fairy tale competition between the heroine Inès and her rival Léonore.

The first fairy tale in the novel, "Le Prince Rosier" ("Prince Rosebush"), is told by Inès and is traced to an episode by Ariosto. The tale follows a princess and her love for an enchanted rosebush. When the charm is broken and the rosebush becomes a prince, he admits to the princess he is in love with the Queen of the Isle of Youth. The princess grows exceedingly jealous over this disclosure, and the prince begs the fairies to return him to his former shape. The second fairy tale, "Riquet à la Houppe" ("Riquet with the Tuft"), tells the story of a gnome-like prince and his marriage to a beautiful but feeble-minded princess. He magically grants her the gift of intelligence but she endures life in his underground realm only through the visits of her human lover. When Riquet learns of the situation, he transforms his wife's lover into a gnome like himself and the bewildered princess spends her days trying to distinguish between the two.

Riquet was retold by Charles Perrault under the same title (presumably with Bernard's permission) and included in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé of 1697. Neither version is thought to be of folkloric origin. Bernard's tale, unlike Perrault's, condemns women's confinement in marriage, and both of Bernard's tales, in defiance of fairy tale tradition, end unhappily. The novel places Bernard in the tradition of prolific French conteuses such as Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy and Marie-Jeanne Lhéretier de Villandon. Inès de Cordoue is sometimes offered as evidence that fairy tales were the creation of the educated women of the salons rather than illiterate peasant women.[1][2][4]


Bernard was the most successful female dramatist of the seventeenth century. Her 1689 tragedy Laodamie had a long and profitable run of twenty-three performances with three more in 1690 and 1691. Her 1690 tragedy Brutus was performed twenty-seven times between December 1690 and August 1691 and was restaged eight times before 1700. It was revived by the Comédie-Française in 1973.

Both dramas display a mixture of Corneillian and Racinian models typical of French tragedies in the 1690s. Laodamie examines the rivalry of two women and their differing responses to love while Brutus pits a father against his sons in an exploration of love, patriotism, and tyranny. Voltaire was condemned in the Mercure galant of March 1731 for his unacknowledged borrowings from Bernard's play for his Brutus of 1730.[3]


Having attained prominence in the theatre with her verse tragedies, Bernard abandoned the theatre and the showy verse typical of her early years with the support of the patronage of the austere Chancèliere de Pontchartrain, an organization whose moral severity was second only to Bernard's. Some dozen poems followed, however, that were published by Bouhours in 1693 and 1701. One poem was a light-hearted petition to the king for payment of a pension of 200 francs rewarded her encomiastic verse. The Académie française awarded her prizes for poetry in 1691, 1693, and 1697, and she was elected a member of the Ricovrati Academy of Padua.[3]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Harries, Elizabeth Wanning. Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale. Princeton University Press, 2001. pp. 35, 6465
  2. 1 2 3 Seifert, Lewis C., and Joan Dejean. Catherine Bernard.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Wilson, Katharina M. (1991). An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities; vol. 698. pp. 117118.
  4. Hasse, Donald. (2008) The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. Greenwood Press. pp. 116117.

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