Born in Brest, the daughter of a novelist and educated in Paris, she was a lesbian, a feminist, and a formidable educationist. Today her presence may be largely forgotten, but she left a legacy on both sides of the Atlantic.
Marie Souvestre was born on April 28, 1830 in Brest, the daughter of a novelist. In 1846, her father Émile published the dystopian novel Le monde tel qu’il sera. Set in the year 3000, the story features remarkable predictions on the role of science in society, and contains reflections on future parenthood and education. He would certainly have inspired his daughter’s alternative ideas about learning in general, and the teaching of young women in particular. Having remained in the shadow of the mighty Jules Verne who stole the limelight, Émile Souvestre deserves renewed critical attention.
In 1865, Marie Souvestre founded a boarding secondary school for girls in Fontainebleau together with her partner Caroline Dussaut. Named Les Ruches (Beehives), the founders of the school aimed at shaping young girls into independent, forward-thinking, and confident women. Pupils included American socialite Natalie Clifford Barney, a lesbian writer and activist who established the Académie des Femmes; her younger sister Laura Clifford Barney, who represented the International Council of Women at the League of Nations; May ‘Toupie’ Lowther, an English lesbian tennis player and fencer who, during the First World War, organized an all-female unit of ambulance drivers assisting the French Army for which she was awarded the Croix de Guerre; and Dorothy Bussy, sister of the critic and biographer Lytton Strachey, whose anonymously published novel Olivia includes a fictionalized account of her education at Les Ruches. The story relates the passion of a young English boarding student for one of her French teachers, Mlle Julie (identified as Marie Souvestre). Sex education at Les Ruches proved liberating.
The Strachey family links Marie Souvestre to the Bloomsbury Group. Dorothy’s novel, dedicated to Virginia Woolf, was published in 1949 by Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. It was received as a minor masterpiece in certain circles and caused a scandal among other readers. The French edition, published by Stock in Paris that same year and introduced by Rosamond Lehmann, an author and translator close to the Bloomsbury Group, remained virtually unnoticed. In 1934, Bussy had sent the manuscript of the novel to her friend André Gide for an opinion. His response was cool and dismissive. Discouraged and hurt, she waited fifteen years before publication. Once the novel found recognition, Gide apologized to her for his initial lack of appreciation. Today, the novel is acknowledged as a notable work in the history of gay and lesbian literature.
In 1883, Marie and Caroline separated. Having moved to London with Paolina Samaïa, former teacher of Italian at Les Ruches (Dussaut continued running the school in Paris; her death in July 1887 was most likely an act of suicide), Souvestre acquired Allenswood House at Albert Road, Wimbledon Park. There she established Allenswood Boarding Academy for girls. Her partner was employed as a teacher here (the couple lived together on the school’s premises) and Dorothy Bussy would teach Shakespeare.
With students primarily from the European aristocracy and American upper-class, French was the official language spoken at the school. The curriculum included the arts, dance, history, languages (English, German, and Italian), literature, music, and philosophy. Ideals of social responsibility, personal independence, and female dignity formed the basis of the academy’s educational outlook.
The school produced a number of exceptional women, including Pernel Strachey who would become Principal of Newnham College for women, Cambridge; her sister Pippa Strachey who was a campaigner for gender equality and a leading figure in the Fawcett Society; Megan Lloyd George who, as a Liberal politician, became the first female Member of Parliament for a Welsh constituency (Camarthen); and Dutch feminist and pacifist Mien Broese van Groenou. Among these talented youngsters, Marie Souvestre had one favorite pupil, a tall and shy Manhattan girl who had experienced a painful childhood; she was lacking in confidence, held back by a sense of inadequacy, but eager to learn.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother had died of diphtheria in 1892 when she was eight years old. Her four-year old brother passed away the following year; her beloved father – an alcoholic and drug addict – a year after that. Within a period of just two years, a family of five members was reduced to two. Orphaned before she was ten, she and her younger brother became the ward of her maternal grandmother Mary Livingston Ludlow Hall, a stern and imposing woman who lived in Tivoli in the Hudson Valley. The emotional toll was well-nigh unbearable.
Young Eleanor had been privately educated by Frederic Roser who provided lessons to children of wealthy families. She and several of her peers were taught in a room on the upper floor of the Roosevelt home in New York. In 1899, her grandmother send the young girl to London to further her education. Her choice of school was Allenswood Academy.
There had been previous contact between Souvestre and the Roosevelt family. Anna Roosevelt, Eleanor’s aunt, had briefly been a pupil at Les Ruches. Marie Souvestre herself had lost her father at a young age and identified with her pupil’s sense of loss and displacement. She took the bruised adolescent under her wings by performing the role of private teacher and mentor. She brought Eleanor with her as a companion while traveling in France and Italy during school holidays. She introduced the youngster to the architectural splendor of European cities, but also showed her the hardships and inequalities of urban life. Her political views that challenged the status quo would inspire Eleanor’s later social activism.
Marie Souvestre – ‘Sou’ as she was named by her pupils – recognized and encouraged the abilities of her young pupil, her writing and linguistic skills (she spoke fluent French), and her leadership qualities. Her competitive character was evident in her love for field hockey. The school’s varied curriculum enabled her to come out of internal hiding and flourish. Eleanor was reluctant to leave Allenswood, but in 1902 she was summoned by grandma to make her social debut which happened that December at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. She maintained a correspondence with her former headmistress (and preserved the letters) until Marie Souvestre died in March 1905. The school continued to function and was finally closed in 1950.
Throughout her productive life Eleanor Roosevelt would look back at the Wimbledon years as a decisive time in her life, identifying Souvestre as a major influence on her socio-educational development and emotional well-being. Marie’s portrait was placed on her desk. She herself became one of the world’s most admired women. Even today, in an imaginary game of bridge among First Ladies, she trumps all rivals.
Photos, from above: Marie Souvestre in London, c. 1900; Le monde tel qu’il sera by Émile Souvestre; Olivia (London: The Hogarth Press); and Allenswood in 1900 (Eleanor is believed to be the girl in the middle of the back row (courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library).