[The following passage comes from “Centralisation,” a lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, London, in 1867. I have excerpted it from the Project Gutenberg online version of Kingsley’s Literary and General Lectures and Essays. — George P. Landow
ut there are solid defects in “Télémaque”—indicating corresponding defects in the author’s mind—which would have, in any case, prevented its doing the good work which Fénelon desired; defects which are natural, as it seems to me, to his position as a Roman Catholic priest, however saintly and pure, however humane and liberal. The king, with him, is to be always the father of his people; which is tantamount to saying, that the people are to be always children, and in a condition of tutelage; voluntary, if possible: if not, of tutelage still. Of self-government, and education of human beings into free manhood by the exercise of self-government, free will, free thought—of this Fénelon had surely not a glimpse. A generation or two passed by, and then the peoples of Europe began to suspect that they were no longer children, but come to manhood; and determined (after the example of Britain and America) to assume the rights and duties of manhood, at whatever risk of excesses or mistakes: and then “Télémaque” was relegated—half unjustly—as the slavish and childish dream of a past age, into the schoolroom, where it still remains.
But there is a defect in “Télémaque” which is perhaps deeper still. No woman in it exercises influence over man, except for evil. Minerva, the guiding and inspiring spirit, assumes of course, as Mentor, a male form; but her speech and thought is essentially masculine, and not feminine. Antiope is a mere lay-figure, introduced at the end of the book because Telemachus must needs be allowed to have hope of marrying someone or other. Venus plays but the same part as she does in the Tannenhäuser legends of the Middle Age. Her hatred against Telemachus is an integral element of the plot. She, with the other women or nymphs of the romance, in spite of all Fénelon’s mercy and courtesy towards human frailties, really rise no higher than the witches of the Malleus Maleficanum. Woman—as the old monk held who derived femina from fe, faith, and minus, less, because women have less faith than men—is, in “Télémaque,” whenever she thinks or acts, the temptress, the enchantress; the victim (according to a very ancient calumny) of passions more violent, often more lawless, than man’s.
Such a conception of women must make “Télémaque,” to the end of time, useless as a wholesome book of education. It must have crippled its influence, especially in France, in its own time. For there, for good and for evil, woman was asserting more and more her power, and her right to power, over the mind and heart of man. Rising from the long degradation of the Middle Ages, which had really respected her only when unsexed and celibate, the French woman had assumed, often lawlessly, always triumphantly, her just freedom; her true place as the equal, the coadjutor, the counsellor of man. Of all problems connected with the education of a young prince, that of the influence of woman was, in the France of the Ancien Régime, the most important. And it was just that which Fénelon did not, perhaps dared not, try to touch; and which he most certainly could not have solved. Meanwhile, not only Madame de Maintenon, but women whose names it were a shame to couple with hers, must have smiled at, while they hated, the saint who attempted to dispense not only with them, but with the ideal queen who should have been the helpmeet of the ideal king.
Kingsley, Charles. The Ancien Regime. London: Macmillan and Co., 1902 Project Gutenberg [eBook #1335] Produced by David Price. Web. 23 June 2018.
Last modified 23 June 2018