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Young Sophie has a lot to learn...
Malheurs de Sophie (Sophie's Misfortunes) is the first of a trilogy of French children's novels by the Russian-born Comtesse de Ségur (born Sophia Rostopchina), followed by sequels Les Petites filles modèles (The Good Little Girls) and Les vacances (The Holidays). The books were published in 1858-59 and together constitute a Bildungsroman. Sophie de Réan is a little girl growing up on an aristocratic estate, brought up by her devoted but firm and morally upright mother. The stories follow Sophie through a series of misadventures, caused at first by her own headstrong and unruly behavior, and later by a terrible tragedy in her family that will result in dramatic turns of events that work out badly for Sophie and encourage her vices, until a family friend, the widowed Mme de Fleurville, shows interest in helping her. The three novels can be summarized as follows:

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  • Malheurs de Sophie: Little Sophie is growing up on the Réan estate in Normandy. Her mother and her nursemaid have their hands full owing to her constantly getting into trouble. Although Sophie seems to want to be a good girl deep down, she keeps misbehaving and nothing her mother, or her well-behaved cousin Paul, do can bring her to mend her ways. The book ends with a cliffhanger: Sophie and her parents, as well as Paul and his parents, are to go on a trip to Louisiana in order for Sophie's father to assume a fortune that he has inherited from an old friend, M. Fichini. Everyone boards a ship bound for America, and the children enjoy the adventure of an ocean cruise.

  • Les petites filles modèles: The book starts with Camille and Madeleine, the kind and (usually) well-behaved daughters of Mme de Fleurville, gaining a new playmate, a little girl called Marguerite. She and her mother, Mme de Rosbourg, had a road accident in their coach, and Mme de Fleurville tends to them. They are bereft of the father of the family, for M. de Rosbourg was a ship's captain who was lost at sea; Mme de Fleurville ends up inviting them to live with her. The girls take Marguerite under their wing and act as older sisters to her. Together, the girls grow in virtue. Midway through the story, Sophie reappears. Since the first book, she has become an orphan, having first lost her mother, uncle, aunt, and cousin Paul during a storm at sea and, having been rescued together with her father, also losing him when he died from an illness following a remarriage to Fédora Fichini, the adopted daughter of his late friend, whose name he has also taken. The latter has shown herself to be a sadistically unkind stepmother to Sophie. Growing up under her terror, Sophie has made no moral progress at all. Sophie's fortunes take a turn for the better when Mme Fichini leaves her with Mme de Fleurville in order to go on an extended trip. Her stepmother's subsequent marriage to a supposed Count leaves Sophie in the permanent care of her benefactor, where she will both get a reprieve from her former life and the chance to grow into a good little girl alongside Camille, Madeleine and Marguerite.

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  • Les vacances: Sophie has been living with Mme de Fleurville and her daughters for some time and has become a good girl like Camille and Madeleine. The summer has come and Camille and Madeleine's aunts and uncles have come to spend the vacation at the Fleurville estate. They have brought their young sons, Léon, Jean and Jacques, well-brought-up boys, who however are not without their childish flaws. During the course of the summer, the girls and boys will become good friends and learn life lessons together. Sophie will be reunited with some people from the past and her personal situation will be ultimately resolved.

Although the novels are meant to be didactic, they are not without comic relief and besides the moralistic messages that they contain for children, also have a strong message about how parents should be kind toward their offspring and reasonable when disciplining them.

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This work provides examples of:

  • Aesop: For children – obey your parents, listen to good counsel, and be kind and charitable towards others. For parents – be kind and understanding, but firm and consistent, when disciplining your children. For both – do not neglect your duties toward God.

  • Aesop Amnesia: In the first book, Sophie manages to retain few lessons. She keeps getting into trouble, no matter how much she suffers harm and how much she gets disciplined. This will not change until the second book.

  • Author Avatar: Sophie, right down to sharing her first name with the author. In her preface to the first book, addressed to her granddaughter, de Ségur claims that "Grandma" was not always good, and that she "knew" a girl like Sophie, who used to be bad but who reformed herself. As a child growing up in Russia, Sophia Rostopchina is said to have had a mother who was a harsh disciplinarian, and to have had behavioral problems in spite of (or perhaps because of) this.

  • Author Tract: The books are essentially a manual on being a good child, but also on how to treat and discipline your kids – and how not to.

  • Bad People Abuse Animals: In the first book, Sophie's Compressed Vice is a tendency to treat animals badly. She loves having pets, but they usually end up dead due to her ill treatment (and in one case direct destruction, when she cuts up her mother's pet fishes).note  Finally, when her actions cause the death of a tortoise, supposedly the easiest possible animal to take care of,note  her mother puts her foot down, tells Sophie that she will not take care of any more animals, and holds firm to her decision.

  • Bedsheet Ghost: in Les vacances, they catch a boy stealing vegetables while disguised as a ghost.

  • Breather Episode: Most notably the final chapter of Malheurs de Sophie. At the end of a book that has been a series of mishaps and mistakes involving the protagonist, the plot suddenly shifts to a transatlantic cruise for Sophie, Paul, and their parents, who are travelling to Louisiana to assume a fortune left by a family friend. The experience is a novel and exciting one for the kids, and there is enough to keep them amused on deck without getting into big trouble. The book ends on this optimistic note. Who would think that, in Les petites filles modèles, we are going to learn that the ship never arrived to its destination, having been caught in a sea storm, and that while Sophie and her father managed to survive (with three other characters making a reappearance in Les vacances), the father died some time after they arrived in Louisiana, with Sophie's misfortunes continuing from there.

  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': No matter what shenanigan Sophie gets into, she gets caught and there are always consequences of some sort.

  • Celebrity Paradox: There are in-universe references to some of de Ségur’s other children's stories or the characters in them. For example, Sophie and Paul name their rescue cat "Beau-Minon", like the cat "in the story of Blondine", referring to the tale Blondine, Bonne-Biche et Beau-Minon.

  • Christianity Is Catholic: The books are written purposefully in such a way as to promote Catholic morality; the positive adult figures in them are generally shown or implied to be pious Christians and the children are led by them, and by each other, toward acquiring a spirit of devotion.

  • Cliffhanger: In the last chapter of Malheurs de Sophie, Sophie and Paul's families are travelling on a ship to America; the kids are having the time of their lives, anticipating adventures to come. The author ends by referring the reader to the second two books if he or she wants to find out what happened to Sophie and to Paul respectively. Les Petites filles modèles then ends with the arrival of aunts, uncles and cousins to spend the summer vacation at Fleurville. The author states that she will relate how they spent that summer in Les vacances.

  • Contrived Coincidence: In the third book, M. de Traypi goes to the Ministry of the Navy to make inquiries about the fate of Sophie's cousin Paul and M. de Rosbourg, the captain of the ship that got lost in the storm that Sophie's family was on, after the good sailor Lecomte "le Normand", who had survived the storm and has himself recently returned from America, reports that they had also survived and that they separated from him after running into some Indians. At the Ministry, M. de Traypi runs into M. de Rosbourg, who has also managed to return to France with Paul and has gone to the Ministry to report this. Thus, M. De Traypi can take them home to the Fleurville estate for a happy reunion with Sophie and M. de Rosbourg's wife and daughter Marguerite.

  • Coming-of-Age Story: During the course of the three novels, Sophie grows from a disobedient and mischievous child into a good girl who exhibits proper Christian virtues, like Camille, Madeleine and Marguerite.

  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: When Sophie's mother catches her dismembering a bee, she makes her wear its remains in a lace around her neck until they fall apart. Fortunately for Sophie, a week later, Paul is roughhousing with her, during which the bee's remains are broken up and her mother allows the collar of shame to be removed.

  • Corporal Punishment / Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off!: In the first book, Sophie's mother gives her a whipping "such as she had never given her before" on catching her having stolen the contents of her sewing box. In the second book, after her mother is lost at sea, Sophie's father marries Mlle Fichini, who severely whips Sophie on one occasion. Recognizing that he has given his daughter a cruel stepmother, he avenges the whipping by giving Mme Fichini a thorough beating. Shortly after, Sophie's father dies, and Mme Fichini begins to subject Sophie to nothing but cruelty, regularly severely beating her both when she has and when she hasn't done anything wrong. It doesn't help with socializing Sophie at all. In stark contrast to this, Mme de Fleurville never whips her daughters and when she takes Sophie into her care, she has to strictly discipline her only once, by locking her overnight in a "penance closet", a cell in which Sophie must sit, copy out the Lord's Prayer ten times, and read edifying literature. After some initial resistance, Sophie realizes she has been bad and turns over a new leaf.note 

  • Decomposite Character: Sophie's caring if strict natural mother and her cruel stepmother, Mme Fichini would appear to both represent the author's own mother, who seems to have fallen somewhere in between them on the parenting scale, having been devoted to her upbringing but harsh and authoritarian. It is symptomatic that both fictional mother figures are killed off, Sophie's mother in the sea storm that happened before the events of the second book and her stepmother before the end of the third book, and are replaced by the all-round positive character of Sophie's foster mother, Mme de Fleurville.

  • Disappeared Dad: Sophie's dad seems to be kind enough, but he is often away on business in Paris, leaving mom to be the disciplinarian. He eventually dies of a fever while in Louisiana with Sophie, leaving her in the "care" of his mean and sadistic second wife, Fédora Fichini.

  • Early Installment Weirdness: The first two chapters of the first book are more humorous than most of the rest of the trilogy, dealing with Sophie's mistreatment of a fine doll that her father sent her until it is broken and ugly and ends up being given a funeral. In fact, the entire first book is somewhat dissonant to the second two, focusing entirely on Sophie and her immediate family whereas the two sequels also give other characters full treatment. This is in part because the trilogy was originally intended as a duology, with Malheurs de Sophie actually being inserted as a prequel/Sophie's backstory during the creation of the project.

  • Family of Choice: During the sea storm, when Captain de Rosbourg wanted to send Paul back to his parents, Paul insisted on staying with him. He appears to have deliberately chosen to stay with the likable M. de Rosbourg due to his own parents, who often left him at Sophie's prior to this voyage, being emotionally distant. They are then marooned in the Americas and form a strong bond; Paul comes to see the captain as his father and when they manage to return to France, the latter's wife accepts him as her son and Paul and the Rosbourg's young daughter Marguerite are happy to be brother and sister. Foster brother and sister are even stated at the end of the book to have married each other when they grew up.

  • Forgiveness: Sophie meets Mme Fichini, now the "Countess Blagowski", her "ex-stepmother", for the last time when the latter is on her deathbed. Having been duped and used for her fortune by her husband, a convict who had posed as a foreign count, she is left alone and dying with a sickly infant daughter. She has fully realized that she has acted evilly toward Sophie and asks for her forgiveness, but not without showing heartfelt repentance for her behavior and admitting to Sophie that the treatment she has subjected her to was horrendous. Sophie sincerely forgives her, even stating: "you have made me happy by giving me to Mme de Fleurville, who is like a real mother to me". The next day, closer to death than ever, she asks Sophie, who was brought to her a second time, to take her daughter into her care. Sophie promises to Mme Fichini to treat her like a sister and M. de Rosbourg nominally approves of the plan, but this is evidently more to give the dying woman comfort than anything. He subsequently discusses the fate of the child with Mme de Fleurville and states that "Sophie cannot treat as her sister the daughter of a convict and of this woman who was never anything for her other than an executioner." So after Mme Fichini's death, the child is given to the former's maidservant Hedwige, who also receives a pension. Within a few months, the sickly girl dies anyway.

  • Good Parents: Mme de Fleurville and the people she associates with are kind, loving and devoted to their children, but know when to instruct and discipline them and their methods for doing the latter are moderate (by 19th-century standards). We even see them playing with their children during the vacation, something which flies in the face of the stereotype of upper-class Victorian parents as rather aloof from their offspring. M. de Rosbourg and his wife are particularly tender toward both his biological daughter Marguerite and toward their adopted son, Sophie's cousin Paul.

  • Gotta Have It, Gonna Steal It: Desirous of her mother's new sewing box, Sophie figures that if it were diminished, her mother would not care for it, and would give it to her. So, she steals its contents and hides them. Of course, she is discovered, and severely punished. On a different occasion, Sophie can't resist pinching some candied fruit.

  • Happily Adopted: By the last book, Sophie is permanently under kindly Mme de Fleurville's and M. De Rosbourg's guardianship. Her cousin Paul sees M. and Mme de Rosbourg as his parents and Marguerite as his dear sister.

  • Honor Thy Parent: Sophie and the other children are brought up to respect and obey their parents and guardians. On the other hand, the books make it clear that the latter should also be kind and devoted toward their children.

  • Idle Rich: Averted by Sophie's mother and even more specifically by Mme de Fleurville, who spend their time on raising their children and helping the poor. Played straight by Mme Fichini. Also, the impoverished "Tourne-boule" family, who are living above their means and have to sell off their finery in order to pay their debts, are shown as a bad example to follow.

  • Laser-Guided Karma: Mme Fichini, who treated her stepdaughter Sophie cruelly, ends up dying of an unnamed disease. But not before repenting of the treatment she inflicted on Sophie and admitting her guilt to the latter.

  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: In Les Vacances, Paul states aloud that he prefers his kind and devoted foster father, M. de Rosbourg, to his deceased father, who he thinks never loved him. M. De Rosbourg admonishes him not to speak ill of the dead, but to admit facts about them to God in his prayers.

  • Parents as People: A rather understated example, but Sophie's natural mother is shown disciplining her in various ways; while she seems to be making a genuine effort and while the author doesn't take a clear position on her actions, she seems to imply that her methods are not really working. This becomes clearer in the second book, when Mme de Fleurville's more consistent discipline is shown as effective.

  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Everyone seems to think that tortoises are nasty creatures, except for Sophie.

  • Robinsonade: In Les vacances, After making a surprise return to France, M. de Rosbourg, the captain of the ship that was wrecked in a sea storm in the previous book, and Paul, who was saved together with him, tell Sophie and the others staying in Mme de Fleurville's household about how they were stranded together with the sailor "le Normand" somewhere in the Americas. Skillful M. de Rosbourg managed to provide for himself and Paul in the wilderness; they ended up meeting natives who were at first hostile toward them; however, by playing along with their customs, the marooned French party managed to become friends with them; in the end, M. de Rosbourg taught the natives the ways of Christianity and the tribe accepted baptism from him.

  • Savage Wolves: A scary wolf attacks Sophie after she insists on lagging behind during a walk with her mother, Paul, and the de Réans' dogs, grabbing Sophie by the petticoat. The dogs fight the wolf off and save Sophie from being taken as his prey. Paul wants to help them fend him off, and though his aunt stops Paul from going into the fray, she rewards him for his courage the next day with a child-size Zouave uniform.

  • Secret Test of Character: Sophie's mother once shows her a well-equipped sewing box that she just received from Sophie's father. Sophie expresses a desire to have the same. Her mother tells her that she may just receive one if she earns it. Predictably, Sophie can't wait; she steals the contents of the box and hides them away in her room. Of course, what she did is discovered and Sophie receives severe punishment. Afterward, her mother, still upset, shows her a letter that her father had sent, instructing her that the sewing box was meant for Sophie, but not to tell her about this, but to give it to her if she manages to be good for eight days. Having failed the test royally, she never gets the box.

  • Vanity Is Feminine: Sophie wishes to have curly hair like her friend Camille. One day, she remembers that Camille's hair curls better when it is wet, so she stands under the spout of an eavestrough and wets her head. She only manages to get soaked, and her hair, far from curling, stands up on her head. This earns her a thorough dressing-down from her mother. Sophie also wants thicker eyebrows, and cuts them off, thinking that this will make them thicker. It only makes her look silly.

  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Sophie and Paul in the first book. She reacts negatively to his tendency to do as he is told and call out Sophie on her misbehavior. This often ends up in nasty words being exchanged and even physical altercation; in the end, they always make up.

  • Wealthy Philanthropist: Both Sophie's mother and later her guardian Mme de Fleurville regularly give alms to the poor and bring up their girls to do the same.

  • Wish-Fulfillment: The author's description of Sophie's father standing up for her and beating her stepmother after the latter savagely whips her in the second book is likely a case of this, as is the stepmother's eventual repentance, tearful admission of guilt to Sophie and subsequent death near the end of the second book. In Real Life, de Ségur's mother was a harsh disciplinarian and her father is said to have been unable to stand up to her.note 

  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: At the end of Les Vacances, we find out what became of the children when they grew up: notably, Sophie marries Jean de Rugès, one of the boys who came to spend the summer vacation with the girls in that book; Marguerite marries her adoptive brother Paul and the two of them devote their lives to M. and Mme de Rosbourg; the conceited, irreligious Tourne-boule family try their luck in America but emerge penniless; their daughter Yolande becomes an actress and ends up dying in hospital while her father returns to France and is received by the Little Sisters of the Poor, where he earns his keep in their kitchen. On that note, de Ségur ends her trilogy.

  • Wicked Stepmother: Fédora Fichini is one of literature's iconic evil stepmothers; she acts as a sadistically abusive monster toward Sophie. Prior to marrying her father, she acted very kindly to them, but once she becomes her stepmother, she reveals her true colors, and is constantly angry at Sophie's father and scolds and beats Sophie. When Sophie's father avenges a particularly severe beating, Mme Fichini tells him: "I will return all the blows that you have given me to your daughter." Shortly after, the father dies, and Mme Fichini subjects Sophie to hell on earth, liberally beating her, rationing her food and even her water, and when she finds out that the servants are kind to Sophie, forbidding them to talk to her on pain of immediate dismissal. It is a godsend for Sophie when her stepmother goes abroad and leaves her in the care of Mme de Fleurville. She ends up getting married to an impostor posing as a count and having a sickly baby daughter by him; at the end of the last book, Mme Fichini comes home disgraced and mortally ill; she deeply repents of the treatment she gave Sophie while under her care and apologizes to her. Her daughter dies shortly afterward.
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