Claire de Coëtnempren de Kersaint

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Claire de Coëtnempren de Kersaint
Title(s) duchesse de Duras
Spouses Amédée de Durfort, duc de Duras
Also known as Claire de Duras
Birth date 1777
Death 1828
Biographical entries in old dictionaries

Entry by Rotraud von Kulessa, 2002

Claire de Duras, daughter of the Count of Kersaint and of Claire de Paul d'Alesso d'Eragny, was born on March 22, 1777, in Brest. She spent part of her childhood at the Panthémont convent school. Her father was a liberal, but he spoke out against the cruelty of the Republicans and was guillotined on December 5, 1793. In 1794, Claire's mother took her into exile in Philadelphia before settling in the West Indies. They later returned to Europe, first to Switzerland, then to London, where Claire married Amédée Bretagne-Malo Durfort de Duras in 1797. The couple had two daughters, Félicie, born in 1798, and Clara a year later. In 1801, the family returned to France. In 1808, Claire de Duras made the acquaintance of Chateaubriand-a meeting that was to change her life. During the Restoration, her husband was in favor with Louis XVIII. Claire was hence able to devote herself to her salon in the Tuileries, where she was hostess to Humboldt, Cuvier, Montmorency, Talleyrand, and Madame de Staël. Claire de Duras had Chateaubriand appointed ambassador to London; he proved rather ungrateful however. Claire was also bitterly disappointed by Félicie, her favorite daughter, who neglected her mother after her marriage to the Prince of Talmont. This feeling of disappointment cast a gloom over her life, as is apparent from both her letters to Rosalie de Constant and Chateaubriand and her literary works. She suffered from bouts of nervous depression, and died in Nice in January 1828.

Claire de Duras did not wish her first novel, Olivier, completed in 1822, to be published during her lifetime, as she felt the subject matter was too daring. The story is in fact about a young man suffering from sexual impotence. The 1971 publication, edited by Denise Virieux and based on Claire de Duras's manuscripts, demonstrates that this work was used by Stendhal as a model for Armance. Her short novel Ourika, based on a true story, was published in 1823. The central theme is again that of difference, in this case viewed from a racial perspective. Ourika is a young Senegalese woman who grows up in France in the care of Mme B. and lives through the Revolution, the Emigration, and the Empire. She is in love with Mme B.'s son, but comes to realize that the racial barrier means that they can never marry. Her despair is self-destructive, and in the end she kills her. The theme of social exclusion also governs the fate of Edouard, the hero of another, eponymous novel. After the death of his parents, Edouard is taken in by the Duke of Nevers. He falls in love with the duke's daughter, who is a young widow. The difference in their social status makes all thoughts of marriage impossible, and Edouard ends up dying in the American War of Independence. In 1827, Duras also published a work entitled Pensées de Louis XIV.

Claire de Duras left two more novels in a fragmentary state, Le Moine du Saint-Bernard, mentioned in a letter to Rosalie de Constant dated May 15, 1824, and Les Mémoires de Sophie, part of which Agénor Bardoux included in his biography of the author. A religious work entitled Réflexions et Prières inédites was published after her death.

As has so often been the case with women writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Claire de Duras was long seen as the author of sentimental novels. The recurrent theme of otherness that runs through her works has recently awakened fresh critical interest. Claire de Duras explores the fundamental principles of the French Revolution that had sparked debate during the Enlightenment, such as the principle of equality of all men (and women, too). Her novels demonstrate how life itself dooms such principles to failure.

(translated by Susan Pickford)


- 1822 : Olivier, Ed. Denise Virieux, Paris, J. Corti, 1971.
- 1823 : Ourika. Paris, Imprimerie Royale -- Présentation et étude de Roger Little. Exeter, Univ. of Exeter Press, 1993.
- 1824? : Le Moine ou l'Abbé du Saint Bernard (attribution incertaine), inédit.
- 1825 : Edouard. 2 vols., Paris, Ladvocat -- Raymond Trousson (ed.), Romans de Femmes du XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1996.
- 1827 :Pensées de Louis XIV, extraites de ses ouvrages et de ses lettres manuscrites. Paris, Firmin-Didot.
- ? : Les Mémoires de Sophie,fragments publiés in Bardoux, Agénor (voir infra, choix bibliog.).
- ? : Réflexions et pièces inédites, par Mme la duchesse de Duras. Paris, Débécourt, 1839.


- "Ce serait bien incomplétement connaître Mme de Duras que de la juger seulement un esprit fin, une âme délicate et sensible, comme on pourrait le croire d'après son influence modératrice dans le monde et d'après une lecture courante des deux charmantes productions qu'elle a publiées. Elle était plus forte, plus grande, plus passionnément douée que ce premier aspect ne la montre ; il y avait de puissants ressorts, de nobles tumultes dans cette nature, que toutes les affections vraies et toutes les questions sérieuses saisissaient vivement ; comme l'époque qu'elle représente pour sa part et qu'elle décore, elle cachait sous le brillant de la surface, sous l'adoucissement des nuances, plus d'une lutte et d'un orage." (Sainte Beuve, Portraits de femmes. Paris, Didier, 1858, p.58.)

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