Is Eleanor Roosevelt’s Teacher Madame Souvestre Based on a Real Person?

‘The First Lady’ follows the stories of three iconic first ladies of the United States. Through parallel narratives, the show delves into the lives of Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) in the days leading up to them moving into the White House. Episode 3 goes back even further, showing us the formative years of the three women.

Eleanor is seen attaining an eclectic education in her younger days before she is called back to the United States. Her teacher, Madame Souvestre, has a lasting impact on Eleanor from the short period that the latter spends studying under her. Considering the real-life basis of the series, let’s see if Madame Souvestre is also based on a real person.

Is Madame Souvestre Based on a Real Person?

Yes, Marie Souvestre was, in fact, an educator who founded schools in France and the United Kindom and even taught Eleanor Roosevelt. Born in 1830 in Brest, France, Souvestre was the daughter of the novelist Émile Souvestre. She went on to become known for being a prolific academician and for her liberal political beliefs.

In 1865, she founded a girls boarding school, Les Ruches, in Fontainebleau, France. The school was aimed at cultivating its students into independent and forward-thinking women. Souvestre subsequently set up Allenswood Boarding Academy for girls in Wimbledon, near London. The curriculum included arts, dance, history, languages (English, German, and Italian), literature, music, and philosophy. Souvestre’s institutions were frequented by the daughters of prominent European and American families.

Image Credit: LSE Library

Eleanor attended Allenswood Academy from 1899 till 1902, when she had to return home. As depicted in the series, she was called back by her grandmother for her social debut. However, she kept in touch with Souvestre till the latter’s death in 1905. Thereafter, Eleanor kept a portrait of Souvestre at her desk and preserved her former teacher’s letters. During her time at Allenswood, the young Roosevelt found an inspiring teacher and mentor in Souvestre. The latter cultivated many of Eleanor’s qualities, including a love of travel, by taking her along on trips to France and Italy.

Eleanor’s social activism was also ignited during the time she spent with Souvestre, who had strong political views. Hazel Rowley’s 2010 book ‘Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage’ stated that Souvestre was a lesbian. The point is faintly alluded to in the show, wherein the educationist reveals that she isn’t married and has an eclectic dressing style for the time period. Souvestre opened Les Ruches with her partner, Caroline Dussaut, and then Allenswood with her subsequent partner, Paolina Samaïa. Samaïa taught at both Les Ruches and Allenswood.

Read More: Is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Assistant Louis from The First Lady Based on a Real Person?