Jolly Bad Luck
Françoise de Graffigny, who, in 1747, being then in her early fifties, produced the much loved and wept-over Letters from a Peruvian Woman, was fond of complaining of her guignon, her implacable bad luck. The whole world would have to be overturned, she would say, before her evil star ceased its persecution. There is something in what she says, for she certainly had an excessively chequered life and managed to survive rather impressively.
Still, the vast success of the Letters, her first published work, can hardly be counted among her calamities. For it instantly made her a public figure (readers wrote to her in a passion, as they did to Richardson, entreating her to give her novel a less sad ending); not only that, it retained a devoted readership for the next sixty or so years. (It was some of the favourite reading of Charles X, the last of the Bourbon kings.) What may be reckoned bad luck, though, is for this harmless, foolish, and not un-endearing relic of a dead fashion, to have been resurrected under the auspices of the MLA, as a masterpiece of cultural criticism and a trail-blazing feminist manifesto.
Mme de Graffigny’s life and career appeal to the imagination. She was born, with the excessively aristocratic name of Françoise d’Issembourg du Buisson d’Happoncourt, at Nancy in 1695, the daughter of an officer in the service of the Duke of Lorraine. At 17 she was married, disastrously, to a half-mad spendthrift and bully, who squandered her dowry and battered her. In the end she had to obtain a legal separation; and, her parents showing no disposition to welcome her home, she was, at the age of 28, thrown penniless on the world. It was a time for exploiting her few aristocratic connections, and she found a little grace-and-favour refuge, among a mob of other impoverished hangers-on, at the ducal court of Lorraine, at Lunéville.
She was fat, looking in her portrait by Tocqué a little like David Hume (her friends called her ‘La Grosse’); also hopelessly disorganised, full of neurasthenic aches and pains, and a great groaner and complainer – but this last somehow in a companionable fashion, showing she was as interested in others’ misfortunes as in her own. She adored gossip and intrigue and, now as later, managed to surround herself with juvenile male cronies who shared these tastes. They were also sometimes her lovers, but this seemed to matter less; the important thing, as in E.F. Benson’s Riseholme, was not to lose a single instant in finding out what was going on.
In 1735, as a result of the War of the Polish Succession, her royal patrons were expelled from their duchy, and this presented the still penniless Graffigny with the problem where to go next. Fortunately, during her time at court in Lunéville, Voltaire had taken refuge there for a month, being in some trouble over his indecent epic La Pucelle, and the two had become friendly. She thus now had the inspiration of inviting herself to the château of Cirey, just across the border into France, where he was living with Mme du Châtelet and her complaisant husband the Marquis. Graffigny’s letters describing the household, written to her young boon companion ‘Pampan’ back in Lorraine, are wonderfully good, in their skittering, confiding way. She confirms, better perhaps than anybody, one’s sense of Voltaire as living at five times the normal rate. Quite as hypochondriac as Graffigny herself and half the time imagining he is dying; falling into convulsions over his literary quarrels and sulking in corners when crossed; writing so incessantly he has to be dragged to the table, but dining in princely fashion, treating his servants with charming courtesy (though occasionally spitting at them); putting himself out endlessly to charm and shock and amuse his guests; he is enormously and unstoppably alive. The Voltaire of her description is the one who wrote: ‘One must give one’s soul every possible form. It is a flame which God has entrusted to us; we must feed it with everything we find most precious. We must find a place in our being for all imaginable modes, open the doors of our soul to all forms of knowledge and all feelings; so long as they enter in order and not pell-mell, there is room for them all.’
Vol. 16 No. 7 · 7 April 1994
As pleased as I was to see Françoise de Graffigny and her Letters from a Peruvian Woman receive over a full page of lively discussion by P.N. Furbank (LRB, 24 March), I am sorry that he relied so heavily on Georges Noël’s worthy but outdated biography for much of his information on the author’s life. The 30 ‘wonderfully good’ letters she wrote from Cirey about Voltaire comprise only a fraction of her extant correspondence, which is currently being edited by a team of scholars, including myself, under the direction of J.A. Dainard; almost five hundred letters, dating from 1716 through November 1742, are already available in three volumes published by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford. Another 11 volumes are on the way, and besides an appealing and impressive story of a woman writer’s career, they will provide a fascinating close-up of literary Paris in the mid-18th century.
The letters already published make it clear how Graffigny moved to Paris and lived there after her falling-out with Voltaire and Emilie du Châtelet. She endured their suspicious anger at Cirey for more than a month, not just ‘a day or two’, before her young friend came to her rescue. Although money was always a problem, she had several sources of income besides her ‘tiny pension’ from the Duchesse de Richelieu. The complicated incident involving Nicolas Liébault and his mistress Clairon Lebrun happened while Graffigny was still lodging in a convent, only dreaming of ‘setting up house’: Clairon came to Paris to have an illegitimate baby in secret, Liébault suspected Graffigny of conspiring to give Clairon to a rich rival, and Noël told the soap-operatic story knowing only Liébault’s side of it. It sounds very different with Graffigny’s side included. Meanwhile, on her own initiative and unaided by any ‘aristocratic acquaintance’, she had already met and become friends with Jeanne-Françoise Quinault; and she was included very early in the salon later called the Bout du Banc. The correspondence tells far more than I could summarise here, but I particularly recommend the dust-cover portrait of Graffigny by Quentin de La Tour, which depicts a very attractive woman with a mischievous smile, a witty gleam in her eye, and no resemblance whatsoever to David Hume.
Graffigny’s remarkable experiences as a successful writer in 18th-century Paris make her an interesting case for feminist critics. The next few volumes of letters will show her developing as a writer from ‘Nouvelle Espagnole’, which she wrote on command using an outline supplied by the Comte de Caylus and which she did not think much of herself, to Letters of a Peruvian Woman, which was motivated by a good deal more than ‘pique’ and which fully justified the artist’s pride she took in it. By all indices, it was one of the most popular and influential novels of the era, reprinted well over a hundred times, cited in the Encyclopedia, adapted for the stage, continued in numerous sequels, and translated into most European languages, including five different English versions before this one. The publisher’s decision to make a reliable and affordable translation of this ‘much loved and wept-over’ novel available for the first time in almost a century will allow a new generation of Anglophone readers to form their own judgments of it.
Vol. 16 No. 8 · 28 April 1994
In his review of Françoise de Graffigny’s Letters from a Peruvian Woman (LRB, 24 March), which I edited with Joan DeJean, P.N. Furbank rejects our understanding of the novel as a feminist text, and accuses me of a scholarly slip. The historical introduction to the novel, Mr Furbank asserts, was written by Antonie Bret, a friend of Graffigny’s, and not by Graffigny herself. His source for this assertion is a 1913 biography. But all critics do not agree, and moreover the complexities of salon collaboration make exclusive attribution nearly impossible. I indicate the question of Bret’s contribution in a note on page xxiii which Mr Furbank seems to have skipped over. What matters is that Graffigny made the introduction her own when she signed the 1752 edition in which it appeared. This was also when she added the pointedly feminist letters that take a dim view of the institution of marriage and underscore its unfairness to women.
Mr Furbank might have mentioned that this edition is the first English translation of Graffigny’s Enlightenment classic in almost two centuries. It appears, along with a separate French-language version, in a new series called Texts and Translations, published by the Modern Language Association. These inexpensive, paperback editions will make it possible for students as well as the general readership to discover and enjoy works like those of Graffigny and Isabelle de Charrière, the first two authors published in the series.
Nancy K. Miller
Graduate School, City University of New York