Jolly Bad Luck

P.N. Furbank

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.’

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