Old world meets new in Pittsburgh, PA – ASECS 2016

Pittsburgh bridge

Pittsburgh: a bridge over the Allegheny

Pittsburgh, otherwise known as ‘the steel city’. My image of the place, unfairly tainted by the UK’s steel industry crisis, was of a struggling post-industrial metropolis, possibly in need of a complete makeover. The location of this year’s ASECS meeting completely overturned my prejudices: what I encountered was an impressively upbeat conurbation boasting several splendid art deco buildings, majestic bridges spanning the Allegheny river and recreational treats such as the Andy Warhol Museum, the National Aviary Center and the unlikely named Mattress Factory.

The Omni Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh

The Omni Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh

The annual ASECS meeting took place in one of the oldest hotels in Pittsburgh, the Omni Penn, which has just celebrated its centenary. ASECS delegates would join the long list of illustrious guests which boasts John F. Kennedy and Bob Hope. For a UK-based publisher, the ASECS meeting is both a great way of showcasing our books from the ‘Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment’ series to faculty and academics, and, just as importantly, of meeting our US-based authors. With email and file transfer sites, communicating with authors is easy, though the one missing aspect for me is the human element. Meeting authors in person is very rewarding, always interesting, and sometimes surprising as the mental images we inevitably form of a person are, more often than not, completely wrong! This year I finally had the pleasure of meeting, amongst many other ‘old friends’, Sabrina Ferri, whose book Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836, marks our first foray into Italian studies, and Clorinda Donato, co-editor of Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, which is part of our growing programme of Spain and Hispanic studies-related works.

Clorinda Donato

Clorinda Donato at the Voltaire Foundation’s stand

ASECS is also an ideal opportunity for me and the new General editor of the series, Las Vegas-based Greg Brown, to get together in person. Whilst I manned our book stand in the exhibitors’ hall, Greg attended panel discussions and met several potential new authors. We hosted an inaugural drinks reception to celebrate the series – many thanks to Byron Wells and Vickie Cutting at the ASECS Executive Office for their organisational help – where the chocolate and fruit dessert proved very enticing.

My abiding memories of Pittsburgh: warm (even though it snowed on the day of departure), generous, up-and-coming and forward-looking. Next year’s ASECS in Minnesota may be slightly chillier, but wrap up warm, shelve those Fargo-esque preconceptions, and you may be surprised by what you find.

– Lyn Roberts

Greg Brown

Greg Brown at the Voltaire Foundation’s stand

The sense of an ending – final Mme de Graffigny letters published


This month we celebrate the publication of the final volume (vol.15) of the Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny alongside the launch of the completed correspondence’s online cumulative index – a live reference tool for all 15 volumes. This new volume brings Mme de Graffigny’s life to a close, and covers both the settlement of her estate and her friends’ early efforts to preserve her fame for posterity. The moment seems fitting to try to evaluate the end of her extraordinary life.

Her final year, 1758, was dominated by the failure of her play, La Fille d’Aristide. Many of her contemporaries connected it to her death. Voisenon quipped that ‘the public died of boredom and the author of grief’. Voltaire repeated the idea in a letter two years later. Casanova, who claimed to have attended the disastrous opening, said that she died of chagrin five days afterward.

Title page

Two variant title pages of the original edition of La Fille d’Artistide (Paris, 1759).

In fact, the play premiered on 29 April 1758 and Mme de Graffigny died seven months later on 12 December. Her letters tell a very different story of her reaction to the play’s poor reception. Her old friend and correspondent François-Antoine Devaux wrote that she accepted the failure ‘as reasonably as could be imagined’. Moreover, letters from other friends and acquaintances in May 1758 all attest to her equanimity. At the same time, she confronted far more serious troubles.

The first was the disgrace of her friend, the comte de Maillebois. In 1756 he had arranged a paid position in the archives of the Invalides to be shared by two of Mme de Graffigny’s Lorraine protégés, Nicholas-François Liébault and Devaux. Maillebois was a rising star in the French military at the start of the Seven Years’ War. At the battle of Hastembeck, on 29 July 1757, the French won a victory but let the enemy forces slip away. Maillebois engaged in a public dispute with the commanding general, the maréchal d’Estrées, about responsibility for this mistake, was convicted of insubordination, and exiled in May 1758.

In June, Liébault was suspected of leaking military documents while in the post Maillebois had obtained for him. He managed to flee, but his younger brother and assistant Léopold was imprisoned in the Bastille. Léopold was transferred to Vincennes in October, but remained behind bars until spring 1759, when he was exonerated and discharged. Mme de Graffigny did everything she could to help Léopold, recruiting powerful friends to support him, sending him money and supplies, and visiting him herself.

In July, Helvétius published his work of materialist philosophy, De l’Esprit. He was not just an old friend but the husband of Mme de Graffigny’s cousin Anne-Catherine de Ligniville. Their long courtship had taken place in Mme de Graffigny’s apartment. He was handsome, charming, immensely wealthy and well connected, a perfect husband. His book, however, though approved by a censor, was immediately attacked by the Church and by the Paris Parlement, which condemned it in 1759. Helvétius had to publish retractions and barely escaped serious penalties. On his behalf, too, Mme de Graffigny attempted to intervene, visiting the Procureur Général of Parlement to plead his case.

Françoise de Graffigny

Françoise de Graffigny by Pierre-Augustin Clavareau. Lunéville, musée du château des Lumières. Photo: T. Franz, Conseil départemental 54.

As these disasters unfolded, Mme de Graffigny’s health declined. She had long suffered from poor health and occasional fainting spells, but in May she began to lose consciousness more frequently, sometimes without realizing that anything had happened. She was often fatigued, forced to dictate her letters to conserve strength. From time to time she spat blood. It is impossible to say now exactly what caused her death; some symptoms sound like cardiac events, others like strokes, or epileptic seizures, pulmonary problems, tuberculosis or cancer. Perhaps all were present. Her doctors cannot have helped, with such treatments as bleeding and flogging her legs to raise blisters.

The rumour bruited by Casanova, Voisenon and Voltaire made Mme de Graffigny’s death the punchline of a comic plot. She was portrayed as a ‘femme savante’, who had challenged nature by excessive ambition and was brought low by the return of normality. In reality, she led a heroic life. After surviving marriage to a brutal husband, she was forced by political events to leave her native Lorraine. Alone, with little income, she made her way to the pinnacle of Paris literary society. She wrote a novel, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), and a play, Cénie (1750), which were hugely successful. She presided over an informal salon frequented by the most famous figures of the era. At her death she was the most celebrated living woman writer in the world.

Moreover, she had the peaceful death of a person who has lived well and feels no regrets. In her last days she was rereading her favourite authors and receiving calls. On the eve of her death, when she was first stricken, she was playing cards with old friends. To the end she followed the example of the poet Maynard, who wrote, ‘I await death without fearing or desiring it’.

– English Showalter

Celebrating Voltaire: A Symposium

J. Patrick Lee

J. Patrick Lee

McGill University in Montréal sponsored a Symposium on 9th March to celebrate its recent acquisition of J. Patrick Lee’s Voltaire Collection. Pat Lee, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was a pre-eminent American Voltaire scholar, an inspiring teacher and a gifted university administrator. He was also a discriminating bibliophile. At his death in 2006, his library held some 11,000 volumes and many manuscripts. Of these, McGill purchased 1,994 rare and important items, including 35 manuscripts in the hand of Voltaire, Madame du Châtelet, and others in Voltaire’s circle; there are 245 stand-alone editions of Candide, 39 of Zadig, 54 of the Dictionnaire philosophique, and 21 of La Henriade, as well as American imprints of Voltaire’s works, and volumes with notable American provenance.

The Symposium proved worthy of this remarkable collection. Held in the ballroom of the University Faculty Club, a capacity audience of students, academics, and members of the public was treated to series of lectures (some in French and some in English) presenting an overview of Voltaire’s life and career. Recurring themes were Voltaire’s role in promoting Enlightenment values and his battles against intolerance, superstition and religious fanaticism (Josiane Boulad-Ayoub), his relationship with England and the English (Richard Virr, Edward Langille), his latter day image as the patriarch of Ferney (Simon Davies), and, of course, his image beyond the grave (Hans-Jurgen Lüsebrink).

McGill Librarian Ann Marie Holland talked on the many versions of the Dictionnaire philosophique held in the Lee Collection.

From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne

From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne

Towards the end of the afternoon, the participants engaged in an exhilarating roundtable discussion on the question: ‘Why does Voltaire matter in the 21st century?’ which inevitably focused on the religious fanaticism of last year’s murderous attacks in France (Ethel Groffier, Ugo Dionne, Benoît Melançon, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne). A sceptical Benoît Melançon doubted whether sales of Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance really could have attained the 185,000 copies reported in the aftermath of those attacks, or at least whether any of those who did buy it actually read it or merely had it as a kind of talisman. And he wondered too, as others have done, whether Voltaire is a writer whose works everyone quotes but no one reads. It is ironic to reflect that Voltairian slogans on free speech and religious tolerance were widely quoted after the attacks, rather as the faithful recite prayers in times of grief. And like a secular saint, his image became familiar on posters and banners at free-speech rallies throughout France.

Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton

The keynote address was delivered by the Enlightenment historian Robert Darnton, who took us (happily) back to the eighteenth century and its fascination with Voltaire, the best-selling author. Darnton’s account of how the 75 year-old played publishers off, one against the other, in order to secure for his monumental Questions sur l’Encyclopédie as wide a readership as possible, provided a riveting conclusion to the day’s proceedings.

Mounted in conjunction with the Voltaire Symposium is an exhibition of works by or on Voltaire covering nearly three centuries. Contemporary editions of Voltaire’s works are juxtaposed with the key 20th-century editions of Voltaire’s most popular work, Candide (MacLennan Library).

The acquisition of the J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection at McGill University puts the land of ‘quelques arpents de neige’ on the map as an important centre of Voltaire and Enlightenment scholarship.

– E. M. Langille, St Francis Xavier University

(View a video recording of the Symposium here.)

On translating the hasty writing of encyclopedia articles


Translating French and Spanish encyclopedia articles from the Enlightenment into English is not easy. There are, of course, the typical problems that one encounters when doing any translation, such as negotiating between surface meanings and deep meanings, dealing with false cognates, contending with idiomatic expressions, and deciding whether to go with a literal or an idiomatic translation. However, when dealing with encyclopedia articles that were written at a furious pace for the gargantuan compilations that were the Encyclopédie méthodique and its Spanish translation, the Encyclopedia metódica, there emerges the problem of translating hurried and at times careless writing that was possibly never proof-read, and certainly never corrected. Knowing that eighteenth-century encyclopedists worked under stringent publication deadlines, the vexed but somewhat amused translator could hardly blame them for suffering the all-too-common professional flaw of careless writing.

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) Artist: Rembrandt

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) (Rembrandt, ca. 1652; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

This is what my co-translator, Clorinda Donato, and I encountered when preparing our volume, Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, for which we translated and annotated the articles ‘Espagne’ (from the Méthodique) and ‘España’ (from the Metódica). Although the articles are generally well written, there are nevertheless moments when authors Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers and Julián de Velasco felt the urgency of their task and careened their way through long, convoluted sentences without ever looking back. That a pronoun lost track of its referent, or that a verb strayed so far from its subject that it forgot whether it should be singular or plural mattered little when the encyclopedia mill had to keep grinding. Reading these articles I also find passages where the zeal to badmouth Spain’s backwardness or defend its misunderstood Enlightenment overrode any respect for the conventions of grammar. The passions aroused by Enlightenment debate were just too strong to obey the strictures of the Académie Française and the Real Academia. Indeed, these are the moments when Masson and Velasco are most fun to read.

Annotating these translations also revealed an interesting consequence of such hasty writing. While citing, copying, and paraphrasing was a regular practice among eighteenth-century scholars, the verification of information was not. If a scholar cites a source that is based on a citation that is based on another citation that is based on another citation and so on, that scholar will likely have in his hands a cumulative error, a product of distortions and embellishments. This is what we find in Masson’s negative portrayal of Spain and the Inquisition. Where he cites sources that have been embellished, he enters the fray by adding yet another layer of gleeful embellishment. Indeed, it would not be entirely wrong to say that the polemic emerging out of Masson’s infamous question ‘What does Europe owe Spain?’ is in large measure the result of an Enlightenment version of the game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).


A Scene in a Library (photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, ca.1844; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

But if haphazard writing and cumulative error are endemic to encyclopedia culture, then how can Enlightenment discourse ever safeguard itself from the vagaries and flighty opinions of scholars such as Masson? This is precisely the question that our volume seeks to answer. By translating and juxtaposing Masson’s and Velasco’s articles on Spain, we see how the Spaniards object to being the butt of the joke running down the telephone chain of French philosophie, and how they insist that the discourse of Enlightenment return to its more noble purpose of advancing civility and rational exchange.

– Ricardo López

Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, edited by Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, November 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1170-7, 336 pages, 2 ills


Voltaire Bruxellois

Voltaire knew Brussels well: he visited first with Mme de Rupelmonde in 1722, and between 1739 and 1742 made several extended stays in the city with Émilie Du Châtelet. The pirated editions of Mahomet which appeared under a Brussels imprint in 1742 connect the name of the city with Voltaire’s crusade for religious toleration.


A 1742 edition of Mahomet, with Brussels imprint

All of us at the Voltaire Foundation express strongest solidarity with our friends and colleagues in Belgium, following the brutal events of 22 March.

– Nicholas Cronk


Avenue Voltaire, Brussels

Un espace virtuel avant la lettre: la presse littéraire du dix-huitième siècle

Au dix-huitième siècle se développe un nouveau genre d’écrire, le journal, et notamment un périodique spécifique: le journal littéraire. Cette expression, forgée au dix-neuvième siècle, réunit l’ensemble des périodiques dont l’actualité est constituée des ouvrages publiés, consacrés à l’activité de critique des textes et des arts, et qui donnent une place inédite aux lecteurs. Ces journaux vont bouleverser la pratique de la lecture en introduisant le concept de périodicité mais surtout ils vont modifier profondément le rapport à soi et à l’autre.

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1763

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1763 (collection privée)

La périodicité de ces journaux (entre une semaine et un mois) fait naître le sentiment d’actualité, de contemporanéité, d’instantanéité. A l’instar de l’internet d’aujourd’hui, qui nous donne l’impression de vivre les choses, de les savoir en même temps qu’elles arrivent, les lecteurs du dix-huitième siècle se sentent pris dans un tourbillon de nouvelles littéraires et intellectuelles. Dans la mesure où la lecture s’effectue un peu partout, dans les salons, les cafés, chez soi, seul ou en public, la relation à l’espace est elle aussi modifiée. On peut discuter des nouvelles ou au contraire en profiter pour soi. Les distances se rétrécissent grâce à la plus grande rapidité de distribution du courrier et des journaux (les routes et les postes se modernisent), mais aussi parce qu’on est au courant de l’actualité en Europe et même au-delà, comme si la Prusse, l’Angleterre, voire la Chine ou l’Inde étaient plus proches qu’on ne l’avait cru.

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759 (collection privée)

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759 (collection privée)

Enfin, le journal littéraire facilite les échanges. Il publie des lettres de lecteurs, des correspondances entre savants, des débats et des querelles donnant ainsi l’illusion d’une place publique dessinée dans les pages du périodique. Ces modifications ne touchent qu’une mince partie de la population, la couche socialement aisée et éduquée mais elles vont mettre en branle tout un processus qui s’élargira au reste de la population progressivement.

Mon livre, Le Journal littéraire en France au dix-huitième siècle: émergence d’une culture virtuelle, se concentre sur la formation d’un espace virtuel de communication, sur ses caractéristiques et spécifiquement sur les conséquences de cet espace. Il met en évidence les possibilités de création littéraire et de renouvellement du discours critique par le biais de l’acte de lecture et montre que l’écriture n’est finalement qu’une autre façon de lire.

The salon of the Duke of Orleans

‘The salon of the Duke of Orléans (sitting); he is with his son (standing)’ (Wikimedia commons)

En proposant une autre expérience de l’espace et du temps, qui favorise l’échange et le dialogue, les périodiques littéraires développent, à l’insu de leurs rédacteurs et contre leur gré, l’esprit critique et l’individualité des lecteurs. ‘Chacun y est tout ensemble souverain et justiciable de chacun’ [1] comme disait Bayle. La vérité n’est plus l’apanage des grands, des philosophes et des savants puisqu’on a vu qu’ils pouvaient se tromper, que leur parole pouvait être relativisée. Bien plus qu’un simple apport d’informations, le périodique littéraire, grâce à ses spécificités, renouvelle le rapport au savoir en proposant une vérité relative, valable jusqu’à la preuve du contraire. Il encourage l’expression personnelle des lecteurs, leur pratique du texte, du temps, de l’espace et les plonge finalement dans une expérience d’eux-mêmes.

– Suzanne Dumouchel

[1] Pierre Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique, article ‘Catius’, 1720 (3e. éd.).

A treasure revealed: Mme de Graffigny’s correspondence finally published after 250 years

Françoise de Graffigny

Françoise de Graffigny by Pierre-Augustin Clavareau. Lunéville, musée du château des Lumières. Photo: T. Franz, Conseil départemental 54.

On International Women’s Day, join us in celebrating the publication next month of the final volume of letters of pioneering writer and salon hostess, Madame de Graffigny. It will mark the completion of over 30 years of impeccable editing of La Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny and bring to a close the story of Mme de Graffigny’s lost papers which began over 250 years ago.

When Mme de Graffigny died on 12 December 1758, she was the world’s most famous living woman writer. Despite the failure of her last play, La Fille d’Aristide (1758), she was admired throughout Europe for her novel, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), and her drama, Cénie (1750), both huge popular successes. The publication of volume 15 of Mme de Graffigny’s correspondence brings us to her death, and beyond. Her friends wrote the last letters in this volume, as they tried to preserve her glory for posterity by bringing out editions of her unpublished works and selected correspondence. They were not immediately successful, and the moment seems right to retrace the history of her papers.

Lettres d'une Péruvienne, title page

Title page of Lettres d’une Péruvienne (Paris, 1752). Image: BnF.

Mme de Graffigny’s will named as her executor Pierre Valleré, a lawyer and her lodger since 1743, acknowledging his extreme probity and expressing her confidence in him. Both in settling her estate and in protecting her reputation, he proved his devotion to her. The will directed that all her papers and manuscripts should go to her long-time friend and correspondent from Lorraine, François-Antoine Devaux. Valleré, however, could not deliver the legacy until the settlement of the estate, and Devaux did not actually receive it until 1771.

Meanwhile, Valleré and Jacques-Louis Desvoys, a distant kinsman of Mme de Graffigny and also her lodger and secretary in 1758, tried to secure her renown. Their effort to publish a genealogical obituary in the Mercure de France failed, because the materials sent from Lorraine lacked documentation. Valleré and others urged Devaux to write a biographical introduction for an edition of her works, but he demurred. The ‘Vie de Mme de Graffigny’ that appeared in 1760, prefacing a new edition of Lettres d’une Péruvienne, was written by a group of Parisian friends, including Charles Pinot Duclos, Jean Dromgold, and Claude Guimond de La Touche. Valleré approached the great Pigalle about sculpting a bust of Mme de Graffigny, but the price was excessive. In his own will, Valleré donated two portraits of Mme de Graffigny to the Bibliothèque royale.

By the time Devaux received the papers bequeathed to him, Mme de Graffigny’s reputation had already faded. Devaux apparently did nothing with the collection of papers he received, except to keep it intact and to add the quarter century of correspondence he already possessed. On his death in 1796, he left it to a friend, Mme Durival, who was even less prepared than Devaux to edit the papers. In 1806, the chevalier de Boufflers, home from the Emigration, heard about the papers, and borrowed Mme de Graffigny’s letters from Cirey – the thirty-odd letters written to Devaux between December 1738 and February 1739 while Mme de Graffigny stayed with Voltaire and Mme Du Châtelet en route to Paris. Boufflers allowed copies to be made; eventually several were in circulation. In 1820 one was published under the suggestive title, La Vie privée de Voltaire et de Mme Du Châtelet. From then on, Mme de Graffigny was notorious as the gossipy guest who had exposed Voltaire’s secrets.

Signature of Mme de Graffigny.

Signature of Mme de Graffigny.

Mme Durival died in 1819, leaving the papers to her adoptive children, whose family name was Noël. The family probably saw the publication as an opportunity to cash in on their bulky legacy, and put it on the market. So far, no document about the actual sale has been found. The Noël family legend, reported by the descendant Georges Noël in his 1913 biography of Mme de Graffigny, held that the papers were sold to a Russian, Count Orlov. Some of the papers were indeed sold to him, and are now in Moscow.

The English bibliophile, Sir Thomas Phillipps, however, acquired the major share. Unknown to the world at large, it remained in his collection until it was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1965. Phillipps himself died in 1872, but the auction of his library continued until 2006. H. P. Kraus, a New York bookseller, bought most of the Graffigny papers. He donated most of them to Yale University in 1967, and later sold the rest to the Morgan Library in New York. The Bibliothèque nationale de France also purchased some lots.

J. Alan Dainard

J. Alan Dainard (1930-2014)

In 1975, at the suggestion of J. A. Dainard, an international group of scholars formed a team to edit the letters of Mme de Graffigny. From the project’s headquarters at the University of Toronto, Professor Dainard served as general editor until 2013, when ill health forced him to pass the responsibility to English Showalter. Now complete in fifteen volumes, containing 2518 letters, this correspondence has restored Mme de Graffigny to prominence among French Enlightenment writers. The letters themselves constitute an unusual masterpiece, written in a lively personal style, with a frank and intimate portrait of a woman and her society.

– English Showalter