From the VF to Vif! A ‘lively’ book series comes to life again as an online collection

In the early 2000s, the Voltaire Foundation decided to create a paperback series in collaboration with the Sorbonne University Press. It was intended (as we said in our publicity materials at the time) ‘to make available the work of the Voltaire Foundation’s authors to the widest audience in an affordable, paperback format’. Since we are known as the ‘VF’, and we wanted our new series to be lively, we called it Vif – French for ‘lively, alert, or snappy’. Nine of the snappy volumes from the Vif series will now enjoy a second life, as part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE ebook collection – the digital edition of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment print series.

The Vif volumes being added to Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE are of two types: critical scholarship and primary texts. Of the former, several are collections of essays, originally aimed at advanced students preparing for the agrégation in France or competency exams in the US. These books treat, respectively, Voltaire’s influential manifesto for religious toleration, the Traité sur la tolérance; Diderot’s innovative play Le Fils naturel; and Marivaux’s journalism and theatre.


There is also a scholarly monograph by James Fowler, Voicing Desire, addressing themes of family and sexuality in Diderot’s fiction. Finally, we include an important study of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique by Christiane Mervaud, who is the author of the authoritative critical edition of this work in the Complete works of Voltaire. An expanded version of introduction to that edition became this book and has remained the definitive study of the text.


The second set of books from the Vif being republished in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE are three works which are editions of eighteenth-century French texts. The first is an edition of short stories by the author Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1711–1780). Best remembered now for writing a version of The Beauty and the Beast (1756), she was a prolific writer, producing some 70 volumes. The anthology published here, entitled Contes et autres écrits, is the first comprehensive introduction to her work. The second, entitled Vivre libre et écrire, provides a series of extracts from novels written by women during the French Revolution. The Revolution brought a marked increase in the number of books attributed to women authors, but many of these works are immensely hard to find. This pioneering anthology makes a selection of them available for the first time, expertly introduced by Huguette Krief.

Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (Expositions BnF).

Perhaps the single most successful woman writer of the French eighteenth century is Françoise de Graffigny (1695–1758), author of a best-selling novel, the Lettres d’une péruvienne, and of a play successfully performed at the Comédie-française, Cénie. Her life reads like a novel, and the best biography, English Showalter’s Françoise de Graffigny: her life and works (2004) can be consulted in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE. Graffigny’s greatest achievement is perhaps her magnificent correspondence, amounting to some 2,500 letters. The Voltaire Foundation has previously published a critical edition of her correspondence, edited by a team of scholars under the direction of J. A. Dainard. In praising this edition, Heidi Bostic wrote that the ‘Correspondence may well come to be regarded as the crown jewel of Graffigny’s œuvre. Her letters not only charm with their wit, insight, and style, but also document diverse aspects of eighteenth-century French culture and society’ (Eighteenth-century studies, 2008). Not everyone, sadly, has time to read all 15 volumes, so English Showalter produced a handy one-volume selection of the best of her letters, which is included here as well.

Françoise de Graffigny (Artnet).

These Vif volumes contain important scholarship about the French philosophes and make a crucial contribution to expanding our knowledge of women authors in the period. By integrating these volumes into Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE, we are not only making this research more easily available; we are also enriching it by making it cross-searchable with the existing treasures of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment print series.

– Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford

– Gregory Brown, General Editor for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Reflections on translating French women playwrights

Curiously, I stumbled onto the study of French women playwrights essentially by accident. The process began over four decades ago, when I was recruited by my closest friend from graduate school to help him in preparing a critical edition of a tragedy by Pierre du Ryer and found out in the process that I enjoyed doing editions. My colleagues at my first tenure-track position did not much care for the topic of my dissertation (religious tragedy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). They advised me to forget about reworking it into a monograph and instead confine myself to doing critical editions. I consequently turned to another of my interests at the time: the debate over the existence of a literary baroque.

Portrait of Marie-Catherine de Villedieu by Charles Devrits, published in an 1845 book of portraits of Norman poets.

I worked on editions of three plays by Jean Rotrou that I viewed as typical examples of baroque drama. I got one of them published but soon realised that it would be difficult to publish multiple plays by the same author. I therefore began to look around for another suitable playwright. One of my colleagues, who had published a monograph on Mme de Villedieu at the start of his career, suggested that I look at her tragicomedy, Le Favori (1665). I was so impressed by that play, which struck me as a neglected masterpiece, that I decided to explore the overall history of female playwrights in France. There was no general study of that subject, and I was unable to find anyone else in the United States working on it, even though English women playwrights were garnering a lot of attention. Indeed, most scholars of early modern French literature seemed unaware that there were any women playwrights in that period.

At that point, it became clear that an edition of Le Favori by itself would be inadequate and that something on a much larger scale was needed. So I decided to embark on a full-length anthology of French women playwrights, covering multiple authors and genres. I also realised that, since Women’s Studies was taking off as an academic field, it was necessary to make the plays available to a wider audience, which meant translating them as well as preparing French editions. And that meant turning my anthology into a bilingual edition.

Frontispiece of the 1750 edition of Cénie by Françoise de Graffigny, the most successful play by a French woman on the Parisian stage prior to the Revolution (Paris: Cailleau, 1750).

The next question was how many plays to include and within which time period. Eventually, I settled on 1650 to 1750, for the following reasons. First of all, although I discovered a handful of women playwrights in the sixteenth century, starting with Marguerite de Navarre, none of the authors seems to have intended their works for public performance (with one exception, and that play is lost), and there is no indication that any of them knew about the others, meaning that there was not yet a sense of tradition. As for the first half of the seventeenth century, I found only one play, which survives in manuscript, was never performed, and in my opinion is not very good. It was not until 1650 that women playwrights started to find an audience, with a number of them publishing their works or getting them publicly performed, or both. Françoise Pascal, who published six plays between 1655 and 1662 and had at least two of them staged by professional companies, struck me as the proper place to begin. As for the endpoint, I chose Françoise de Graffigny, whose Cénie (1750) was the most successful play by a woman on the Parisian stage prior to the Revolution.

In order to show the diversity of genres cultivated by these writers, I included a short farce, a tragicomedy, a comedy-ballet, two tragedies, and a tearful comedy. Unfortunately, once I had completed the bilingual anthology, I was unable to find a publisher for it. Finally, I lucked out thanks to a casual conversation that I had with Wolfgang Leiner during a conference. He expressed his willingness to publish my book in the monograph series that he directed, Biblio 17, but he was not prepared to handle a bulky bilingual edition. Instead, he gave me the choice between submitting just the French originals or just the translations. I sent him an all-French version, which he accepted, and I was soon to find an American publisher for the companion volume with just the translations.

Françoise de Graffigny, author of Cénie. Victorine-Angélique-Amélie Rumilly, Presumed portrait of Françoise de Graffigny (1695-1758), 1836, oil on canvas, 75.3cm x 65cm, Palace of Versailles.

The appearance of these volumes produced such a huge amount of interest in these women playwrights that I quickly realised the need to prepare a second volume, covering another six plays from the same period, with a greater emphasis on plays with explicitly feminist content, including Anne-Marie du Boccage’s 1749 tragedy about the Amazons. This time I included some works from the théâtres de société in addition to plays intended for public performance. The French-language edition was quickly accepted by the Biblio 17 series. However, finding a publisher for the translations was more difficult than anticipated, since the U.S. publisher that had accepted the first volume had ceased operations. I eventually got the volume accepted by the ‘Other Voice’ series, which is primarily devoted to early modern women authors, but there was an unexpected obstacle: at that time the series had a cut-off date of 1700. Since I had not yet translated all six of the plays from the French edition, I agreed to do a shorter volume with only the first four of the projected plays. Left out were works by Staal-Delaunay and Du Boccage.

Portrait of Anne-Marie Du Boccage by Charles Devrits, published in an 1845 book of portraits of Norman poets.

While I was engaged in preparing the second volume of both the English-language and French-language versions of my anthology, an exciting new project got underway. Henriette Goldwyn, one of the first American colleagues to share my interest in women playwrights, got in contact with the eminent French feminist scholar, Eliane Viennot, and with the French actress, director, and independent scholar, Aurore Evain. Together they developed a plan to publish a multi-volume anthology that would cover the entire Ancien Régime period. I was eventually invited to join the general editorial team alongside Aurore and Henriette. The original plan was for a three-volume collection, but it was ultimately expanded to five volumes, of which four have so far been published. This collection, far more comprehensive than my earlier two-volume anthology, included two-thirds of the plays that I had previously edited, but we decided that it was worthwhile to have a certain amount of duplication.

In addition to my work with the editorial team, I wrote the general introduction to two of the volumes and edited a number of the individual plays. After the publication of the third volume, the press handling the series, Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, experienced financial difficulties and was unable to commit to publishing the remaining volumes. Eliane and Aurore successfully negotiated with Classiques Garnier to take it over, with the publisher insisting on reissuing the first three volumes under its own imprint. In the meantime, I collaborated on an edition of the pedagogical plays of Mme de Maintenon, which we felt did not properly fit into the five-volume anthology. At this point, I felt that I had arguably done enough with editions of French women playwrights in French.

Challenges to Traditional Authority: Plays by French Women Authors, 1650-1700, ed and trans. by Perry Gethner (Toronto and Tempe: Iter Academic Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2015).

More recently, however, I have started to feel that there is a need for an additional volume of women playwrights in translation. My plan is to focus just on comedy and to expand the period covered as far as 1800. I have not finalised the list of plays, but the authors will most likely include Louise-Geneviève de Sainctonge, Marie-Anne Barbier, Marguerite de Staal-Delaunay, Françoise de Graffigny, Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, and Olympe de Gouges. I expect this project to occupy me for roughly five years.

I have several broad considerations in mind when I work on these translations. I want them to be as accurate as possible yet readable, avoiding awkwardness and stilted language; I would like the readers to enjoy the plays as much as I do. I want the introduction and notes to provide adequate information to help non-specialists appreciate the works in their historical context. I try to make the translations suitable for actors, in the hope that my versions may be used in performance. In addition, I feel a responsibility to the playwrights, knowing that this is the first time their works are being rendered into English, and that quite possibly it will also be the last. Finally, I want to note that I have learned much from studying this neglected group of texts, especially the insights into the authors’ personal perspectives on such matters as women’s rights, their capacity for reasoning, leadership, and friendship, and their frustration with social injustice.

– Perry Gethner, Regents Professor of Foreign Language, Oklahoma State University


Challenges to Traditional Authority: Plays by French Women Authors, 1650-1700, ed and trans. by Perry Gethner (Toronto and Tempe: Iter Academic Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2015).

Femmes dramaturges en France (1650-1750) : Pièces choisies, ed by Perry Gethner (Paris, Seattle, Tübingen: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature [Biblio 17, 79], 1993).

Femmes dramaturges en France (1650-1750) : Pièces choisies. Tome II, ed by Perry Gethner (Paris, Seattle, Tübingen: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature [Biblio 17, 79], 1993).

The Lunatic Lover and Other Plays by French Women of the 17th & 18th Centuries, ed by Perry Gethner (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994).

Maintenon, Françoise d’Aubigné de, Proverbes dramatiques, ed by Perry Gethner and Theresa Varney Kennedy (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014).

Théâtre de femmes de l’Ancien Régime, ed by Aurore Evain, Perry Gethner, and Henriette Goldwyn, 3 vols (Saint-Étienne: Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, 2006-2011).

Théâtre de femmes de l’Ancien Régime, ed by Aurore Evain, Perry Gethner, and Henriette Goldwyn, 5 vols [of which 4 have appeared] (Paris : Classiques Garnier, 2014-).

International Women’s Day: ten books by eighteenth-century women you may not have read

Through no fault of their own, many brilliant eighteenth-century women have fallen into obscurity, either because their work was little-valued in their own time or because, although they were popular among their contemporaries, subsequent scholarship has done little to shine a light on their œuvre. It is therefore sometimes a little difficult to know where to start when seeking to diversify our reading habits, and we risk missing out on some brilliant and crucial works. In celebration of International Women’s Day, here are ten books by women you may not have read.

Isabelle de Charrière

Isabelle Agneta van Tuyll van Serooskerken (Belle de Zuylen), the future Madame de Charrière, by Maurice Quentin La Tour (1766).

Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiées par son amie, Isabelle de Charrière (1784)
This epistolary, written by Dutch/Swiss Enlightenment writer Isabelle de Charrière, explores the tensions between reason and sensibility. This series of poignant letters tell the story of a young woman struggling with a cold, stern husband and the seeming impossibility of happiness within a marriage.

An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, Jane Collier (1753)
The first work of English novelist Jane Collier, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting is a satirical conduct book, and includes advice for ‘teasing and mortifying’ a wide range of society, including lovers, parents, servants, and spouses. Other works of Collier’s include The Cry, written with Sarah Fielding, and a recently discovered commonplace-book.

Les Conversations d’Emilie, Louise d’Epinay (1774)
A response to Rousseauian ideas on education, this text represents a key moment in the development of 18th-century pedagogical thought. It takes the form of a conversation between a mother and her daughter, and emphasises the importance of not only the moral formation of girls, but also a well-rounded scientific and classical education.
For a critical edition of Les Conversations d’Emilie, edited by Rosena Davison, see here.

Die Honigmonathe, Caroline Auguste Fischer (1802)
This epistolary, written by German novelist Caroline Auguste Fischer, was published anonymously in response to Wilhelmine Karoline von Wobeser’s 1795 bestseller Elisa, oder das Weib wie es seyn sollte, which glorified the ideal of a selfless, obedient wife, and was much-praised by Fischer’s ex-husband. It tells the story of two close friends: Julie, who is trapped in a marriage of convenience with an increasingly selfish and unstable husband, and Wilhelmine, an ‘Amazon’ who frequently condemns the institution of marriage and seeks to rescue her friend from this unfortunate fate.

Madame de Graffigny

Presumed portrait of Madame de Graffigny, by Louis Toqué.

Lettres d’une Péruvienne, Françoise de Graffigny (1747)
One of Graffigny’s most successful works, Lettres d’une Péruvienne is told from the perspective of Zilia, a young Incan princess who is taken from her home by Spanish conquistadors and eventually finds herself living in France. Zilia is an engaging narrator, and her outsider insight into and critique of eighteenth-century Paris, as well as her suspenseful life of displacement, love, and independence, make for a highly engaging read.
For a critical edition of the Lettres d’une Péruvienne, edited by Jonathan Mallinson, see here. Graffigny’s fascinating correspondence is also well worth a read!

The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella, Charlotte Lennox (1752)
This satirical novel tells the story of the life and loves of Arabella, an English noblewoman with a lively imagination, strong sensibility, and a love of French romance novels. After the death of her father, her expectation that life will imitate literature gets her into no end of trouble, and her adventures are at points laugh-out-loud funny, even for a twenty-first-century reader.

Histoire du Marquis de Cressy, Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (1758)
Although less well-known now, the work of French actress and novelist Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni reached a wide audience in her own time; she is even mentioned in the correspondence of Goethe. L’Histoire du Marquis de Cressy is not, as the title suggests, focussed on the life of the rakish Marquis, but instead on the tragic consequences that his deceptive and libertine behaviour has on the women in his life.

Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, Sophie von La Roche (1771)
The first known German-language novel to be written by a woman, this epistolary tells the story of the virtuous Sophie von Sternheim, daughter of a colonel and an English aristocrat, and her experiences in the English court. After the death of her parents she faces interfering relatives, unwelcome suitors, and royal scandals, but she stays true to her values and in the end gets the happy ending she always wished for.

Florentin, Dorothea von Schlegel (1801)
Dorothea von Schlegel, daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, wife of Friedrich von Schlegel, and aunt to Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, published Florentin in 1801. The novel follows the travels of Florentin, an Italian aristocrat, and through his relationships and the relationships of those around him explores issues of desire, gender, and marriage.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773).

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Phillis Wheatley (1773)
Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery at a young age. She was subsequently bought by the Wheatley family, a merchant family from Boston, who named her after the ship on which she was forcibly brought to America, The Phillis. This collection of thirty-nine poems is rich and varied, as well as being a deeply important part of American history; it was the first ever work to be published by an African-American.

Of course, this is a very limited (and subjective!) list of suggestions. If you’d like to expand on any of the works listed here, or have other works you’d like to suggest, please comment below or contact us about writing a blog post – we’re always looking for more contributors!

– Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

Françoise de Graffigny, gouvernante et observatrice de l’éducation des femmes

Mme de Graffigny

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

Pour marquer la Journée internationale des femmes nous nous tournons vers Françoise de Graffigny (1695-1758), femme de lettres dont le talent était reconnu dans toute l’Europe. Sa Correspondance montre son indépendance, son dévouement à sa pratique de romancière et de dramaturge, son esprit critique, son langage franc et réaliste.

Fille d’un militaire attaché à la cour de Lorraine, et admise au cercle qui entourait la duchesse Elisabeth-Charlotte et ses enfants, elle n’étudiait ni le latin ni l’orthographe, mais elle chantait, dansait, jouait de la vielle, brodait, plaisait par sa façon de parler et de raconter, et montait sur les planches dans les comédies de la cour. Veuve à l’âge de 30 ans, et ayant perdu trois enfants en bas âge, elle s’occupa de l’éducation d’au moins une des ses jeunes parentes, Anne-Catherine de Ligniville. Elle aida la marquise de Grandville lorsque celle-ci donna naissance à un enfant en 1735, et elle avait plusieurs filleules pour qui elle gardait de l’affection.

La Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny.

La Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny, 15 vol. (Oxford, 1985-2016).

Après avoir quitté la Lorraine, elle s’installa à Paris en octobre 1739 comme dame de compagnie de la duchesse de Richelieu, et après la mort de celle-ci, devint en 1740 dame de compagnie de la princesse de Ligne. Elle se lia d’amitié avec plusieurs gouvernantes des enfants Richelieu, notamment Mme Copineau, pour qui elle trouva un emploi de gouvernante à la cour de Vienne. Plus tard, reconnue comme un auteur célèbre et un modèle de sagesse, Graffigny composa des lettres édifiantes qu’elle envoya aux archiduchesses Marie-Anne et Marie-Elisabeth de Habsbourg-Lorraine, et à Marie-Thérèse de Cobenzl.

Graffigny critique l’éducation traditionnelle des femmes françaises dans son roman Lettres d’une Péruvienne (éditions de 1747 et 1752), et elle examine ailleurs dans son œuvre le rôle de la gouvernante, sa situation ambiguë entre dame et servante, et les inconvénients de son état: dépendance financière et sociale, soumission aux caprices des maîtres, la tâche (poignante pour Graffigny) de soigner les enfants d’autrui. Dans Cénie (1750), la pièce sentimentale qu’elle appela d’abord ‘La Gouvernante’, Orphise, la gouvernante vertueuse de l’héroïne Cénie, découvre dans une scène qui fit pleurer tous les spectateurs qu’elle est la mère biologique de sa pupille. En 1749, Graffigny écrit à Devaux: ‘J’ai encore un peu retouché “La Gouvernante” ce matin, et tout en corrigeant les phrases, j’ai pleuré moi-même.’

La Fille d'Aristide, title pages.

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

Dans une autre pièce datant de la même époque, ‘La Brioche’, forme primitive de La Fille d’Aristide (1758), elle dépeint la gouvernante Lisette, qui dépasse les autres personnages de la pièce par son esprit, son sens de l’honneur et sa générosité; bénéficiaire d’une éducation exceptionnelle, elle gère les affaires du maître Géronte, arrange le mariage de sa fille et assure la fortune de son fils. Lisette explique ses ‘sentiments’ ainsi:

‘Je les dois tous aux bontés de ma défunte maîtresse; elle les étendit jusqu’à donner à une pauvre orpheline la même éducation qu’à sa propre fille.’

Mme de Graffigny manuscript.

Portion of ‘La Brioche’ manuscript (Yale University, Beinecke Library, Graffigny Papers, vol.79, p.17).

Comme Cénie et Orphise, Lisette est une étrangère au sein de la famille; à la fin elle refuse le mariage et reste maîtresse de sa vie. Ce personnage roturier, considéré trop osé par les amis de Graffigny, est remplacé par la fille adoptive Théonise dans La Fille d’Aristide.

Pendant toute sa vie, Graffigny compta parmi ses amies des femmes indépendantes, très différentes les unes des autres par leur niveau d’éducation et leur rang social. Elles participaient aux débats de l’époque, jugeaient les personnages avec lucidité, et ajoutaient sans doute du poids aux observations relatives à l’éducation des femmes et à l’exploration honnête des sentiments qui marquent l’œuvre de Graffigny. On trouve un excellent exemple de cette force de personnalité dans sa protégée Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, qui fit un effort extraordinaire pour rendre possible son mariage d’amour avec Helvétius, et qui prit la défense de son mari en 1758 lors de la condamnation de son livre De l’Esprit.

– Dorothy P. Arthur

‘je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ – delving into the Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny


The Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny, now available as a 15-volume set, is a rich account of eighteenth-century life detailing court events and intrigues, financial and social manoeuvres, theatre and cultural life, publishing activity and censorship, and anecdotes about the famous and near-famous with whom Mme de Graffigny was acquainted. Increasingly, scholars are exploring the Correspondance for data on urban life, the growth of trade and the consumer society, the practices of medicine and surgery, and the dimensions of a woman’s life: her home, work and social spheres.

Basic descriptions of all 2518 letters are given in the online database Early Modern Letters Online, and a selection of excerpts can now be enjoyed on the Voltaire Foundation website. The cumulative index, an indispensable tool for delving into the Correspondance, is also available online at the University of Toronto’s French Department website. Drawing upon all 15 volumes, it covers the two decades of the eighteenth century (1738-1758) spanned by the Correspondance. It allows the reader to trace locutions, surnoms, the genesis of literary works, and the actions of individuals and families over that period of time. It incorporates all updates that have been made to individual volume indexes as new research has filled in the details, especially concerning lesser-known figures.

Since the publication of the first volume in 1985, reviewers and scholars, dialect specialists, theatre buffs and other readers have generously provided biographical information and clues to the bits of verse, satirical songs, punchlines, and quotations which make Mme de Graffigny’s letters delightful to read but challenging to edit. The editors are grateful for all such comments and we encourage readers to keep us informed about new discoveries.

‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’

‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

When the editors realise that an expression used in the letters is an idiom, a locution, they can search for its definition in an eighteenth-century source, such as the Dictionnaire universel françois et latin, vulgairement appelé Dictionnaire de Trévoux (Paris, 1743). Thus, in September 1750, Mme de Graffigny, trying in vain to persuade her friend the actress Mlle Quinault that La Brioche, their early draft of La Fille d’Aristide, would not work, wrote: ‘Je ferai encore un effort aupres de Nicole pour la retenir et puis je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ (Letter 1599). In other words, it was all she could say or would say on the topic: ‘On dit ordinairement à la fin des contes et des fables que l’on fait aux enfans: “Je jettai mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins, et je ne sais ce que tout devint”: ce qui se dit, ou lorsqu’on ne sait plus que dire sur quelque sujet, ou lorsqu’on ne veut pas dire tout ce que l’on en sait’ (Trévoux).

‘Il n’y a personne au logis’

‘Il n’y a personne au logis’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

On another occasion, Mme de Graffigny wrote about the unhappy situation of Charles de Lorraine, comte d’Armagnac: ‘Eh, le pauvre prince Charle, il n’y a presque plus personne au logis, et son encien mal au pied est revenus. […] Il n’est plus au nombre des vivans et n’y sera probablement bientot plus phisiquement’ (Letter 1639). She did not mean that he had no one to take care of him, but rather that he had become senile. The expression she used was well known at the time: ‘On dit: il n’y a personne au logis, d’un […] mourant, qui n’a plus de connoissance’ (Trévoux).

Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody

Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody, Graffigny Project office, University of Toronto

This rich index is being updated regularly as part of the ongoing work on Volume 16, a digital publication which will include corrections and additions to the print volumes, supplementary archival and manuscript materials, and new letters as they come to light. (English Showalter continues as general editor, and Dorothy P. Arthur is volume editor, aided by Diane Beelen Woody, Marion Filipiuk and Edward A. Heinemann, long-time members of the Toronto team.)

In April we spoke to CBC Radio One Fresh Air about the project and this week my colleague Diane Beelen Woody and I look forward to speaking about Mme de Graffigny’s use of codes and the art of writing under police surveillance at the upcoming meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

– Dorothy P. Arthur


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

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

From battered wife to major writer: Madame de Graffigny and her tell-all Correspondance


For International Women’s Day on 8 March we want to celebrate Madame de Graffigny, an exceptional eighteenth-century woman who overcame many obstacles to become the most famous woman writer of her day. Over the last few decades the life story and literary brilliance of Françoise d’Happoncourt de Graffigny (1695-1758) have awakened new interest, owing to the growing appreciation of literature by women, new editions of her novel, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), and the publication by the Voltaire Foundation of her remarkable Correspondance, now nearing completion and described by one reviewer as ‘the crown jewel’ of her œuvre.

Although largely forgotten for more than a century, Mme de Graffigny was famous in her day across Europe for writing not only a best-selling novel, but also a hit play, Cénie, produced by the Comédie-Française in 1750. The Péruvienne continued to be popular into the nineteenth century, but after that only her name was known because some of her early letters had been used in the intriguingly entitled collection of letters, La Vie privée de Voltaire et de Mme Du Châtelet (Paris, 1820).


A military officer’s daughter and member of the ‘petite noblesse’, a battered wife and then a captivating widow, Mme de Graffigny was in her early years a familiar at the court of Lorraine, a much relaxed version of Versailles. She knew Voltaire from his trip to Lunéville in 1735, and it was, indeed, he and Mme Du Châtelet who launched her on the road to Paris and fame by an invitation to Cirey in 1738.

Mme de Graffigny sent back magnificent, long descriptions of her surroundings and experience to her friend Devaux – until Mme Du Châtelet, who opened the incoming mail, discovered a reference to La Pucelle, and there was an uproar. The episode reveals a great deal about the literary politics of the period, and the consequences for Mme de Graffigny make a striking case study of the social tensions in pre-Revolutionary French society.


Serving as a ‘dame de compagnie’ to the duchesse de Richelieu after her arrival in Paris, Mme de Graffigny broadened the range of her acquaintances and friends among the nobility, the actors and the literati of the day, and even after Mme de Richelieu’s death two years later, she continued to meet a whole cast of famous characters: Buffon, the comte de Caylus, the future duc de Choiseul, the great Clairon, the prince de Clermont, Claude and Prosper Crébillon, Duclos, Fontenelle, Mme Geoffrin, Helvétius, La Popelinière, Marivaux, Maupertuis, Montesquieu, Pâris-Montmartel, Piron, Prévost, Jeanne Quinault and her family of actors, Réaumur, and eventually the abbé de Bernis, Malesherbes, Palissot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Turgot. Graffigny would rely heavily on some of them when she herself began to write – to make money, as she freely admitted, the salvage operation from her disastrous marriage and widowhood being scarcely adequate to sustain respectable appearances.

Her two literary successes provided a small improvement in her finances, but also celebrity which she continued to enjoy, using the influence she had to foster the advancement of friends and her relatively small circle of Lorraine cousins. The 15th and final volume of letters published in the Voltaire Foundation’s edition, La Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny, containing letters of 1756 to the moment of her death in December 1758, plus the correspondence relating to the settlement of her estate, will be published by the end of this year, a remarkable tribute to a phenomenal eighteenth-century woman. The story of why and how those letters survived until their rediscovery in 1965 is almost as phenomenal – but that’s the subject of another blog!

– M.F.

PS To mark International Women’s Day The Voltaire Foundation has developed a dedicated webpage, highlighting their key works on women’s studies and gender studies, and the issues facing eighteenth-century women, many of which mirror those faced by women today. Key featured books are on the themes of abused women; women growing old and cast aside; but also strong women who changed society in their own ways, including Mme de Graffigny. To find out more about Mme de Graffigny’s extraordinary life: Françoise de Graffigny, her life and works by English Showalter.

Emilie Du Châtelet defends her life

Last night several of us went the short distance from the Voltaire Foundation to the intimate Simpkins Lee Theatre at Lady Margaret Hall to see Emilie: la marquise Du Châtelet defends her life tonight by Lauren Gunderson. Knowing nothing of the play, but a little about Emilie Du Châtelet, I was braced for an evening of nudity (read about the butler’s embarrassment here), gambling and adultery. I can assure you that it wasn’t. The Emilie Du Châtelet presented in this play is very much appropriate for a general audience wanting to find out about a woman scientist of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately the play presented quite a one-sided oversimplification of her life, with no hint, for example, of the bullying to which she subjected Mme de Graffigny. It seems wrong somehow, in a play about a possible feminist icon, to reduce another one to a mere annoying houseguest.

La marquise Du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière

La marquise Du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière

We had no such misgivings about the production. All the actors were fun to watch for their enthusiasm and quirkiness. The older Emilie Du Châtelet put in a great performance, despite the punishing task of being on stage for the entire play, including the interval. We particularly enjoyed the highly expressive face of her father, husband and new young lover (all played by the same actor). But Voltaire naturally stole the show for us!

Emilie defends her life again tonight and until 15 February 2014.

Anyone curious to round out their knowledge of Emilie Du Châtelet should read Emilie du Châtelet: rewriting Enlightenment philosophy and science, edited by Judith P. Zinsser and Julie Candler Hayes, or Cirey dans la vie intellectuelle du XVIIIe siècle: la réception de Newton en France, edited by François De Gandt (in French).


“Cette femme est un phénomène” (Pierre Enckell)


Je viens d’être frappée par le fait que le projet Graffigny dure depuis presque trente ans maintenant! Le premier volume est apparu en 1985, et le quatorzième cette semaine (en tout, la Correspondance comprendra quinze volumes imprimés et un volume électronique). Avec plus de 2500 lettres à son actif, c’est un travail phénoménal mais nécessaire de l’éditer, car il s’agit d’une femme exceptionnelle qui nous fournit un témoignage hors-pair du dix-huitième siècle.

Malgré les nombreux obstacles que devaient surmonter les femmes au dix-huitième siècle, Françoise de Graffigny (1695-1758) était une romancière et dramaturge respectée, connue à travers l’Europe. Elle vivait indépendamment grâce à des succès tel que Cénie et Lettres d’une Péruvienne. En tant que salonnière, elle était à la tête d’un réseau comprenant les figures principales du siècle des Lumières. Sa correspondance offre donc un aperçu unique de l’histoire intellectuelle de la France et de la condition féminine au dix-huitième siècle.


Le projet d’édition est international, sa base est dans le département de français à l’université de Toronto, coordonné par J. A. Dainard. Le tome 14 édité par Dorothy P. Arthur et D. W. Smith est dédié à Pierre Enckell, un membre indispensable de l’équipe, qui malheureusement est décédé en 2011. Le prochain volume sera préparé par D. W. Smith et dirigé par English Showalter. Nous espérons pouvoir célébrer ce dernier volume imprimé de l’édition à la conférence ISECS à Rotterdam en 2015!

-Pippa Faucheux, publishing manager

P.S. Pour en savoir plus sur cette femme extraordinaire: consultez la biographie Françoise de Graffigny: her life and works par English Showalter.