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the last letters in this volume, as they tried to preserve her glory for posterity by bringing out editions of her unpublished works and selected correspondence.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.

“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.