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

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

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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

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

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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.

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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

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

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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).

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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.

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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).

– ACB