Françoise de Graffigny, who, in 1747, being then in her early fifties, produced the much loved and wept-over Letters from a Peruvian Woman, was fond of complaining of her guignon, her implacable bad luck. The whole world would have to be overturned, she would say, before her evil star ceased its persecution. There is something in what she says, for she certainly had an excessively chequered life and managed to survive rather impressively.
Still, the vast success of the Letters, her first published work, can hardly be counted among her calamities. For it instantly made her a public figure (readers wrote to her in a passion, as they did to Richardson, entreating her to give her novel a less sad ending); not only that, it retained a devoted readership for the next sixty or so years. (It was some of the favourite reading of Charles X, the last of the Bourbon kings.) What may be reckoned bad luck, though, is for this harmless, foolish, and not un-endearing relic of a dead fashion, to have been resurrected under the auspices of the MLA, as a masterpiece of cultural criticism and a trail-blazing feminist manifesto.
Mme de Graffigny’s life and career appeal to the imagination. She was born, with the excessively aristocratic name of Françoise d’Issembourg du Buisson d’Happoncourt, at Nancy in 1695, the daughter of an officer in the service of the Duke of Lorraine. At 17 she was married, disastrously, to a half-mad spendthrift and bully, who squandered her dowry and battered her. In the end she had to obtain a legal separation; and, her parents showing no disposition to welcome her home, she was, at the age of 28, thrown penniless on the world. It was a time for exploiting her few aristocratic connections, and she found a little grace-and-favour refuge, among a mob of other impoverished hangers-on, at the ducal court of Lorraine, at Lunéville.
She was fat, looking in her portrait by Tocqué a little like David Hume (her friends called her ‘La Grosse’); also hopelessly disorganised, full of neurasthenic aches and pains, and a great groaner and complainer – but this last somehow in a companionable fashion, showing she was as interested in others’ misfortunes as in her own. She adored gossip and intrigue and, now as later, managed to surround herself with juvenile male cronies who shared these tastes. They were also sometimes her lovers, but this seemed to matter less; the important thing, as in E.F. Benson’s Riseholme, was not to lose a single instant in finding out what was going on.
In 1735, as a result of the War of the Polish Succession, her royal patrons were expelled from their duchy, and this presented the still penniless Graffigny with the problem where to go next. Fortunately, during her time at court in Lunéville, Voltaire had taken refuge there for a month, being in some trouble over his indecent epic La Pucelle, and the two had become friendly. She thus now had the inspiration of inviting herself to the château of Cirey, just across the border into France, where he was living with Mme du Châtelet and her complaisant husband the Marquis. Graffigny’s letters describing the household, written to her young boon companion ‘Pampan’ back in Lorraine, are wonderfully good, in their skittering, confiding way. She confirms, better perhaps than anybody, one’s sense of Voltaire as living at five times the normal rate. Quite as hypochondriac as Graffigny herself and half the time imagining he is dying; falling into convulsions over his literary quarrels and sulking in corners when crossed; writing so incessantly he has to be dragged to the table, but dining in princely fashion, treating his servants with charming courtesy (though occasionally spitting at them); putting himself out endlessly to charm and shock and amuse his guests; he is enormously and unstoppably alive. The Voltaire of her description is the one who wrote: ‘One must give one’s soul every possible form. It is a flame which God has entrusted to us; we must feed it with everything we find most precious. We must find a place in our being for all imaginable modes, open the doors of our soul to all forms of knowledge and all feelings; so long as they enter in order and not pell-mell, there is room for them all.’
Her visit to Cirey, begun brilliantly, ends (or almost ends) disastrously. Voltaire insists on giving readings to his guests from La Pucelle, and one day Mme du Châtelet, who is in the habit of unsealing all letters delivered to the château, comes on one from Pampan to Graffigny, saying he found La Pucelle ‘charming’. Not unreasonably, she and Voltaire assume Graffigny must have sent him an illicit copy of the explosive poem, and late in the evening Voltaire suddenly invades her bedroom, declaring in terrifying tones that he is lost, he will have to flee to Holland, his life is in Graffigny’s hands: if she cannot retrieve the hundred copies of his poem, which he is sure are now circulating in Lunéville, he is a dead man. Soon Mme du Châtelet joins him in the room, brandishing the fatal letter and accusing the ‘monster’ Graffigny of treachery and assassination – with such violence that Voltaire has to pinion her arms. The drama goes on till five in the morning; and after it all, poor Graffigny, with no money or anywhere else to go, simply has to stay on, a pariah in the house-hold. She blames her star, for all she had done was to send Pampan a synopsis of the poem. However, within a day or two a young friend of hers from Lorraine has arrived at Cirey, and Voltaire and du Châtelet, who adore new guests, are once more models of hospitality, and they are all cheerfully acting Voltaire’s Mérope in his private theatre.
Soon after this, Graffigny moves to Paris, living heaven knows how, for her only income is a tiny pension from the Duchesse de Richelieu. There is a wild scheme for herself and a young friend or lover from her Lunéville days, name Liébault, to get themselves recruited as visiting scholars by Frederick the Great, passing themselves off as brother and sister. It fails, her pension peters out, and she briefly enters a convent, but finds that having no money is a mark against one there, almost as much as outside. Next she sets up house with Liébault’s mistress, an actress, and arranges (probably with a backhander to herself) for the friend to drop Liébault for a rich lover. For a few years Liébault’s rage against the ‘infamous’ Graffigny knows no bounds, but their friends in common take it all very coolly, and within a year or two Liébault is glad to be back in her circle.
Through some aristocratic acquaintance or other, Graffigny had gained the entrée to one of the most distinguished Paris salons, the Bout du Banc, founded by Jeanne-Françoise Quinault after her retirement from the stage. The regulars were expected to contribute literary offerings, and Graffigny, taking to the pen for the first time, submitted a melancholy story entitled ‘La Nouvelle Espagnole’. The general opinion was that it was very bad, the Academician Duclos saying he wished to be spared so much local colour: such things were better conveyed by what characters said and did. Graffigny was piqued by her failure and set to work to recoup it, and the result was Letters of a Peruvian Woman.
On the strength of her success, Graffigny was able to set up her own salon, to which she attracted a whole string of luminaries, among them Diderot, D’Alembert, Turgot and Voltaire. She also tried her hand at drama, and her comedy La Cénie (it has a plot reminiscent of Tom Jones), was staged with the greatest success by the Comédie Française in 1750, remaining in their repertory for many years. Diderot said that Graffigny, together with La Chaussée, gave him the model for his new drame bourgeois – though this is a dubious compliment.
This was the pinnacle of her career, and also of her financial fortunes, for she was given a retainer to supply one-act plays for the Austrian Imperial household. (They were what Marie-Antoinette would have read or played in, in the nursery.) Six years or so later, her evil star prompted her to attempt a tragedy. It was composed on her favourite principle, everything being endlessly vetted and revised by a little ‘parliament’ of friends, and it proved a frightful fiasco. She died a few months later, partly out of sheer chagrin.
Letters from a Peruvian Woman, very well translated here by David Kornacker, harks back a little to the famous Portuguese Letters (love-letters of a Portuguese nun) of seventy years before, and somewhat more to Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. Its heroine, Zilia, is an Inca princess. She is affianced to her brother Aza, the heir to the throne, and is serving as a priestess in the Temple of the Sun until she is of age to marry. However, before the marriage can take place, the temple is invaded by the Spanish, who massacre her fellow temple-virgins and bundle her aboard one of their plate-ships, bound for Spain. The Spanish galleon is in turn captured by a French ship, the captain of which, a noble and self-sacrificing individual named Déterville, falls instantly and desperately in love with her but, concealing his passion, looks after her with tender care on their homeward journey (which is also a time-journey, for we skip two centuries) to France.
Meanwhile the chief resource of the bewildered and forlorn Zilia is to write melancholy and impassioned letters to her beloved Aza, using the Inca writing-device of quipus, or knotted string. In these letters she relates her amazement at being brought by the Spaniards into a great rocking house, and at how, on entering a room in France, she catches sight of a young person dressed in the garb of a Virgin of the Sun, though when she rushes to embrace her, she meets with nothing but ‘an impenetrable resistance’.
There are many more puzzles and marvels for her eyes on their arrival in Paris, and she begins to make her own private observations and judgments on the manners of those around her, finding some of these perverse or frivolous by the sober standards of the Incas. A ‘savage of the region’ is employed to teach her French, and, her supply of quipus giving out, she continues her unposted correspondence with Aza by pen and ink, translating her previous letters to him into French for our benefit.
Déterville tries to persuade Zilia to accept some of the treasures captured from the Spanish, regarding them as her royal property, and when she refuses, he takes her to visit an exquisite little house in the woods outside Paris and explains, as the villagers kneel and present her with a bowl of keys, that it is now hers. Such is Déterville’s nobility, he has all this while, on Zilia’s behalf, been secretly trying to discover the whereabouts of Aza; and one day he tells her, with a strange air of sadness, that he has been called away to Malta but that Aza has been found – he has been in Spain, and is now expected in Paris at any moment.
Aza arrives, shattering all Zilia’s dreams, for he has been converted to Christianity and, now regarding incest as a sin, is planning to marry a Spanish woman. Overcoming a temptation to suicide, Zilia pours out her misery in letters to Déterville, who replies ardently, offering marriage, and hastens home to Paris. It is however a fruitless errand. Aza may have turned out a cold-hearted scoundrel and have abandoned her, Zilia tells Déterville; nevertheless ‘his rights over me are no less sacred for having done so’. All she can offer Déterville is friendship – though a friendship filled with ‘all manner of vivid, delicate feelings’ that love for Aza has produced in her heart. She will live alone, in her enchanted palace in the woods, but Déterville must ‘savour the pleasure of superiority’ in ‘adorning her mind’ with European arts and sciences, and in return she can offer ‘the childlike charms of simple friendship’. Her life will by no means be empty. She will gain a ‘superficial yet interesting acquaintance’ with Nature and enjoy ‘the pleasure of being’, the forgotten pleasure of saying ‘I am, I live, I exist.’
The present edition of this gentle and faded tale comes with two introductions by leading feminists, and it is pretty surprising what they make of it. They draw attention to Zilia’s criticisms of the French mid 18th-century scene: the ‘lack of self-respect’ that she observes in France, the corruption of aristocratic values, the superficiality of women’s education, and the double sexual standard. On the strength of them, Joan DeJean claims that Graffigny has created ‘a radically new type of epistolary heroine’, a model for the Age of Enlightenment and ‘a far bolder practitioner of this dominant enlightenment discourse than are the heroes created by any of Graffigny’s male contemporaries’. But this is to give Zilia’s mild strictures, which were something of a commonplace in the salon talk of the time, a resonance they don’t begin to have: not because these weren’t real and urgent issues, but because Graffigny wasn’t the sort of writer who could handle them in any telling way. It is an unfairness to her to pit her, shall we say, against Montesquieu, whose spokesman Rica in the Persian Letters handles gender-issues with a verve and bite well out of her reach.
Indeed, it has to be said, Zilia is not much of a feminist, nor does one suppose Graffigny thought of her as such: her submission to Aza’s ‘sacred rights’ over her seems pretty much in the patriarchal mode and not at al ‘enlightened’, and the same may be said of the demure teacher-pupil relationship she looks forward to with Déterville. Joan De-Jean’s reading of Zilia’s wish to say ‘I am, I live, I exist’ as a kind of Heideggerian credo is pushing things fearfully, and so, one must say, is Nancy Miller’s tying-up of the mirror episode (Graffigny’s pleasant little essay in ‘making it strange’) with Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ (which surely takes place while one is still in one’s pram?) As for Miller’s ‘radical modern figure’, with her ‘subversion of authority’ and ‘the daring of her self-invention’, one recalls Zilia’s exclamation at the sight of the library in her new mansion: ‘countless books of all colours, shapes and sizes, which were in admirable condition’. ‘I was so enchanted,’ she writes, ‘that I thought I would be unable to leave them without having read them all.’ It is the sort of daft remark a favourite aunt might make, but it is not the expression of a great mind. (If we are to believe Miller, Zilia’s collection ‘perhaps is competitive with Montaigne’s book-lined tower’.)
Further, these critics sometimes don’t actually do justice to Graffigny’s writing. ‘She [Graffigny] forces readers to confront such controversial issues as the cult of the superfluous in France,’ writes DeJean. This ignores the fact that Zilia’s first reaction to the spectacle of fireworks is amazed admiration at the intellectual powers which can play such games with ‘that terrible element’ fire: ‘What art, dearest Aza! What men! What genius! I have forgotten all that I heard and all that I saw of their pettiness; in spite of myself I have lapsed back into my earlier state of wonder.’ They are much the same sentiments as Graffigny herself felt at the sight of the wonders of Voltaire’s private apartments: the tapestries, the mirrors, the porcelain and marabouts and rococo clocks and open chest crammed with silver plate. ‘Infinite things in the same taste, expensive, recherché, and above all, everything so spotless you could kiss the floor ... everything that superfluity, that so necessary thing, has been able to invent.’ (The reference is to Voltaire’s poem ‘Le Mondain’, which hymns ‘Le superflu chose si nécessaire’.) After the firework show, Zilia begins to reflect more soberly on ‘superfluity’, and this ambivalence in her reaction is the real point of the passage, but in the Introduction it gets ignored.
It has to be added that Nancy Miller discusses Graffigny’s motives in providing a ‘historical introduction’ to the 1752 edition of the Letters, in which she reveals her main historical source (Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries) and quotes from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Coaches’ – in order, says Miller, ‘to support her account of imperialism and perhaps to align her work with the literary authority of an older social commentary in France’. But according to Graffigny’s biographer Noel, this ‘historical introduction’ was not written by Graffigny but by a young friend of hers named Antoine Bret.
This slip, if it is a slip, is of no great importance. What is more to the point is that it seems terribly patronising to women to madly over-praise and over-interpret a work simply because it happens to be by a woman. What does it leave for criticism to say when it has to deal with a masterpiece?