- 5 January 1754-31 December 1755. Lettres 2093-2303, vol. 14 of Correspondance de Madame de Graffigny ed. by D. P. Arthur and D. W. Smith
Since 1985, when the Voltaire Foundation published the first volume of Françoise de Graffigny's correspondence, readers have been able to follow the unfolding of her life virtually day by day. Both because of the range of information her letters provide and because of their refreshingly direct and conversational tone, the correspondence gives readers the sense of knowing the author of the Lettres d'une Péruvienne more intimately than we can hope to know any other French woman writer of the eighteenth century. The editors of every volume of this truly remarkable edition have facilitated our contact with Graffigny's massive correspondence in many ways, in particular with exceptionally pertinent and illuminating notes.
But the pleasure of watching the progression of Françoise de Graffigny's life will soon be over. This latest volume of her correspondence is the fourteenth of a projected fifteen. When its last letter, dated December 31, 1755, closes, Graffigny has less than three years to live before her death at age 63.
Every volume has a particular character; every one makes readers aware of new facets of Graffigny's personality and aspects of life in eighteenth-century Paris. On the personal side, the letters published here reveal a woman preoccupied with aging and with developing mechanisms for coping with reduced physical circumstances. On the public side, they show us that the philosophes were gaining an ever broader audience and shaping that audience's ways of reading and reacting to what they read. Over the course [End Page 165] of the volume, as we see how causes and ideas promoted by the philosophes in their publications cropped up in casual exchanges among friends, an image of the everyday business of the Enlightenment comes into focus.
As she neared 60, Graffigny was increasingly preoccupied with an aging body; her complaints are a subject few readers are likely to find compelling. And yet there are payoffs even here. At one point, she doesn't feel well enough to do anything but "read Madame de Sévigné and reflect on the pain she suffered"—which she proceeds to do, reminding her correspondent, François Antoine (Panpan) Devaux, of Sévigné's medical problems in late 1687—when, as Graffigny surely realized, Sévigné was herself a woman of about 60 (147, my translation). Graffigny was always interacting with the French literary tradition, even when she may appear most turned in upon herself.
But she didn't live only through books. Rather than give in to self-pity, even when she was in pain Graffigny remained instead open to the world around her, curious, engaged. "There's nothing like keeping busy," she once remarked (314). And her dynamism and energy were clearly contagious, for people seem to have flocked to her. Indeed she frequently complains that she has so many visitors and so many invitations that she is never able "to be alone for a minute" (178). She plays cards with her friends; she dines with them; she goes, often several times a week, to the theater with them. Graffigny's letters thus provide a running chronicle of the Parisian theatrical scene from which we learn how the public reacted to key moments in major plays and whether Graffigny agreed with the audience's response. At this point in her life, Graffigny was herself of course very much part of this scene. Her hit play Cénie was successfully revived in June 1754, and we follow that revival step by step. "The theater was full" for the performance Graffigny attended (157). She was also working on the play that eventually became La Fille d'Aristide: she circulates manuscript drafts; she discusses the advice given by various readers. We learn once again that for Graffigny the process of literary creation was fully...