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  • Liberté, Égalité, SororitéThe Regime of the Sister in Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne
  • Tracy Rutler

The three editions of Françoise de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne published since the late twentieth century are each adorned with vastly different covers. The first (1983) depicts a European woman writing a letter, the second (1993) illustrates the moment when the heroine, Zilia, becomes a property owner, and the third (2005) highlights the protagonist’s exotic Otherness with a cartoon drawing of a native woman in traditional Peruvian garb in the foreground surrounded by aristocratic, European onlookers. Such varied choices in cover art for this novel signal a tension of representation inherent to the novel itself, that is, the variations in cover art demonstrate an opposition between on the one hand, an assertion of feminine and proto-feminist autonomy and, on the other, an exoticist subordination to the object of the male gaze.

The space between feminine autonomy and female objectification serves as the basis for a narrative of the changing role of women in eighteenth-century France. As family politics evolve, masculine roles change dramatically; the father’s importance wanes to the point of impotence while the son joins with his brothers to take the place of the fallen father. And yet, the place of women within this familial schema changes very little. The change in the woman’s role can largely be summed up by substituting an adjective: the woman’s role, which is always maternal, shifts simply from “bad” to “good.”1 Olympe de Gouges famously recorded this perspectival shift in the postscript to her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne when she wrote that the female sex was “autrefois méprisable et respecté, et depuis la révolution, respectable et méprisé.”2

In her seminal work, The Regime of the Brother: After the Patriarchy, Juliet Flower MacCannell argues that the fall of patriarchy sees the rise of a Regime of the Brother—an exclusively masculine regime which excludes [End Page 1] female participation in the public sphere.3 Despite this regime’s denial of female agency, Graffigny’s novel proposes an alternative to the brother’s takeover. In the absence of fathers, Zilia instead constructs a new, egalitarian family based on sibling-like relationships, inventing a new role for the woman—that of the independent, enlightened sister. In this article, I argue that the Lettres provides a striking counter-example to a fraternal refusal of patriarchy. Zilia’s unique form of refusal offers the sister as well as the brother as the inheritors of paternal legacy. Looking at how the heroine translates her body first through the Peruvian form of writing, then through her letters in French, I demonstrate how she disentangles the various threads that construct identity, creating in the process the possibility for a new, female identity that is not anchored in any masculine system.

Rewriting the Family

The central plot of the Lettres focuses on Zilia’s journey as recounted through letters to her long lost Peruvian lover, Aza. She is wrested away from her native village by Spaniards on the day she is to marry her beloved King of the Incan empire. While being transported to Europe, a group of Frenchmen seize the boat on which she is held captive, and she meets Déterville, the French aristocrat who cares for her and becomes her most trusted friend. Much to Déterville’s chagrin, Zilia refuses his offers of marriage, insisting on her eternal bond to Aza. Given her exoticism and the travel-like narrative, many critics tend to read the Lettres against Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes.4 Indeed, Graffigny invites this comparison in the foreword when she famously asks, “Comment peut-on être Persan?” In Julia Douthwaite’s important work on Graffigny’s text, she makes exactly this association. Comparing Zilia to the wealthy and educated Persian men (Rica and Usbek) she writes, “because the preliterate, victimized Peruvian enjoys no such privileges, ethical issues dominate her narrative.”5 While Douthwaite’s reading allows us to assess the state of female writing in early modern France, it also downplays the heroine’s agency within...


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