- French Letters: Graffigny’s Graphomania
Back in 1985, the team headed by English Showalter had every reason to rejoice when a volume of nearly six hundred pages of letters by an author who was not a household name rolled off the presses of the Voltaire Foundation. The writer, Françoise de Graffigny, had made her mark in various literary genres: unusually for a woman, she gained acclaim as a dramatist, although her plays, including her masterpiece Cénie (1750), have never made it back into the repertoire. Her main claim to fame in her lifetime, though, was a novel, Lettres d’une Péruvienne [Letters from a Peruvian Woman]. First published in 1747, then in an enlarged revised edition in 1752 and thereafter in numerous translations, it brought her celebrity status far beyond France. It served in particular as a method for teaching Italian. While the novel fell out of favor in the nineteenth century, the second half of the twentieth saw renewed interest in it. E. Showalter’s 1964 thesis was centered on Graffigny’s book, and by the time the first volume of her letters came out it was already beginning to be taught, particularly in North America by colleagues anxious to diversify the texts set as part of academic curricula.
Graffigny’s epistolary talents were heralded in the mid-nineteenth century when the influential critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, ever on the lookout for forgotten talents to celebrate in his regular articles called the Lundis, claimed thirty-one surviving missives that she had written were more worthy to serve Graffigny’s posthumous fame than were her fictional texts. After a series of transactions, having circulated between different private owners, these letters along with many others written by Graffigny ended up in the collections of American libraries at a [End Page 437] time when by a series of judicious investments they were snapped up as potentially interesting documents. They might have lain there for decades had it not been for another dead letter-writer to whom she was related by marriage, Claude-Adrien Helvétius. As part of a project to publish the latter’s correspondence, the academic editors sought to discover sources which might cast light on their corpus. They were made aware of the existence of a large number of Graffigny’s letters and it became obvious that this too was a correspondence worthy of attention. Thus it came about that rather than just providing collateral examples and illustrations for a well-known philosopher’s correspondence, Françoise de Graffigny’s letters were deemed worthy, in turn, to be published in a scrupulously annotated edition. The fifteen volumes to which the series now runs have provided invaluable information about not only such major Enlightenment writers as Voltaire, Emilie du Châtelet, and Montesquieu, but also prominent Frenchmen from other walks of life, including Rameau, Vaucanson, and La Tour. The correspondence has also made it possible to identify the authors of different texts—such as those contained in the Recueil de ces Messieurs (which includes Graffigny’s own Nouvelle espagnole)—through testimony, rather than speculation, but her letters additionally have revealed a treasure trove offering a panoramic view of a great variety of little-known aspects of eighteenth-century French life.
In sheer terms of size, this is an exceptional correspondence. There are over 2,500 letters. Even though a few of them are not by Graffigny herself, it is sufficient to compare this number with figures from other correspondences by eighteenth-century women—there are, for instance, about 120 or so in the much-prized series sent by Catherine de Saint-Pierre to her brother, the writer Bernardin de Saint-Pierre—and you already have an indication of why they are hugely significant. But there is much more; their very content and characteristics make it more or less impossible to overstate the importance of these letters. They recount the life-story—at times on an almost...