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Françoise de Graffigny and Electronic Enlightenment

‘Ah mon Dieu, tu n’es plus ici. Voila les pleurs qui reccomensent.’ These melancholic words open the first of 173 newly digitalized letters from the ninth volume of Françoise de Graffigny’s complete correspondence. The recipient of this particular address, which is dated ‘le lundi soir, jour afreux pour moi, 11 mars 1748,’ is Graffigny’s closest friend and confidant, Francois-Antoine Devaux, who had just departed after a lengthy visit to her Parisian residence. We can’t help but feel sorry for the tearful Graffigny as she laments her newfound state of loneliness, not—it must be clarified—that she lacks for company. She bitterly recounts the incessant “protestations d’amitié” of one Pierre Valleré, or “Mr Train” as she dubs him, whom she escapes by locking herself in a wardrobe, key safely stowed away in her pocket. All she wants to do, she confesses to Devaux, is climb into bed and be ‘toute entiere a [sa] douleur’. Cruel as it may sound, Devaux’s departure is in fact a happy event for researchers of Graffigny, as his five-month visit had constituted a five-month hiatus in their correspondence. This hiatus unfortunately overlapped with the publication of Lettres d’une Péruvienne, the work that would make her, according to English Showalter, ‘the world’s most famous living woman writer’ from 1750 until her death in 1758 (2004, p.xv). Of Graffigny’s thoughts and feelings around this significant time we therefore have no known documentation.

Nonetheless, we can’t complain too much. The 173 letters published here span from 11 March 1748 to 25 April 1749, are mostly addressed to Devaux, or “Panpan” as he was affectionately known, and offer us a rich image of Graffigny’s daily life, from her lively social circle to her reading and writing habits. It is an extremely colourful collection, full of inside jokes and peppered with inventive nicknames for friends, foes, and everyone in between. Intrepid readers of Graffigny’s correspondence should be aware of this secret code between the two friends: to name but a few, Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin is “l’Ennemie” or “la Fée sans baguette”, Claude Adrien Helvétius is “le Philosophe,” and, after Graffigny’s disastrous three-month stay at Cirey in 1738-1739, Emilie du Châtelet became “le Monstre” or “la Méchante” forevermore (for more on Graffigny’s doomed stay at the Voltaire residence, see Showalter, 1996). Readers should also anticipate the author’s idiosyncratic turns of phrase: ‘je te remercie de ta compassion pour moi’, she writes to Devaux on 7 December 1748, ‘c’est de la crème sur mon ulcere, je t’assure’. And they can look forward to some gossip too. The publication of Zadig incites quite a bit of speculation, with Graffigny ascribing it to Diderot and refusing to believe it could possibly be Voltaire’s handiwork. She adamantly (and scathingly) writes in another letter: ‘je te dis, moi, que Zadig n’est pas de Voltaire. J’en metrois ma main au feu. […] Pour moi, je n’y ai vu qu’un tas de moralle baroque, lardée de mauvaises avantures sans vraysemblance, sans gout, sans noblesse, enfin une vray rapsaudie.’

These letters also give us a window into Graffigny’s emotional life. She is frequently melancholic, which she tends to describe in terms of noirceur: ‘adieu, bonsoir, je te noircirois trop si je continuous, car je suis trop noire pour paroitre blanche’. Her mood is often influenced by her productivity and creative output on a given day, which is rather unfortunate for a woman who is constantly surrounded by people: ‘Bonsoir. Voila trois fois que je prends mon ecritoire depuis ce matin sans pouvoir seulement ecrire la datte de ma lettre, tant j’ai été assassinée de monde’. On one occasion, her desperation to withdraw in order to work elicits an interesting comparison with her famous protagonist: ‘d’alieurs un marché que j’ai fait avec mes acolites de me laisser seule depuis six jusqu’a huit me soulage beaucoup, ne fusse que pour ne pas avoir leurs regards a suporter. Je suis un peu comme Zilia.’ However, readers shouldn’t expect too much discussion of the recently published Lettres d’une Péruvienne, except for some references to its anonymous sequel, Lettres d’Aza, which Graffigny treats with a general tone of indifference, dismissing its author as ‘un sot qui a de l’esprit’.

Ultimately, what truly emerges in these letters is the incredible intimacy between Devaux and Graffigny. Whether she is baring her soul or simply providing an update on her stomach health, there is seemingly no topic that cannot be broached. The frequency of their correspondence means that one throwaway observation or anecdote could evolve into a conversation across multiple letters, the impracticality of which does not go unremarked: ‘reprenons notre causerie. Mon Dieu, cela seroit bien plus court et bien plus doux s’il ne failoit que dire: « Simonet, dis a Panpan de dessendre. »’ Devaux need not be physically present in order to be privy to the daily minutiae of Graffigny’s existence. ‘Voila l’eau qui chaufe pour le thé’, she digresses in one letter, and concludes another: ‘bonsoir, car j’ai faim. Je vais manger deux oeuf’.

As modern readers, we can imagine mentioning these small, seemingly insignificant details offhand to a friend in a phone call, but they don’t really seem worth noting in a handwritten letter. It is these details, however, which imbue this correspondence—and its author—with a sense of authenticity and aliveness. Françoise de Graffigny’s revival in scholarship is a fairly recent one: after falling into obscurity in the nineteenth century, her Lettres d’une Péruvienne only began to be published again in France in 1983 (Showalter, 1996, p.30). The publication of the ninth volume of her correspondence by the Electronic Enlightenment is another valuable step towards keeping her voice alive, and is also a reminder of the vitalness of the digital humanities for scholarship.

A version of this blog post was first published on Electronic Enlightenment.

Feature image by Pixabay via Pexels.

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