The Peruvian Letters by Mme de Graffigny Short Summary

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“I no longer care about anything, and the end of my life is all I wish for.” (Unpublished Graffigny, 13-18)  Before developing into the “reigning queen” of French literature of the time, Mme de Graffigny (1695-1758) was a middle aged woman who lived a provincial life in the court of Stanislas in Lorraine.  Her most heartfelt desire was to experience the exquisite refinement of life as a personality of high social status in Paris, near the King’s court while enjoying an elegant lifestyle.  Her fondest wish was realized when she succeeded in getting invited at Cirey, the chateau of Emilie de Chatelet, an accomplished woman writer.  In addition, Emilie was also a friend of Voltaire whom she had been sheltering from persecution.  Mme de Graffigny wrote in details about her nine-week stay at Cirey, specifically about experiencing an extraordinary association with two great writers of French literature.  This association proved extremely valuable to Mme de Graffigny as she was inspired to develop and perfect her own writing style that would establish her reputation.  After her stay at Cirey, several times a week, Mme de Graffigny addressed to her chief correspondent in Lunéville, François-Etienne Devaux, voluminous accounts of the activities both of her salon and of the long list of litterati and prominent figures she knew or knew of in Paris and Lorraine, as well as a running commentary on every aspect of her private life – financial, medical, sexual, professional, and domestic.  Some twenty-five hundred of these letters survived in manuscript, thanks to Devaux, who also preserved most of his own replies[LHD1] .

In fact, from the point of view of women’s history, her correspondence was perhaps the most valuable of all, being a candid and highly inclusive record of daily life over a period of twenty years.  As a matter of fact, many scholars have commented that distinct differences exist in her works in comparison with other more traditional writers of epistolary novels in French literature.  Thus, it would be appropriate to analyze Mme de Graffigny’s letters in terms of style and format, comparing them to the traditional epistolary style and format of other writers of the time so as to identify, define, and verify the existence of such differences.  Importantly, these differences can be taken apart to determine their contribution to her success and recognition as a talented female writer.

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The epistolary novel as a style in the seventeenth century and in the beginning of the eighteenth century was dominated by men.  That is no surprise since women had no rights and were considered inferior throughout History.  Examining the historical context of the male dominance in the form of epistolary novels, the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685.  The Edict had granted freedom and tolerance to Protestants.  France was now plunging again in a time of severe restrictions of thought and expression.  This intolerance was especially supported by writers like Bossuet whose precept was “one king, one faith, one law.”  (Goldsmith, Goodman, 110)  Subsequently, manuals on how to write letters were published, promoting further the notion of extreme rigor within the style.  Interestingly, women authors during that time were rare, anonymous, and restricted to writing about insignificant gallantry stories.  As an illustration, Richelet’s manual of epistolary style (1705-1753) featured a collection of letters by women writers who had written simple love letters to men, nothing more.  Radically, these manuals of epistolary style did not even deem other women’s letters worthy of consideration.  For example, Mme de Sevigne’s letters were not included in Richelet’s because her letters did not reflect the traditional “art to pleasing rulers” that everybody else followed.  In today’s language, the equivalent term would be ‘politically correct’.  In addition, women writers were supposed to not only to consider themselves inferior, but emphasize it in the contents of their works.

Thus, in the first place, the rebellion of women writers against tradition corresponded to the establishment of their own equality to the men receiving the letters.  In the second place, these women of literary revolution eliminated the gallantry stories that they regarded as meaningless and even demeaning.  In 1761, D’Alembert in his Essai sur la Societé des Gens de Lettres et des Grands published Les Lettres Péruviennes and held it as the main example of how Mme de Graffigny broke the mould of the traditional letter literary style with her refusal to praise the rulers as well as her refusal to accept inferiority to men in her correspondence. (Goldsmith, Goodman, 111-113)  Importantly, at that time, Mme de Graffigny did not benefit from any help from any of the century’s great men; only her letters describing a visit to Voltaire at Cirey were previously published (Asse[LHD2] , ).  Yet, at this point, she became the epitome of the enlightened woman of the eighteenth century, in her most positive aspect.  In an analysis of the women writers of eighteen’s century France, Katharine Jensen studied the movement of what she called “Epistolary Feminity.”  She explained how the ideal of literary and feminity was perpetuated by the Portuguese nun, the author of and the heroine of Les Lettres Portuguaises, written in 1669.  From then on, this “Portuguese” epistolary style was adopted and maintained.  She wrote: “Seduced, betrayed, and suffering, [Epistolary Woman] writes letter after letter of anguished and masochistic lament to the man who has left her behind” (Jensen, 1) In addition, still in the first chapter, Jensen postulated that men’s theories and models of epistolary femininity, which so radically limited a woman’s writing in form and content, were another strategy dealing with the threat of women novelists in particular, as well as with that of salon women in general.” (Jensen, 25)   Mme de Graffigny understood the implications of a woman writer being shackled to an ideal fabricated by men.  Jensen agreed with the latter statement in the last two chapters of her exposé, by explaining the strategies women writers began employing to break free from the restrictive influence and dominance of men.  They felt that it was the only way to elaborate on their own style and format of the epistolary novel genre.  Jensen drew on the example of Mme de Graffigny.  Jensen wrote:

“She [Mme de Graffigny] chose to write a novel, I maintain, because she wanted to rewrite the female plot in a way that the love-letter genre would never allow. She chose to write a letter novel because the feminine mystique of the love letter granted her a safe cover under which to break away from the very terms of the woman’s epistolary confinement.” (Jensen, 93)

Françoise de Graffigny began her career as a novelist with a book in which the main characters were, like their creator, aspiring writers.  Les Lettres Péruviennes (1747) was the first epistolary novel written and published by a woman in France. (Jensen, 84)  The book contains many autobiographical elements; as it turned out, Graffigny’s inaugural piece was also to be her final one in this genre.  The nature of the novel is noteworthy because it is a “philosophical” variant on the so-called Portuguese model of the epistolary novel, which agrees with Jensen’s explanation of Mme de Graffigny’s motivation to create a distinct style as well as an innovative strategy featuring a progressive detachment from the style and format of love letters.  Expressly, her specific scheme involved writing a commentary on the more reminiscent Lettres Persanes by compensating her heroine for lost love with a life eased by wealth and devoted to “the pure and peaceful joys of friendship”, all within a sentimental framework found in the love letters style.  The novel’s remarks on the education and treatment of European women and its protest against the abusive, cynical male behavior sanctioned by French law (an echo of the author’s own unhappy marriage) constituted the strongest feminist statement made by any of our épistolières.  Despite her rather tremulous approach to the challenges, her precarious and qualified independence, she was free of many of the prejudices and constraints still visible in the lives of her contemporaries; and she seemed to have taken advantage of every opportunity offered by society in order to pursue her own notions of liberty and accomplishment.  The letters do tell their readers – and they are an imposing body of evidence-about a network of long-term loyalties, of friendships linking women to women and women to men, in which the regular exchange of confidences, support, and encouragement was clearly very valuable to those concerned.  This huge body of material, largely passed over by scholarship, permits an especially immediate contact with the texture of a life very little obscured by previous interpretations or editorial “corrections.” To the self-censorship practiced by many letter writers, Graffigny preferred an elaborate system of pseudonyms and coded expressions, which meant that few topics were denied her.

What Mme de Graffigny accomplished was to find a voice, to speak a language that seemed to be authentically one’s own, to tell a story of one’s own making – these were the bold and yet troubled endeavors in which the novelists are usually engaged and of which they tell their readers in their first works.  Carefully examining the novel, one can isolate the key details of her style and accomplishments in the epistolary novel genre.  The action begins in Peru at the time of the Spanish conquest. The letter-writer, Zilia, is engaged to be married to Aza, future ruler of the Incas. As the novel begins, the Spaniards have seized Aza and imprisoned Zilia.  The young Peruvian princess attaches a great deal of importance to language and to the act of writing. What seemed to have fascinated Graffigny about the Peruvians was that while they had no written language, they did have a system of knotting cords so as to indicate numbers for such uses as the remuneration of troops, demographic calculations, metereological records, and the like. Zilia and her lover have invented a system of writing words with these cords, called “quipus.”  This setting is reminiscent of the lover letters style, but it introduces an unusual and fascinating twist to the way the novel will play out in terms of the correspondence between the two characters.  Alone in her cell, she is projecting the writing of two books in this unusual medium.  For the first one, she and Aza will write each other while they are separated. Their communication will characterize the first novel. As to the second book, it will be a memoir novel.  She has already begun it, she tells us. In it she recounts the story of their love.  From the outset, then, the main character is depicted as a natural writer, a person whose mind turns instinctively to thoughts of how to take the materials of life and put them into written form. This is the first clue that readers may indeed view the adventures of the Peruvian princess metaphorically, as those of the novelist herself.  In the medium to which the princess is initially consigned, one can see a perceptive and sensitive treatment of a woman’s search for language and voice; this idea emphasizes the path taken by Mme de Graffigny in order to become a novelist of solid substance.  The form of language with which the princess begins is a language of the moment, an ephemeral female language.  In fact, this notion is amply evident in the early pages of the novel, when considering the epistolary work, which Zilia is projecting. She plans to send a message on quipus to Aza. Upon its reception, he will unravel her message, knot his own onto the cords, and send it back to her. She, in her turn, will unravel and reknot. If this system were to be applied, no permanent record of the correspondence would remain.  This image represents a powerful symbol of the transitory nature of woman’s traditional language. (4[LHD3] )

The woman writer imagined herself, through her character, as being initially without an adequate language. She knew, or at least thought she knew, the story she wanted to tell, but she did not have the means to tell it.

Mme de Graffigny conveyed a feeling of strength, control, and independence from the characteristic female epistolary genre in eighteenth century France.  The style of Les Lettres Péruviennes was a novelty in its day, which justifies its immense success, its fascination among readers as well as its readability in today’s man to woman contexts.  In addition, the style and format were the result of a well-thought out strategy to gradually deviate from the love letters style, imposed by the male-dominated literary system of Mme de Graffigny’s day.  Her main accomplishment, provided by the publication of her book, is the affirmation that the social obstacles and gender-related restrictions women have been feeling within society cannot stop their success; they eventually have the power to break the barriers set by a male-oriented society.   The ending of the novel is Graffigny’s statement about the conditions she would need in order to create – financial independence, time and space truly hers. For her, unlike Zilia, those conditions remained out of reach.  However, Mme de Graffigny was a stepping stone in the inaccessible and fundamentally unimaginable means of expression that were denied women because she created her own style, independently of any men’s influence and impositions.


Unpublished letter of 18 February 1739; Yale Graffigny Papers, 8:13-18.

Goldsmith EC, Goodman E. Women and Publishing in Early Modern France. Cornell University Press, 1995.

Jensen KA. Writing Love: Letters, Women, and the Novel in France, in 1605-1776. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U.P., 1995.

Asse E. Lettres de Mme de Graffigny, suivies de celles de Mmes de Staal, d’Epinay. Paris: Charpentier, 1879.

Mylne V. The Eighteenth Century Novel: Techniques of Illusion. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965, p. 154.

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