This post introduces the second book in our Emotions Book Club: Françoise de Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman (1747).
Françoise d’Happoncourt was born into a noble family in the Duchy of Lorraine, on the northwest border of France, in 1695. She married the army officer François d’Huget de Graffigny when she was sixteen. Sadly, all three of their children died during infancy, and her husband turned out to be a gambler, a spendthrift, and a violent and abusive husband. Due to his life-threatening physical violence she was able to obtain a formal legal separation in 1723, which was extremely unusual at the time. Her separation and subsequent widowhood in 1725 left Graffigny in a dire financial situation, and she spent the next few years living at the court of Lorraine in Lunéville, the houses of wealthy friends and acquaintances, and Parisian convents, in order to survive.
Graffigny realised her goal of becoming a published author while she was living in Paris, and attending the salon of her friend, the retired actress Mademoiselle Quinault. Here, artists, historians, novelists, philosophers, playwrights, poets and statesmen met to engage in open conversation and literary discussion (as depicted above). In 1744, members of the salon wrote short stories on given topics as an enjoyable amusement. Graffigny wrote a Spanish Novella, which was published anonymously alongside the group’s other compositions, and became her first published work. This was soon followed by her fairy tale Princess Azerolle, published anonymously the following year.
Graffigny began writing Letters of a Peruvian Woman early in 1745, working and re-working it continually in an effort to perfect it. She was determined to make her novel a first-rate work, writing that if it ‘only holds first place among mediocre works’, she wanted ‘nothing to do with it’. During this period, Graffigny was experiencing an acute financial crisis. She described her debts as her ‘heaviest burden’, writing to friends that ‘I am in the blackest mood of my life’ and ‘To live as I do is to be dead’. The novel’s place of publication ‘A Peine’ means ‘with difficulty’, revealing her struggle to live and support herself as an author.
The story is told through letters, which was common in early examples of the genre, including best selling novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761). It also represents one of a series of popular works presented as letters home from abroad, such as Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721). In the foreword, Graffigny claims that these are ‘authentic letters’ written by Zilia that should not ‘be taken for fiction’, in order to lend her story greater authenticity.
Letters of a Peruvian Woman was published in 1747 and was a runaway success, making Graffigny one of the most famous writers in Europe. By the end of the eighteenth century, it had been published in at least fifty editions, and translated into English, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian. Graffigny’s success as a writer enabled her to establish her own salon, which was attended by famous figures such as Casanova, Diderot and Rousseau. She published a sentimental comedy titled Cénie in 1750, which was an instant success, and became one of the most popular plays of the period. However, her second work The Daughter of Aristide in 1758 was poorly received, and was quickly withdrawn.
Graffigny died in 1758, and by the 1830s her celebrated novel had faded into obscurity. It was rediscovered by feminist scholars and literary critics in the 1960s, more than two hundred years after it was first published. We hope you enjoy Letters of a Peruvian Woman, and will be publishing a second post next week with some suggested questions to guide discussions. In the meantime, please do let us know what you think of the book and whether you like it (or not) and why!
You can listen to interviews about Graffigny’s life and times, and her main influences on the Oxford University Press website (under ‘Audio Guide’):
‘From battered wife to major writer: Madame de Graffigny and her tell-all Correspondance’ (2015)
 Correspondence of Madame de Graffigny, quoted in Heidi Bostic, ‘Parisian and Peruvian Lives in Letters: Works by Françoise de Graffigny’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003), 587.
 Jonathan Mallinson, Introduction to Letters of a Peruvian Woman (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009).