d'Arconville, Geneviève (1720–1805)

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d'Arconville, Geneviève (1720–1805)

French essayist, novelist, moralist, translator, scientist, and implacable enemy of the French revolution who lost one of her sons to the guillotine and was in hiding during the worst months of Robespierre's Reign of Terror. Name variations: Geneviève-Char-lotte d'Arlus; Dame Thiroux d'Arconville. Born Marie-Genevieve-Charlotte d'Arlus in Paris, October 17, 1720; died in Paris, France, on December 23, 1805; married Louis-Lazare Thiroux d'Arconville; children: three sons, including Thiroux de Crosne.

Still relatively little known, Geneviève d'Arconville was one of the most intellectually productive women in France during the second half of the 18th century. Born in Paris into a family of tax collectors, she was married at the age of 14 in February 1735, to Louis-Lazare Thiroux d'Arconville, a wealthy advisor to the parlement of Paris. Despite the fact that she had three sons, d'Arconville was intellectually curious in many disciplines, attending lectures in various scientific fields—including anatomy—at the Jardin du Roi. Always an individualist, starting at age 23 she began to dress like an old woman because her face had been disfigured by an attack of smallpox. Despite this, she was able to charm the leading figures of the Enlightenment, appearing in the prominent salons of Paris and carrying on an extensive correspondence with such literary and scientific figures of the day as Voltaire, Turgot, Lavoisier, Fourcroy, Anquetil, and Sainte-Palaye.

Some of her earliest publications included a 1759 translation into French of Alexander Monro's Treatise on Osteology. Many excellent translations of contemporary English books flowed from her pen over the next decades including novels, plays, books of poetry as well as such unusual works as Kenneth Macaulay's history of Saint Kilda and Peter Shaw's chemistry textbook. Her translations introduced the French reading public to Aphra Behn 's History of Agnes de Castro (Inez de Castro ) and John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. D'Arconville's own scientific investigations resulted in a 1766 volume entitled A Treatise on Putrefaction. She also carried out extensive research into the medicinal value of the chamomile herb (Anthemis nobilis).

Madame d'Arconville's restless mind led her to investigations of archives and volumes of official records, the final result being a series of biographies of great historical personalities including Marie de Medici , Cardinal d'Ossat, and François II (Frances II), king of France and Navarre. Not only did she master the biography genre, d'Arconville also published several essay collections on such popular subjects of the day as friendship (De l'amitie, 1764), the passions (Des passions, 1775), and "Moral Thoughts and Reflections on Diverse Subjects" (1760). In all of her works, an elegant style was as important as the clarity of her reasoning. One of her most remarkable efforts was the seven-volume Melange of Literature, Ethics and Physics, which appeared in print in 1775 at the start of the illfated reign of Louis XVI.

Emotionally and intellectually attached to the Old Regime, d'Arconville hated and feared the French Revolution that began in 1789. Her warnings of its potential for destructiveness were borne out when one of her three sons, Thiroux de Crosne, who had served the state as Intendant of Rouen and lieutenant general of the Paris police, was guillotined. In mortal danger herself, d'Arconville spent the worst months of Robe-spierre's Reign of Terror with her sister Mme Angran d'Alleray in the small town of Piepus. Despite the infirmities of old age, d'Arconville continued to read and write, working up to the last days of her life while on her deathbed. This remarkable woman died on December 23, 1805. She still lacks a major biographical study, and her probable authorship of some writings, originally published anonymously, still has not been definitively linked to her name.


Girou-Swiderski, Marie-Laure. "Vivre la Révolution: L'Incidence de la Révolution sur la carriere et la vie de trois femmes de lettres," in Marie-France Brive, ed. Les Femmes et la Révolution française, II: L'Individu et le social, apparitions et representations. Toulouse: PU du Mirail, 1990, pp. 239–249.

La Porte, Hippolyte, Marquis de. Notices et observations à l'occasion de quelques femmes de la société du dixhuitième siècle. Paris: H. Fournier, 1835.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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