Épinay, Louise-Florence-Pétronille, Madame la Live d' (1726–1783)

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Épinay, Louise-Florence-Pétronille, Madame la Live d' (1726–1783)

French literary and social figure, friend of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, who wrote on education and an autobiographical novel depicting life in the upper classes during the Enlightenment. Name variations: Madame d'Epinay; Louise d'Épinay. Pronunciation: LOO-ees flo-RONS pay-tro-NEEL tar-DEEUR DESS-cla-VELL, mah-DAHM la LEEV DAY-pee-nay. Born Louise-Florence-Pétronille Tardieu d'Esclavelles on March 11, 1726, in Valenciennes (Nord); died in Paris of nephritis and influenza on April 15, 1783; buried in the family tomb at the church in Épinay; daughter of Louis-Gabriel Tardieu, Baron d'Esclavelles (1665–1736, an army officer) and Florence-Angélique Prouveur de Preux (1696–1762); educated at home and in Paris at a convent school, 1737–39; sister-in-law and cousin of Sophie d' Houdetot (1730–1813); married Denis-Joseph La Live (Lalive) de Bellegarde, later d'Épinay (1724–1782), on December 24, 1745; children: (with husband) a son, Louis-Joseph (1746–1807) and a daughter, Suzanne-Françoise-Thérèse (1747–1748); (with Claude-Louis Dupin de Francueil) a daughter, Angélique-Louise-Charlotte de Belzunce also seen as Belsunce (1749–1807); a son, Jean-Claude Le Blanc de Beaulieu (1753–1825).

Began a liaison with Dupin de Francueil (1748); obtained a separation of property from her husband (1749); through Francueil and Rousseau, met Friedrich Melchior Grimm (1751); ended the liaison with Francueil (1752); began a lifelong liaison with Grimm (1755); Rousseau lived at The Hermitage on her estate and left after a quarrel (1756–67); resided in Geneva and published Mes Moments heureux and Lettres à mon fils (1757–79); became a close friend of Diderot (1760); husband lost his post as a fermiergénéral (1762); began a long correspondence with Abbé Galiani (1769); published the first edition of Conversations d'Émilie (1774); published the second edition of the Conversations (1781), which received the Montyon Prize of the Académie Française (1783); publication of an abridged version of her novel, which the editor entitled Mémoires et correspondence de Madame d'Épinay (1818).

Writings (original editions):

Mes Moments heureux (privately printed, Geneva, 1758, 2nd ed., 1759); Lettres à mon fils (Geneva, 1759); Les Conversations d'Émilie (Leipzig: Crusius, 1774, and Paris: Pissot, 1775, 2nd ed., 2 vols., Paris: Belin, 1781); a novel published posthumously as Mémoires et correspondance de Madame d'Épinay (3 vols., ed. J.-C. Brunet, Paris: Brunet, 1818, 2nd ed., enlarged, Paris: Volland le Jeune, 1819); abridged contributions to Friedrich Grimm and Denis Diderot, Correspondance littéraire, philosophique, et critique (16 vols., Maurice Tourneux, ed., Paris: Garnier, 1877–82); L'Amitié de deux jolies femmes et Une Rêve de Madamoiselle Clairon (Maurice Tourneux, ed., Paris: Librairie des bibliophiles, 1885); La Signora d'Epinay e l'abate Galiani: Lettere inedite (1762–1772) (Fausto Nicolini, ed., Bari: Laterze, 1929); Gli ultimi anni della signora d'Epinay: Lettere inedite (1773-1782) (Fausto Nicolini, ed., Bari: Laterza, 1933). The definitive edition of her novel is Georges Roth, ed., Les Pseudo-Mémoires de Madame d'Épinay: Histoire de Madame Montbrillant (3 vols., Paris: Gallimard, 1951). Mes Moments heureux and Lettres à mon fils were published together as Oeuvres de Madame d'Épinay (P.-A. Challemel-Lacour, ed., 2 vols., Paris: Sauton, 1869) and also in Lettres à mon fils…et morceaux choisis (Ruth Plaut Weinreb, ed., Concord, MA: Wayside Publications, 1984).

Two deaths haunted the childhood of Louise Tardieu d'Esclavelles, the future Madame d'Épinay. Her maternal grandfather died only hours after she was born, and her father died suddenly at 71 when she was 10 and moving to Paris with her parents. These events engendered feelings of grief, anger, and guilt, which her mother only abetted, maintains her biographer Evelyn Simha . Louise blamed herself and longed for protection, love, and paternal guidance. She felt a deep need to justify her very existence. This need in turn fostered ambition, a drive that was fueled by a conviction she never lost despite her childhood conflicts, namely, a belief in her own natural superiority.

Her parents were from the petty provincial nobility. Louis-Gabriel Tardieu, Baron d'Esclavelles, was 58 when he married her much younger mother, Florence-Angélique Prouveur de Preux . He was a retired (1723) soldier, whose career was rewarded with the charge d'honneur of the governorship of the fortress at Valenciennes (Nord). Louise, an only child, was born there on March 11, 1726. He was a "grandfatherly" father who indulged her and encouraged her to learn, a sharp contrast to her mother, who was unloving, rigid, and ferociously pious. This parental inconsistency made her constantly concerned about others' opinions of her, a trait that marked her for life. Even so, as a child she was self-assured and lively, writes Simha, not melancholic and self-contained as biographers have tended to portray her because of the impression she often left on others as an adult.

She was put to the test after her father's death when her mother moved in with her sister Madame de Bellegarde , whose husband was Louis-Denis La Live de Bellegarde, an immensely rich fermier-général. (The members of the General Farm, a state tax-collecting consortium, were among the wealthiest men in France.) They owned a mansion on the fashionable rue Saint-Honoré and a fine estate, La Chevrette, just north of Paris at Épinay-sur-Siene. Among their six children was a daughter, Sophie d'Houdetot , with whom Rousseau would fall madly in love (unrequited) and make the heroine of his famous novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse. Louise's uncle was a generous, kindly man, but her aunt was ill-tempered and took a dislike to Louise, whose brains showed up her daughters' lesser endowments. Madame de Bellegarde even forbade her a tutor, so Louise took to listening to the lessons taught to her cousins. She also spent two years (1737–39) as a scholarship student in a convent school, which she despised. She learned religious and social duties, some drawing and music, and smatterings of history and geography: "Above all, we were never taught to think; and any study of science was scrupulously avoided as being inappropriate to our sex."

To the consternation of her mother and aunt, Louise fell in love with her cousin, the Bellegarde heir, Denis-Joseph. Their teenage romance was interrupted by his military schooling and his long stint in Brittany as the inheritor (1744) of his father's fermier-général position. (These posts were owned.) Denis also received the seigneurie of Épinay and henceforth took his name from it. Meanwhile, Madame de Bellegarde died (1743), and Louise's mother became manager of the Bellegarde household. Louise nearly decided to break off with Denis when he returned from Brittany with a venereal disease. He assured her he was "cured," and after her mother dropped her objections, Louise married him a few minutes after midnight on December 24, 1745, at the church of Saint-Roch in Paris.

The honeymoon lasted three months, after which Denis careened into a lifelong dissipation, chasing women and piling up debts which even by the standards of a profligate upper class made him notorious. Louise, heartbroken and humiliated, disliking his ostentatious spending and her overbearing mother, who resented her son-inlaw's authority over her, tried to remain the dutiful wife. She gave birth to a son, Louis-Joseph (1746–1807) and a daughter, Suzanne-Françoise-Thérèse in 1747 who would die the following year. Louise discovered, however, that Denis had infected her with a venereal disease, so she demanded an end to sexual relations. A final break came when Denis, drunk, came home with a drunken friend and offered her to him. In May 1749, she obtained a séparation des biens, which restored her 30,000-livre dowry. (One could live very comfortably in Paris on 5–6,000 livres per year; laborers earned less than 300.) For fear of scandal, she was persuaded not to seek a full séparation des corps. Her father-inlaw, disgusted with his son, saw to it she was paid part of his subsidy and ensured that the arrangement continued after his death.

An eagle in a gossamer cage.

—Voltaire on Madame d'Épinay, c. 1758

Houdetot, Sophie, Comtesse d' (1730–1813)

French poet and subject of Rousseau's Confessions. Name variations: Countess d'Houdetot; Mme Houdetot. Name variations: Sophie de Bellegarde. Born Élisabeth Françoise Sophie de la Livé de Bellegardé in Paris, France, in 1730; died on January 22, 1813; daughter of Louis-Denis de la Livé de Bellegardé (a rich fermier-général) and Madame de Bellegarde (d. 1743, sister of Florence-Angelique Prouveur de Preux who was the mother of Madame d'Épinay); sister-in-law and cousin of Mme d'Epinay (1726–1783); married the comte de Houdetot, in 1748; children: son César Louis Marie François Ange (b. 1749) was governor of Martinique.

Sophie, comtesse de Houdetot, a sometime poet known more for her charm than her beauty, was born in 1730. She married the comte de Houdetot in 1748, but the couple separated amicably five years later. In 1753, she began a relationship with the Marquis de Saint Lambert which lasted until his death. She then met Jean-Jacques Rousseau while staying with her cousin/sister-in-law Mme d'Épinay at Montmorency. In his Confessions, Rousseau describes his unrequited passion for Sophie. Questioned on the subject, she replied that he had greatly exaggerated; nevertheless it brought her a great deal of notoriety even though she remained faithful to Saint Lambert. A quite different view from that of Rousseau's is to be found in the Mémoires of Mme d'Epinay. Houdetot's poetry was included in a volume of the work of Saint-John Crèvecour in 1833.

Her role as a wife in ruins, Louise turned to motherhood, with mixed results. She had wanted to breastfeed her son, a most uncommon practice in her class, but Denis forbade it. She also wanted to undertake his education—again, almost unheard of—but governesses and tutors moved in. Still, she never lost her interest in education. In the meantime, she had been urged by a new friend, Marie-Louise d'Ette , to banish her depression by finding a lover. She rejected the idea, but in October 1746 one Charles-Louis Dupin de Francueil, a friend of Denis, appeared. He was a rich Treasury official—his family owned the magnificent Château de Chenonceaux—and was married but never seen with his wife. In the words of George Sand , his granddaughter by a second wife, he was "handsome, elegant, always faultlessly turned out, graceful, jovial, courteous, affectionate, even-tempered to the day of his death."

It was Francueil who introduced Louise to the intelligentsia of the Enlightenment, which aroused in her a thirst to educate herself and become more than a mute presence at the dinners given by Mlle Quinault and the Comte de Caylus. He introduced her to (the still obscure) Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1747 and to the novelist Crébillon fils, the dramatist Merivaux, and the novelist-historian Charles Duclos. She loved the theater, was a good actress herself, and staged plays at La Chevrette, including Rousseau's L' Engagement téméraire on September 14, 1748. In the spring of that year, she had finally surrendered to Francueil, and on August 1, 1749, she gave birth to their daughter, Angélique-Louise-Charlotte (d. 1807).

Francueil's ardor cooled by the summer of 1751, and in the fall of 1752 the liaison ended. Unfortunately, Louise found herself again pregnant by him and on May 29, 1753, gave birth to a son, Jean-Claude Le Blanc de Beaulieu (d. 1825). She ignored the child, not even mentioning him in her "memoirs"; he was raised by foster parents in the provinces and became bishop of Soissons. It is uncertain why the liaison ended, but probably her discovery that Francueil was being unfaithful to her in company with her husband proved fatal. Francueil nevertheless continued to be a guest at La Chevrette.

Madame d'Épinay, no longer a naive young woman, was growing intellectually. She ceased living with her mother after her uncle's death (1751), but she still felt under her spell and still looked for a protector and mentor. Duclos tried to fill the role, but it was not until March 1755 that she formed a new liaison, with Friedrich Melchior Grimm (1723–1807). For her it proved to be a lifelong love; for him something less, although he remained her intimate friend until her death. Born in Ratisbon, he had come to Paris with traveling German nobles as a secretary-companion. Rousseau (suddenly famous now) introduced him to Parisian intellectual society in 1750 and to Louise in 1751. He became a close friend of Diderot and Baron d'Holbach and began publishing pieces on Germany and music. In 1753, Abbé Raynal left to him the editorship of the Correspondance littéraire, philosophique, et critique, a high-toned newsletter on Parisian affairs, published in Germany to avoid censorship and circulated every two to four weeks to some 20 royal and princely subscribers, including Frederick the Great and Catherine II the Great .

Grimm, a polymath, was active, authoritarian, moralistic, ambitious, and self-absorbed, but perhaps less cold in temperament than simply stoic. Her attraction to him warmed when (as her "memoirs" relate, anyhow) she learned he had defended her good name in a duel in the winter of 1752–53. He became her mentor on all matters—she at last broke free of her mother—and after March 1755 they were lovers. She had already started to write; now she began to blossom as a woman of letters. Grimm encouraged her, but he always seemed ambivalent about the quality of her work and probably bore some responsibility (with Diderot) for persuading her not to publish her novel during her lifetime.

About this time she described herself in terms unusually nuanced for that era, when the custom was to portray women as either beautiful or homely: "I am not at all pretty, but I am not ugly. I am petite, thin, with a good figure. I have a youthful look, but without freshness, noble, gentle, lively, and interesting." Voltaire noted her large black eyes, "eyes so beautiful," an admirer wrote, "so tender, so eloquent of her soul that one is scarcely aware of the rest." In short, she was no great beauty but undeniably attractive.

In September 1755, Mme d'Épinay invited Rousseau to live at The Hermitage (L'Ermitage), a building in the parc at La Chevrette which she renovated for the purpose: "My bear," she coyly wrote, "there is your hideway." After his usual churlish protests, he (as usually happened) accepted the favor and lived at The Hermitage from April 1756 to December 1757, during which time he wrote La Nouvelle Héloïse and started Émile and Le Contrat social, save for the Confessions, his most famous works. Why she invited him is not certain. She found him attractive in an odd way, but it is impossible to believe she wanted anything more than a close friendship—his conversation and attention and probably comments on her writings. He was also good at arranging musical entertainments. And it is quite likely she saw that this new celebrity, being

chased after by Parisian society precisely because he ostentatiously snubbed it, would be a "catch."

This idyll soured at the edges when Rousseau complained, probably with some justification, that his patron was demanding too much of his time. Finally, from late August 1757 until Mme d'Épinay left on October 30 for a long stay in Geneva to consult Voltaire's physician, Dr. Théodore Tronchin, one of the most famous quarrels in the history of literature erupted. The Hermitage affair, Rousseau wrote in his Confessions, divided his life in half; it sealed the rejection of him by the philosophes, led by his erstwhile friend Diderot. The principals were Rousseau, hypersensitive, in the early stages of paranoia; Diderot, who barged in offering unwanted advice; Mme d'Épinay, her feelings hurt by Rousseau's suspicions and piqued that his raging passion for her cousin, Sophie d'Houdetot (in whom he saw his "Julie" in the flesh) was causing him to neglect her; the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, Sophie's true love; Grimm, Saint-Lambert's friend, who had probably opposed inviting Rousseau to The Hermitage because he knew him well enough to expect trouble would follow; Thérèse La Vasseur , Rousseau's longtime lower-class mistress, jealous of these fancy ladies and ready to spread gossip about them; and Thérèse's old mother, an accomplished mischief-maker. Moliére could not have invented a finer cast for a farce. This one, however, ended with unhappiness and recriminations all around.

It would be pointless here to wade into this swamp to find the truth. The evidence lies in well-doctored, self-serving accounts by clever, all-too-articulate littéraires, which makes it impossible to separate with much confidence fact from artful fiction. Suffice it to say, the imbroglio centered on two overlapping quarrels, one involving the threatened embarrassing revelation of Rousseau's passion for Sophie, the other around Mme d'Épinay's invitation to him, which he spurned, to accompany her on the journey to Geneva, perhaps as a way to get him away from Sophie. Rousseau, who surely had to sense by now that he was outstaying his welcome, became sincerely convinced that Diderot, Grimm, and Mme d'Épinay were plotting against him: "You have sought to reduce me to servitude, or to use me for your secret ends," he wrote to her near the end of October. Probably she had written to Grimm, but not to Saint-Lambert, as Rousseau believed, about his love for Sophie, and Grimm likely had said something to Saint-Lambert. (Both were with the army at the time.) But evidence of a true "plot" against him is highly circumstantial at best. Mme d'Épinay, seething over a spiteful letter he had written to Grimm asserting that he had done her a favor by living at The Hermitage, wrote to him from Geneva that she "pitied" him. He replied saying that on advice of friends he was staying on until spring. She replied icily that she did not consult her friends about her duty. He took the hint and left on December 18.

As will appear, the affair was not entirely over. Meanwhile, Mme d'Épinay stayed in Geneva until October 5, 1759, benefiting from Dr. Tronchin's care. She was ailing most of her life. Venereal disease (syphilis?) doubtless contributed to her ills, which included migraine, vertigo, stones, and stomach, bowel, and kidney pain hinting at Bright's disease or cancer. She longed desperately for Grimm's presence: he finally came down in February 1759 for an eight-month honeymoon (the happiest months of her life, she wrote) until she reluctantly returned with him to Paris. To occupy herself in Geneva, she began to write steadily, privately publishing Mes Moments heureux (My Happy Moments) in 1758 (revised in 1759) and Lettres à mon fils (Letters to My Son) in 1759, and finishing much of a huge autobiographical epistolary novel, Histoire de Madame Montbrillant. Protestant Geneva's enlightened, moral society stimulated her, and she made friends, including Voltaire (living nearby at Ferney), who wrote of her, "She is no scatterbrain: she is a philosophe, with a very clear, strong mind." Noting her physical fragility, he called her "an eagle in a gossamer cage."

Moments, a miscellany of stories, light verse, and essays, was published anonymously in 25 copies for friends but soon was circulating in pirated editions. (It survives only in an 1869 edition of the 1759 revision.) She felt she had discovered her true self and hence was bold (or vain) enough to dedicate it to her own guiding spirit ("a reparation I owe you"), with a preface expressing hope she would become a "woman of distinction." Most of the pieces were written in 1756, but some dated back to 1747; as with the Lettres, some had appeared in Grimm's Correspondance littéraire. The Lettres contained 12 essays, "letters" ostensibly to her 13-year-old son on education in the broadest sense of the word—society, philosophy, morality. These together with an essay-letter to her daughter's governess in Moments, presented ideas she had discussed with Rousseau (whose Émile appeared in 1762) but which probably owed less to him than is usually said, notes Ruth Weinreb . She advocated involvement of parents, especially mothers, in their children's education, closely collaborating with their tutor—a novelty for that time; virtually the same education for girls as for boys; and a curriculum to include foreign languages, philosophy, and respect for the great natural world. A didactic, strongly conscience-based moral tone pervaded the Lettres, where she condemned defects in her son's knowledge and conduct. Predictably, the poor pre-adolescent boy, who moreover hated Grimm's presence, soon followed his father's dreadful example, to his mother's sorrow. Not surprisingly, too, her books earned her criticism for her pretensions to literary eminence and her too candid, even callous, airing of her son's faults.

Back now in Paris, Mme d'Épinay suffered a severe blow when the Treasury revoked her husband as a fermier-général on January 1, 1762, because of his habitually huge debt problem. A complicated settlement resulted in her receiving a share of his successor's income, and when her mother died on November 1 she inherited 90,000 livres. Still, she was forced to cut back; La Chevrette and part of the rue Saint-Honoré mansion were rented out, she moved to a place in the faubourg Monceau, and used a smaller, cozier château, La Briche (in Épinay) as her summer residence. In 1760, she and Diderot had become close friends—that she contributed anonymously to his great Encyclopédie (Vol. 8—) is probable but unprovable—and during the 1760s she and Grimm entertained him, Baron d'Holbach, the abbés Raynal and Galiani, Dr. Tronchin, and a passel of lesser Enlightenment notables at La Briche. She conducted no formal salon, with set hours and guest list, but let people come when they chose.

She helped some with Grimm's Correspondance, but his frequent, lengthening absences and her poor health left her often depressed. She finished her novel, but the last chapters lacked verve. And there were her children. In 1764, panicked for the future of her talented 15-year-old daughter, Angélique, because of her husband's crash, she hastily married her off to Vicomte Dominique de Belzunce, a 36-year-old wounded officer. She watched Angélique shrivel in a cold château near the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, her gadabout son was falling heavily into debt. As a mother, this woman who preached the virtues of motherhood, stared at stark failure.

The 1770s proved both highly active and stressful for Mme d'Épinay. Financial pressures forced her to rent out La Briche (1769) and move from place to place in Paris. Making an excruciating decision, she and Denis had son Louis imprisoned for two years on a lettre de cachet (a king's order) to prevent him from gambling away the family's fortune. (Upper-class families sometimes resorted to this procedure to protect inheritances.) He had lost his post with the Parlement of Pau, now lost his army commission, was jailed again briefly in 1773, and finally was sent off to Switzerland, where he married in 1775. "One is not a mother with impunity," she wrote to Abbé Galiani in 1770. "Nothing makes a person more idiotic. Take my advice, my friend, never become a mother." Furthermore, pain from her ailments, enough to cause her to roll on the floor sometimes, forced her to take opium in large quantities as time wore on. And Grimm's absences, notably on diplomatic missions for German states, grew longer still. On the positive side, in 1778 Voltaire honored her with a visit shortly before his death, and Mozart, penniless, gratefully stayed with her for two months after the sudden death of his mother.

As a result of Grimm's travels—"my German butterfly," she dubbed him—she, Diderot and a Swiss, Jacques-Henri Meister, were left with most of the work of the Correspondance. In September 1774, Grimm formally ceded the paper to Meister, who continued it to 1793. Mme d'Épinay was most active on it from late 1768 to 1775, managing business, editing, writing theater and book reviews, and discussing politics, economics, and philosophy—a veritable female philosophe. From July 1771 to January 1772, she published it almost alone, but after 1775, with Grimm out and her health crumbling, she gave up the grind.

Besides the Correspondance work, she edited Abbé Galiani's famous Dialogues sur le commerce des blés (Dialogues on the Grain Trade, 1770) and carried on one of the most noteworthy correspondences of the century with him after he was recalled to Naples in 1769. She also published, anonymously in Leipzig doubtless with Grimm's help, the first version of Conversations d'Émilie (1774), a book on education inspired by her granddaughter Émilie de Belzunce , whom she began raising in 1769 and who revived her maternal hopes. The book, containing 12 dialogues, met success in France, Germany, and Italy, so she revised and expanded it to 20 dialogues and in 1781 republished it in Paris in two volumes under her own name. The labor, pushed on despite her son's disasters and her illnesses, helped her overcome "the terrors of death," she wrote in the preface.

While many ideas in the Conversations repeated or resembled those in the Moments and Lettres, she emerged at last as a fully confident, independent woman. Like Rousseau, whom she did not mention by name, she believed in allowing the child to discover the truth, hence avoiding long, complicated expositions, and in attending to physical education. But thereafter she parted ways with him. She gave the essential role to the mother, not the tutor, in supervising the child's education—a word, incidentally, connoting "upbringing" more than simply "instruction." Only the mother has the time to do this. Moral education should be given from a very early age, not postponed (as with Rousseau). Above all, unlike Rousseau's "Sophie," raised merely to please and serve "Émile," Émilie would be educated the same as any boy, for women are the intellectual equals of men and learning is important to their happiness. Mme d'Épinay had been raised as a "Sophie" and hated it: Émilie would be what she herself had wanted to be—happy, intelligent, and independent—notes Elisabeth Badinter . Moreover, unlike most contemporary theorists, she opposed class distinctions in education, calling instead for a general "republican" education, at least as an ideal. Worth is achieved by effort, not conferred by inheritance. Reversing her position in the Lettres, she also preferred boarding school to strictly private tutoring, for children need companionship. In all cases, the inculcation of virtue and social usefulness should drive the whole process.

Yearning for recognition and immortality, with death approaching, she offered her work to the Académie Française for the first Prix Monty-on, "the book published in the current year that might be of greatest benefit to society." Despite the intrigues of Mme de Genlis , whose Adèle et Théodore was a strong candidate, Mme d'Épinay was awarded the prize on January 13, 1783.

But what of the novel, which would be her best-known work? It was not published until 1818 and only in abridged form under a totally misleading title: Mémoires et correspondance de Madame d'Épinay. She had willed the manuscript to Grimm, who left it in Paris (thinking he would return) when he fled the Terror during the Revolution. The government carelessly divided it and stored it in the National and Arsenal libraries; the parts were discovered and published in sundry deformed editions during the 19th century. The unabridged, authoritative version, edited by Georges Roth in three volumes, appeared at last in 1951 under the title Les Pseudo-Mémoires de Madame d'Épinay, Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant.

This sprawling work—the Roth edition fills 2,000 pages but does include extensive notes—was "the longest, most ambitious novel authored by a French woman in the eighteenth century," claims Weinreb. An autobiographically based novel with a story similar to her life from 1736 to 1763 but recast as fiction, it is, with Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse, a roman personal, an innovation which broke ground for Germaine de Staël , Charlotte Brontë , Flaubert, Proust, et al. It is also a roman de moeurs whose portrayal of 18th-century society the eminent 19th-century critic Saint-Beuve praised as unsurpassed: "The Mémoires [sic] of Mme d'Épinay are not a book, they are an epoch."

In form it is predominately epistolary, but also with diary and third-person narrative elements. The earliest ideas stemmed from her reading of Duclos's Confessions du comte de *** around 1746, and perhaps by 1750 she had started to write. She was most active from 1756 through her stay in Geneva; work on the first draft then trailed on through the 1760s, after which revisions began. Her purpose seems most clearly to have been a desire to search for her true self by tracing her transformation, writes Weinreb, from "a timid, rather ignorant girl, an oppressed daughter and wife, to a devoted mother and liberated, well-educated woman." The book, notes Simha, was "the fruit of her self-discovery at the same time that it is the record of her voyage." It must be emphasized, however, that this is a novel, a fiction, in which dates, events, documents, and persons have been altered at the author's whim. Readers and historians too often have tended to forget this simple fact about this complicated work.

The main complication was revealed by a Rousseau scholar, Frederika MacDonald , who in 1906 published an exposé of extensive revisions in the work undertaken after 1770. In that year, Rousseau finished his Confessions and in 1771 began to read it in salons, creating a public scandal. He had reached the Hermitage affair when Mme d'Épinay asked a friend, chief of police Sartine, to politely but firmly tell him to desist—which Rousseau did, being unhappy anyhow with the readings' reception. He died in 1778, the first six books of the Confessions (up to the Hermitage affair) were published in 1782, the rest in 1789. He obviously had wanted to justify himself to posterity. So did Mme d'Épinay—and Diderot and Grimm, who were in mortal fear their reputations and the encyclopédiste party would be wrecked by Rousseau's revelations. Hence, from 1770 until her death in 1783 she willingly accepted (besides extensive editorial suggestions) changes that would blacken Rousseau's reputation and make him appear to be a lying ingrate. At the same time, it is only fair to note, she said or wrote nothing in public disparaging to Rousseau while she lived even though she could easily have done so, for example, in the Correspondance littéraire. She had even tried to help him anonymously from Geneva. To the end, despite everything, she felt a lingering attraction, it seems, to this genius from another planet.

Whether she intended to publish her novel is an open question; but it was clear, especially to Diderot, that it should not be published until all the principals were dead. She, Diderot, and Grimm thus would have the last word. Yet, after Diderot's death in 1784, Grimm prudently decided not to publish the novel. Why didn't he then destroy the manuscript copy and the incriminating notes? As it was, until MacDonald's revelations, Mme d'Épinay's "memoirs" were taken as the true account of the Hermitage affair and Rousseau's version—which itself is falsified—dismissed. The irony here is that Mme d'Épinay did write a novel, but she conspired to alter it in hopes her fiction would be read as thinly veiled fact. As a result, after MacDonald's work her reputation sank—unduly so. As for the true story of the Hermitage affair, it obviously can never be fully recovered.

Mme d'Épinay spent her last 20 years in physical and financial distress. Catherine the Great, appealed to by Grimm, whom she knew well, bought her diamonds in 1779 to bail her son out of debt; but in 1780 she was writing to Dr. Tronchin to intercede with Controller-General Necker to prevent creditors from seizing her furniture. And in 1781 she turned to Catherine again, dedicating the second edition of the Conversations to her. Catherine liked it and helped out once more, with 16,000 livres plus a diamond brooch for Émilie.

Denis d'Épinay, husband in name only, died of venereal disease on February 16, 1782. He richly deserved Diderot's scathing epitaph: "So ended a man who wasted two million without ever saying a witty word or doing a good thing." A year later, Mme d'Épinay followed. On April 15, 1783, two months after receiving the Prix Montyon, she died, aged 57, from stomach disease, nephritis, and influenza at her home on the Chausée d'Antin. On the 17th, she was interred in the family vault in the church at Épinay.

Mme d'Épinay has been called, writes Lester Crocker, "one of the most brilliant women of a century prolific in brilliant women." Brilliant probably; complex certainly. She was naturally graceful, carefully groomed, and attractive owing to her beautiful eyes, self-mocking humor, good sense, warmth, intelligence, and lack of arrogance or artificiality—besetting sins of her social class. More sentimental than passionate, she was no famous wit and in large gatherings preferred to listen, being skilled in getting others to talk. In small groups, she was agreeable, lively, and to the point. She was more at ease and eloquent on paper than in speech. She wrote in a light, elegant style, in expression simple and apt.

Beneath this agreeable exterior, however, surged powerful contrary feelings. Her novel is revealing. The underlying theme is that of trust rewarded by abandonment. Pain, despair, isolation predominate; there is no joy, nothing sweet or lyrical. Her heroine dies for having defied convention—a conventional theme. Yet, in real life Mme d'Épinay herself struggled on heroically despite deep despair over her husband's humiliation of her, her children's failures, Francueil's betrayal, Grimm's long absences and obvious cooling, grave financial worries, and near ceaseless physical pain.

With every reason simply to bask in the opulent life of fermier-général society, she chose instead to educate herself in order to join the intelligentsia. Interestingly, almost all her friends were men. Had she been a man she could have been counted among the philosophes instead of being all but hidden in the shade cast by Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, d'Holbach, and the rest. Her own smiling dismissals of her writings as mere "amusements" for her friends masked a powerful ambition to be considered a serious littéraire. Instead, the conventions of a male-dominated society frustrated her. She deplored the restrictions it placed upon women's ability to develop their full powers: "I say that a woman, because she is a woman," she wrote to Abbé Galiani in 1771, "is not in a position to acquire a fund of knowledge sufficient to make her useful to society; and it seems to me that the ability to be useful is the only thing one can be proud of.…We are excluded from so many things! Everything that touches on the science of administration, on politics, on commerce, is alien to us and forbidden." In no way (save in the most obvious biological sense) did she find any natural difference between men and women. In these matters, she formed independent judgments and acted with the courage of her convictions. In time, she learned to count on herself alone, certainly not on any man.

Mme d'Épinay's interest in education, especially for girls, flowed from these concerns. She also came to the subject from her concentration on motherhood, a compensation for her failures as a wife (as far as she thought herself responsible) and her bad conscience over her adulteries. Suffice it to say, she was one of the earliest advocates of the roles women assumed in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, namely, as intensively involved mothers and the primary educators of children. Ironically, she was prevented from or failed in fulfilling these roles with her own children, and in a serious sense the roles ran contrary to her desire to open to women all those permitted to men. She was a complicated person indeed.


Badinter, Elisabeth. Émilie, Émilie: L'Ambition féminine au XVIIIe siècle. Paris Flammarion, 1983 (a study of Émilie du Châtelet and Louise d'Épinay).

Blanchard, William H. Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt: A Psychological Study. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1967.

Crocker, Lester G. The Embattled Philosopher: A Biography of Denis Diderot. Lansing, MI: Michigan State College Press, 1954.

——. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 2 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1968–73.

Green, F.C. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Critical Study of His Life and Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955.

Gribble, Francis. Rousseau and the Women He Loved. NY: Scribner, 1908.

Hulliung, Mark. The Autocritique of the Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

MacDonald, Frederika. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A New Criticism. 2 vols. NY: Putnam, 1906.

Simha, Evelyn Singer. "An Eagle in a Cage of Gauze: Mme d'Épinay's Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant." Yale University diss., 1968. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1968.

Steegmuller, Francis. A Woman, a Man, and Two Kingdoms: The Story of Madame d'Épinay and the Abbé Galiani. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Weinreb, Ruth Plaut. Eagle in a Gauze Cage: Louise d'Épinay, femme de lettres. NY: AMS Press, 1993.

suggested reading:

Cazes, André. Grimm et les encyclopédistes. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1933.

Diderot, Denis. Correspondance. G. Roth and J. Varloost, eds. 16 vols. Paris: Minuit, 1955–70 (frequent mentions of Mme d'Épinay).

Guilleman, Henri. "Les Affaires de l'Ermitage," in Annales de la Société Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Vol. 19, 1941–42, pp. 58–258 (the basic account).

Hageman, Jeanne Kathryn. "Les Conversations d'Émilie: The Education of Women by Women in Eighteenth-Century France." Univ. of Wisconsin diss., 1991.

Legros, A. Madame d'Épinay, Valenciennoise. Valenciennes, 1920 (a valuable account).

Magetti, Daniel, and Georges Dulac, eds. Correspondance de l' abbé Galiani et de Mme d'Épinay. Paris: Desjonquières, 1992—.

Rey, Auguste. Le Château de La Chevrette et Madame d'Épinay. Paris: Plon, 1904.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. J.M. Cohen, tr. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1954.

——. Correspondance complète. R.A. Leigh, ed. 14 vols. Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1966–67 (esp. vols. 3, 4).

Scherer, Edmond. Melchior Grimm. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1887.

Smiley, Joseph Royall. Diderot's Relations with Grimm. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1950.

Spencer, Samia, ed. French Women and the Age of Enlightenment. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Trouille, Mary. "Sexual/Textual Politics in the Enlightenment: Diderot and d'Epinay Respond to Thomas's Essay on Women," in Romantic Review. Vol. 85, 1994, pp. 191–210.

Weinreb, Ruth Plaut. "Émilie ou Émile? Madame d'Épinay and the Education of Girls in Eighteenth-Century France," in Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts. CT: Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 57–66.

——. "Madame d'Épinay's Contribution to the Correspondance littéraire," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture. Vol. 18, 1988, pp. 389–403.

Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot. NY: Oxford University Press, 1972.


Paris: Archives nationales; Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal; Bibliothèque de la Ville de Paris (articles in the Correspondance littéraire).

Naples: Biblioteca di Storia Patria (letters to Galiani).

David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky

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Épinay, Louise-Florence-Pétronille, Madame la Live d' (1726–1783)

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