Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Francoise De Graffigny's Self-Fictionalization in Lettres D'une Peruvienne

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Francoise De Graffigny's Self-Fictionalization in Lettres D'une Peruvienne

Article excerpt

When Francoise de Graffigny's epistolary novel Lettres d'une Peruvienne appeared in 1747, one of her close friends, the French economist Jacques Turgot, praised the native of the region of Lorraine for crafting a subtle philosophical work capable of regenerating, if not revolutionizing, the genre of the novel itself. As Janet Altman points out in her article "A Woman in The Enlightenment Sun," Turgot's enthusiastic reception was subsequently taken up not only in the Enlightenment Encyclopedie--where several entries were devoted to Graffigny's Peruvian heroine, the Inca Princess Zilia--but also in the portrait gallery assembled by D'Agoty in 1770, in which Graffigny figured as "the deceased writer most capable of representing the Enlightenment ideals" (Altman 269). For Graffigny's contemporaries, the writer's innovative contribution to French literature resided primarily in the singular novelistic heroine she had invented by combining two allegedly incompatible types of characters" the sentimental heroine and the cultural critic of oriental fictions.

Over the past two decades, the Lettres d'une Peruvienne bave once again received increased critical attention. Like their predecessors, recent critics have also focused on the novel's heroine. But the question dominating more recent debates has tended to revolve around the authenticity, or rather lack thereof, of Graffigny's representation of Peruvian culture. (1) Graffigny's deviations from typical eighteenth-century representations of Peruvian realities have generally been attributed to her supposed naivety or lack of familiarity with Peru, if not her insufficient mastery of literary conventions. However, like many writers of oriental fictions, Graffigny was not necessarily concerned with providing her readership with an ethnographic account of the non-European culture she represents in her novel, i.e. Inca civilization. The preface of the Lettres d'une Peruvienne indeed suggests that the writer did not intend to craft her heroine according to received notions of Inca civilization; on the contrary, Graffigny seems precisely to call into question such notions:

   Si la verite, qui s'ecarte du vraisemblable, perd ordinairement son
   credit aux yeux de la raison, ce n'est pas sans retour; mais pour
   peu qu'elle contrarie le prejuge, rarement elle trouve grace devant
   son tribunal. Que ne doit donc pas craindre l'editeur de cet
   ouvrage, en presentant au public les lettres d'une jeune
   Peruvienne, dont le style et les pensees ont si peu de rapport avec
   l'idee mediocrement avantageuse qu'un injuste prejuge nous a fait
   prendre de sa nation [...] Nous meprisons les Indiens; a peine
   accordons-nous une ame pensante a ces peuples malheureux. (249)

As this passage makes clear, Graffigny consciously undermines stereotypical representations of Inca cultural identity, foregrounding Zilia's singular subjectivity instead by emphasizing her cultural agency (her literary "style") and intellectual qualities (her "thoughts"), as opposed to an alleged Peruvian naivety. The gaps between conventional representations of Inca culture and Graffigny's own, which critics have not failed to notice, thus appear to "unmark" the heroine from her supposed Peruvianness rather than indicating any failing on the writer's part. Consequently, such a displacement of Zilia's "Peruvian" identity problematizes the literal reading of the character.

Departing from the ethnographic approach of recent secondary literature, I wish to suggest an alternative reading of Graffigny's Inca Princess as a fictional double for the writer herself. As Janet Altman bas argued, the story of Zilia's exile and of the conquest of Peru certainly provides a forum for a critique of European imperialism in the third world. (2) But it also allowed Graffigny to work through the effects of French imperialism more close to home: namely within her native Lorraine. Previously an independent duchy, Lorraine became a French protectorate at the end of the war of the succession of Poland in 1738. …

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