Academic journal article The Romanic Review

From Anonymity to Autobiography: MME d'Arconville's Self-Fashionings

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

From Anonymity to Autobiography: MME d'Arconville's Self-Fashionings

Article excerpt

Over the course of a publishing career that extended from the mid-1750s to the early 1780s, Marie-Genevieve-Charlotte Darlus, presidente Thiroux d'Arconville (1720-1805), manifested exceptional intellectual range and versatility. She published literary and scientific translations, moral treatises, original scientific research, two novels, and three substantial biographies. Ali these works appeared anonymously. Despite whatever real or perceived restrictions were imposed by her sex or her class, d'Arconville published widely and enjoyed some degree of critical success for her literary efforts; her scientific and historical work received considerable recognition. As she describes it in one of her late essays, anonymity was a choice that she never regretted:

   J'etais tres determinee a ne jamais instruire le public de mes
   occupations litteraires. J'ai ete fidelle au parti que j'avais pris
   sur cet objet, ayant fait reflexion qu'il y avait toujours a perdre
   pour une femme de se declarer auteur, et tres peu a y gagner. (1)

Her adherence to the code of anonymity was, however, no less steadfast than her desire to exercise control and ownership of her work. Her publication strategies were calculated to link her works without revealing her gender, creating a definable body of work attributable (by an attentive reader) to a single person.

As we seek to understand the nature of authorship, particularly female authorship, in the eighteenth century, d'Arconville is a fascinating figure, not only because of the range and intensity of her intellectual commitments, but also for the two very different ways in which she exercised authorial control and expressed her identity as a writer. During the decades of her publishing career, she projected an authorial presence through the systematic paratextual interlinking of her anonymous works, as well as through her direct oversight of the production process. In her final years, however, self-expression takes another form, in a series of autobiographical essays that reveal the extent to which writing and intellectual production were at the core of her identity. Part of a large corpus of writings on a wide range of topics, the autobiographical essays offer a remarkable portrait, or series of portraits, of d'Arconville: as a young girl, thirsty for learning and books; as a busy intellectual, balancing family commitments and writing in the prime of life; as a victim of revolutionary violence; and as an old woman, melancholic and in poor health, who still takes pleasure in writing and "projects." Just as her publishing career simultaneously manifests self-effacement and possessive ownership, so too her late essays bespeak both containment and self-revelation, as well as an ongoing search for the right form, or mode, in which to present her life. As a biographer and historian, she had reflected on the possibilities and pitfalls of life writing. And as longtime, careful, and frequently resisting reader of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, she is sensitive to the appeal of personal history and drawn to the model of the Confessions, but also aware of a need to find her own way of shaping her story. The work of authorial self-construction, both over the course of her publication career and in the process of writing her life, provides a study of the options facing a woman writer in the later eighteenth century, and a personal vision of the writer's progress.

At the time of d'Arconville's first publication, Avis d'un pere a sa fille (1756), a translation of Lord Halifax's Advice to a Daughter, women had long been visible on the literary scene. Eighteenth-century critics and anthologists pointed to the presence of women of letters as indicative of the advanced stage of French society. Ali underscored the beauty and importance of the writings of Madame de Sevigne, Madeleine de Scudery, Anne Dacier, and a host of others. Pons-Augustin Alletz viewed Emilie Du Chatelet's scientific expertise as bringing "gloire" to "notre siecle" (2:107). …

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