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‘je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ - delving into the Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny

Monday, 24 October, 2016

The Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny, now available as a 15-volume set, is a rich account of eighteenth-century life detailing court events and intrigues, financial and social manoeuvres, theatre and cultural life, publishing activity and censorship, and anecdotes about the famous and near-famous with whom Mme de Graffigny was acquainted. Increasingly, scholars are exploring the Correspondance for data on urban life, the growth of trade and the consumer society, the practices of medicine and surgery, and the dimensions of a woman’s life: her home, work and social spheres. Basic descriptions of all 2518 letters are given in the online database Early Modern Letters Online, and a selection of excerpts can now be enjoyed on the Voltaire Foundation website. The cumulative index, an indispensable tool for delving into the Correspondance, is also available online at the University of Toronto’s French Department website. Drawing upon all 15 volumes, it covers the two decades of the eighteenth century (1738-1758) spanned by the Correspondance. It allows the reader to trace locutions, surnoms, the genesis of literary works, and the actions of individuals and families over that period of time. It incorporates all updates that have been made to individual volume indexes as new research has filled in the details, especially concerning lesser-known figures. Since the publication of the first volume in 1985, reviewers and scholars, dialect specialists, theatre buffs and other readers have generously provided biographical information and clues to the bits of verse, satirical songs, punchlines, and quotations which make Mme de Graffigny’s letters delightful to read but challenging to edit. The editors are grateful for all such comments and we encourage readers to keep us informed about new discoveries.

‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’ ‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

When the editors realise that an expression used in the letters is an idiom, a locution, they can search for its definition in an eighteenth-century source, such as the Dictionnaire universel françois et latin, vulgairement appelé Dictionnaire de Trévoux (Paris, 1743). Thus, in September 1750, Mme de Graffigny, trying in vain to persuade her friend the actress Mlle Quinault that La Brioche, their early draft of La Fille d’Aristide, would not work, wrote: ‘Je ferai encore un effort aupres de Nicole pour la retenir et puis je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ (Letter 1599). In other words, it was all she could say or would say on the topic: ‘On dit ordinairement à la fin des contes et des fables que l’on fait aux enfans: “Je jettai mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins, et je ne sais ce que tout devint”: ce qui se dit, ou lorsqu’on ne sait plus que dire sur quelque sujet, ou lorsqu’on ne veut pas dire tout ce que l'on en sait’ (Trévoux).

‘Il n’y a personne au logis’ ‘Il n’y a personne au logis’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

On another occasion, Mme de Graffigny wrote about the unhappy situation of Charles de Lorraine, comte d’Armagnac: ‘Eh, le pauvre prince Charle, il n’y a presque plus personne au logis, et son encien mal au pied est revenus. [...] Il n’est plus au nombre des vivans et n’y sera probablement bientot plus phisiquement’ (Letter 1639). She did not mean that he had no one to take care of him, but rather that he had become senile. The expression she used was well known at the time: ‘On dit: il n’y a personne au logis, d’un [...] mourant, qui n’a plus de connoissance’ (Trévoux).

Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody, Graffigny Project office, University of Toronto

This rich index is being updated regularly as part of the ongoing work on Volume 16, a digital publication which will include corrections and additions to the print volumes, supplementary archival and manuscript materials, and new letters as they come to light. (English Showalter continues as general editor, and Dorothy P. Arthur is volume editor, aided by Diane Beelen Woody, Marion Filipiuk and Edward A. Heinemann, long-time members of the Toronto team.) In April we spoke to CBC Radio One Fresh Air about the project and this week my colleague Diane Beelen Woody and I look forward to speaking about Mme de Graffigny’s use of codes and the art of writing under police surveillance at the upcoming meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. – Dorothy P. Arthur