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The lost letters of Sophie Volland.

A Note from the Editors

What follows are excerpts from the recently discovered autograph manuscript of the letters of Louise-Henriette Volland (known to posterity as Sophie Volland), addressed to her lover of twenty-eight years, the French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot.

We publish four of these letters here for the first time. As readers of MLN will undoubtedly know, scholars have been convinced for over two hundred years that Sophie Volland's letters to Diderot were burned by Madame Diderot after her husband's death. Previous efforts to recover Sophie's letters have all proved futile. Now, however, we are in a position to share with the community of dix-huitiemistes the fruits of a young scholar's archival research.

Since the circumstances of the discovery are bound to elicit as much scholarly interest as the letters themselves, we have asked for a detailed account, which we have taken the liberty of appending below after the text of the letters.

Finally, we would like to assure our readers that every effort has been made to respect the original text. Only the spelling and punctuation have been changed to conform to modern usage.

[...]

The Text of the Letters

a Paris ce 20 decembre, 1758(2)

Morphyse(3)a prononce sa sentence aujourd'hui. Six mois d'exil dans notre chateau a Isle-sur-Marne. Que ne ferait-elle pas pour m'eloigner de vous ... que ne ferais-je pas pour rester ici a Paris? La colere de Morphyse ne s'apaise pas depuis le moment qu'elle vous a trouve dans ma chambre. Hier encore elle a menace de me renfermer chez moi sous la clef.

Quel danger y a-t-il pour une femme comme moi, a mon age, de m'entretenir seule avec mon amant? Que le monde apprenne mon secret? Que l'on condamne les moeurs d'une femme qui aime trop les livres et la philosophie? Quelles suites y aurait-il a craindre? Serai-je exclue du grand monde parisien? Je n'en ai jamais fait partie. Perdrai-je l'occasion de me marier? Je l'ai deja perdue. Pourra-t-on m'empecher de vous voir? Pas autant qu'il me restera de la force et de l'intelligence.

Mlle Boileau, que j'attends incessamment, vous fera parvenir ce billet, adresse, comme nous avons convenu, a M. Grimm, rue Neuve-Luxembourg.

Mon ami, je suis au desespoir. Quand vous reverrai-je? Un mot, s'il vous plait, pour me rassurer.

[...]

a Paris ce 22 juillet 1759(4)

Je reviens de chez Mme Le Gendre, off j'ai ete depuis le matin jusqu'au soir. Vous pouvez imaginer pourquoi: l'etat de sa fille a empire hier. Ma soeur s'afflige; elle a fait appeler Tronchin par l'intermediaire de M. Gaschon, qui connait son fils. Tronchin n'a pas donne grand espoir a ma soeur. La fluxion de poitrine, la fievre qui ne tombe pas, malgre trois saignees: tout cela augure mal de l'avenir de la petite Emilie. Depuis deux jours elle n'ouvre plus les yeux; sa respiration est lente et penible; on entend le grattement du souffle contre les parois atteintes des poumons.

Mme Le Gendre ne la quitte pas pour un instant. Elle tient le cher enfant dans ses bras et le repose sur son sein, et cela pendant des heures entieres et par des chaleurs insupportables. Quand ses bras s' affaiblissent, elle pose l'enfant sur le lit et s'occupe a arranger et rearranger les couvertures; apres cet effort futile, elle en fait un autre pareil, trempant un bout de linge dans de l'eau-de-vie et le frottant sur le front de la pauvre malade. Mais malgre tous ces soins maternels, il n'y a aucun signe de progres.

Aujourd'hui, entrant dans la chambre d'Emilie, j'ai entendu ma soeur lui chantant la meme berceuse que Morphyse nous a chante pendant toute notre enfance. Je n'ai pas pu retenir mes larmes au son de cette voix, remplie de la plus grande tendresse et d'un desespoir dechirant. J'ai pris Mme Le Gendre dans mes bras et nous avons pleure ensemble quelque temps, jusqu'a l'arrivee de Morphyse, qui nous a interdit de nous attrister devant sa petite-fille. Morphyse est de l'avis qu'Emilie peut nous entendre, malgre cet etat qui a toutes les apparences d'une profonde perte de connaissance. Mais la presence de Morphyse m'a permis de convaincre ma soeur a quitter la chambre de sa fille et de prendre du the et des confitures. Ce peu de nourriture lui a permis de reprendre ses forces. Ensuite elle est passee un moment dans son appartement s'essuyer la figure pour enlever la trace de ses larmes, car elle garde toujours l'espoir de voir Emilie rouvrir les yeux bientot. Quand elle a repris sa place a cote du petit lit, j'ai pris mon conge, et Morphyse aussi.

En rentrant dans la voiture, nous avions routes les deux le coeur serre, et nous avons parle a peine. Morphyse n'a abandonne son silence que pour me regarder tristement et me dire: "Ma fille, jamais je n'ai vu enfant dans cet etat s'en sortir." Nous avons parle alors un peu de Mme Le Gendre et de sa passion maternelle. Si jamais le grand accident survenait a sa fille, je suis sure qu'elle voudrait la suivre ... N'y songeons point ...

Ce soir j'ai compris le malheur des meres, cette crainte si tenace qui les prend a l'idee de perdre un etre si cher, dans lequel reside tout leur espoir pour l'avenir ... Que n'aurais-je un enfant de toi! Mais combien la moindre indisposition de cet enfant me ferait souffrir! Cela ne serait pas supportable.

J'ai de nouveau les larmes aux yeux. Vous me connaissez; vous avez du le deviner. O mon ami, sites bras etaient ici pour me tenir, si tes doigts etaient ici pour essuyer mes larmes, comme je supporterais mieux cette peine!

Mme Le Gendre vous salue. Je vous ecrirai demain pour vous donner les dernieres nouvelles de sa fille.

[...]

a Isle-sur-Marne ce 5 septembre 1760(5)

Quoi, philosophe, vous voulez m'assoupir d'un sommeil de deux mois pour abreger l'eternite de ma campagne? Vous voulez me faire faire de jolis reves? Il yen a un que je voudrais bien faire ... et je vous connais assez pour savoir que c'est celui que vous voudriez faire aussi ...

Rassurez-vous, j'ai recu vos lettres 3 et 4. Cette derniere m'apprend que mes numeros 4 et 5 vous sont parvenues aussi; je m'en faisais du souci.(6) L'arrangement que vous proposez pour notre correspondance est prudent; je n'enverrai plus de lettres a l'adresse de M. Grimm, mais m'en tiendrai a celui de M. d'Amilaville, quai des Miramionnes.

J'attends impatiemment les petits papiers satyriques et les bagatelles courantes que vous avez promis de m'envoyer. Vous vous trompez, mon ami. Ce n'est pas pour me donner de l'importance aupres de mes circonvoisins que je vous les ai demandes, vous savez bien que c'est pour me desennuyer de cet interminable sejour.

C'est l'epoque des recoltes, et je passe l'apres-midi a dresser les inventaires, et ensuite la soiree a faire les comptes. Mon pere s'en occupait de son vivant; maintenant ces besognes sont retombees sur moi puisque notre frere n'est plus, et Uranie, comme vous savez, pretend qu'elle n'y comprend rien.(7)

Nos granges et nos greniers sont bien pleins; selon nos calculs nous serons fort riches. Cette annee il n'y aura donc point de pauvres, que les paresseux.

Bon gre mal gre, c'est ici ou je me sens le plus libre. Si vous pouviez voir la beaute de nos vordes, l'abondance de nos champs, les couchers du soleil que j'observe de ma fenetre, alors vous comprendriez comment je peux supporter cet eloignement de tout ce qui m'est le plus cher.

Ma chandelle est sur le point de s'eteindre, mais je ne saurais vous quitter ... encore un moment avec vous ... L'air de la nuit s'insinue par la fenetre ... il sent la terre, les champs ... Que n'etiez vous ici a le respirer avec moi!

Adieu, mon ami, dormez bien. Faites-moi donc rever, et que ce reve soit de vous.

[..]

a Isle-sur-Marne ce vendredi, le 23 novembre 1760

Un petit mot pour vous dire que Morphyse part dans la journee de mardi. Je la raccompagnerai si elle le permet.

Je prepare mon plaidoyer; je n'epargnerai rien pour la toucher. Uranie pour une fois est des notres; elle a promis de mettre toute son eloquence a l'oeuvre pour obtenir ma liberte.

S'il n'y a pas de nouveaux obstacles, je serai a Paris vendredi matin. Promettez-moi de vous rendre au banc d'Argenson dans l'apres-midi de dimanche, a deux heures. Si vous ne me trouvez pas, promenez-vous comme si j'y etais, et songez a la conversation que nous aurions eue, et aux delicieux baisers que je vous aurais donnes ... tous a la derobee.

The Discovery of Sophie Volland's Lost Letters

In the fall of 1992, I made my first trip to St. Petersburg (still Leningrad at the time). I had recently completed the course work for a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, and had begun to do research for my thesis on Diderot. It hadn't taken long to exhaust the materials available on my subject at the Milton Eisenhower Library and, as a result, I had developed the habit of going on the University's shuttle once a week to the Library of Congress.

I made the initial discovery that eventually took me to Leningrad during one of those trips. As I was reading through Diderot's complete correspondence, I came across one of his letters to his mistress, Sophie Volland. In that letter, Diderot mentions the portrait of Sophie that he kept in the flyleaf of his personal copy of Horace's works: "Je l'ai enfin ce portrait, enferme dans l'auteur de l'antiquite le plus sense et le plus delicat. Mercredi je le baiserai le matin en me levant; et le soir en me couchant je le baiserai encore" (22 aout 1762).(8)

Diderot's impassioned words jogged my memory, and made me think of a book I had read some time ago by Jacques Chouillet, the distinguished Diderot scholar, in which he, like so many other Diderot scholars before him, bemoans the disappearance of the two known portraits of Sophie Volland. This alone would not have been particularly interesting, except that I also remembered that Diderot's library had been sold in its entirety to Catherine II of Russia, and that it was shipped to the Hermitage by Grimm shortly after Diderot's death. It followed, then, that Sophie's portrait had to be in one of the state libraries in St. Petersburg, still between the covers of Diderot's copy of Horace.(9)

Suffering from the usual delusions of grandeur of Hopkins graduate students, I determined then and there that I would find this lost treasure.(10) Now, looking back on it, I find it difficult to imagine that I would have persevered in this matter, for I had already read enough to know that I was taking on a virtually impossible task. Indeed even Andre Babelon, one of the first scholars to discover a previously unknown cache of autograph manuscripts by Diderot, had lamented that Diderot's beloved portrait of Sophie "alla se perdre en Russie avec toute la bibliotheque du philosophe."(11) It was clear that finding the portrait was not going to be easy.

The first step I took was to learn something about the possible location in Russia of the books from Diderot's library. With the help of one of the genial reference librarians at the Library of Congress, I found a compendium of the latest research on this subject, which showed that after the death of A. I. Loukjov, Catherine II's most conscientious and careful librarian, bits and pieces of Diderot's library were scattered throughout Russian libraries, and to this date no one knew exactly where they all were.(12) Since 1978, in preparation for the two-hundredth anniversary of Diderot's death, A. A. Poliakina had been doing extensive research, sifting through books in the Foreign Holdings section of the Public Library of the State of Leningrad, among which several books originally belonging to Diderot had previously been found.(13)

I now had no doubt that finding Sophie's portrait was like the proverbial attempt to find a needle in a haystack. But nothing can stop a Hopkins graduate student from aspiring to academic glory. Not even the difficulty of writing grant proposals. I applied for a Fulbright and, while I waited to hear the results, studied Russian--realizing, of course, that I had only enough time to learn the alphabet and a few rudiments, the bare minimum that would allow me to search through Russian libraries for the portrait in Diderot's lost book.

Though I simply could not believe it, I got the Fulbright. (My thesis adviser was even more astonished than I.) As a result, within eleven months of my original hunch, I found myself in St. Petersburg, speaking to the librarian of the Foreign Holdings section of the Public Library. She tried everything she could think of to discourage me from doing my research, not just because it would take her more than a week to teach me her library's system of classification but also because she was afraid that I might have beginner's luck, that even though she'd been sifting through the library's collection for years, I might be the one to make the big discovery.

Seeing that she couldn't dissuade me, she finally took pity on me, realizing that I had traveled thousands of miles to work on what was clearly a futile project. She explained the library's classifications to me, and even trained me to look for the signs of a book from Diderot's library: the faint parallel lines in the margins, and the signet a cheval with which he himself marked the books that were destined for shipment to Russia.

I will spare the reader the details of my search, and of the difficult living conditions that I endured for the nine months that I was in Russia. Suffice it to say that after eight and a half months of living with repeated disappointments, climbing on ladders to pull books down from dusty shelves, day after day after day with no results, I finally noticed an unusually thick book in a cardboard sleeve that hid its call number and which, because of its awkward size, had been placed on a particularly high shelf. I took this book down and slowly pulled it out of the sleeve. It was bound in red Morocco leather, and had a brass clasp. On the first flyleaf I found a Latin title that I was able to translate as The Complete Works of Horace. My hand trembled as I turned it, and there, on the second flyleaf, I found Sophie--looking as I'd imagined her, a perfect Louis XV beauty with blonde hair and blue eyes.

This discovery alone would have been enough to establish my academic reputation forever, but there was another gift from Heaven waiting for me in that book. As I continued to turn the pages, I realized that there were only ten more. I suddenly understood that this was a box not a book--hence its strange size, hence the clasp to keep the contents from falling out. (This was obviously Diderot's system for hiding Sophie's letters from the prying eyes of Madame Diderot.) I reached in, took out a bundle of yellowed papers, and there they were: the greatly coveted lost letters of Sophie Volland, written in her own hand.

Legal and political obstacles prevented me from bringing this discovery to light any earlier; however, the new agreement that my French publishers have reached with Yeltsin's government now makes it possible for me to share a few of these documents with the public. It is to be hoped that the ongoing negotiations between my French publisher and the Russian government will eventually allow me to share the rest.

Amherst College

1 Limitations of space prevent us from publishing more than four of Sophie Volland's lost letters in this issue. Negotiations are currently under way with a French publisher for the rights to reproduce the complete correspondence; when they have been completed, the reading public will have access to the remaining seventy-seven letters.

2 This letter precedes by approximately six months the first extant letter written by Diderot to Sophie, dated May 10th, 1759 (Lettres a Sophie Volland, vol. I, ed. Andre Babelon [Paris: Gallimard, 1930], p. 37). The first three or four years' worth of Diderot's letters to Sophie have never been found.

3 Morphyse is the name that Diderot and Sophie use to refer to Madame Volland, Sophie's mother.

4 This is the letter that Diderot must have received shortly before his letter of July 27, 1759, written from Langres (Lettres a Sophie Volland I, p. 49).

5 This is Sophie's answer to Diderot's letter of August 31, 1760 (Lettres a Sophie Volland I, p. 155). Note that this letter was written almost one year after the one that precedes, during another of Sophie's exiles at Isle.

6 Sophie Volland, worried that one of her letters would fall into the wrong hands, used a complex numbering system for her letters. Each one, beginning with the first letter she sent Diderot, bore a number. (The final letter in her correspondence with Diderot is numbered eighty-one). But Sophie also employed a second numbering system that corresponded to each of her absences from Paris, and insisted that Diderot do the same. This is why she refers in this letter to her letters numbered 4 and 5, and to Diderot's letters numbered 3 and 4. (This letter crossed in the mail with the next one Diderot sends, in which he complains that he still hasn't heard from Sophie and that he still doesn't know the fate of his letters.)

7 Uranie is the other name that Diderot and Sophie use when referring to Madame Le Gendre, one of Sophie's sisters.

8 Cited by Jacques Chouillet, Denis Diderot-Sophie Volland: Un dialogue dune voix (Paris: Champion, 1986), p. 11. As Jacques Chouillet also informs us, the portrait in question was painted by Anne Vallayer.

9 As the readers of MLN will know, Diderot sold his library to Catherine II in order to provide a suitable dowry for his daughter.

10 It is widely known that all budding dix-huitiemistes have the secret ambition of becoming the next Herbert Dieckmann.

11 "Introduction" in Lettres a Sophie Volland I, p. 8.

12 See Editer Diderot, ed. Georges Dulac, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 254 (1988).

13 Larissa L. Albina, "A la recherche de la bibliotheque de Diderot," Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 254 (1988), p. 14.
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Title Annotation:French Issue; rumored lover of French philosopher Denis Diderot
Author:Carrera, Rosalina de la
Publication:MLN
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Words:3072
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