Category Archives: Letters

GUEST POST: The Duchess and the Engraver’s Daughter

by Professor Siân Reynolds

Siân Reynolds is former Professor of French at the University of Stirling, and the author of Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland (0xford University Press, 2012). Her current research is on the children of the revolutionaries. She is also a member of the Advisory Board for this project. She writes:

Eighteenth-century manuscripts come in all kinds of handwriting, spelling and syntax, from the easily readable to the very challenging. If you have looked at the sample posted on this website, you will know that the duchess of Elbeuf’s Letters come towards the challenging end of the spectrum. The transcript being prepared by the Project Team will be a gift for future readers, but even this modern version of the text (we members of the Advisory Board have seen an early draft) will call for some ingenuity in interpreting it.

Prompted by this first glance at the transcript, I wondered what kind of upbringing and education Innocente-Catherine de Rougé received in the early years of the eighteenth century.  She was born in Brittany in 1707, in a family with a string of noble connections, and her two marriages made her very rich. But it looks as if her education was haphazard, to say the least. She expresses herself fluently, but on the page it reads phonetically. (Perhaps she was surrounded by Breton-speaking servants in her childhood, about which we know nothing yet.) She certainly did not receive the kind of formal training a boy born into a similar family might have had at that time.

This suggested a comparison with another female witness to the French Revolution, Marie-Jeanne Phlipon, who was the daughter of an engraver from the Île de la Cité in central Paris.

A drawing of Mme Roland in prison before her execution in 1793. Available via Gallica, the digital hub for the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Despite her much lower station in life, the woman later known as Madame Roland was considerably better educated, thanks to help from literate relatives, a brief spell in a convent and self-schooling. Her famous prison memoirs tell a story, retrospectively and with attitude, but we also have her letters recording day-to-day events and opinions. Perhaps surprisingly, there are some points in common between the reactions of these two strong-minded women, of different status, generation, and above all views of the Revolution.

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Decipher the duchess. Part 2

Here are some more clues to help you work out what the duchess was writing on 16 July 1789, during a significant phase of the early Revolution in the capital. Go to part 1 in the blog below for an introduction to this entry.

Line 1 begins: A Paris…

Line 2: J’[essai] Mde que ce petit papier vous passe…

Line 3: armées. Je ne sai point encore, de vos amis tués…

Line 4: bien, mais je ne sais si nous sommes…

Line 5: mais je sais que tout noble…

Line 6: ecrirai si le seigr

[Square brackets] indicate a questionable or assumed reading of the manuscript by the Project team.

This should give you more of an idea of the shape of the duchess’ handwriting. Use this as a template for unpicking other sections of the entry. We will provide a full transcription and English translation next week. In the meantime, happy deciphering!

Decipher the duchess. Part 1

We would like to give our blog readers the chance to work with the Elbeuf Letters for themselves – with a little help from us. As you will see, the duchess’ script has idiosyncrasies in shape, spelling and grammar that are a challenge when it comes to transcribing her writing. Why not have a go yourself at deciphering this entry from 16 July 1789? In it, the duchess reflects on scenes of violence and tension on the streets of the capital in the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille two days previously.

Detail from AN F7 4775/1

Click on the image to enlarge it. And here are some clues to help get you started:

  • Line 1 is an entry heading. A very similar (and more legible) heading can be seen below     line 6
  • The first sentence (line 2) reads: J’[essai] Mde que ce petit papier vous passe. Translation: ‘I will try to get this note to you, Madame.’ [Square brackets] indicate a questionable or assumed reading of the manuscript by the Project team.

We will post more clues next week, followed by the full transcription complete with our English translation. Why not subscribe to this Project Blog (see right) to receive updates automatically?

If you are interested in learning more about palaeography (the study of old handwriting), there is an excellent interactive guide to reading English scripts from c.1500-1800 on the National Archives website: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/default.htm. See also the Newberry Library’s offering for French scripts: https://paleography.library.utoronto.ca/.

What did the duchess of Elbeuf look like?

Simon Macdonald writes:

Although her Letters survive, and a lot can be traced about her life history elsewhere in the archives, we have no portrait of the duchess of Elbeuf. In the eighteenth century, pseudo-scientific theories were emerging which linked the shape of the face to character, intelligence, and so on — and the links (or not) between beauty and virtue were an endless subject for poets. Our interest is born of a simpler curiosity: we’d like to put a face to the name!

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