Published October 2002
Length 488 pages
Madame du Deffand and Her World
Winner of the Italian Comisso and Viareggio Prizes
Winner of the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger
"Madame du Deffand is the enemy of all falseness and affectation; her words and her face always interpret faithfully the sentiments of her soul; she is neither beautiful nor ugly…She is rational, has good taste and if she is sometimes led astray by her high spirits, she is soon brought back by the truth."
Madame du Deffand on herself
"…Madame du Deffand was for a short time mistress of the Regent, is now very old and stone blind, but retains all vivacity, wit, memory, judgement, passions and agreebleness…She corresponds wit Voltaire, dictates charming letters to him, contradicts him, is no bigot to him or anybody, laughs both as the clergy and the philosophers."
Horace Walpole on Madame du Deffand
"It is very sad, Madame, for a man who lives with you, to be a little deaf; I pity you less for being blind. So the dispute between blind and deaf is decided: certainly the one who cannot hear you at all is the most unhappy."
Voltaire to Madame du Deffand
Possessing ‘a definite taste for defiance’, the Marquise du Deffand (1696-1780) shocked even the immoral French society of the eighteenth century by flouting decorum and blatantly disregarding women’s traditional roles. Madame du Deffand and Her World is the first full-length portrait of this remarkable woman, among the most scandalous of her time, who played a major part in the turbulent decades leading up to the French Revolution.
Married young to a colourless nobleman ten years her senior, Madame du Deffand soon joined a notorious band of high-born débauchés whose excesses dominated the day’s gossip. Unwilling to accept stifling conventions of fidelity, she approached love and sex with a frankness centuries ahead of her time. But Madame du Deffand was notable not only as a libertine, for her keen intelligence, wit, and spirit – though at times submerged by the cynicism and licence of the period – made her a true aristocrat of the Paris salons (her own salon remained the centre of the French intelligentsia for forty years) and a close friend and correspondent of the most prominent figures of the Enlightenment, from Voltaire to Montesquieu. At 67 she developed a strange passion for Horace Walpole who, though nearly two decades younger and appalled by her attentions, nevertheless maintained a voluminous correspondence with her until her death 15 years later.
About Benedetta Craveri
Benedetta Craveri, granddaughter of the noted philosopher Benedetto Croce, is a professor of French literature at the Univerisity of Tuscia, Viterbo, and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and La Republica.
‘[Craveri] manages to convey a sense that leisurely and judicious “character-drawing” in the grand siècle manner – as practised by Mme du Deffand herself, who was mad about it, but here with more human sympathy – is still an intellectually respectable pursuit.’
P.N. Furbank The New York Review of Books
‘“Supper,” said Mme du Deffand “is one of mankind’s four chief businesses; the other three slip my mind.” The missing items clearly included being clever and writing letters, though in a sense it was all one. Supper, wit, conversation and correspondence were merely different names for the same thing: talk.‘Eighteenth-century France talked interminably…But the war of words was far from being an all-male affair…Among the salonnières, Mme du Deffand is the most intriguing, a kind of Lady Bracknell in blue stockings.’
David Coward The Sunday Telegraph
‘In this eminently readable narrative, Ms Craveri casts her net wide, producing a brilliantly faceted portrait of an entire age, with its complex and shifting social circles, intrigues and quarrels, amusements and afflictions. An enormously rich and intelligent piece of scholarship, this is a book that also offers the kinds of revelations we look for in fiction…Spiralling into the mysteries of temperament, Benedetta Craveri has given us a work of stunning originality, a biography that occupies a territory – like its subject – peculiarly its own.’
Angeline Goreau The New York Times Book Review
‘The Marquise du Deffand was just a name to me, but in Benedetta Craveri’s biography she turns out to be outrageous, intriguing, horrid, suffering, enduringly fascinating. The three stages of her life – debauchery in youth, worldly success in middle age, and religion prudently embraced at the very end – are documented here mainly through letters but bolstered by a great deal of research and contemporary comment. Craveri has delved into a vast archive and picked out the plums for us…’
Rosemary Stoyle Literary Review
‘It is a work of great elegance, heightened by copious quotations from Madame du Deffand’s brilliant letters to such notables as Voltaire and Horace Walpole. It has the further merit of being accurately and vividly translated by Teresa Waugh…’
Paul Johnson Evening Standard
‘Benedetta Craveri paints an extraordinarily rich portrait of Mme du Deffand and her world. [Her] primary concern is with the nuances of the marquise’s complex relationships and their even more complex setting. Craveri explores both through the marquise’s vast surviving correspondence, which shimmers with historical and literary fascinations.’
A.C. Grayling The Financial Times