Feminist Protest of the 18th Century: Letters from a Peruvian Woman

lettersFor Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), I decided to read Francoise de Graffigny’s Letters from a Peruvian Woman (Lettres d’une Péruvienne, translated by David Kornacker). The book was quite a success when it was first published in 1747; however, it fell out of favor in the nineteenth century and was then mostly forgotten until the late 1960s. I picked it up on a whim, without knowing much about it. I did not regret this impulse purchase.

The main protagonist is Zilia, an Inca princess who is kidnapped by Spanish conquerors and then captured by the French and brought to Paris. Throughout this time, she writes letters to Aza, her fiancé, describing people, places, and events. Her protector during this time is the Chevalier Déterville, who teaches her how to speak French, helps her to adjust to a different way of life, and ultimately falls in love with her.

While the epistolary novel was nothing new when this book was written, this particular form worked perfectly for this book—which contains an often scathing critique of French society. The book starts with a foreword that establishes Zilia as “a real person” who has translated her first letters into French herself, followed by a historical overview that familiarizes the reader with Inca (Peruvian) society, thus explaining some of the astonishment Zilia feels when introduced to some aspects of French society. So by the time the reader starts to read Zilia’s first letter, she has been established as a believable character whose background is so different from French society as to give her the liberty to say things that were no doubt considered outrageous at the time.

Zilia observes and critiques everything from materialism and faith to corruption and narcissism. Some of her statements are bold, but none more so than what she writes in letter 34, when she talks about the place of women and their lack of education:

“Regulating body movement, controlling facial expressions, and composing exterior appearance are the essential points of [women’s] education. […] And the most precious time for forming the mind is spent on acquiring imperfect talents that are seldom used in youth […]. It is in this kind of ignorance that girls are married barely out of childhood. […] There would still be time to make good the flaws in their initial education, but no one takes the trouble. […] In general it seems to me that women here are born much more frequently than in our homeland with all the attributes necessary to equal men in virtue and merit. Seemingly conceding this equality in the bottom of their hearts but unable to tolerate it on account of their pride, men here do all they can to make women contemptible by either showing a lack of respect for their own wives or seducing those of others.”

I would love to know what de Graffigny’s contemporaries made of this highly unconventional statement. After observations such as this one, I was not surprised that Zilia decides not to marry Déterville when Aza proves unworthy of her love. After her bitter disappointment and her numerous letters criticizing the excess she witnesses around her, it seems only natural that she would renounce “the ravages of love” and instead offer Déterville genuine friendship based on mutual respect. For readers of the time though, it was almost unheard of to have a heroine who decides to stay single, who is audacious enough to prefer study to marriage.

Overall, this book did not feel like one written in the eighteenth century; I was surprised by how modern it seemed. The translator did a meticulous job, providing footnotes when needed and subtly reminding the reader that the author’s knowledge of the Inca was based on reference materials from the 18th century. I wish I had read this book in university. It would have been fun to discuss this in class.

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