Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, Actress and Writer

Madame Riccoboni was born Marie-Jeanne de Laboras, the daughter of Christophe-Nicolas de Laboras and Marie-Marguerite Dujac. Her father was from the minor provincial nobility, and her mother from the Parisian bourgeoisie. They married in Paris on 29th April 1710. The reason for this marriage could be Marie-Marguerite’s dowry, which Christophe-Nicolas used to buy land at Laboras. They had two daughters, Thérèse, born in 1711, who died young, and Marie-Jeanne, who was born in 1713. However, it transpired that Christophe-Nicolas had already married in 1690. Around 1712-3, a complaint was addressed to the Parisian judge Antoine Dorsanne, who annulled the second marriage and sent Christophe-Nicolas back to his first wife. Marie-Jeanne was born 8 months after this.

Marie-Jeanne’s childhood was unhappy; she was considered as an illegitimate child and deprived of love, especially from her mother. Until 1727, she went to a convent, an experience that she despised and used as the basis of her criticism of girls’ education in her novels. In order to escape her mother’s influence, Marie-Jeanne married the actor Antoine-François Riccoboni on 7th July 1734. The Riccoboni family was a powerful theatrical dynasty. Soon after their marriage, Marie-Jeanne’s mother’s came to live with them on the rue des Deux-Portes due to her financial circumstances.

Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni started to act in private theatres at some time between 1727 and 1734 and contemporaries, such as the abbé de Voisenon, mentioned her performances. With her marriage to Antoine-François Riccoboni, her debut on the public stage of the Comédie-Italienne was in La Surprise de la haine by Boissy in August 1734. She remained in the troupe for 26 years. Despite her long career, some contemporaries, such as Voisenon and Denis Diderot thought that Riccoboni was not a good actress. Riccoboni’s marriage was unhappy. Although Antoine-François was a talented actor, he was dishonest and a gambler with a violent temperament.

Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni started to write in the 1750s and her first three novels (Lettres de Fanni Butlerd in 1756, Histoire du Marquis de Cressy in 1758 and Lettres de Juliette Catesby in 1759) were published anonymously. Riccoboni only revealed her authorship after the success of the third novel. Most of Riccoboni’s novels are short, epistolary and light-hearted, such as Lettres de Fanni Butlerd, Lettres de Juliette Catesby, Lettres d’Adélaïde de Dammartin (1767) and Lettres de Milord Rivers (1777). They were also well acclaimed for their style and their love storyline. In 1766, Riccoboni learnt to read and write English and translated English plays. She was author of translations of five English plays that she published in 1768 in two volumes as the Nouveau Théâtre Anglais.

Through her attendance at salons in the 1760s, Riccoboni started to develop an international network, especially among the British intellectuals, such as Adam Smith, David Hume, David Garrick and Robert Liston. Riccoboni stopped visiting her friends’s salons around 1764, and claimed she saw them as artificial and insincere. She and her close friend the actress Thérèse Biancolelli organised a small salon on Thursdays and Saturdays, which they defined as a ‘petit cercle’ or also ‘compagnie’, which avoided the artificiality of other salons.

By 1760, Riccoboni was a famous and bestselling author. She and her friend Thérèse Biancolelli decided to retire from the stage both with a pension of 1,000£ and to live together in an apartment on the rue Poissonnière. Riccoboni’s mother also came with them. Due to the well-known misconduct of Antoine-François Riccoboni, this decision to leave him seems to have been tolerated – if not accepted – by society. The two women created a home, a working place and an informal salon. In 1769, Riccoboni’s mother, Marie-Marguerite Dujac, died after a long sickness. Three years after, at the beginning of May 1772, Antoine-François Riccoboni was paralyzed and died shortly afterwards. As Riccoboni was too poor to afford her husband’s burial, her friends financed it. Soon after, she inherited the remaining goods and assets of the Riccoboni family, which included 6,400£ and an annuity of 350£, enough to settle her debts. A few weeks after, on the 2nd of June, thanks to the intercession of Madame du Barry, Riccoboni received a royal pension of 2,000£ from Louis XV. Riccoboni’s final years were difficult. In spite of the several editions of her novels and her pension from the Comédie-Française, her assets and her royal pension were cut at the beginning of the Revolution. She died in poverty on 7th December 1792. She destroyed most of her private papers and letters (including Diderot’s letters). After her death, Thérèse Biancolelli destroyed those remaining.

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Olympe de Gouges: Writing or Dying

Marie-Olympe-de-Gouges Different time, same result. Olympe de Gouges was a writer at the end of the Eighteenth-century. Not only a writer actually, when the French Revolution started, she dedicated her life and her pen for freedom and equality. Opposed to Robespierre, leader of the Montagnards, she was arrested and beheaded in 1793. It seems appropriate to recall her history now.

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Born in Montauban in 1748, Marie Gouze is the daughter of Pierre Gouze and Anne Olympe Mouisset. There was a rumour in the village that Marie was not Gouze’s daughter but the illegitimate child of the marquis Jean-Jacques Lefranc de Pompignan, a famous writer of the Eighteenth-century. Real or not, this liaison is accredited by Olympe herself who used that plot for one of her novel, Mémoire de Madame de Valmont contre la famille de Flaucourt. She was unhappily married in 1765 to a man who died soon, Louis-Yves Aubry. Marie Gouze, free, settled in Paris soon after with her son, Pierre. She changed her name around that time and was know in the capital as Olympe de Gouges. During the 19th century, she was known as a courtesan, but among her putative lovers, only Jacques Biétrix de Rozières is known for sure: their liaison was quite official, he paid for her expenses and gave her annuities. It seems that he even ask her in marriage, but de Gouges always refused to marry again (she qualifies in her Declaration des droits de la femme the marriage as « le tombeau de la confiance et de l’amour »). She was obviously not following the traditional rules for wedding, her personal situation seems to be closer of the kept-woman than of the courtesan. Olympe de Gouges started to write plays in the early 1780s and had some fame among the Parisian literary circles: Zamore et Mirza, ou L’heureux naufrage in 1785 (only performed by the Comédie-Française in 1792), L’Homme généreux in 1786 or again Le Couvent, ou les vœux forcés in 1790.

Déclaration des droits de la femme
Déclaration des droits de la femme

At the beginning of the French Revolution, Olympe de Gouges became a passionate pamphleteer, writing about politics, society and morality. Visionary, she sought equal rights for women and blacks, the right to divorce, education for all and the creation of national workshops for the unemployed. To promote equality between man and woman, Olympe de Gouges parodied the text of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. She used the same structure, with a preamble and seventeen articles based on the shared humanity of man and woman. De Gouges added a preface, a postamble and a short text called ‘Forme du Contrat social de l’Homme et de la femme’. The Déclaration demands the full legal assimilation, political and social empowerment of women. Olympe de Gouges made herself the spokesperson of women as we can see with the first sentence of the preamble: ‘Les mères, les filles, les sœurs, représentantes de la nation, demandent d’être constituées en Assemblée nationale’. The Declaration was written in September 1791 to be presented at the National Assembly on the 28th of October 1791. Olympe de Gouges’s text requested full legal, political and social assimilation of women. It is the first truly universal Declaration of Human Rights, which raises a universally valid requirement for both men and women. When she wrote the text, she was disappointed by the National Assembly, which did not talk at all about women’s rights during the discussions about the new constitution. Strongly opposed to the Jacobins and especially Robespierre, she was arrested in July 1793 for the publication of Les Trois urnes ou le Salut de la patrie, par un voyageur aérien. Faithful to her Déclaration and its article 10 ‘La Femme a le droit de monter sur l’échafaud; elle doit avoir également celui de monter à la Tribune’, she was quickly judged and guillotined in November 3, 1793.