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.


Illyrine ou l’Ecueil de l’inexpérience

Suzanne Giroust
Suzanne Giroust

Illyrine ou l’Ecueil de l’inexpérience (Illyrine or the Pitfall of inexperience) is an autobiographical erotical novel written by the courtesan Suzanne Giroust and published in 1799. The first volume narrates the youth of Illyrine/Suzanne in French countryside and her encounter with her future husband, Mr Q. She is fifteen and he is thirty, they fell madly in love at first sight. Wealthy, Illyrine’s family is opposed to that wedding. Their constancy defeats the opposition of the maiden’s parents and they married. They have two to three years of happiness (despite her husband wrong managing of money -he might have been a gambler) and then an old lover of his come back to their life. They start an odd and scandalous threesome which ends around one year after when the two women are pregnant. After that, the relationship between the spouses are never the same: Mr Q. starts another liaison with the maid when Illyrine is seduced by M. Qtte, a lawyer. The second and the third volumes are written as letters that Illyrine sends to her dearest friend Lise, narrating her history and adding her new adventures. In short, her love story with M. Qtte does not last long and she flutters from a lover to another, following her heart but her financial needs as well. Rejected by her family, Illyrine becomes a courtesan in the revolutionary Paris, collecting highly politically involved lovers (such as Hérault de Séchelles), prestigious militaries (such as the Général Dumourier) and riche unknown from all nationalities:

If she could meet a German for breakfast, an Englishman for lunch, and a French for dinner, it would be called successfully and comfortably pull out of life.

Published in 1799, in between the French Revolution and the Empire, Illyrine ou l’Ecueil de l’inexpérience offers a feminine character completely opposed to the bourgeois conservative model of the time. Illyrine chooses to abandon her husband and her daughter to be free to love, and when it does not work our, she tries again and again. The text offers narrative parts and epistolary parts, the two main novel styles of the eighteenth-century. The licentious attitude of Illyrine and her unequivocal liaisons all over the three tomes of the novel assured the author celebrity and many critics from her contemporaries.

As far as I know unstranslated and, even in French, difficult to find (there was no full publication since de nineteenth-century), Illyrine ou l’Ecueil de l’inexpérience is a unique novel, definitively not shocking anymore (not after Fifty Shades of Grey) but immensely interesting considering the original path of its author and for love as a woman’s life ideal.