Allan on Duras and Humboldt, ed. Diethelm (2016)


Humboldt, Alexandre de. Lettres à Claire de Duras (1814–1828). Edited by Marie-Bénédicte Diethelm, Manucius, 2016, pp. 317, ISBN 978-2-84578-464-2

Stacie Allan, University of Westminster

Since the 2007 publication of the Gallimard edition of Claire de Duras’s three completed novels, editor Marie-Bénédicte Diethelm’s unprecedented access to the author’s family archive has produced the first full version of Olivier ou le Secret and the appearance of the unfinished romans d’émigrationMémoires de Sophie and Amélie et Pauline—as well as a number of scholarly articles on Duras’s œuvre and literary connections. The latest work edited by Diethelm is Lettres à Claire de Duras (1814–1828), which brings together the extensive correspondence the author received from the German geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. With letters spanning the final fourteen years of Duras’s life, Diethelm draws the pair’s significant friendship into sharper focus and offers increased insight into the writer’s intellectual pursuits.

The corpus of letters is presented alongside a revised, previously published essay by Marc Fumaroli, which acts as a preface; an introduction by Diethelm; an appendix with extracts from the journal of American scholar George Ticknor and from Humboldt’s works; and rigorously researched and detailed footnotes. The preface and introduction place the correspondence within the social context of Restoration France, underscoring how Duras and her husband, premier gentilhomme de la chambre to Louis XVIII, were situated at an intersection where the intellectual, artistic, and political elites met, and they exerted considerable power over these realms. Humboldt’s letters depict the couple’s championing of individual causes at the highest institutions and the illustrious list of familiar names who frequented their Parisian residences in Rue de Varennes and at the Tuileries Palace: Russian ambassador Charles-André Pozzo di Borgo, François Gérard, English ambassador Sir Charles Stuart, and child prodigy Franz Liszt. In addition, Duras maintained excellent relations with future “bourgeois” king Louis-Philippe and his sister Adélaïde, visiting them with Humboldt at Neuilly. Humboldt was attracted to this revived aristocratic society in Paris following the fall of Napoleon, even delaying assuming his courtly duties for Prussia and later arranging them around lengthy stays in France. Duras’s inclusive and dynamic salon, prior to and following the death of Germaine de Staël in 1817, stood apart from the polarized atmosphere of divisions between ultras and liberals. Differing political opinions were certainly not an impediment to Duras’s friendship with Humboldt, and his affection for and devotion to her and her family is clear—he even carried on writing to the author’s daughter after her death. The letters equally attest to an intellectual relationship that centered upon shared readings and the exchange of books and pamphlets, including abolitionist treatises and travel writing: Mungo Park’s works, Thomas Edward Bowdich’s account of his journey into the Ashanti Empire, and John Lewis Burckhardt’s Travels in Nubia. While Duras was undoubtedly already very cultured and extremely well-read prior to meeting Humboldt, her interactions with the Prussian polymath appear to have fostered non-Eurocentric strand within her intellectual activities.

Humboldt’s letters offer fascinating insight, yet they only tell half the story, and since we seldom hear Duras’s own voice, questions hang over his direct influence on her writing, or her opinion of his ideas. Nevertheless, pairing these letters with a reading of her novels would provide an innovative approach to her texts. Furthermore, the personal events that shape Duras’s image within scholarly criticism—Chateaubriand’s withdrawal of attention, the estrangement from her eldest daughter, and the querelle d’Olivier—do not feature. The author, therefore, is released from these potentially reductive biographical readings and reinstated within her intellectual context. Indeed, the collection’s most valuable contribution is its depiction of Duras’s role within Restoration society and the picture that emerges of this understudied era. Often considered a backward-looking return to the Ancien Régime, post-1814 Parisian society is instead presented as a cosmopolitan arena where ideas could be circulated, where Europe’s literary and political elite could come together to discuss and debate the key issues of their day, and where, above all, men and women could meet on relatively equal footing, without the constraints that contemporary legislation placed on biological sex.

With the recent publication of L’Amie et l’Amante (2016)—a collection of letters exchanged among Chateaubriand, his friend Duras, and his lover Delphine de Custine—this material offers to bring new information and fresh perspectives on Duras, whose status in scholarship is largely confined to her most famous novel, Ourika. Lettres à Claire de Duras depicts the author as an outward looking, highly cultured individual, and an intellectually engaged and welcoming salon hostess.