Justin Croft Antiquarian Books and Benjamin Spademan have released a catalogue of Books from the Library of Diane-Adelaide de Simiane (1761-1835). Though Croft and Spademan are English booksellers, Mme de Simiane was a French woman, and naturally enough, she read books in the French language. She was a reader, not a classic collector, so these books reflected the tastes of a typical gentlewoman of the time. And, despite being French, English fiction and historical novels were quite popular then, so her library was filled with English books in translation. Most books range from late 18th century to the first three decades of the 19th century, the period when she would have been reading. A few, however, were clearly older books by the time she obtained them.
Diane-Adelaide de Damas d'Antigny was the daughter of the Marquis of Antigny. In 1777, at the age of 16, she married Charles-Francois de Simiane, the Marquis of Miremont. It must have been quite the event, as Diane was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in all of France. That is her picture on the catalogue's cover. However, the marriage also must have been one of combining prestigious families rather than a passionate love affair. Charles was very likely gay and the relationship platonic. Others tried to take advantage of this, but Mme de Simiane resisted their attempts. Resisted most, anyway. Charles had accompanied the Marquis de Lafayette to America, and once back in France, the French and American hero took up with his wife. Though Lafayette was also married, and remained so, he carried on an affair with Mme de Simiane for many years, and they remained close long thereafter. Indeed, Lafayette's wife became friendly with her as well (Mme de Simiane was reportedly a very nice person) though there must have been some awkwardness.
In 1787, Charles de Simiane died in what was described as a hunting accident. However, circumstances led many to conclude it was a suicide. She never remarried. During the Revolution, she was imprisoned, but fortunately managed to escape the times with her head still firmly implanted on her shoulders. It was after this that she moved to the country, accumulated her library, and lived another four decades. Here are a few of the books that graced her library.
We will start with the first item in the catalogue, if only for the amusing description of it. Very popular in France at that time, particularly among women, were novels of an exaggerated, impossible romantic nature. This one is Le Solitaire (the lonesome) by Victor-Prévost Vicomte d'Arlincourt, published in 1821. According to the Oxford Companion to French Literature, “The hero, a miraculously resurrected Charles the Bold, is a gloomy hermit who has retired to a mountain-top to expiate innumerable fearful crimes, and only sallies forth to perform incredible rescues or steal the heroine’s blue hair-ribbons. The heroine, Élodie, is a tender virgin who can accept the fact that the hero has murdered her father, seduced her cousin, and wrecked her uncle’s happiness, but cannot face love without a wedding-ring.” Priced at £300 (roughly $465 in U.S. dollars).
As long as we are pillorying poor M. d'Arlincourt, item 2 is his second novel, Le Renégat (the renegade) published in 1822. The French Quarterly Review tells us of these novels, “The style of those romances, stilted and inflated almost to bombast, the extravagance of the incidents, and the gross and revolting improbabilities of the stories, were such, as to make the reading of them alternately a source of pain and a provocative of laughter.” £300 (US $465).
Item 16 is a far more weighty novel, though it is unclear whether Mme de Simiane understood it as such or as another sentimental book of the time. It is titled Ourika, written by Claire de Duras. This is the first trade edition of 1824, after a tiny (25-40 copies) edition of 1823. It is based on a true story, a young black slave girl given to the Duchess of Orléans by the colonial administrator for Senegal. The young girl was raised like any white child by the Duchess, being instructed in art and voice by the best teachers, and taught several languages. She died of an unknown illness at the age of 16. In this novel, Ourika grows up not knowing any prejudice, having been told she is an angel. However, at the age of 12, she overhears a woman tell the Duchess that raising her this way is a disgrace. What man would marry her, the woman inquires of Ourika. For the first time, Ourika comes to see herself as different, as less than others, covering up her skin and avoiding mirrors. The story is told with Ourika as its narrator, now a nun in a convent, speaking to a doctor come to treat her deathly illness. This book was the first fully developed European attempt to portray a black woman as its heroine. £250 (US $388).