Claire de Duras, novelist of otherness

In the 1820s, Claire de Duras was an essential social figure: her salon was brilliantly attended and her literary opinion played an important role in artistic circles. We could tend to reduce this success to the influence of Chateaubriand’s friendship for what he calls his “Dear sister”, but in truth it is she who devotes herself to him and who works for his political success.

The Duchess, born in 1777, acquired her central place in the literary and social landscape largely thanks to the new Ourika which she published in 1823, without author’s name. This is because this text, inspired by a true story, has literary qualities recognized by contemporaries. But above all, it addresses a universal theme, loneliness, embodied in an absolutely new character.

Read Ourika on Gallica :

A modern novel of the black woman

And Ourika is so out of place in the literary landscape, it is because its heroine is a young black woman. Far from the exotic characters devoid of individuality generally presented in the literature of the time, Ourika benefits from a French education and evolves in high society. She is an educated, intelligent young woman. The novel is written in the first person, and it is she who speaks: “He was studying and I, for my part, was learning, to please Madame de B., everything that should form a perfect education.”

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Ourika’s fate first resembles a fairy tale: brought back from Senegal, saved from slavery, she is educated by a loving woman, Madame de B., and in the best society. But, one day, Ourika becomes violently aware of her difference and her unbearable loneliness: «[J]e screw everything; I saw myself as a negress, dependent, despised, without fortune, without support, without a being of my kind to whom I could unite my fate […].» This terrible reality strikes the heroine in the heart. To this is added the love she feels for the son of her protectress – social loneliness is also loneliness of the heart. This novel with feminist tendencies brings the European reader of the beginning of the XIXe century of empathizing with a foreign, dark-skinned girl.

A true story with immediate success

The plot is inspired by a real story. Madame de B. is a direct reference to the Maréchale de Beauvau to whom her nephew brought a young girl from Senegal in 1786. If the protector takes affection for the child, it remains above all an object of curiosity, an exotic gift, which will not live very long. From this anecdote, Claire de Duras constructs a powerful text, in which the interiority of the young Senegalese woman is brought to the fore.

Me, free too, print, 1794. Drawing by Claude-Louis Desrais, engraving by the citizen Montaland. Image Gallica. National Library of France

If the novel was reprinted by Lavocat in 1824, it was because the text had a great impact. Moreover, this success was emulated: in 1824, a New Ourika, signed by Mrs. M.-A. Dudon, attacks the moral of the novel which seems to make education the source of misfortune, and proposes to give this course a completely different turn: «[J]I limit myself to tracing the story of an orphan. She did not, in truth, like Ourika, have the complexion of a negress, but she was not of a high birth. “ This story, which is meant to be comparable to Ourika, forgets to give her character what makes the heart of the otherness of the heroine of Claire de Duras, her appearance – and therefore her identity.

The secret “Olivier”

After the meteoric success ofOurika, then d’Edward the following year, new works from the same pen are expected. We then speak abundantly of a Olivier which must appear, and which does not come … The growing reputation of this unpublished novel brings Henri de Latouche to publish a Olivier, counterfeit that Claire de Duras hastens to deny.

Olivier or the secret does exist. The novel was written in 1822, at the same period as the two successes of the Duchess, but it was not published until 1971: until then, kept under lock and key by the heirs of the novelist, the novel was not that preceded by its sulphurous reputation. Because Olivier deals with male sexual impotence; and when Stendhal writes Armance, it is partly inspired by this story by Claire de Duras, or at least by its theme – because the text is inaccessible.

As Ourika, which describes the fundamental otherness of a young woman whose soul and upbringing do not accord with appearance, as Edward whose eponymous character is a victim of class prejudices, Olivier is interested in an intimate and unacceptable suffering for the society of the time. The texts of Claire de Duras are all marked with the seal of difference, loneliness and suffering, which the historian Prosper de Barante this : “Without bitterness against society, she showed how its laws and distinctions could cruelly oppress the most natural and purest emotions of the soul.”


Morgane Avellaneda for the National Library of France

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