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Abstract

C’est avec la raison et les arts que l’on pourrait quelquefois oublier ses souffrances [...] . Vivons ensemble, chère Germaine; doutons, croyons, raisonnons, déraisonnons ensemble et ne nous quittons pas même à la mort”: Alphonse, the hero of Isabelle de Charrière’s Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d’émigrés (1793), thus extols the value of the arts, as well as the importance of being sociable. Similar statements echo throughout this epistolary novel, its plot consisting of efforts to maintain ongoing conversations and attempts to establish useful international relations among friends and strangers across Europe. Geographically and ideologically separated by the outbreak of the French Revolution and consequent civil war, Charrière’s protagonists develop a support network that is crucial not only to their understanding of current events but also to their survival and future happiness. As the narrative insists upon the value of discursive practices both public and private (two dimensions that are clearly intertwined in this text), it illustrates Charrière’s ideal form of sociability. More important, this novel offers one of Charrière’s most eloquent reactions to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political theory. Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d’émigrés dialogues, in fact, with the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes; and, in unison with another of Charrière’s texts, Éloge de J.-J. Rousseau (1790), this novel rewrites the philosophe’s “chimerical” descriptions of an ideal social contract (OC, 10:204). In the process, Charrière tackles moral and political problems posed by the French civil war, and ponders the conditions of possibility of a more peaceful and equitable society.

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