Painting of Madame d’Epinay by Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789)
Come on in, doll, and let us introduce you to Louise Florence Pétronille Tardieu d’Esclavelles d’Épinay, better known as Madame d’Épinay. A part of the literary set in 18th-century France, Madame d’Épinay was a gal who lived her life with a soupçon of sauciness and grit – our kind of dame. She was even referenced in writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s book, Second Sex, as one who expanded women’s rights during the 18th century. So grab an apéritif, get comfy, and listen in as we tell you the story of this trailblazing lass.
Louise Florence Pétronille Tardieu d’Esclavelles d’Épinay was born in 1726 at the fortress of Valenciennes in Northern France, where her father served as a brigadier. Sadly, Louise’s father died in a battle when Louise was nine, a turn of events that left her and her mother quite destitute. Shortly thereafter, the two moved to Paris to live with Louise’s wealthy aunt.
At the age of 19, after suffering years of a stifling convent education, Louise broke free and married her cousin Denis-Joseph Lalive d’Épinay, a well-to-do collector-general of taxes. Although they had two children together and were living quite the life in Paris and at their château in Montmorency, the union was not a happy one. Simply put, our strong-willed Louise was not going to put up with a man who squandered their money and was adulterous to boot!
Château de La Chevrette, where Madame d’Epinay lived with her husband and children
Eager to set a new path for herself, our resourceful and independent gal obtained a formal separation in 1749, began socializing with abandon, and opened her famous salon, which received many of the most brilliant thinkers of the day, including French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot, German diplomat Baron von Grimm, and the Swiss-born philosopher, writer, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Her guests of honor often included a young Mozart and Abbé Galiani, a leading figure of the Enlightenment whose sparkling wit made him a favorite among the ladies. Think George Clooney circa 1750. Such an interesting lot!
It was also during this time that Louise sowed her wild oats a bit, taking a lover named Louis Dupin de Francueil – the future grandfather of George Sand – and having two children out of wedlock. Gasp.
Painting of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788)
After her scandalous tryst with Louis, Louise’s friendship with Rousseau turned romantic and she set him up in a little cottage nearby, making him a kept man of sorts. Of course, it wasn’t all rosy between them and things actually got thorny when Rousseau wrote a bitter and unflattering account of the Madame in his book, The Confessions. What did he confess? That he never really liked her. Um, grossier!
Not one to let a little thing like a bitter breakup get her down, Louise moved on to a romance with her longtime friend Baron von Grimm who shared her distaste for Rousseau. Grimm introduced her to the chic life in Geneva where she hobnobbed with the likes of Voltaire. It was also here that Louise came into her own as a writer, penning a number of works that were published and well received, including Mes Moments Heureux (1758) and Lettres à Mon Fils (1759).
In January 1783, a mere three months before her death at the age of 57, Louise was awarded the Prix Monyon, a prestigious writing award honoring books that were deemed beneficial to society. She won for Les Conversations d’Émilie (1774), a dialogue about the education of her granddaughter Émilie de Belsunce.
What a wonderful way to cap off a life full of love and letters. Cheers to the one and only Madame d’Épinay, a true sally to the core.