About Fanny Reybaud
Many great writers disappear into history, and Fanny Reybaud is one of those writers. At the height of her popularity in the mid-1800s, Reybaud was a reader favorite and enjoyed tremendous literary success on par with fellow unforgotten contemporaries such as George Sand and Honoré de Balzac. Many of Reybaud’s works were translated into Spanish, English, and German during her lifetime, and when she fell ill and could no longer write, her publisher reissued her earlier books in cheap, travel-friendly paperback editions to meet reader demand. Today, perhaps a dozen specialists may recognize her name and her work.
What happened? Certainly, some authors fall out of favor because tastes change and language evolves. However, Reybaud’s writing was faithful to the written tradition of Provençal storytelling—an oral, conversational style composed of opposing voices and differing opinions—rendering it accessible and immensely readable to the 21st century reader. This book, Mademoiselle de Malepeire, is a testament to those abilities. And though published in 1854, the clear, modern French and the engaging storyline highlight why this was so well received at the time of publication.
Writing for immortality supposes, at least in part, that someone will be there to carry the authorial torch, and that did not happen for Reybaud. Her estranged husband predeceased her, and a relative entrusted with precious documents left Provence and disappeared into the wind.
Reybaud took the Romantic genre and pioneered Romantic Regionalism. That is, telling Provençal tales in French rather than the colloquial langue d'oc. Her work paved the way for well-known (and male) Provençal authors, such as her contemporary Alphonse Daudet (Lettre de mon moulin) and, later, Jean Giono (Colline). Her stories sparkle with southern French charm, and yet, since her death, Reybaud's considerable body of work remains virtually unknown and unread. Mademoiselle de Malepeire was last translated into English in 1905 by Remus Foster (Neale Publishing) as La Belle Paysanne but has otherwise gone unnoticed. Yet, it is a story worthy of a new translation and is sure to charm bibliophiles and champions of banned books. It opens by describing a captivating portrait of a beautiful aristocrat, inspiring a young scholar to discover the subject's true identity, only to find a French Revolution-era tale of murder and deception instead. It is also a story of a misunderstood woman who reads banned books in secret while pining for independence.
Most of Reybaud’s biography comes down to us from Charles Delanglade, a sculptor and contemporary of Rodin, and a relative of the Reybaud family attorney. Delanglade gained access to her personal papers and wrote a fifty-page study on Reybaud that appeared in Cahiers d’Aix in 1924.
Reconciling Delanglade’s writing with facts was no easy feat, and it is largely due to the efforts of Yvonne Knibiehler, a professor at the University of Aix-en-Provence, who spent her career studying the history of women and maternity. The following short biography of Reybaud owes much to Kniebiehler’s insightful introduction written for a 1990 reissue of Mademoiselle de Malepeire, published by Actes Sud.
Josephine Antoinette Henriette Fanny Arnaud was born in Aix-en-Provence on December 15, 1802, to Dr. Arnaud and Thérèse Rourse, who divorced shortly after her birth. According to custom, Fanny was sent to a Carmelite convent in Aix, where she lived for nearly eight years. Fanny left the Carmelites to live with her father in 1819. In her absence, Dr. Arnaud’s father’s household had transformed into a meetinghouse where Fanny participated in lively debates, read influential books, and made lifelong friends, some of whom would later resurface in important positions in government and publishing and encourage her to pursue a career in writing.
Eventually, Fanny began attending salons hosted by her uncles in Marseille, then a bustling maritime port city, and word of her beauty and charm spread. At one glittering gala, she caught the attention of Charles Reybaud, the son of a sugar factory owner. Passion ruled the day, and they wed in the spring of 1822. The couple set up house in Marseille shortly thereafter, and their son Emile was born on March 9, 1823.
Fanny appeared destined to repeat the unhappy fortunes of her parents. Charles was incredibly jealous, a heavy gambler, and notorious skirt-chaser. Fanny filed for a judicial separation in 1825 (divorce was now illegal again), but this ruling only ended their obligation to cohabitate.
The arrangement eventually became too much for Fanny, and she and Emile returned to Aix-en-Provence, in the winter of 1825 when Fanny began coughing up blood after an unexpected snowfall. Her father determined that it was not a chest problem but a circulation issue. Dr. Arnaud conjured treatments, but Fanny’s symptoms persisted. She believed she was being divinely punished for failing in her matrimonial duties. She most likely suffered from tuberculosis, that quintessential nineteenth-century respiratory disease often referred to as the mal du siècle and would not be correctly identified until 1882 by German microbiologist Robert Koch.
Though personally demoralizing, this series of crises kick-started Fanny’s literary career. Unlike George Sand, whose first novels are a passionate defense of love and the rights of women over the sanctity of marriage, Fanny took a more discreet position. Where Sand transposed much of her personal love and strife into her work, Reybaud’s characters do not relive her own experiences. Perhaps writing was a distraction and a diversion in the beginning, much as it had been during her time with the Carmelites. The power of the pen eventually overcame her, and Reybaud began leading a double life: playing the role of devoted mother by day, then writing in isolation long into the night.
Eventually, Reybaud finally showed a manuscript to a friend she had met in her father’s salon—journalist and historian Francois Mignet, a longtime friend of the editor of esteemed literary journal La Revue des Deux Mondes and later president of the Third Republic, Adolphe Thiers. Encouraged by Mignet, Reybaud published La Protestante in 1827. It was a total failure, but undaunted, she returned to work, releasing a medieval novel called Elys de Sault, which received no more notice than her first book.
Perhaps inspired by the recent insurrections along the Pyrenees and the wave of Hispanophilia sweeping France, Reybaud wrote The Adventures of a Renegade Under his Dictation in 1836. The story was based on the life of a young Spanish officer forced to flee the country for his role in the Cadiz rebellion of 1831. Reybaud’s persistence paid off. Now, the public clamored for her books, and that same year she turned out Pierre and The House of Saint-Germain. A flurry of books followed, as well as a warming of relations with her estranged husband. Reybaud became a regular on the fashionable Parisian and Aixois literary circuits, helped, no doubt, by her longtime advocate Mignet.
By 1840, Reybaud was a frequent contributor to La Revue des deux Mondes, still under the direction of Thiers, and it was here that Mademoiselle de Malepeire first appeared in two issues between December 1854 and January 1855. Reybaud continued writing until around 1860 when she retreated from public life, perhaps feeling the effects of her youthful brush with death. To meet public demand, publisher Louis Hachette released nine of her works for his Bibliothèque de Chemins de fer, a selection of popular books printed in a travel-friendly format.
In 1870, Fanny Reybaud died in a small village near Nice, with little fanfare, and hardly any family to grieve her absence—Charles had died in 1864, and her son Emile would pass away in 1874.
Reybaud’s papers and correspondence were given to her granddaughter, Marie, who left Provence soon after she was married and was never heard from again. Following World War I, a great nephew tried to reconstruct Fanny’s original workroom, but upon his death, her house was abandoned and the contents dispersed.