A Woman, a Man, and Two Kingdoms

Steegmuller, a biographer of several modern French writers, ventures into the eighteenth century to reconstruct the friendship of two literary figures whose works are unavailable in English and whose lives have been overshadowed by more noted philosphes and bluestockings. Drawing heavily on short excerpts of their letters and writings, Steegmuller traces their separate careers and quarter century friendship.

Louise d’Epinay had the unusual good fortune to legally separate from a profligate husband. Settled in Paris, she frequented the fashionable salons which debated and shaped culture and politics. Here she discovered a talent for writing. She wrote topical dialogues as well as lively book reviews. Of many acquaintances the most enduring was Ferdinando Galiani, a diplomat from the Bourbon kingdom of Naples to the Bourbon throne of France.

Galiani—precocious, witty, and politically connected—came to his monarch’s attention at twenty-three by writing on monetary policy. Though a priest, Galiani nonetheless received progressively important political offices culminating in the secretaryship of the Parisian mission in 1759. He too became a regular participant in the salons and found a kindred spirit in d’Epinay. A close friendship lasted until Galiani was recalled in 1769 for an indiscretion during delicate negotiations.

For fourteen years, the correspondence kept the friends in touch with each other’s successes and heartbreaks. Though they were never to see each other again, their letters remained substantial, intimate, affectionate, and occasionally petulant. The result is a touching portrait of life’s complications for the Enlightenment’s best and brightest.

The book tells a fascinating story but does so unevenly. Steegmuller’s title is inaccurate. His re-creation of “two kingdoms” is incomplete: He renders the Parisian environment satisfactorily, but Naples remains vague. His reliance upon excerpts from the correspondence communicates the texture of the author’s lives, but they corresponded irregularly and seldom commented on their own meetings. Steegmuller does not always meet the challenge to connect letters or fill in necessary background. Perhaps he should have relied more upon complete letters and less upon interpolative commentary. As d’Epinay wrote to Galiani, “I always feel there’s no room for a third party in our affairs.”