One of the great loves of Denis Diderot’s life was his mistress Sophie Volland. Theirs was a love that brought him the “sweetest, purest joy that a man could possibly feel.” Because they were apart for much of their affair (Diderot was married, and Volland’s mother kept them apart), they produced a voluminous and revealing correspondence. Sophie’s letters are, regrettably, lost, but what remains of Diderot’s correspondence provides an astonishing glimpse into the life of one of the Enlightenment’s most famous philosophers. The letters reveal that Volland may have had an incestuous, same-sex relationship with her sister and underscore how fluid hetero- and homosexual affections could be in eighteenth-century France.
Diderot’s complicated responses to Volland’s intense relationship with her sister (whom he nicknamed Uranie) ranged from jealousy to acceptance. Some nights, he obsessed over the sisters’ physical relationship: “I have grown so touchy and unreasonable and jealous; you say such nice things about [your sister] and are so impatient if anyone finds fault with her that… . I dare not finish my sentence! I am ashamed of my feelings, but cannot prevent them.” The recognition that he been overcome by jealousy did not stop Diderot from agonising over the sisters’ bond: “Your mother says that your sister likes lovable women and it is certain that she loves you very much; then think of that nun she was so fond of, and the voluptuous and loving way she sometimes has of leaning on you, and her fingers singularly pressed between your own!” Diderot dwelled on Uranie’s physical presence, which he experienced in sharp contrast to his own forced separation from Volland. He envied more than her emotional bond with her sister; he obsessed over the way that their fingers laced together, the way that Uranie hovered over her sister.
In his novel The Nun, which Diderot began composing in the same year he wrote these letters (1760), the philosophe catalogued the many sorts of disorder sowed by the women’s unnatural confinement; one form of disorder was lesbianism. Diderot’s reminder that Volland was “so fond” of a nun seems pointed in this context, as does his suggestion that Uranie’s “voluptuous and loving” devotion to her sister went beyond standard sororal affection. Diderot’s discomfort echoed critiques of lesbianism as “unnatural” and therefore bad.
But at the same time, Diderot often embraced his love triangle and saw it as a way to increase affection between him and Volland, while also connecting them to Uranie. The triangle reinforced the bond between Diderot and Volland, Volland and Uranie, and Uranie and Diderot. He began to address some of his letters to Volland and Uranie: “Goodbye, my dear friends, women that I love with my whole heart . . . . A thousand kisses for each of you; on your… hands, dear sister [Uranie]; wherever you will allow it, my dear and tender friend [Volland].”
Indeed, the lines separating the two sisters started to blur. Receiving a letter from Volland and Uranie, he noted “truly, no! I could not tell at all which lines Uranie wrote. The letter looked as if it were entirely from your hand.” Lest this seem like a complaint, he went on:
I have vowed an eternal attachment to you. Your names are engraved [in my heart], one next to the other, to never be erased. Keep mine in your hearts. . . . If you speak of me sometimes, [know that] I think of you always. To transport you to some corner of the world where I can see you, hear you, love you, adore you, have you entirely, be entirely yours: that is the vision that never fades. . . . If I was next to Uranie, how I would thank her for her bouquet, how I would embrace her, … how she would hold me to her cheek or her brow! Give and receive her caresses for me. Maybe one day you can return them to me….
The embraces shared by the sisters were no longer a threat; instead, they bound Diderot closer. Diderot’s use of the plural/ formal vous rather than the singular/ familiar tu makes it difficult to tell exactly how much of this passage applies to both sisters, but it is clear that at least some of the time he is writing about both of them. The lines separating Volland, Diderot, and Uranie are fuzzy indeed. Their love triangle is nothing to worry about here: all three seem integral to each other’s happiness and they are bound to each other in happy affection.
Diderot was not alone in pursuing a love triangle. As Chris Roulston has shown, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire had a ménage à trois; Edmund Burke continued to share his household with William Burke (no relation) after his marriage. Madame Roland and her beloved François Buzot may well have hoped that their relationship could become a threesome. In theory, fraternal, friendly, and romantic affections were distinct, but in practice, they tended to blur into each other. Adding the love of three people together created something greater than the sum of their parts: love expanded and became stronger as more individuals were brought into the fold. Rather than simply glorifying heterosexual marriage as the ideal bond, these experiments with the ménage à trois reconfigured romantic love, overlapping it with friendship and desire.
Note on sources: To read these letters in French, see Denis Diderot, Correspondance, ed. George Roth (Paris, 1955-1970). A selection of Diderot’s letters to Volland has been published in English in Diderot’s Letters to Sophie Volland, trans. Peter France (London, 1972).
Meghan K. Roberts is an associate professor of history at Bowdoin College, where she teaches courses on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. She is the author of Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France, and is currently working on a book about eighteenth-century medical practitioners. She tweets from @meghankroberts
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