Before she became Madame Helvetius, the famous hostess of the Auteuil salon in which our heroines and their friends met to discuss politics and philosophy, Anne-Catherine de Ligneville was destined for convent life.
One of twenty children in an impoverished aristocratic family, there was no money to marry her. But before she could be sent off to a convent, Anne-Catherine was adopted by an aunt, Madame de Graffigny. Madame de Graffigny had no children of her own, and an abusive, violent husband, whom she kept at bay as much as possible. She certainly did not want a child from him.
Madame de Graffigny was a friend of Voltaire and he invited her to join him and Madame du Chatelet at Cirey while she arranged to leave her husband. Unfortunately, she wrote some rather indiscreet letters while she was there, including one describing in details a very contentious play by Voltaire, La Pucelle. Chatelet, who read all incoming and outgoing mail, took exception. She had dedicated her life to preventing Voltaire from being sent to the Bastille for his writings, and would not have a guest endangering him for the sake of gossip.
Soon afterwards, Madame to Graffigny moved to Paris with Anne-Catherine, whom she called affectionately Minette.
She had adopted her niece with the intention of educating her and introducing her to Paris Society. As she was not rich, in order to succeed in the latter, she had to become famous. That she did with the publication of her novel, Lettres d'une Peruvienne, a satirical account of French life viewed by a kidnapped Inca princess who is introduced to the Paris society. Madame de Graffigny's salon became famous, and so did her niece.
Before the philosopher and dandy Helvetius cast his eyes and intentions on Minette, she became a close friend of Turgot, then a priest, and together, they played badminton.
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