Lives in translation: Sophie de Grouchy, marquise de Condorcet
Born in 1764, Marie-Louise-Sophie de Condorcet (née Grouchy) was a prominent salon hostess, writer and translator during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Fluent in English, French and Italian, Sophie de Condorcet is most known for her influential translations of works by Thomas Paine and Adam Smith. However, she was also an important philosopher and intellectual in her own right. Like many radical women of the era, she also published her own work and commentaries anonymously, under pseudonyms or under her husband’s name.
Sophie was exceptionally well-educated for the day, largely due to her learned mother. Although not the first to translate Thomas Paine and Adam Smith’s works into French, her faithful translations were the best received by the public and most widely circulated. Her translation of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments included her own critical commentary, entitled Lettres sur la sympathie. This was written in an epistolary style, in which she engaged, agreed with and made cases against Smith’s arguments.
In 1786, Sophie married preeminent mathematician and social philosopher Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. Despite the significant age gap, the couple had fallen deeply in love with one another, and shared both their intellectual passions and Girondin sympathies. They became active in political life, advocating prominently for women’s rights. They collaborated on a document entitled L’admission des femmes au droit de cité, in which they argued in favour of full female suffrage. Together, alongside Thomas Paine, they also established started a journal entitled Le Républicain, which was dedicated to sharing and disseminating radical ideas. After her marriage to the Marquis, Sophie established her famous salon at Hôtel des Monnaies, opposite the Louvre.
The Condorcets’ salon was one of the most progressive establishments in Paris, from its establishment in 1786 through to the Reign of Terror. It attracted many French philosophers and became a favourite of foreign visitors, including such notable figures as Thomas Jefferson, Turgot and early feminist Olympe de Gouges. Sophie was able to use her position as salonnière to share her political views and ideas with the men who visited her salon, thereby inserting herself into contemporary political life in the only way socially acceptable for a woman to do so.
However, after criticising the Montagnard’s Constitution and publicly opposing the execution of King Louis XVI, the Marquis was branded a traitor and forced into hiding. Sophie encouraged her husband to continue writing Esquisse d'un Tableau Historique des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain whilst in exile and, with the forewarning that the measure was temporary and would be annulled upon his return, filed for divorce in order to protect their daughter Eliza’s inheritance. However, he died long before Sophie was informed the divorce had been finalised. Her husband’s death thus left Sophie penniless. To financially support her younger sister, and daughter, Sophie opened her own shop and was obliged to temporarily abandon her translation work. She lived in poverty until 1799, when she recovered some of her property.
During the Consulate and Napoleonic regime, Madame de Condorcet remained a salon hostess and did not give up promoting her and her late husband’s political views. Her salon became a refuge for those who opposed the new regime and was regarded as the center point for international radicals to discuss enlightenment ideas. Resourceful, resilient and radical, she continued to champion Republicanism until her death in Paris on the 8th of September 1822. After her death, her daughter Eliza, alongside her husband Arthur O’Connor, continued her efforts to publish the writings of the Marquis de Condorcet. It is part of the ethos of the Radical Translations project to uncover and preserve Sophie’s own legacy, as well as that of other female philosophers like her, who have been unfairly obscured by history and the misogynistic cultures in which they lived.