A Detective in the Archives
Adrianna Paliyenko’s painstaking work in the Yale archives brings under-appreciated French poet Louisa Siefert back to life
Six linear feet of documents.
That’s how much archival material Adrianna Paliyenko, the Arnold Bernhard Professor in Arts and Humanities, discovered about 19th-century French poet Louisa Siefert at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Paliyenko is the first scholar to work with the material since Yale purchased the collection in 2005. She has studied more than 4,000 pages of manuscripts and letters, along with notebooks and unpublished poems.
To reconstruct Siefert’s literary career and life, “I had to do so much detective work,” said Paliyenko, who specializes in 19th-century French poetry and will produce three books from her research.
This process of listening to the past will “change our understanding of a moment in French literary history,” she said, “and it does bring one more voice back into the canon, where it belongs.” The archive “restores her voice in all its diversity and complexity.”
Siefert was born to a Protestant bourgeoisie family in Lyon, France, in 1845. “She not only mastered classical forms of French poetry on her own, including the sonnet—the most difficult fixed form of French poetry, but also more obscure forms coming out of the 16th century,” Paliyenko explained. “That, in itself, distinguishes her from many other women writing,” she said. “She was also a thinker who engaged deeply with stoicism, adding a unique intellectual dimension to 19th-century French women’s poetic expression.”
At a young age, Siefert became ill with tubercular arthritis, which left her bedridden for two years. During that time, she voraciously read other writers and wrote her own poetry. Her first poetry collection, Rayons perdus (Lost Rays), was published in 1868 and saw three editions in the space of a year. Other publications followed, including Les Stoïques (The Stoics) in 1870. She also wrote short stories and a novel. She was a literary critic for the newspaper Journal de Lyon. She died from tuberculosis in 1877 at the age of 32. Following Siefert’s death, her mother, Adèle-Adrienne Siefert, produced a memoir, Souvenirs rassemblés par sa mère, Poésies Inédites (Memories Collected by her Mother, Unpublished Poems).
This memoir was what led Paliyenko to the Beinecke.
Paliyenko was writing another book at the time, Genius Envy: Women Shaping French Poetic History, 1801-1900 (also translated to French), that explored why French women poets have been pushed to the margins of the canon. She argued it was because of the theory that originality was an innate trait exclusive to men. This ideology buried many French women poets in the dusty shelves of libraries and archives.
Paliyenko came across Siefert’s name in acclaimed French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s letters. Siefert was the only woman poet he mentioned. “There began my quest for this woman, who was important enough for Rimbaud to write out 11 verses of her poem in a letter to his mentor, encouraging him to read her.”
Paliyenko looked through anthologies and discovered other poems. She wrote an article about Siefert in the mid-’90s and then devoted a chapter to her in Genius Envy, where she mentioned the memoir written by Siefert’s mother. Her publisher asked her to track down the mother’s name to refer to in the book.
Paliyenko did a quick Google search, and there popped up a library record at the Beinecke, leading her to Siefert’s mother’s name as well as the six feet of unstudied material.
“I’m just sitting there with my mouth hanging open,” she recalled. “I was overwhelmed by what I had found and even more overwhelmed when I realized that I was the first modern scholar to put my hands on it.”
The timing was perfect.
Finishing Genius Envy, Paliyenko was gearing up to start a project on the poetry of science, but the Beinecke collection shifted her plans. “The irony is, as I found her in a letter, her letters found me at a time when I was planning to move in a totally different direction.”
Paliyenko took her first trip to Beinecke in June 2016, beginning a long process of combing through the materials.
The Beinecke had purchased the collection from an auction in Paris. It had caught the eye of Kevin Repp, curator of modern European books and manuscripts at the Beinecke, who was building up the women writers’ collection.
“She (Paliyenko) is the kind of researcher one dreams about when acquiring a collection like that—intensely engaged, enthusiastic, filled with ideas about ways to bring the material to life and to share it with others,” said Repp.
Paliyenko devoted her summers to the archives, working under difficult physical conditions and tight security. Initially, she examined the materials in a modest, temporary reading room at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library as the Beinecke underwent renovations. The room had a wooden table, a chair, and a single reading lamp, and there were strict rules about how she could engage with the material.
The documents were placed in special legal-size folders for preservation. While she could touch them without gloves, she had to go through them page by page, without taking them out of the folders or revising the order.
She could bring a pencil as well as her iPad and phone to take notes and photos, but there were limits around other objects, and guards would check her belongings when going in and out of the room.
When the Beinecke reading room reopened, the rules carried over while the conditions improved. The glass reading room brought in beautiful natural light. It had ergonomic tables and chairs. Moreover, she could use a magnifying glass, “which helped tremendously.”
In 2018 she received a Yale fellowship to take a deep dive into the materials. Overall, she took seven trips between Maine and Connecticut until the library closed to the public due to the pandemic in March 2020.
“The results have been truly inspiring,” Repp said, adding that Paliyenko’s work has helped the Beinecke in identifying important parts of the archive for digitization. “She has even provided a more detailed description of our holdings, which I hope someday will find their way into a more robust discovery tool for future scholars who want to dig into the papers. In every way, it has been a pleasure to work with her, to learn from her, and to see the collection receive the scholarly attention it deserves.”
The collection’s value has been recognized by Paliyenko’s publisher too. Over lunch with Genius Envy’s editor, Paliyenko received additional book contracts. “It was an author’s dream,” she said.
The first book, headed into production, is a bilingual edition of Siefert’s Les Stoïques. It will offer a side-by-side translation of each poem by Norman Shapiro, a leading translator of French poetry.
Siefert’s quality of work persuaded Shapiro, who recently passed away, to take on the project. “He was so enamored and so moved by her work,” Paliyenko said. “He was translating a sonnet a day …, so blown away by the beauty of this poetry.”
From the manuscripts, Paliyenko also uncovered when Siefert wrote each poem and her revisions. She also traced every epigraph to its source. “We get a sense of the circle in which she moved as a poet, but we also get a sense of how incredibly well-read she was.” The book will be a resource for scholars and enthusiasts of French poetry.
The second book will be an intellectual biography driven by Siefert’s letters, written mostly to her mother and sister. “Sadly, much of her correspondence with her literary circle has been lost,” Paliyenko said. But Siefert’s mother collected almost 100 critically important articles. “Because of her mother, I could also retrace the critical reception of her books and flesh that out for a modern reader.”
Siefert’s mother not only preserved her daughter’s work but also promoted and supported her literary ambitions at a time when there was a significant backlash against women poets, thinkers, and artists in France, explained Paliyenko. “They were middle-class bourgeoisie and staunch Protestants. And this was not the way girls were supposed to behave–that is, to devote themselves to a literary career.”
Recognizing her daughter’s gift, she served as her literary agent—a role often filled by men. “I think her mother very much had her daughter’s legacy with posterity in mind; she was thinking about preserving that legacy.”
For the book, Paliyenko created a table of contents. The process was labor intensive. She scanned many of the materials so she could work remotely. With the help of her French-speaking student researcher, Charlotte Beaulieu ’20, she transcribed and dated nearly all of the letters. Paliyenko’s current student researcher, Siyuan “Ellen” Pan ’22, has organized the entire archive chronologically.
Most of Siefert’s letters were about four pages. When she had more to write, she made the most of the papers—a pricey item at the time—by writing in the margins and vertically across the same page.
The hard work bears invaluable insights.
“It’s putting her letters in conversation with her works. Siefert’s letters thus restore a sense of her entire world, not only her world of thought, but also the world in which she lived,” Paliyenko said. It also gives a sense of her influences, including the famous writers Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire. “She was part of that circle, which was a very difficult circle to break into.”
Siefert’s illness helped her make it happen. To ease her arthritis, Siefert often went to thermal springs. On one trip, she met writer Charles Asselineau, a prominent mind of the Parisian intelligentsia, Paliyenko said.
The two began corresponding, and Asselineau became her mentor and also her true love. Asselineau introduced Siefert to literary figures like Hugo and Baudelaire, as well as the Parnassian poets and Alphonse Lemerre, who published her first book, Rayons perdus. “Through Siefert, we are rediscovering the literary circle in Lyon, which is oftentimes put in the shadow of Paris.”
This process changed Paliyenko’s perception of archives.
“I’ve come to embrace the beguiling nature of all archives,” she said. “Once we know they exist, we cannot know whether they are indeed complete. Archives hold and withhold the truth that we seek about the past. So, the story that we tell, whatever moment in time we tell it, about whomever or whatever, reflects only what we know at the time.”
Paliyenko’s third book, which she is co-editing with two colleagues, will be based on a two-day conference she co-organized on Siefert in Lyon in 2021. It will consist of 11 essays, including two by Paliyenko, one of them co-authored, and will be out from the French publisher Honoré Champion.
“When I thought about this collection of essays, I wanted an individual who meets (Siefert) for the first time to get a sense of her life,” she said. “Her notable ancestors going back to the Reformation and the revolution, who inspired her focus on moral courage for the heroic past, her religious and political convictions as well as the breadth and depth of her writings as a poet, prose writer, playwright, and literary critic.”
During the conference, Paliyenko also learned about a book by Siefert’s great-nephew and through the same source connected with another one of Siefert’s descendants. “Through our exchanges, he has expressed how I am helping him to discover his ancestor in a way that he never knew her,” she said. Paliyenko also found other family members, who happened to have original materials on Siefert.
“I’ve been really patient with this slow detective work and let the material come to me,” said Paliyenko. “It’s coming full circle. Louisa Siefert’s papers are breathing new life into her forgotten legacy.”
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