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Former R-MC Professor Receives Award
Former R-MC Professor Receives Award
Former Randolph-Macon College French Professor Sue Carrell has received a prestigious award from the Académie Française for her edition of the correspondence of two eighteenth-century aristocrats, the Comtesse Eléonore de Sabran and the Chevalier Stanislas-Jean de Boufflers.
The Académie Française, created by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, is charged by the French government with maintaining the purity and elegance of the French language and recognizes outstanding work done by poets, novelists, playwrights, philosophers and statesmen. It is extremely rare for a prize of this magnitude to be awarded to an American.
Carrell was a member of the Randolph-Macon faculty from 1975-1979, but her service to the college has continued. In the past, she has supervised R-MC students conducting research in Paris, and in 1990, she established a scholarship fund to support students of French wishing to
Carrell was recently featured in an article in
, the oldest and second-largest national newspaper in France. Below is a translation of this article.
The Cowgirl and the Aristocrats
Astrid De Larminat
, translated by Eileen McHugh
“I felt a duty to posterity to establish a proper edition of these 18th century letters,” says Sue Carrell. An American woman, born on a ranch, Sue Carrell has devoted her life to the correspondence of the Chevalier de Boufflers and the Comtesse de Sabran.
Sue Carrell was born in 1943 in a wooden house that creaked when the wind blew. Her father had come to California during the Great Depression of the 1930s and she grew up surrounded by cattle on his ranch. Four years ago she settled in Avignon, France. Her apartment overlooks the Palace of the Popes. Her saddle and a photo of her as an adolescent on her mare, prominently displayed in the living room, are reminders of where she comes from. She speaks of her memories fondly and with pride. The years on the ranch were happy days – she remembers, in particular, when mountain lions attacked the herds, dispersing them far and wide, and how delighted she was to be excused from school for two weeks to round them up.
“The words she loves”
Why did this authentic cowgirl become so interested in two French aristocrats born in 1738 and 1749, the Chevalier de Boufflers and the Comtesse de Sabran whose correspondence she unearthed 25 years ago? How did she come to devote her life to the edition of thousands of letters that she had, for the most part, found by herself, categorized, deciphered character by character, typed out and annotated? She donned white gloves to delicately turn the pages of the collection of handwritten letters that she bought four years ago at the Paris auction house, Drouot. She is still astonished at how fortunate she was to acquire them: “I tend to think of it as a miracle,” she says. When she speaks of the Comtesse and the Chevalier, you feel that they have just left the room… as if they were her close friends. “When I read letters from the Comtesse, I can finish her sentences. I know her so well. I know her turns of phrase, her style, the words she loves.”
Letters are marvelous in that they can sustain friendships across continents and even across centuries. This friendship gave Sue Carrell the strength not to despair when faced with the adversity and solitude she experienced. Through this correspondence, she explained, she wanted to understand how these passionate and fragile beings “managed in the twilight of their years, after having undergone so many trials and tribulations, to be so well-adjusted, so full of vigor and wisdom – as happy as one can be here below.”
The story of the Comtesse de Sabran and the Chevalier de Boufflers is a veritable novel that Sue Carrell compares to Gone with the Wind with regard to the breadth of its text that spans decades, the scope of its characters, the backdrop of historical events that rocked and tore apart a country and the intensity of the feelings expressed. Eléonore, widow of the Comte de Sabran and mother of two children, was 28 years old when she met Stanislas-Jean de Boufflers, a witty and well-educated man who frequented the court, but had nonetheless chosen a military career. They were madly in love but could only marry 20 years later, when they emigrated to Poland after the Revolution, in which Boufflers participated for a time as a deputy to the Constituent Assembly. The King of Prussia granted them a small property where they built with their own hands a small agricultural colony. After their return to France, penniless, they moved into a small house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where they at long last spent peaceful days, writing books and tending to their garden.
It was in her university years that Sue Carrell turned to French, after having begun to study Spanish – because she found that “there were more masterpieces in French literature.” After completing a doctorate on epistolary literature, she began a university career on the East Coast. But her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “I was an only child. My mother could not manage the ranch alone. I had to abandon my career, become a business woman and take care of my father.” She is of a generation that does not turn its back on duty.
A topic for meditation
How did she have the energy to continue her interest in French literature? “The Sabran-Boufflers correspondence saved me,” she says. “It was my lifeline. Since I had given up my profession, I felt a need to contribute something of value to this world. I even felt a duty to posterity.” She began by translating into English selected passages from the letters and composed a sort of epistolary novel. After her father’s death, since her parents’ friends seemed to imagine that during her stays in France, she was living a wild life in Paris, she gave a series of lectures on her research at the retirement home where her mother was living. And she was a hit! “They understood that these letters could be a topic for meditation and a source of wisdom, ”She handed out copies of her translation and was touched when “one woman later told me that she read it like the Bible.”
In 1999, she knocked at the door of the Sabran family chateau. At first hesitant, they rapidly understood that she was passionate about her subject: “When they showed me a portrait of the Comtesse, I burst into tears.” They allowed her to consult their archives, which contained thousands of documents in no particular order. For months, alone, Sue Carrell searched, scrutinized, sorted. “One day, I surprised myself by negligently casting aside, as ‘not interesting’, a letter from Louis XIV!”
When she learned in the late 1990s that she had cancer, she feared she would not be able to complete her work. “Today, I am pleased to say that I will finish,” she says. Two volumes have already been published. She is currently working on the next ones. Then she will write a novel about her own life, which led her from the New World to old Europe… to a crossroads in time.
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