Description Dilemma: Processing Mathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse Villenave’s Collection on Alina d’Eldir

By Alice Griffin

Piece of paper with script: “La Sultane Ch. Mercier D’Eldir, femme auteur,” undated.

How does one describe a collection with multiple and unknown creators and a subject with an inconsistent biography?

As part of my summer Archival Fellowship for Manuscripts Division Collections, I processed a collection of papers and correspondence relating to Alina d’Eldir (?-1851), author of Méditations en prose, par une dame indienne (1828), which was described as “le premier ouvrage qui était composé en français, et publié à Paris, par une princesse de l’Hindoustan” (the first work to be written in French, and published in Paris, by an Indian princess). This collection documents  d’Eldir’s advocacy for magnetism as a cure for illness and her role as the founder of the Ordre Asiatique de Morale Universelle, a religious organization.  

When doing some research on this collection, I found that biographies of d’Eldir present conflicting information and are a bit fuzzy on the details. However, there is a general consensus that she was taken from India when she was young and converted to Christianity. Sources also say she was treated like an adopted daughter by Empress Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife. From the mid-1820s on, she provided magnetism treatments from her residence in Paris. While several sources do report these elements of her life, I don’t mean to provide this information as fact, but more as an illustration of what has been written about her. It seems like there are very few contemporary works on her; the most recent publication I have found about d’Eldir was an article in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, published in 1894.

Portrait of Alina d’Eldir with some of the unknown handwriting in the collection, undated.

This is a small collection (less than 0.2 linear feet), but do not be fooled! The size of a collection does not necessarily match the complexity of description and processing efforts. Part of the challenge here was sorting through who the creator(s) versus the subject of this collection was. Although the description that arrived with the collection highlighted d’Eldir as the focal point of the collection, it did indicate that Mathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse Villenave (1762-1846) was the main creator and collector of the group of documents. Villenave was involved in the Ordre Asiatique de Morale Universelle, and edited a book about magnetism and Alina d’Eldir (La vérité du magnétisme, prouvée par les faits, 1829). The collection includes documents related to Villenave’s work with d’Eldir: correspondence from Alina d’Eldir (written on her behalf by her husband, and secretary, Charles Mercier) to Villenave, certificates from the Ordre Asiatique de Morale Universelle, and Villenave’s handwritten copies of testimonials describing d’Eldir’s magnetism treatments. However, other documents in the collection (other copies of testimonials, a portrait of d’Eldir) feature different handwriting. In addition, a typewritten bibliography about d’Eldir and her contemporaries includes a book published in 1912, well after the deaths of Villenave and d’Eldir. Two indications of other previous owners include a scrap of paper with the name Léon Féer (possibly Léon Féer, 1830-1902, the French linguist) and a book plate with the name Hans Fellner (possibly Hans Fellner, 1925-1996, the bookseller).

The dealer’s description also created some confusion about the creator versus subject of the collection because of how it concentrates on d’Eldir’s biography. This makes sense, of course, d’Eldir is an influential figure and the focus of the collection, but her voice and work are presented secondhand through materials created by others.

With all of this in mind, my supervisors on the Manuscripts Processing Team and I had several discussions about whether we should include a creator at all. If we put Villenave as the creator, would that not take into account the other creators involved in the collection? And then would that overshadow d’Eldir as the center of the collection? In the end, we decided to include Alina d’Eldir’s name as a subject in the controlled access headings and put Villenave as a creator. This makes it clear that Villenave is the main creator, while also indicating how the materials are about Alina d’Eldir rather than created by her. We also decided that transparency was the best approach to describing how much (or how little) is known about the collection’s history. We provided this information, including more recent creators/collectors of the papers, via the Custodial History note. Although the information I was able to provide was somewhat limited, it should prove useful to researchers, public services, and future processing archivists. 

D’Eldir as a subject, as opposed to a creator, does not mean that the collection is less valuable, but I do think it means I should be mindful in my description. I didn’t want to contribute to under-describing d’Eldir, nor did I want to mischaracterize her; and further I didn’t want to perpetuate the descriptions of d’Eldir that exoticize her. When describing d’Eldir in the finding aid, I decided to stick with simple biographical statements, which were supported by materials in the collection (e.g. her position in the Ordre Asiatique de Morale Universelle and her connection to magnetism). In the interest of transparency, I used the Works Cited note to list the sources I consulted when writing Description notes. 

As an archivist, it is important to provide description that is useful and as accurate as possible. At the same time, however, exhaustive, infallible description isn’t how researchers generally navigate to a collection. I think this is where keywords, subject headings, and name authorities come in. With thoughtful, accurate subject headings, I feel confident that researchers will find this collection. And those researchers may be able to reveal further details about the collection that we will want to add to the finding aid in the future. 

Ultimately, the beauty of processing is that it is iterative; my description is not set in stone and nor should it be. Future archivists can edit and expand as researcher needs and best practices dictate.

Mathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse Villenave’s Collection on Alina d’Eldir, circa 1829-1950s, is currently discoverable via the Princeton University Library Finding Aids site, and open for research. For more information on how to visit and conduct research at  Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, please consult the Visit Us page on our website.

Letter to Villenave from Charles Mercier d’Eldir on behalf of Alina d’Eldir, 1839.