Note to readers: You may choose to read this commentary on the letters of Madame de Sévigné here or listen to it on the audio file at the end of the article.
At a time when France and many other countries in Europe are in lockdown, it felt appropriate to speak this week about something that might help offset the sense of confinement that many readers must be feeling at the moment, so my theme today will be travel. During the last lockdown, one of the writers I discussed was Madame de Sévigné, the wonderfully witty and acerbic 17th-century letter-writer, so I thought I would return to her to follow some of the journeys she regularly made through Burgundy.
After her beloved daughter’s marriage to the Comte de Grignan in 1669 and their subsequent move to Provence in the South of France, Sévigné would often make the long journey from Paris through Burgundy and down to Provence to stay with her daughter, who in turn regularly traveled north to Paris to see her mother.
Needless to say, there were no high-speed trains reaching their destinations within a few hours. Journeys by road and by river would involve from 12 to 15 days of constant travel, and, even for a wealthy aristocrat like Sévigné, the route was rarely easy or comfortable.
Being so fretful about her daughter’s well-being, even when the road and weather were good, she would worry about what it would be like when her daughter was traveling through the same area in winter. One such letter to Mme de Grignan reveals her love of the countryside as she follows the various rivers, including the Yonne, the Loire and the Saône, which she describes as “old friends.” Let’s hear her own words:
This is a route, my dear, that makes one tempted to write to you even when one has no real wish to do so; just think what a good situation I am in. The weather is admirable, as the heavy heat has dissipated without a storm brewing up. I no longer suffer from the attacks that I told you about. I find the countryside very beautiful, and my River Loire seems almost as beautiful here as it did in Orléans; it’s a pleasure to come across old friends on the way. I brought my large carriage so that we are not all squashed up together, and we are able to enjoy the beautiful views that astonish us at every moment. But all my displeasure lies in the fact that during winter the roads are of a completely different order, and you will encounter as many problems as we have had few. (May 16, 1676)
The business of sending and receiving letters while traveling turned out to be as troublesome as the roads. In one letter sent while her daughter was herself moving through Burgundy, Sévigné writes with characteristic word-play that “you must have been inconvenienced by the most inconvenient of inconvenient roads,” before adding, “I hope that you have sent your news from Chalon and that you will write to me also from Lyon; the difficulty lies in how you will manage to receive my letters. I have put them in the post, but it is always such a to-do.” (June 18, 1677)
Sévigné had particular affection for Burgundy, as her maternal grandfather was an important figure in the Burgundy Parliament, and her paternal ancestors, the Rabutins, also came from Burgundy. As a result, she was often able to stay en route with relatives, such as her cousin Bussy-Rabutin, or even in castles belonging to her family. In one letter to Bussy-Rabutin, she tells him, “I am passing through Burgundy, and I will stay at Époisses because my ancestors’ old castle is in complete disarray.” (July 30, 1677).
One disadvantage of having so many relatives living there was the obligation to stay with them on her journey, as we find in another letter, where she writes, “I won’t stop in Dijon as I would have to see some old aunt whom I hardly like anyway.” (July 11, 1672)
Sévigné’s accounts of her journeys are a constant delight, as she displays an acute eye and ear for her surroundings. On one journey, for instance, she finds herself following the same route as Louis XIV’s mistress of the day, Mme de Montespan. Royal mistresses clearly did not travel lightly. In Sévigné’s words, “She is in a six-horse carriage … and has a carriage behind her, harnessed in the same way, with six serving girls. She also has two wagons, six mules, and 10 or 12 horsemen, not counting her officers of the guard. Her whole entourage comes to 45 people.” (May 16, 1676)
On another journey a year later, she remembers following the same road previously in her daughter’s company and recounts a conversation with an innkeeper in which she tries to mimic the woman’s Burgundy accent, something which might well test my translation skills here:
I am continuing on my journey, my daughter, where I will be following in your footsteps. I was rather heart-sore in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges upon seeing the place where we so heartily wept instead of laughing. The innkeeper seems to me a lady of good conversation. I questioned her carefully on how you were last time; she said that you were sad and thin, and that M. de Grignan was trying to raise your spirits and make you eat, which is how I had imagined you. She said that she completely understood my feelings, as she had had her daughter married off far away from her and that on the day of their separation they war both devastated; I think that she was probably living in Lyon. I asked why she had sent her daughter away so far, and she said that she had found a good match, a worthy man, tank the Lord. (August 18, 1677)
A few years ago, I took a similar route through Burgundy, on a boat on the very same waterways that Sévigné herself had traveled some 350 years before. Bringing the letters with me, I had the same sensation that Sévigné imagined her daughter having when she was on the same rivers. “Don’t you find it strange not to see me in the boat?” she asks. “Don’t you ask for me in Auxerre, Lyon or even Grignan?”
Let’s hope that we will all be able to resume our own travels very soon.
Note: Madame de Sévigné features prominently in Nick Hammond’s latest book, The Powers of Sound and Song in Early Modern Paris.Favorite