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.
When asked to give a list of what I consider to be the greatest works of French literature, I usually include the correspondence of Madame de Sévigné (Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné). You might reasonably wonder why a 17th-century woman’s private letters, mostly written to her daughter, Madame de Grignan, count as “literature.” There are a number of reasons.
Firstly, women at that time were not given the same opportunities as men to express themselves in a creative way. Although some women wrote novels and plays during the 17th century, many of them were forced to publish their works anonymously, as in the case of Madame de la Fayette, or were ridiculed, as happened to the prolific writer Madeleine de Scudéry. The normal rule was that women were not expected to write. The fact that Sévigné chose to display her skills in the form of personal letters should not detract from the wonders of her creative imagination, and we should read them with that in mind.
Secondly, many of the most successful writers of that age, like the playwrights Pierre Corneille and Molière, when criticized by detractors who were envious of their success, argued that their prime reason for writing was to “plaire” – please or entertain. Given the fact that Sévigné’s letters are often carefully constructed to entertain her envisaged, even idealized, reader, one can surely argue that the starting point for established dramatists and letter-writers alike is the same. It’s perhaps no surprise that often she parodies the style of her favorite writers or even describes her accounts of daily life as worthy of being depicted by the great playwrights of her day.
Thirdly, notions of what we consider to be public or private are very different now from what they were 350 years ago. Madame de Grignan would usually read her mother’s letters aloud, whether she was alone or, as was more often the case, in the company of friends and family. Sévigné was very much aware of this, often creating scenarios that lent themselves to public performance, mentioning at times to her daughter how she is imagining her reading the letters to an assembled audience, with her “bons tons” (fine tonality of voice).
Sévigné was in many ways atypical of the women of her time. She was given an excellent education by her uncle after she was orphaned at a very early age. She was also a free spirit, a state made possible, paradoxically, by a tragic turn of events in her life. She was widowed at the young age of 26 and left with two young children, when her husband, the serial philanderer Henri, Marquis de Sévigné, was killed in a duel fought over one of his mistresses. Even though in her letters she very occasionally expresses the pain caused by this death, her status as a widow gave her freedom that few married women would have had. The fact that she never remarried, despite the attentions of many suitors, testifies to her independent nature. It also means that she turned much of her attention to her beloved daughter Françoise, who moved from Paris to the Château de Grignan in Provence to join her new husband, the twice-widowed Comte de Grignan, after their marriage in 1669.
Taking advantage of the early postal system, set up in France in the 17th century, Sévigné sent over 1,000 letters to her daughter over the next 25 years, until her death. Even though readers who have had to deal with overbearing mothers might find the intensity of Sévigné’s love for and anxieties about her daughter a little too suffocating, we should not forget the dangers that younger women of that time faced. Madame de Grignan fell pregnant a number of times, and Sévigné knew how frequently women died while giving birth, including the Comte de Grignan’s previous wife.
Sévigné’s love for her daughter manifests itself above all in the care she takes to provide dazzlingly witty and sometimes virtuosic accounts of her daily life. An invaluable witness to the sights and sounds of 17th-century Paris, she attended the plays and operas of many playwrights and composers, including Corneille (whose work she adored), Molière, Racine and Lully, and always gave vivid accounts of these events. After seeing Racine’s play Esther at the royal court in the presence of Louis XIV, she wrote rather knowingly: “We listened to the tragedy with an attentiveness that was noticed.” She was also the close friend of some of the major writers of the day, including Madame de La Fayette and the maxim writer François de La Rochefoucauld.
Her letters also have important documentary and historical functions. She gives first-hand depictions of many events, such as the trial of her friend Nicolas Fouquet for supposed financial embezzlement while serving as Louis XIV’s finance minister, and the executions of two notorious female murderers, the Marquise de Brinvilliers in 1676, whose ashes Sévigné describes as floating in the air, and Catherine Monvoisin (known as La Voisin) in 1680. She attended the funerals of the great and the good, including that of Pierre Séguier, the Chancellor of France, during which she and her friend Guillaume de Guitaut had a fit of giggles after she whispered to him that if Séguier had been alive, he wouldn’t have failed to miss this magnificent event.
Even if these examples show the enormous privilege of belonging to an aristocratic family, she is by no means detached from the realities of daily life. She seems at ease quoting from the saucy songs heard on the Pont Neuf or describing the chaotic scenes of her son Charles’s love life. Her joie de vivre is truly infectious, and she is just as able to laugh at herself as she is to make fun of other people’s pretensions or airs and graces.
Let me leave you with one of my very favorite passages: in 1676, she visited her supposedly ill friend Madame de Brissac, whose histrionic performance on her sickbed was only matched by the epistolary performance that Sévigné created for the enjoyment of her daughter:
“Mme de Brissac had colic today. She was in bed, beautiful and bonneted in the most sumptuous fashion. I wish you could have seen what she made of her pains, and the use of her eyes, and the cries, and the arms, and the hands which trailed over her bedclothes, and the poses, and the compassion that she wanted us to have. Lacing my response with tenderness and admiration, I admired this performance and I found it so beautiful that my close attentiveness must have appeared like deep emotion, which I think will be much appreciated … When I think of the simplicity with which you are ill, the peace which you give to your pretty face, what a difference! This is all so amusing. Apart from this, I am eating my soup with my left hand. It’s quite a novelty.”
If you wish to read the letters in French, you might choose the excellent three-volume Pléiade complete edition by Roger Duchêne, which might stretch both the budget and the patience of the general reader, or the affordable single-volume paperback, the 2016 Folio Classique edition by Nathalie Freidel. For an English translation, the Penguin Classics Selected Letters, translated by Leonard Tancock, is still the best available.
Note: Madame de Sévigné features prominently in Nick Hammond’s latest book, The Powers of Sound and Song in Early Modern Paris.