*Sévigné, Madame de
Sévigné, Madame de
Saint-Simon, himself a great essayist, wrote that Madame de Sevigne “knew a great deal about all kinds of things without ever wishing to give the appearance of it.” It is this combination of insight and modesty for which she is perhaps best known. Her fame as a writer is particularly remarkable because she never published any literary work during her lifetime. Rather, her renown stems from her surviving letters, over a thousand in all, the majority of which were addressed to her much loved daughter, Madame de Grignan (1646–1705), who in 1671 moved with her husband from Paris to Provence. The first published collection of her letters appeared in 1725.
Although the letters of Madame de Sévigné can be regarded on one level as a series of letters to relatives and friends, they represent on another level essential documents and highly literate essays on a wide variety of subjects relating to 17th– century France. A major source of debate among literary critics has been whether she should be considered as simply a letter writer or as an epistolary author. Some view her work as purely private communication between individuals, but others see the letters as one of the few means available to a woman at that time to express herself as a writer. By writing to her daughter, they argue, she was able to create a certain kind of textual persona. Whichever way we may view her output, it is incontrovertible that the acuteness of her observation permeates all the letters. In this context, although she does not take up and pursue subjects in the comprehensive way many essayists do, there are three categories of observation to which her letters give rise: historical, literary, and social.
Of the historical letters, the most significant are the 14 letters written between November 1664 and January 1665 to Simon Arnauld de Pomponne on the trial of their mutual friend Nicolas Fouquet. Fouquet had been Minister of Finance under Cardinal Mazarin, but, after the latter’s death in 1661, Colbert (the future Minister of Commerce and Internal Affairs) collaborated with the king, Louis XIV, to arrest Fouquet on the charge of financial maladministration. Not only can Madame de Sévigné’s letters on the trial be seen as an account of a significant historical event but, more importantly, she focuses on the human aspects of the drama, relating the emotions and responses of the leading participants and evoking both pathos and humor. Other historical events, such as wars and political marriages, are similarly suffused with her personal observations and accounts of other people’s reactions. In her famous description of the public execution in 1676 of the murderess Madame de Brinvilliers, for example, Madame de Sévigné concentrates on both the event and her own limited view of the proceedings.
Throughout the letters, Madame de Sévigné displays a broad literary knowledge. She quotes from a wide variety of authors and was herself closely acquainted with leading writers of the day such as La Rochefoucauld and especially Madame de Lafayette. Not only does she observe many interesting literary and religious debates, such as the dispute between the Jesuits and the Jansenists (with whom she had close ties), but she also acts as literary critic both of writers who are little known today, like Menage, Ségrais, and Coulanges, and of well-known writers like Molière, Corneille, Racine, and La Fontaine.
Her literary judgment does not always concur with that of posterity, as is shown in her unfavorable comments on some plays by Racine.
Madame de Sévigné’s social observation is perhaps most particularly acute, as she is always keen to point out the absurdity of certain appearances and pretensions. She is a close observer of court life as well as life in the country, where she had a home at Les Rochers in Brittany. But, besides the vignettes of 17th-century life, her perception of human relationships extends beyond the age in which she lived. The mother-daughter relationship that manifests itself in the vast majority of the letters provides a unifying structure to the correspondence, and her expressions of love and pain at her daughter’s absence are readily comprehensible to all ages. Moreover, her prime wish was to entertain her daughter in her letters, and this is demonstrated in her highly inventive use of language. At times she creates suspense by purposefully withholding information until the end of a letter, while at others she invents dialogues and even includes messages from other people, such as her friend Corbinelli or her son Charles de Sévigné. Although most letters display her effervescence and continual good humor, occasionally her observations contain a deep sense of sadness, for example at the death of La Rochefoucauld or at the suicide of Vatel, the king’s chef. Little mention is made of her husband, Henri de Sévigné, who was killed in 1651 in a duel over his mistress, Madame de Gondran, but the pain of his infidelity and the rigors of having been widowed at the age of 25 are briefly evoked.
Madame de Sévigné has been widely praised, for both the seeming spontaneity and the extreme artfulness of her style. In many ways her writing can be compared to that of the theater: she creates vivid scenarios in which several characters play different roles, she herself operating as both spectator and actress. In the Fouquet letters, for example, she describes the actions and words of the leading participants as well as the response of the onlookers, including herself. But she can also be viewed as an essayist in her own right, as it was through her letters that she was able to discuss and comment upon the society in which she lived.
Marie de Rabutin Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné. Born 5 February 1626 in Paris. Studied privately with tutors. Married Henri, Baron and Marquis de Sévigné, 1644 (killed in a duel, 1651): one daughter and one son. Frequented salons, and met many literary figures, becoming close friends with Madame de Lafayette. Wrote at least 1100 letters during her life, many to her daughter FrançoiseMarguerite, Comtesse de Grignan. Died (possibly of pneumonia or influenza) at Grignan, 17 April 1696.
Lettres choisies de Mme. la marquise de Sévigné, 1725
Lettres de Marie Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, 2 vols., 1726
Recueil des lettres de Mme. la marquise de Sevigne, edited by D.-M. Perrin, 6 vols., 1734–37
Lettres de Mme. de Sevigne, de sa famille et de ses amis, edited by M.Monmerqué, 14 vols., 1862–68
Lettres inédites de Mme. de Sévigné, 2 vols., 1876
Letters (selection), edited by Richard Aldington, translated anonymously, 2 vols., 1927
Lettres (Pléiade Edition), edited by Émile Gérard-Gailly, 3 vols., 1953–57
Letters (selection), edited and translated by Violet Hammersley, 1955
Selected Letters, edited and translated by H.T.Barnwell, 1960
Correspondance de Mme. de Sévigné (Pléiade Edition), edited by Roger Duchêne, 3 vols., 1972–78
Lettres (selection), edited by Bernard Raffali, 1976
Selected Letters, translated by Leonard Tancock, 1982
Lettres choisies, edited by Roger Duchêne, 1988
Allentuch, Harriet, Madame de Sévigné: A Portrait in Letters, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963
Duchêne, Roger, Madame de Sévigné, ou, La Chance d’être une femme, Paris: Fayard, 1982
Duchene, Roger, Madame de Sévigné et la lettre d’amour, Paris: Klincksieck, revised edition, 1992
Farrell, Michèle Longino, Performing Motherhood: The Sévigné Correspondence, Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1991
Gibson, Wendy, Women in Seventeenth-Century France, New York: St. Martin’s Press, and London: Macmillan, 1989
Hawcroft, Michael, “Historical Evidence and Literature: Madame de Sévigné’s Letters on the Trial of Fouquet,” The Seventeenth Century 9, no. 1 (1994):57–75
Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature issue on Madame de Sévigné, 8 (1981):1–162
Recker, Jo Anne Marie, “Appelle-moi Pierrot”: Wit and Irony in the Lettres of Madame de Sévigné, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1986
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