Long ago, as a student, I was told to read the letters of Madame de Sévigné to get a better understanding of seventeenth-century French history. Now that exams are far behind me, I wonder how many other students also went to a library, discovered fourteen volumes of correspondence written in French, and decided to postpone this encounter. But many years later I read a few of the letters in translation and, being an enthusiastic letter-writer myself, felt I had discovered a kindred spirit. Mme de Sévigné’s letters struck me as refreshingly frank and entertaining, and I loved her pleasure in one-sided conversations and her constant longing for replies. Like all the best correspondents she knows how to make you her confidante. You only have to read about ‘Mme Paul, who has gone quite off her head and has fallen in love with a great oaf of 25 or 26 whom she has taken on to do the garden,’ to want to read on.
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal was born in Paris in 1626, in the Place Royale. Her parents, the Baron de Chantal and Marie de Coulanges, died before she was 7 but she was well cared for, first by grandparents and then by uncles. Her marriage in 1664 to a dissolute Breton nobleman, Henri, Marquis de Sévigné, ended with his early death in a duel, and from then on she focused all her emotional energy on keeping the affection of her daughter, Françoise, whom she loved with an almost morbid obsession. In 1669 Françoise married a Provençal nobleman, and her mother embarked on the correspondence of a lifetime, writing her at least two letters a week, each full of advice, comment, gossip and news: ‘My life and sole pleasure is the correspondence I keep up with you, all other things are far behind.’
As an important source of news, letters in the seventeenth century were often passed among friends. Much of the interest of those of Mme de Sévigné lies in the detail provided by a first-hand observer of court life, during turbulent times in both Engla
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