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The Well-Connected Letter-Writer

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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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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 England and France. After the restoration of the monarchy in England in 1660, the peaceful reign of Charles II was followed by James II’s enforced abdication. In France Louis XIV had succeeded to the throne in 1643 at the age of 5, during a period of violent disputes between the nobility which culminated in the civil wars known as the Fronde. The King’s mother, Anne of Austria, had become sole Regent, supporting Cardinal Mazarin’s policy of increasing the power of the monarchy at the expense of the nobles. The king himself, who had suffered the terror and humiliation of a Parisian mob invading his bedroom, was equally determined to distance himself from his subjects. After Mazarin’s death in 1661, he moved his court from Paris to Versailles, where he ruled as an absolute monarch and expected the nobility to be in constant attendance. Although not over-impressed by monarchs, the aristocratic Marquise de Sévigné was careful to show the King due deference. ‘I bowed to the King as you taught me to and he returned my bow as though I were young and beautiful.’ She also enjoyed the entertainment offered by the increasing splendour of court life. At Chantilly, she reports, the King ‘hunted a stag by moonlight, the lanterns were wonderful. The fireworks were a little dimmed by the light of the moon, but the evening, the supper, the gaming went off perfectly.’ On this particular occasion she also reveals the fate of the maître d’hôtel, Vatel, who felt that anything less than perfection at a royal event was unacceptable. Embarrassed that one or two tables at supper had been short of food, he spent the early hours of the following morning ordering fish from all possible seaports. The orders were slow to arrive and ‘in despair he went to his room, put his sword up against the door and ran it through his heart . . . Meanwhile the fish was coming in from all quarters.’ The court also became the centre of cultural and literary activity. Mme de Sévigné clearly knew everyone of importance. Literary figures such as La Rochefoucauld and Mme de la Fayette were among her closest friends, and she had many noble admirers, including the Prince de Conti, Marshal Turenne and the Duc de Rohan. She always remained loyal to those she befriended. Her celebrated account of the trial of Fouquet, the king’s finance minister who was charged with corruption, is that of a close friend and sympathizer: ‘The resignation and steadfastness of our poor dear friend is an inspiring thing. Every day he knows what is happening and one should write volumes in his praise.’ As an aristocrat, Mme de Sévigné was ideally placed to record gossip about people in high places, and she made some sharp character assessments. When James II fled from England to the French court she observed, ‘He is brave but has a commonplace mind and he recounts everything that has happened in England with a lack of sympathy that deprives one of any for him.’ She found it entertaining when the aristocratic Louise de Kérouaille achieved her ambition of becoming Charles II’s mistress, only to be upstaged by Nell Gwyn, ‘young, wild, brazen, shameless, amusing, she sings, dances and plies her trade openly . . . his creature takes pride of place and disconcerts the Duchess very much’. When her son Charles had an affair with the well-known courtesan Ninon de Lenclos, she observed dryly, ‘Ninon told my son the other day that he was an old pumpkin fricasséed in snow. You see what it means to move in high society, you pick up a thousand elegant endearments.’ Was she a natural writer or was she taught? She was certainly highly educated and she read as widely as possible, sometimes in the company of friends: ‘There is a great difference between reading a book on one’s own or with people who appreciate and pick out the fine passages and so keep one’s attention from flagging.’ She learned Italian, Spanish and Latin, and read works of philosophy, religion and theology, poetry and novels, as well the dramas of Corneille and Molière. She was also a contemporary of Racine but was not always impressed by him. ‘Racine has written a tragedy called Bajazet which raises the roof; it doesn’t go from bad to worse like the others.’ Naturally observant, as a writer she was able to create a picture with one sentence. The Abbé de Livry ‘held his head more stiffly than a church candle, and his steps were so tiny that he didn’t appear to be walking at all.’ For most of her life the Marquise was an independent wealthy widow, and there has been endless speculation as to why she did not marry again. Perhaps she enjoyed the benefits of her solitary state. She spent long periods alone at the Sévigné family château, Les Rochers, near Vitré in Brittany, either reading or pursuing her plans to restore the chapel and develop the parkland. Unlike many contemporaries she found solace in the countryside. ‘We get up at eight. Very often I go out and enjoy the fresh air of the woods until the bell for Mass at nine.’ In her role as châtelaine she doubled the size of the estate, and the avenues she planted still bear witness to her work. ‘My little trees are astonishingly beautiful. Pilois is raising them to the skies with admirable rectitude.’ In spite of her evident enjoyment of society, her letters also reveal reflections on the passage of time and the inevitability of death. ‘My dear,’ she wrote wistfully to her daughter, ‘you wish time would fly. You don’t know what you are doing, and you’ll get overtaken. He will obey you too literally, and when you want to hold him back you will no longer have the power.’ She was often preoccupied with thoughts of her own mortality. ‘I find I am in the midst of an undertaking that embarrasses me. I was launched upon life without my consent. I have got to leave it and that overwhelms me. And how shall I leave it? . . . When will it be? . . . Am I worthy of paradise? Am I only fit for hell? What an alternative! What a puzzle!’ However, she retained a sense of proportion and advised her daughter not to ‘dig too deeply into your mind. Reflections are sometimes so gloomy that they lead to death; you know we have to glide a little over the surface of thoughts.’ There are some aspects of seventeenth-century life that I would be happy to glide over, for these letters are not just concerned with celebrity gossip. Her account of the treatment of the murderer Mme de Brinvilliers is brief but chilling: ‘They put her to the torture first thing in the morning, both ordinary and extraordinary, but she said nothing more.’ Contemporary medical treatments often sound like torture too. ‘He is only kept going with opium. The other day they gave him ambergris by mistake and he nearly died.’ She herself endured the water cure at Vichy for her rheumatism. ‘It is necessary to suffer and we do suffer; we are not quite scalded to death.’ Nor was she sentimental: as an aristocrat writing a century before the Revolution she never questioned whether rebels should be hung. Her letters demonstrate the attitudes of her age. Among her many correspondents was her cousin Roger Bussy-Rabutin. Although he maliciously traduced her in his book Histoire Amoureuse des Gaules, she later forgave him, and ironically he may have contributed to her fame. Some of her letters were included in his published correspondence, and her granddaughter Pauline de Simiane recognized that they would be of lasting interest. Pauline was instrumental in publishing the first twenty-eight letters of her grandmother’s correspondence in 1725 and later helped Denis-Marius Perrin to publish two official editions in 1734 and 1754. The production of subsequent editions was frequently hampered by family quarrels and disputes over authenticity. During the twentieth century two notable translations into English were published. It is still possible to find Roger Aldington’s translation (1927) which retains an elegant formality, while Leonard Tancock’s more relaxed interpretation appeared fifty years later as a Penguin Classic. His selection was made from the 1,372 letters edited by the French scholar and accepted authority Roger Duchêne. Tancock’s selection includes many of the best-known letters, and his commentary and translation remain an excellent introduction to Mme de Sévigné. French speakers who hesitate to embark on Duchêne’s magnum opus might start with his slim volume, Chère Madame de Sévigné. Although the first official edition of the letters appeared nearly 300 years ago, Mme de Sévigné has had few detractors. Sainte-Beuve wrote admiringly, ‘It is impossible to speak of women without first putting one’s self into a good humour by the thought of Mme de Sévigné.’ What then is the secret of her lasting appeal? Historians naturally continue to read her with interest, but I think the greatest pleasure for a general reader lies in her wit, intelligence and irrepressible good humour. She was clearly a delightful companion in her lifetime, and her letters still continue to win her new friends.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © Marie Forsyth 2010


About the contributor

Marie Forsyth won Cosmopolitan’s New Journalists competition at the age of 40. This was encouraging but not lucrative so she abandoned journalism and went into business. She has now retired to write letters, learn French and live happily ever after.

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