1902 Encyclopedia > Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné
(often known as: Madame de Sévigné)
French noblewoman and letter writer
(1626-96)




MARIE DE RABUTIN-CHANTAL, MARQUISE DE SEVIGNE, (1626-1696), the most charming of all letter-writers in all languages, was born at Paris on February 6, 1626, and died at the chateau of Grignan (Drome), on April 18, 1696. The family of Rabutin (if not so illustrious as Bussy, Madame de Sevigne's notorious cousin, affected to consider it) was one of great age and distinction in Burgundy. It was traceable in documents to the 12th century, and the castle which gave it name still existed, though in ruins, in Madame de Sevigne's time. The family had been " gens d'epee " for the most part, though Francois de Babutin, the author of valuable memoirs on the sixth decade of the 16th century, undoubtedly belonged to it. It is said that Bussy's silly vanity led him to exclude this Francois from the genealogy of his house because he had not occupied any high position. Marie's father, Celse Benigne de Rabutin, Baron de Chantal, was the son of the celebrated " Sainte " Chantal, friend and disciple of St Francis of Sales; her mother was Marie de Coulanges. Celse de Babutin shared to the full the mania for duelling which was the curse of the gentlemen of France during the first half of the 17th century, and was frequently in danger both directly from his adversaries and indirectly from the law. He died, however, in a more legitimate manner, being killed during the English descent on the Isle of Bhe in July 1627. His wife did not survive him many years, and Marie was left an orphan at the age of seven years and a few months. She then passed into the care of her grand-parents on the mother's side; but they were both aged, and the survivor of them, Philippe de Coulanges, died in 1636, Marie being then ten years old. According to French custom a family council was held to select a guardian of the young heiress, for such she was to some extent. Her uncle Christopbe de Coulanges, Abbe de Livry, was chosen. He was somewhat young for the guardianship of a girl, being only twenty-nine, but readers of his niece's letters know how well " Le Bien Bon "—for such is his name in Madame de Sevigne's little language—acquitted himself of the trust. He lived till within ten years of his ward's death, and long after his nominal functions were ended he was in all matters of business the good angel of the family, while for half a century his abbacy of Livry was the favourite residence, both of his niece and her daughter. Coulanges was much more of a man of business than of a man of letters, but either choice or the fashion of the time induced him to make of his niece a learned lady. Chapelain and Menage are specially mentioned as her tutors, and Ménage at least fell in love with her, in which point he resembled the rest of the world, and was constant to his own habits in regard to his pupils. Tallemant des Beaux gives more than one instance of the cool and good-humoured raillery with which she received his passion, and the earliest letters of hers that we possess are addressed to Ménage. Another literary friend of her youth was the poet Saint-Pavin. Among her own sex she was intimate with all the coterie of the Hotel Bambouillet, and her special ally was Mademoiselle de la Vergne, after-i wards Madame de la Fayette. In person she was extremely j attractive, though the minute critics of the time (which was the palmy day of portraits in words) objected to her divers deviations from strictly regular beauty, such as eyes of different colours and sizes, a " square-ended " nose, and _ a somewhat heavy jaw. Her beautiful hair and com-plexion, however, were admitted even by these censors, as well as the extraordinary spirit and liveliness of her expression. Her long minority, under so careful a guardian as Coulanges, had also raised her fortune to the amount of 100,000 crowns—a large sum for the time, and one which with her birth and beauty might have allowed her to expect a very brilliant marriage. That which she finally made was certainly one of affection on her side rather than of interest. There had been some talk of her cousin Bussy, but very fortunately for her this came to nothing. She actually married Henri, Marquis de Sévigné, a Breton gentleman of a good family, and allied to the oldest houses of that province, but of no great estate. The marriage took place on August 4, 1644, and the pair went almost immediately to Sevigne's manor-house of Les Rochers, near Vitré, a place which Madame de Sévigné was in future years to immortalize. It was an unfortified chateau of no very great size, but picturesque enough, with the peaked turrets common in French architecture, and surrounded by a park and grounds of no large extent, but thickly wooded and communicating with other woods. The abundance of trees gave it the repute of being damp and somewhat gloomy. Fond, however, as Madame de Sévigné was of society, it may be suspected that the happiest days of her brief married life were spent there, j For there at any rate her husband had less opportunity '_ than in Paris of neglecting her, and of wasting her money ! and his own. Very little good is said of Henri de Sévigné by any of his contemporaries. He was one of the innumerable lovers of Ninon de l'Enclos, and made himself even more conspicuous with a certain Madame de Gondran, known in the nickname slang of the time as " La Belle Lolo." He was wildly extravagant. That his wife loved him and that he did not love her was generally admitted, and the frank if somewhat coxcomb-like accounts which Bussy Babutin gives of his own attempt and failure i to persuade her to retaliate on her husband are decisive I as to her virtue. At last Sevigne's pleasant vices came home to him. He quarrelled with the Chevalier d'Albret about Madame de Gondran, fought with him and was mortally wounded on the 4th of February 1651 ; he died two days afterwards. There is no reasonable doubt that his wife regretted him a great deal more than he deserved. On two different occasions she is said to have fainted in public at the sight once of his adversary and once of his second in the fatal duel ; and whatever Madame de Sévigné was (and she had several faults) she was certainly not a hypocrite. Her husband had when living accused her of coldness,—the common excuse of libertine husbands, —but even he seems to have found fault only with her temperament, not with her heart. To close this part of the subject it may be said that though only six and twenty, and more beautiful than ever, she never married again despite frequent offers, and that no aspersion was ever thrown save in one instance on her fame. For the rest of her life, which was long, she gave herself up to her children. These were two in number, and they divided their mother's affections by no means equally. The eldest was a daughter, Françoise Marguerite de Sévigné, who was born on October 10, 1646, whether at Les Rochers or in Paris is not absolutely certain. The second, a son, Charles de Sévigné, was born at Les Rochers in the spring of 1648. To him Madame de Sévigné was an indulgent, a generous (though not altogether just), and in a way an affectionate mother. Her daughter, the future Madame de Grignan, she worshipped with an almost insane affection, which only its charming literary results and the delightful qualities which accompanied it in the worshipper, though not in the worshipped, save from being ludicrous if not revolting. As it is, not one in a hundred of Madame de Sévigné's readers can find in his heart to be angry with her for her devotion to a very undivine divinity.

After her husband's death Madame de Sévigné passed the greater part of the year 1651 in retirement at Les Rochers. She had, however, no intention of renouncing the world, and she returned to Paris in November of that year, her affairs having been put in such order as Sévigné's extravagance permitted by the faithful Coulanges. For nearly ten years little of importance occurred in her life, which was passed at Paris in a house she occupied in the Place Royale (not as yet in the famous Hôtel Carnavalet), at Les Rochers, at Livry, or at her own estate of Bourbilly in the Maçonnais. She had, however, in 1658 a quarrel with her cousin Bussy, which had not unimportant results, and at the end of the time mentioned above she narrowly escaped being compromised in reputation, though not poli-tically, at Fouquet's downfall. Notwithstanding Bussy's unamiable character and the early affair of the proposed marriage, and notwithstanding also his libertine conduct towards her, the cousins had always been friends ; and the most amusing and characteristic part of Madame de Sévigné's correspondence, before the date of her daughter's marriage, is addressed to him. She had a very strong belief in family ties ; she recognized in Bussy a kindred spirit, and she excused his faults as Rabutinades and Rabutinages—the terms she uses in alluding to the rather excitable and humorist temper of the house. But in 1653 a misunderstanding about money brought about a quarrel, which in its turn had a long sequel, and results not unimportant in literature. Bussy and his cousin had jointly come in for a considerable legacy, and he asked her for a loan. If this was not positively refused, there was a difficulty made about it, and Bussy was deeply offended. A year later, at the escapade of Boissy (see RABUTIN), according to his own account, he improvised (according to probability he had long before written it) the famous portrait of Madame de Sévigné which appears in his notorious Histoire Amoureuse, and which is a triumph of malice. Circulated at first in manuscript and afterwards in print, this caused Madame de Sévigné the deepest pain and indignation, and the quarrel between the cousins was not fully made up for years, if indeed it was ever fully made up. This portrait, however, was more wounding to self-love than in any way really dangerous, for, read between the lines, it is in effect a testimonial of character. The Fouquet matter was more serious. The superin-tendent was a famous lady-killer, but Madame de Sévigné, though he was her friend, and though she had been ardently courted by him as by others (one quarrel in her presence between the Duke de Bohan and the Marquis de Tonquedec had become notorious), had hitherto escaped scandal. At Fouquet's downfall in 1651 it was announced on indubitable authority that communications from her had been found in the coffer where Fouquet kept his love letters. She protested that the notes in question were of friendship merely, and Bussy (one of the not very numerous good actions of his life) obtained from Le Tellier, who as minister had examined the letters, a corroboration of the protest. But the letters were never published, and there have always been those who held that Madame de Sevigne regarded Fouquet with at least a very warm kind of friendship. It is certain that her letters to Pomponne describing his trial are among her masterpieces of uuaffected, vivid, and sympathetic narration.

During these earlier years, besides the circumstances already mentioned, Madame de Sevigne conceived, like most of the better and more thoughtful among Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, a great affection for the establishment of Port Boyal, which was not without its effect on her literary work. That work, however (if writing than which certainly none was ever less carried out in a spirit of mere workmanship can be so called), dates in its bulk and really important part almost entirely from the last thirty years of her life. Her letters before the marriage of her daughter, though by themselves they would suffice to give her a very high rank among letter-writers, would not do more than fill one moderate-sized volume. Those after that marriage fill nearly ten large volumes in the latest and best edition. We do not hear very much of Made-moiselle de Sevigne's early youth. For a short time, at a rather uncertain date, she was placed at school with the nuns of St Marie at Nantes. But for the most part her mother brought her up herself, assisted by the Abbe de la Mousse, a faithful friend, and for a time one of her most constant companions. La Mousse was a great Cartesian, and he made Mademoiselle de Sevigne also a devotee of the bold soldier of Touraine to a degree which even in that century of blue stockings excited surprise and some ridi-cule. But Mademoiselle de Sevigne was bent on more mundane triumphs than philosophy had to offer. Her beauty is all the more incontestable that she was by no means generally liked. Bussy, a critical and not too bene-volent judge, called her "la plus jolie fille de France," and it seems to be agreed that she resembled her mother, with the advantage of more regular features. She was introduced at court early, and as she danced well she figured frequently in the ballets which were the chief amusement of the court of Louis XIV. in its early days. If, however, she was more regularly beautiful than her mother she had little or nothing of her attraction, and like many other beauties who have entered society with similar expectations she did not immediately find a husband. Various projected alliances fell through for one reason or another, and it was not till the end of 1668 that her destiny was settled. On January 29 in the next year she married Francois Adhemar, Comte de Grignan, a Provencal, of one of the noblest families of France, and a man of amiable and honourable character, but neither young nor handsome, nor in reality rich. He had been twice married and his great estates were heavily encum-bered. Neither did the large dowry (300,000 livres) which Madame de Sevigne, somewhat unfairly to her son, bestowed upon her daughter, suffice to clear encumbrances, which were constantly increased in the sequel by the extravagance of Madame de Grignan as well as of her husband.





Charles de Sevigne was by this time twenty years old, but he had no doubt already learnt that he was not the person of chief importance in the family. He never, throughout his life, appears to have resented his mother's preference of his sister; but, though thoroughly amiable, he was not (at any rate in his youth) a model character. Nothing is known of his education, but just before his sister's marriage he volunteered for a rather hairbrained expedition to Crete against the Turks, and served with credit. Then his mother bought him the commission of guidon (a kind of sub-cornet) in the Gendarmes Dauphin, in which regiment he served for some years, and after long complaining of the slowness of promotion rather rapidly rose to the rank of captain, when he sold out. But though he always fought well he was not an enthusi-astic soldier, and was constantly and not often fortunately in love. He followed his father into the nets of Ninon de l'Enclos, and was Bacine's rival with Mademoiselle Champmeslé. The way in which his mother was made confidante of these discreditable and not very successful loves is characteristic both of the time and of the country. In 1669 M. de Grignan, who had previously been lieutenant-governor of Languedoc, was transferred to Provence. The governor-in-chief was the young duke of Vendóme. But at this time he was a boy, and he never really took up the government, so that Grignan for more than forty years was in effeet viceroy of this important province. His wife rejoiced greatly in the part of vice-queen; but their peculiar situation threw on them the expenses without the emoluments of the office, and those expenses were increased by the extravagance of both, so that the Grignan money affairs hold a larger place in Madame de Sévigné's letters than might perhaps be wished.

In 1671 Madame de Sévigné with her son paid a visit to Les Rochers, which is memorable in her history and in literature. The states of Brittany were convoked that year at Vitré. This town being in the immediate neigh-bourhood of Les Rochers, Madame de Sévigné's usually quiet life at her country house was diversified by the necessity of entertaining the governor, the Due de Chaulnes, of appearing at his receptions, and so forth. All these matters are duly consigned to record in her letters, together with much good-natured raillery (it must be admitted that it is sometimes almost on the verge of being ill-natured, though never quite over it) on the country ladies of the neighbourhood and their ways. She remained at Les Rochers during the whole summer and autumn of 1671, and did not return to Paris till late in November. The country news is then succeeded by news of the court. At the end of the next year, 1672, one great wish of her heart was gratified by paying a visit to her daughter in her vice-royalty of Provence. Madame de Grignan does not seem to have been very anxious for this visit,—perhaps because, as the letters show in many cases, the exacting affection of her mother was somewhat too strong for her own colder nature, perhaps because she feared such a witness of the ruinous extravagance which characterized the Grignan household. But her mother remained with her for nearly a year, and did not return to Paris till the end of 1673. During this time we have (as is usually the case during these Provencal visits and the visits of Madame de Grignan to Paris) some letters addressed to Madame de Sévigné, but comparatively few from her. A visit of the second class was the chief event of 1674, and the references to this, such as they are, is the chief evidence that mother and daughter were on the whole better apart. 1675 brought with it the death of Turenne (of which Madame de Sévigné has given a very noteworthy account, characteristic of her more ambitious but not perhaps her more successful manner), and also serious disturbances in Brittany. Notwithstanding these it was necessary for Madame de Sévigné to make her periodical visit to Les Rochers. She reached the house in safety, and the friendship of Chaulnes protected her both from violence and from the exactions which the miserable province underwent as a punishment for its resistance to excessive and unconstitutional taxation. No small part of her letters is occupied by these affairs.

The year 1676 saw several things important in Madame de Sevigne's life. For the first time she was seriously ill, —it would appear with rheumatic fever,—and she did not thoroughly recover till she had visited Vichy. Her letters from this place are among her very best, and picture life at a 17th-century watering-place with unsurpassed vividness. In this year, too, took place the trial and execution of Madame de Brinvilliers. This event figures in the letters, and the references to it are among those which have given occasion to unfavourable comments on Madame de Sevigne's character—comments which, with others of the kind, will be more conveniently treated together. In the next year, 1677, she moved into the Hotel Carna-valet, a house which still remains and is inseparably connected with her memory, and she had the pleasure of welcoming the whole Grignan family to it. They remained there a long time ; indeed nearly two years seem to have been spent by Madame de Grignan partly in Baris and partly at Livry. The return to Brovence took place in October 1678, and next year Madame de Sevigne had the grief of losing La Bochefoucauld, the most eminent and one of the most intimate of her close personal friends and constant associates. In 1680 she again visited Brittany, but the close of that year saw her back in Paris to receive another and even longer visit from her daughter, who remained in Paris for four years. Before the end of the last year of this stay (in February 1684) Charles de Sevigne, after all his wandering loves, and after more than one talked-of alliance, was married to a young Breton lady, Jeanne Marguerite de Mauron, who had a considerable fortune. In the arrangements for this marriage Madame de Sevigne practically divided all her fortune between her children (Madame de Grignan of course receiving an unduly large share), and reserved only part of the life interest. The greed of Madame de Griguan nearly broke her brother's marriage, but it was finally concluded and proved a very happy one in a somewhat singular fashion. Both Sevigne and his wife became deeply religious, and at first Madame de Sevigne found, their household (for she gave up Les Rochers to them) not at all lively. But by degrees she grew fond of her daughter-in-law. During this year she spent a consider-able time in Brittany, first on business, afterwards on a visit to her son, and partly it would appear for motives of economy. But Madame de Grignan still continued with only short absences to inhabit Paris, and the mother and daughter were practically in each other's company until 1688. The proportion of letters therefore that we have for the decade 1677-1687 is much smaller than that which represents the decade preceding it; indeed the earlier period contains the great bulk of the whole corre-spondence. In 1687 the Abbe de Coulanges, Madame de Sevigne's uncle and good angel, died, and in the following year the whole family were greatly excited by the first campaign of the young Marquis de Grignan, Madame de Grignan's only son, who was sent splendidly equipped to the siege of Philippsbourg. In the same year Madame de Sevigne was present at the St Cyr performance of Esther, and some of her most amusing descriptions of court cere-monies and experiences date from this time. 1689 and 1690 were almost entirely spent by her at Les Rochers with her son; and on leaving him she went across France to Provence. There was some excitement during her Breton stay, owing to the rumour of an English descent, on which occasion the Breton militia was called out, and Charles de Sevigne appeared for the last time as a soldier but it came to nothing. 1691 was passed at Grignan and other places in the south, but at the end of it Madame de Sevigne returned to Paris, bringing the Grignans with her; and her daughter stayed with her till 1694. The year 1693 saw the loss of two of her oldest friends,—Bussy Rabutin, her faithless and troublesome but in his own way affectionate cousin, and Madame de la Fayette, her life-long companion, and on the whole perhaps her best and wisest friend. Another friend almost as intimate, Madame de Lavardin, followed in 1691. Madame de Sevigne spent but a few months of this latter year alone, and followed her daughter to Provence. She never revisited Brittany after 1691. Two important marriages with their preparations occupied most of her thoughts during 1691-1695. The young Marquis de Grignan married the daughter of Saint-Amant, an immensely rich financier ; but his mother's pride, ill-nature, and bad taste (she is said to have remarked in full court that it was necessary now and then to " manure the best lands," referring to Saint-Amant's wealth, low birth, and the Grignan's nobility) made the marriage not a very happy one. His sister Bauline, who, in the impossibility of dowering her richly, had a narrow escape of the cloister, made a marriage of affection with M. de Simiane, and eventually became the sole representative and continuator of the families of Grignan and Sevign6.

Madame de Sevigne survived these alliances but a very short time. During an illness of her daughter she herself was attacked by smallpox in April 1696, and she died on the 17th of that month at Grignan, and was buried there. Her idolized daughter was not present during any time of her illness; it has been charitably hoped that she was too ill herself. Her known attention to her own good looks, and the terror of the smallpox which then prevailed, supply perhaps a less charitable but sufficient explanation. But in her will Madame de Sevigne still showed her prefer-ence for this not too grateful child, and Charles de Sevigne accepted his mother's wishes in a letter showing the good-nature which he had never lacked, and the good sense which, after his early follies, and even in a way during them, he had also shown. But the two families were, -except as has been said for Madame de Simiane and her posterity, to be rapidly broken up. Charles de Sevigne and his wife had no children, and he himself, after occupy-ing some public posts (he was king's lieutenant in Brittany in 1697), went with his wife into religious retirement at Paris in 1703, and after a time sequestered himself still more in the seminary of Sainte-Magloire, where he died on March 26, 1713. His widow survived him twenty years. Madame de Grignan had died on August 16, 1705, at a country house near Marseilles, of the very disease which she had tried to escape by not visiting her dying mother. Her son, who had fought at Blenheim, had died of the same malady at Thionville the year before. Marie Blanche, her eldest daughter, was in a convent, and, as all the Comte de Grignan's brothers had either entered the _church or died unmarried, the family, already bankrupt in fortune, was extinguished in the male line by Grignan's own death in 1714, at a very great age. Madame de Simiane, whose connexion with the history of the letters is important, died in 1737.





The chief subjects of public interest and the principal family events of importance which are noticed in the letters of Madame de Sevigne have been indicated already. But, as will readily be understood, neither the whole nor even the chief interest of her correspondence is confined to such things. In the latest edition the letters extend to sixteen or seventeen hundred, of which, how-ever, a considerable number (perhaps a third) are replies of other persons or letters addressed to her, or letters of her family and friends having more or less connexion with the subjects of her cor-respondence. As a rule her own letters, especially those to her daughter, are of great length. Writing as she did in a time when newspapers were not, or at least were scanty and jejune, gossip of all sorts appears among her subjects, and some of her most famous letters are pure reportage (to use a modern French slang term), while others deal with strictly private subjects. Thus one of her best known pieces has for subject the famous suicide of the great cook Vatel owing to a misunderstanding as to the provision of fish for an entertainment given to the king by Gondé at Chantilly. Another (one of the most characteristic of all) deals with the projected marriage of Lauzun and Mademoiselle de Montpensier ; another with the refusal of one of her own footmen to turn hay-maker when it was important to get the crop in at Les Rochers ; another with the fire which burnt out her neighbour's house in Paris. At one moment she tells how a forward lady of honour was disconcerted in offering certain services at Mademoiselle's levée ; at another how ill a courtier's clothes became him. She enters, as has been said, at great length into the pecuniary difficulties of her daughter ; she tells the most extraordinary stories of the fashion in which Charles de Sevigne sowed his wild oats ; she takes an almost ferocious interest and side in her daughter's quarrels with rival beauties or great officials in Provence who throw difficulties in the way of government.

Almost all writers of literary letters since Madame de Sévigné's days, or rather since the publication of her correspondence, have imitated her more or less directly, more or less consciously, and it is therefore only by applying that historic estimate upon which all true criticism rests that her full value can be discerned. The charm of her work is, however, so irresistible that, read even with-out any historical knowledge and in the comparatively adulterated editions in which it is generally met with, that charm can hardly be missed. Madame de Sévigné was a member of the strong ami original group of writers—Retz, La Rochefoucauld, Corneille, Pascal, St Lvremond, Descartes, and the rest—who escaped the finical and weakening reforms of the later 17th century, while for the most part they had profited by those earlier reforms which succeeded the classicizing of the Pléiade and the imitation of Spanish and Italian which marred some early work of Louis XIII. 's time. According to the strictest standard of the Academy her phraseology is sometimes incorrect, and it occasionally shows traces of the quaint and affected style of the Précieuses ; but these things only add to its savour and piquancy. In lively narration few writers have excelled her, and in the natural expression of domestic affection and maternal affection none. She had an all-observant eye for trifles and the keenest possible appreciation of the ludicrous, together with a hearty relish for all sorts of amusements, pageants, and diversions, and a deep though not voluble or over-sensitive sense of the beauties of nature. But with all this she had an understanding as solid as her temper was gay. Unlike her daughter she was not a professed blue-stocking or philosophess. But she had a strong affection for theology, in which she inclined (like the great majority of the religious and intelligent laity of her time in France) to the Jansenist side. Her favourite author in this class was Nicole. She has been reproached with her fondness for the romances of Mlle, de Scudéry and the rest of her school. But probably many persons who make that reproach have themselves never read the works they despise, and are ignorant how much merit there is in books whose chief faults are that they are written in a strongly marked and now obsolete fashion, and that their length (which, however, scarcely if at all exceeds that of Clarissa) is preposterous. In purely literary criticism Madame de Sévigné, few as were the airs she gave herself, was no mean expert. Her preference for Corneille over Racine has much more in it than the fact that the elder poet had been her favourite before the younger began to write ; and her remarks on La Fontaine and some other authors are both judicious and independent. Nor is she wanting in original reflexions of no ordinary merit. All these things, added to her abundance of amusing matter and the charm of her bright and ceaselessly flowing style, fully account for the unchanged and undiminished delight which half a dozen generations have taken in her work. But it cannot bo repeated too often that to enjoy that work in its most enjoyable point—the combination of fluent and easy style with quaint archaisms and tricks of phrase—it must be read as she wrote it, and not in the trimmed and corrected version of I'errin and Madame de Simiane.

There can, moreover, be no one, however wedded he may be to the plan of criticizing literature as literature, who will not admit that great part of the interest and value of these remarkable works lies in the picture of character which they present. Indeed, great part of their purely literary merit lies in the extraordinary vivid-ness of this very presentation. Madame de Sévigné's character, however, has not united quite such a unanimity of suffrage as her ability in writing. In her own time there were not wanting enemies (indeed her unsparing partisanship on her daughter's side could not fail to provoke such) who maintained that her letters were written for effect, and that her affection for her daughter was ostentatious and unreal. But few modern critics have followed these detractors, and it may be said confidently that no competent judge of character, after patiently reading the letters, can for a moment admit their view. But this kind of enemy has been followed by another, who, not overshooting his mark so con-spicuously, has been somewhat more successful in persuading spectators that he has hit it. Her excessive affection for Madame de Grignan (the almost importunate character of which seems to be proved by her own confessions of unhappiness if not of quarrel when they were together) ; her unhesitating blindness to anything but her daughter's interest (manifested especially in the part she took in most unjustifiable attempts of Madame de Grignan to secure her stepdaughters' dowries and to force themselves into a convent) ; her culpable tolerance of her son's youthful follies on the one hand and the uneven balance which she held in money matters between him and his sister on the other ; the apparent levity with which she speaks of the sufferings of Madame de Brinvilliers, of galley slaves, of the peasantry, &c. ; and the freedom of language which she uses herself and tolerates from others,—have all been cast up against her. Here the before-mentioned historic estimate sufficiently disposes of some of the objections, a little common sense of others, and a very little charity of the rest. If too much love felt by a mother towards a daughter be a fault, then certainly Madame de Sévigné was one of the most offending souls that ever lived ; but it will hardly, even with the injustice which like all excessive affection it brought in its train, be held damning. Indeed, the guilty lady was evidently quite aware of her weakness in this respect, and it is one of the most noteworthy things of her literary capacity that, excessive as the weakness is, it does not dis-gust or weary the reader. The singular confidences which Madame de Sévigué received from her son and transmitted to her daughter would even at the present day be less surprising in France than in England. They are only an instance, adjusted to the manners of the time, of the system of sacrificing everything to the mainten-ance of confidence between mother and son, to which the almost invariable, and to foreigners sometimes rather ludicrous, but certainly not unamiable, adoration of Frenchmen for their mothers is due. Here too, as well as in reference to the immediately kindred charge of crudity of language, and to that of want of sympathy with suffer-ing, especially with the sufferings of the people, it is especially necessary to remember of what generation Madame de Sévigné was and what were her circumstances. That generation was the generation which Madame de Rambouillet endeavoured with some success to polish and humanize, but which had barely recovered the hardening influences of the religious aud civil wars when it was plunged into the Fronde. It was the generation to which belong the almost incredible yet trustworthy Historiettes of Tallemant, and in which, when she herself had already reached middle life, Bussy Rabutin's Histoire Amoureuse exposed him indeed to powerful resentments but did not make him lose all caste as a gentleman and man of honour. It is absurd to expect at such a time and in private letters the delicacy proper to quite different times and circumstances. Moreover, as to the charge of inhumanity not only do these considerations apply but there is more to be pleaded than mere extenuating circumstances. It is not true that Madame de Sévigné shows no sympathy with the oppression of the Bretons ; it is very far from true, though her incurable habit of humorous expression—of Rabutinage, as she says—makes her occa-sionally use light phrases about the matter. But it is in fact as unreasonable to expect modern political views from her (and it is from certain modern political standpoints that the charge is usually made) as it is to expect her to observe the canons of a 19th-century propriety. On the whole she may be as fairly and confidently acquitted of any moral fault, save the one peccadillo of loving her daughter too exclusively and blindly, as she may be acquitted of all literary faults whatsoever. Her letters are wholly, what her son-in-law said well of her after her death, compagnons délicieux ; and, far from faultless as Madame de Grignan was, none of her faults is more felt by the reader than her long visits to her mother, during which the letters ceased.

The bibliographic history of Madame de Sévigné's letters is of considerable interest in itself, and is moreover typical of much other contemporary literary history. The 17th century was par excellence the century of privately circulated literature, and from Madame de Sévigné herself we know that her own letters were copied and handed about, sometimes under specified titles, as early as 1673. None of them, however, were published until her cor-respondence with Bussy Rabutin appeared, in his Memoirs and oCorrespondence, partly in the year of her death, partly next year. The remainder were not printed in any form for thirty years. Then between 1725 and 1728 appeared no less than seven unauthorized editions, containing more or fewer additions from the copies which had been circulated privately. The bibliography of these is complicated and curious, aud must be sought in special works (see especially the Grands Écrivains edition, vol. xi. ). They have, however, abiding interest chiefly because they stirred up Madame de Simiane, the writer's only living representative, to give an authorized version. This appeared under the care of the Chevalier de Perrin in 6 vols. (Paris, 1734-37). It contained only the letters to Madame de Grignan, and these were subjected to editing rather careful than conscientious, the results of which were never thoroughly removed until quite recently. In the first place, Madame de Simiane, who possessed her mother's replies, is said to have burnt the whole of these from religious motives ; this phrase | is explained by Madame de Giignan's Cartesianism, which is supposed to have led her to expressions alarming to orthodoxy. In the second, scruples partly having to do with the susceptibilities of living persons, partly concerning Jansenist and other prejudices, made her insist on numerous omissions. Thirdly, and most un-fortunately, the change of taste seems to have required still more numerous alterations of style and language, such as the substitu-tion of "Ma Fille" for Madame de Sévigné's usual and charming "Ma Bonne," and many others. Perrin followed this edition up in 1751 with a volume of supplementary letters not addressed to Madame de Grignan, and in 1754 published his last edition of the whole, which was long the standard (8 vols., Paris). During the last half of the 18th century numerous editions of the whole or.parts appeared with important additions, such as that of 1756, giving for the first time the letters to Pomponne on the Fouquet trial ; that of 1773, giving letters to Moulceau ; that of 1775, giving for the first time the Bussy letters separate from his memoirs, &e. An important collected edition of all these fragments, by the Abbé de Vauxcelles, appeared in 1801 (Paris, An IX. ) in 10 vols. ; five years later Gouvelle (Paris, 1806, 8 vols.) introduced the improvement of chronological order ; this was reprinted in 12 vols. (Paris, 1819) with some more unpublished letters which had separately appeared meanwhile. In the same year appeared the first edition of M. do Monmerqué. From that date continual additions of unpublished letters were rhade, in great part by the same editor, and at last the whole was remodelled on manuscript copies (the originals unfor-tunately are available for but few) in the edition called Des Grands Ecrivains, which M. de Monmerqué began, but which owing to his death had to be finished by MM. Kegnier, Paul Mesnard, and Sommer (Paris, 1862-1868). This, which entirely supersedes all others (even a handsome edition published during its appearance by M. Silvestre de Sacy), consists of twelve volumes of text, notes, &c, two volumes of lexicon, and an album of plates. It contains all the published letters to and from Madame de Sévigné, with the replies where they exist, with all those letters to and from Madame de Simiane (many of which had been added to the main body) that contain any interest. The sole fault to be found with this excellent edition is the omission to add to each volume a table of contents giving each letter as it comes with a brief abstract of its contents. To it, however, must be added two volumes (printed uniformly) of Lettres Inédites, published by M. Ch. Capmas in 1876 and containing numerous variants and additions from a MS. copy discovered in an old curiosity shop at Dijon. Of less elaborate and costly editions that in the collection Didot (6 vols., Paris, v.d.) is by far the best, though, in common with all others except the Grands Écrivains edition, it contains an adulterated text.

Works on Madame de Sévigné are innumerable. The biography by Paul Mesnard is nearly exhaustive, but the most elaborate biographical book is that of Walckenaer (3d ed.,Paris, 1856, 5 vols.), to which should be added the remarkable Histoire de Mme. de Sévigné of Aubenas (Paris and St Petersburg, 1842). In English an excellent little book by Miss Thackeray (Mrs Ritchie), Edinburgh and London, 1881, may be recommended. Most of the editions have portraits more or fewer. (G. SA.)



The above article was written by: George Saintsbury.



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