Marie de Rabutin-Chantal’s parents died when she was a child. Fortunately, her uncle took her in. It proved to be emotionally fulfilling as they opened their hearts to her, but also intellectually engaging as she received the best education available in 17th century France. Her uncle saw to it that she learned Latin, Italian, and Spanish and her tutors exposed her to the best literature of the era.
Her peers considered her a handsome woman, but she often dismissed her square nose. More powerful than her physical traits, this woman had charisma. Her wit amused people. Her optimism attracted them. And her fierce loyalty helped her forge life-long friendships.
In 1644, at age 18, she married Henry, Marquis de Sévigné. The hope for their future was bright. Henry was as wealthy as she was. He had a positive temperament and a regal bearing. However, their happiness tarnished when Henry was unfaithful. That would have been just a festering wound if the marriage hadn’t come to an abrupt end after seven years when Henry was killed in a duel.
Widow at age 25, with two small children, Madame de Sévigné was overcome with grief. She pulled herself together to find that her husband was also a poor steward of their estate. His profligacy nearly left them penniless. She retired to the country and began to strengthen the weakened piers of her estate. This she did admirably.
When she returned to Paris’ high society, her financial and social status was secure. She never seriously entertained the idea of remarrying and devoted her life to seeing that her son and daughter were well-established.
Even with the critical eye of history, Madam de Sévigné can be lauded as an intelligent woman, a person of integrity, and an adept wit.
Her virtues, no matter how laudable, did not establish her place in history. That is secured by her abundant and sparkling correspondence. She wrote many affectionate letters to life-long friends and family members. With a keen wit, she recorded the vicissitudes of upper class during the reign of Louis XIV. Through her letters you can feel the pulse of the time. She touched on the full range of seventeenth century France, such as fashion (the new fashion of cutting and curling hair), state issues (the threat of war), culture (religious behavior), and current events (the trial of Foquet). She recounts bon mots along side tragedy; quips with faith; fears with affection; and, a thoroughly emotional expression of her love for her friends and family.
Madame de Sévigné certainly stands as one of the greatest writers that practiced the art of correspondence.
The following are several excerpts to give you a feel of the letters of Madame de Sévigné:
Paris, Friday, April 17, 1671
The king is to go [to Chantilly] the 25th of this month, and stay a whole day: the expense will be as great as at the most magnificent triumphs: every curious fancy is received, cost what it will; and it is imagined that it will stand the prince in no less a sum than 40,000 crowns. There will be twenty-five tables of five course each, without reckoning an infinite number of others, for chance-comers. To entertain in this manner is in fact to board and lodge half the kingdom. Every place is furnished; little holes, which served only for watering-pots, are converted into apartments for courtiers. There is to be a thousand crowns’ worth of jonquils alone; judge of the rest by that.
March 15, 1647 to her cousin Count de Bussy Rabutin
You are a pretty fellow, truly, not to have written to me for these two months. Have you forgotten who I am, and the rank I hold in the family? I shall make you remember this, young man; and, if you irritate me, I shall reduce you to the ranks. You know I was on the point of lying in; and you care no more about my health, than if I were still a girl. Well, I have to inform you, and you may storm at the intelligence as much as you please, that I am brought to bed of a son, who shall suck hatred to you with his milk, and that I intend to have a great many more, for the sole purpose of raising you up enemies. You have not the wit, let me tell you, to do as much: you, with your progeny of girls!
But I cannot, after all, conceal my affection; nature will get the better of policy. I had resolved to scold you for your laziness, from the beginning to the end; Sévigné and I both love you very much, and often talk of the pleasure we should have in your company.
Paris, Wednesday, March 18, 1671
An event has just take place, which engrosses the whole conversation of Paris. the king has ordered monsieur de S*** to resign his post, and to quite Paris, immediately. Can you guess the reason? For having cheated at play, and won upwards of five hundred thousand crowns with false cards! The man who made these cards was examined by the king himself: he denied the fact at first; but, upon his majesty’s promising him a pardon, he confessed that he had followed the trade for a long time: it is said, that the affair will not stop here, for that there are several houses with he used to furnish with these cards. It was some time before the king could prevail upon himself to disgrace a man of monsieur de S***’s quality; but as, for several months past, every body that has played with him had been in a manner ruined, he though he could not in conscience do less than bring such a scene of villany to light. S*** was so perfectly master of his adversaries’ game, that he always made sept de le va upon the queen of spades, because he knew the spades lay all in the other packs. The king as constantly lost one and thirty upon clubs, and used to say, clubs never win against spades in this country. This man had given thirty pistoles to madame de la Valliere’s valets de chambre to throw all the cards they had in the house into the river, in the pretence that they were not good, and had introduced his own card maker.
Paris, Friday, March 20, 1671
The other day, as father Desmares was going into the pulpit, a billet was slipped into his hand; and putting on his spectacles, he began to read it aloud it was as follows:
His grace of Paris gives to know’;
To every husband, high and low,
That we their wives with kiss…Alleluja
He read above half of it before he discovered his mistake; every one was read to die laughing. You see we have wits among us.
Friday, Feb. 20 1671
About three o’clock in the morning I was wakened with a cry of Theives! fire! and it seemed so near, and grew so loud, that I had not the least doubt of its being in the house; I even fancied i heard them talking of my little grand-daughter. I imagined she was burned to death, and in that apprehension got up without a light, trembling in such a manner that I could scarcely stand. I ran directly to her room, which is the room that was yours, and found every thing quiet; but I saw Guitaut’s house all in flames, and the fire spreading to madame-de Vauvineux’s. The flames cast a light over our court-yard and that of Guitaut, that made them look shocking. All was out-cry, hurry, and confusion, and the beams and joists falling down, made a dreadful noise. I immediately ordered our doors to be opened, and my people to give assistance. Monsieur de Guitaut sent me a casket of valuables, which I secured in my cabinet, and then went into the street, to gape like the rest. There I found monsieur and madame Guitaut in a manner naked; madame de Vauvineux, the Venetian ambassador, and all his people; with little Vauvineaux, whom they were carrying fast asleep to the ambassador’s house, with a great deal of moveables and plate. As for our house, I knew it was safe as if it had been in an island, but I was greatly concerned for my poor neighbours. Madame Gueton and her brother gave some excellent directions, but we were all in consternation; the fire was so fierce that there was no approaching it, and no one supposed it would cease till it had burnt poor Guitaut’s house entirely down. Guitaut himself was a melancholy object; he was for flying to save his mother, who was in the midst of the flames, as he supposed, in the upper part of the house; but his wife clung about him, and held him as tightly as she could. He was in the greatest distress between the grief of not being able to save his mother, and the fear of injuring his wife, who was nearly five months with child. At last he begged me to lay hold of her, which I did, and he went in search of his mother, who, he found, had passed through the flames and was safe. He then endeavoured to save some papers, but found it impossible to get near the place where they were. At length he came back to the spot where he had left us, and where I had prevailed on his wife to sit down. Some charitable Capuchins worked so well, and so skillfully, that they cut off the communication of the fire. Water was thrown upon the rest that was buring, and at last the battled ceased for want of combatants; but not till several of the best apartments were entirely consumed. It was looked upon as fortunate that any part of the house was saved; though as it is poor Guitaut will lose at least ten thousand crowns; for they propose to rebuild the room that was painted and gilded. There were several fine pictures of M. Le Blanc’s lost, whose house it was, besides tables, looking-glasses, tapestry, and other valuable pieces of furniture. They are greatly concerned about some letters, which I imagine to be those of the prince. By this it was near five o’clock in the morning…
[All the translations come from the first English translation of Madame de Sévigné’s letters in 1811. They can be found here. While the title page does not indicate the translator, I think it is worth noting that the book was “Printed for J. Walker.”]