writer, journalist and critic

Mme. de Sevigné and her times

Marie de Rabutin Chantal, marquise de Sevigné, was 70 years old when she died, 300 years ago, in April of 1696. She lived in what is called the century of Louis XIV, so well described by Voltaire: “It was a time worth the attention of times to come, when the heroes created by Corneille and Racine, Moliere’s characters and Lulli’s symphonies spoke to Louis XIV, to Madame -so celebrated by her refined taste- to Condé, Colbert, to all those men superior in every sense. No other time will be found in which the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, the author of the Maximes, after conversing with Pascal, attended a play by Corneille”. The glory of France pervades the century; two great politicians, Richelieu and Mazarin, lay the foundations for Louis XIV’s absolute monarchy, supported by the great bourgeoisie. The court at Versailles is the center of attention, ambition and talent. Modern French is born and the French Academy founded (1635); its first dictionary is published in 1694. It is the time of Racine’s and Corneille’s classical theater, Moliere’s satirical plays, the janseniste Pascal’s philosophical Pensées, La Fontaine’s fables; Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode brings order and logic into the minds of men. The literature and ideas from France that inundated the European world of that time still live among us.

¿What was the talent of this aristocrat, the marquise de Sevigné, that allowed her to glow among men of genius? She is not the only one of her sex; it is a time when women shine with their own light or reflect other people’s; in their salons and reunions, Mme. de Rambouillet and Mlle. de Scudéry bring together the wits of men who excel in politics and art. Moliere will later criticize this type of gathering in Les Precieuses Ridicules; but at best, they stimulate culture and act as a refining element of society and the minds of the epoch.

Mme. de Sevigné deserves a special mention among these women, doyennes of intellectual elegance. She outshines them; her talent does not belong with preciosisme, that mundane effort towards social preeminence and frisky witticism. Orphaned in childhood, Marie de Rabutin Chantal profited from an unusual upbringing, cultivated and independent, under the care of her uncle and tutor, the abbé de Livry. She was fortunate enough to become a widow at 25; her husband was killed in a duel fought over the favors of a lady known as la belle Lolo. Mme. de Sevigné finds herself young, rich and free. She is the mother of two beautiful children, Charles and Francoise, whom she idolizes. Francoise is as attractive as her mother, so much so that she allows herself to snub the king. In the salons, Mme. de Sevigné is a rival for the doyennes, she seduces politicians and intellectuals; when the hectic life of the salons becomes too demanding, she takes refuge in her country estate.

Her literary work takes the form of letters, mostly written to her daughter after her marriage and her departure from home. “It seemed as if my body and my soul were torn off...every single thought made me wish for death”, she writes on the day after her departure. Nearly 1,500 letters are kept, written by this mother who adores her daughter; we find in them not only motherly love but a chronicle of her times as well. Mme. de Sevigné has the eye of a reporter when describing the drama of court intrigues, the anecdotes of everyday life. She is witty and scintillating in her portraits of the king’s favorites, the ministers, the women. One of the reasons why we may find it difficult to read her work today are the many popular proverbs and expressions she uses; she can nevertheless be deeply literary. In a letter she regrets the fact that her son has devastated a tract of woodland for money: “To dare destroy all this life, all this beauty of the woods, this ancient abode of mystery and daydreaming”...

The process of development lies in the talent and effort of the women of our time and the legacy of those who have made history; those who dared defy the barriers of their time in order to grow; those who trusted their own intelligence and listened to the voices of their creative talent. Mme. de Sevigné is representative of these women, a writer capable not only of portraying her epoch but of exploring her inner self. A dedicated mother, she turns her love into literature; family life does not prevent her from taking part in the world around her. Young in heart and spirit, the innate joy she pours into her letters makes them a delightful means of understanding her contemporaries. She trusts her own mind enough to pass judgment on Racine -then at the top of his glory- or to express her admiration for Pascal. There is a touch of black humour to her writing; she describes thus the scene of a fire: “If one could bring oneself to laugh over such an unfortunate happening, one could paint such portraits of the circumstances in which we found ourselves! Guitaut was nearly naked, in his nightshirt and shorts; Mme. de Guitaut’s legs were bare, and she had lost one of her slippers”. We find no preciosisme in this paragraph; it comes nearer to the mocking tone of Voltaire.