The Letters of Madame de Sévigné Essay - Critical Essays

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal

Critical Evaluation

The letters of Marie de Sévigné are thought of by many as the finest letters ever written. This large body of personal correspondence, about 1,500 letters in all, spreads over the whole of Madame de Sévigné’s adult life. The first datable letter was written in 1648 when she was twenty-two, but at least one was written before she was married. Most of the letters, however, were written between 1671 and 1696, the year of her death. In 1671, Madame de Sévigné’s recently married daughter, Francoise-Marguerite, moved to her husband’s house in the south of France, where he had been appointed to a high governmental post. This was a great disappointment to the mother who with a more than common love idolized her daughter, and who had hoped the girl would live in Paris. During the last twenty-five years of Madame de Sévigné’s life she wrote many letters to her distant daughter. Nevertheless, while most of the surviving letters are addressed to Francoise-Marguerite, a substantial number are written to Madame de Sévigné’s wide circle of friends.

Madame de Sévigné’s letters were much admired even during her lifetime; many were copied in manuscript and passed about privately in fashionable and intellectual society, but they were never published while the author was alive. However, as early as 1697, one year after Madame de Sévigné’s death, a branch of her family published its correspondence, and in this work a number of her letters were included. Then in 1725 and 1726 appeared abridged versions, and from 1734 to 1737 appeared a more complete but heavily edited edition sponsored by Madame de Sévigné’s granddaughter. Finally, between 1862 and 1865, a complete and well-edited scholarly edition of fourteen volumes was published.

At first glance, the delight we find in the letters is largely a matter of their spontaneous art, their brilliant style, and their vivid reportage of the high society of Paris during one of the greatest periods of French history. Madame de Sévigné was a member of the best society, was an excellent observer, and had a fine eye for piquant detail. Yet if all the letters had to offer was brilliant reporting they would be merely interesting, not literary masterpieces. The quality that turns this body of correspondence into literature is not so much a brilliance of style and mass of detail as it is a matter of Madame de Sévigné’s own personality and character, which are beautifully revealed, even dramatized, in letter after letter.

Madame de Sévigné was an elegant woman, a clear-sighted, well-educated, and profoundly sympathetic and humane person. Not the letters alone testify to this fact; all contemporary comment on the woman agrees that she was as attractive and pleasant as she was virtuous. And she had a certain gaiety and charm that was irrepressible even in the most adverse circumstances. She had both a generous nature and a soldily practical sense of business: her heart and her head were in admirable equilibrium. Yet, as she herself said, her head was never the dupe of her heart. These qualities were manifest in her ability, throughout her life, to state and support her opinions and sympathies while remaining tolerant of people and causes with...

(The entire section is 1318 words.)