Marie de Rabutin Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné, flourished during the acknowledged classic period of French art and literature. She has long been recognized (and anthologized) as a premier star among the literary lights of her time and is the prime example of sparkling epistolary style, wherever such examples are given. Her letters occupy a place next to the drama of Pierre Corneille, the tragedy of Jean Racine, La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes, La Fontaine’s Fables, and the fiction of Madame de La Fayette. The edition of her letters (1862-1868) by Nicolas Monmerqué inaugurated the “Grands Écrivains de France” (Great Writers of France) series of definitive editions, a signal honor for a writer of personal letters. Subsequent discoveries of copies of letters written to family and friends, in particular the massive manuscript discovered by chance by Charles Capmas in 1872, led to reevaluation of the Monmerqué edition and more complete editions of the letters under Émile Gérard-Gailly (Madame de Sévigné: Lettres, 1953-1957) and Roger Duchêne (Madame de Sévigné: Correspondance, 1972-1978). Frances Mossiker, in Madame de Sévigné: A Life and Letters, uses the Duchêne edition as the basis for her translations of Sévigné’s letters.
The wit and style of the “divine marquise” have won for her admiration from major literary figures on both sides of the Atlantic, ranging from Horace Walpole in the eighteenth century to Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Thornton Wilder in the twentieth. Her letters, however, although widely read and circulated in the French-speaking world and among cultivated readers of other lands, have remained essentially inaccessible to the greater English-speaking public, for whom there is no major translation available. This lack is particularly severe in the American reading public, where French is not as widespread a study as in Great Britain and Canada. Even among American scholars, Sévigné’s work, although acknowledged a classic in its genre, remains essentially unstudied, and it was not until the late 1970’s that the first American doctoral theses were devoted to her letters.
How can a figure so long recognized as a major writer be at once so revered and so neglected? One answer lies in the genre that she embraced. Sévigné was an épistolière, a writer of letters to friends, family, and business contacts, most particularly to her daughter, Madame de Grignan. While the formal constraints of the novel and the public intentions of drama or pulpit oratory are easily recognized, those of the familiar letter are popularly ignored. The letter is defined as the antithesis of literature, and this woman who became unwittingly famous for her correspondence is rather an unclassed member of literary society. Madame de Sévigné was a personal friend of many major figures of the seventeenth century French literary and social world. Madame de La Fayette and the Duke de la Rochefoucauld were particular intimates, but she maintained friendly ties with Madame de Rambouillet, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, and Madame Scarron, who later became Madame de Maintenon, morganatic wife of the Sun King Louis XIV. Sévigné chronicled the intellectual and social life of Paris in letters renowned for their verve, wit, and natural style. These letters have served nobly as primary documents in histories of the period. Frances Mossiker herself refers often and at length to Madame de Sévigné in her history of The Affair of the Poisons: Louis XIV, Madame de Montespan, and One of History’s Great Unsolved Mysteries (1969). These vignettes of court life sparkle—they are the ultimate in quotable quotes—but is their merit a literary one, or are the letters a written form of conversation, a mirror of the vivacious writer in her roles as friend and mother? The common use of letter passages as historical documentation focuses on their factual content while profiting from their grace: Their place within the larger context of the correspondence is disregarded. If the letters have charmed readers, it is the épistolière’s biography that has chiefly attracted scholars, and studies have made much of the attachment of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter, much also of their reputed beauty, their personalities, and the possible romantic liaisons enjoyed by Sévigné in her early widowhood.
Mossiker’s Madame de Sévigné: A Life and Letters is the most recent and by far the most readable in the long line of Sévigné biographies. For every student of high school French who has labored, dictionary in hand, through Sévigné’s account of the suicide of Vatel, the betrothal of the “Grande Mademoiselle,” or another famous piece from a textbook anthology, there must be dozens more potential readers who will welcome this biography and the generous selection of letters translated by Mossiker from Sévigné’s own correspondence and that of her contemporaries. Mossiker, the author of several popular French histories, has produced a work of great charm. A bilingual child, Mossiker was herself well acquainted with the Sévigné of the anthologies, then became closer acquainted while researching and writing The Affair of the Poisons. This examination of corruption and Satanic worship in the court of Louis XIV contains more than fifty quotations from Sévigné’s letters, translated by Mossiker from “the best French of a century renowned for the best French ever spoken.” Mossiker also confesses a personal affinity with Sévigné in the preface to her biography, an early identification and sympathy not only with Madame de Sévigné, who reminded her of her own brilliant and beautiful mother, but also with Madame de Grignan, the destined reader of the bulk of Sévigné’s surviving correspondence.
Mossiker’s stated intention as biographer is “to turn over the story of her life—insofar as possible—to Madame de Sévigné herself; to allow her to tell it in her own glowing words.” The biographer must and does choose, snip, edit, and chisel out her own view of the “divine marquise” from the text of the voluminous correspondence, and that portrait is a dazzling one. Mossiker’s thesis is that Sévigné, by virtue of her beauty, charm, intelligence, and graceful wit so shone in her circle of friends and acquaintances that her daughter, the beautiful and intelligent Françoise-Marguerite, grew up in a shadow, incurably shy, stiff, and hypersensitive to her mother’s influence. Françoise-Marguerite’s marriage as the third wife to the Viceroy of Provence, the Comte de Grignan, and the necessary separation that occasioned the great correspondence also led to her metamorphosis into an independent woman, a painful transition in the mother-daughter relationship. The passionate attachment of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter appears in these years of turmoil and conflict, scandalizing their friends and preoccupying Madame de Sévigné’s thoughts for years. As Mossiker follows the marquise into old age, she presents the épistolière in contemplation of her mortality. The biographer confesses a new identification with Sévigné herself as the letters speak of her confrontation with death, her acceptance also of her daughter as a separate person.
Although the letters to Madame de Grignan (those from the daughter are lost, destroyed in circumstances recounted by Mossiker) are not the only point of reference for Mossiker’s biography, they are the major source for information on the marquise’s mature and declining years. For the many years of Sévigné’s life before her daughter’s removal to Provence and during their periods of reunion, Mossiker refers to other correspondences and contemporary references to “fill in the gaps.” Mossiker’s documentation is impressive, and if she does completely ignore prominent German scholars such as Fritz Nies (author of the valuable Gattungspoetik and Publikumstruktur: Zur...
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