Madame De Sévigné
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...
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