Madame de Sevigne and her Letters and Relationships
Madame de Sevigne began life as Marie de Rabutin Chantal and was born in 1626. She was orphaned by the age of seven and married Henri de Sevigne by the age of eighteen. Her life was rife with politics as the Thirty Years War was taking place and political leaders were being displaced nearly as quickly as they were placed in office and her letters to family and friends does much to reflect her version of the times. While much can be said about Madame’s beliefs, it must also be said that her letters are personal writings and are not meant as direct historical translations of the political era in which she was writing.
However, it can also be noted that Madame’s letters were the only work of historical “non-fiction” from the 17th century of this type, and in this, her letters are unique and valuable in viewing how correspondence can craft and facilitate relationships. Madame had hoped that her daughter’s marriage to the Comte de Grignan in 1669 would place her daughter within society’s courts, but her plan backfired when her daughter’s husband was given a new post in a different city, and “thus began the correspondence between mother and daughter, which [covers] over a quarter of a century” (de Sevigne, ix).
Madame, in an attempt to keep close with her daughter, and because she had a creative desire for gossip and news, wrote to her daughter, other family, and friends for most of her life—letters are documented from “the birth of Charles…[until] a few days before her death in March 1696” (xii). In fact, Madame was so prolific, that “nearly twelve hundred” (xii) letters were written and passed down to be published in a variety of volumes, the “Selected Letters” being just a small portion of them.
The reason for her correspondence becomes clear once a look has been taken into her life and the death and tragedy found within. In fact, Madame never “really knew her father and was destined to know her husband for a short time only, for he too died a violent death. Deprived of the company of her closest male relatives, whose lives seemed always to be in danger, it is little wonder, perhaps, that she clung all the more closely—too closely, it may be—to the affections of her daughter” (de Sevigne, vi).
A psychological analysis can be taken into her letters to discover the true reason for her writings, but one can also come to the simple conclusion that a mother simply wanted to keep in touch with her daughter. Besides, “the letters themselves bear sufficient witness to the pain this separation caused her and the anxieties consequent upon it; they also reveal better than anything else the imperiousness of her affection for her daughter” (ix). Clearly, Madame was a woman who had much to say and intended to keep her daughter close emotionally, and thus, she wrote as often as possible.
As personal correspondence, it can be determined that Madame never intended anyone to read her writings other than the person to whom they were addressed. However, “there has been much discussion as to whether all this and the writing itself were not part of a conscious striving effect, the theory…being that Mme de Sevigne knew that her letters would be read by many besides the recipient, [one could even] suggest that she hoped they would one day be published” (de Sevigne, xiv).
And while this may be true, it “is difficult to imagine anyone honestly believing that she would want others to read the effusions of her affection for her daughter” (xiv). In truth, it is much more likely that Madame simply wanted to keep in contact with family and friends, but her letters were so prolific and showed such a unique perspective of the historical times that her letters were kept and she happened to also be published.
From her letters, a look can be taken into the facilitation of relationships in 17th century France. It is clear, from a reading of Madame’s letters, that a different style and tone is taken depending on who she was corresponding with at the time. In fact, “one notices how carefully the style is made to suit not only the subject-matter, but also the recipient. With Bussy, Mme de Sevigne generally adopted a style in which verbal cleverness…predominated” (de Sevigne, xiv).
For example, in her letter to Comte de Bussy Rabutin dated 26th July, 1668, Madame wrote that “you attack me quietly, Count, and cleverly reproach me with making light of the unfortunate…In short, you accuse me of hunting with the hounds, telling me that I am well enough bred not to contradict the people who criticize those who are absent” (36). Her ill feeling towards Bussy is clear, and her tone is sarcastic, yet refined. Madame knew how to give an insult without fear of reproach and her attitude towards her cousin makes these letters in particular like reading a scene of witty Shakespearean insults.
However, “with her daughter it was precisely the reverse; there she nearly always was truly spontaneous” (de Sevigne, xiv). For example, in her letter to Mme de Grignan dated Tuesday 3rd March, 1671, Madame writes that “I take great interest in you, I like to converse with you every moment of the day, and this is the only consolation left to me at present…I assure you my dear, that I think about you continually, and every day…every part of this house strikes at my heart. Everything in your room is enough to kill me” (50-51).
Madame is so honest, so open with her emotions towards her daughter that these letters often seem almost embarrassing to read, as if a reader is spying into her deepest feelings and it is almost too heartfelt, too much like love letters, for outsiders to casually peruse. Finally, “one should not forget those masterpieces of what we might call the diplomatic style, in the letters to Comte de Grignan, the bailiff D’Herigoyen, and Charles’s father-in-law, M. de Mauron. Always the writing is economical to the point of being frequently elliptical.
Even at her most effusive, Mme de Sevigne’s style is restrained, but that should not lead one into thinking that she did not feel deeply” (de Sevigne, xiv). For example, in her letter to Comte de Mauron dated 8th December, 1683, Madame wrote that “we shall have conversations which will show you my real feelings and the esteem and respect in which I hold your honour…I hope you will find this excuse only too genuine and adequate that you think of me none the less devotedly, sir, your very humble and obedient servant” (163).
Madame is writing about the marriage of her son into Comte de Mauron’s family, to which she cannot be present to witness the marriage due to her ailing uncle, whom she has promised to care for. Madame’s language in this letter is just one example of how she contrives to shape situations towards her desires. She is clever, indeed, and it is clear that she knows, by way of this letter, that she will have saved face by explaining her reason for not attending. Overall, Madame de Sevigne is a master of the literary language.
Depending on her intended audience, she has the ability to shape and twist her letters into what she knew would help to facilitate the relationship, except in the case of her daughter—to whom she professes her love and desires openly, without respite or consequence. Madame’s unique historical perspective also adds a certain allure to her writings, which, overall, depict a woman of cleverness and who was unafraid to manipulate, spar, and show open emotion in her letters; and it is through these letters that a reader can glimpse what it took to embrace and facilitate relationships in 17th century France.