Madame de Sévigné

3 March 2011

To celebrate World Book Day and the fact that I seem to have dodged a parental bullet by not having to send my elder boy into school in costume this morning, I thought I would TREAT you all to a post about one of my all time literary heroines, who had a profound influence on both my interest in French history but also my style of writing.

I remember buying my now extremely battered Penguin edition of Madame de Sévigné’s letters as a schoolgirl and then devouring it several times over in the following years. I totally fell in love with Madame, with her witty but warm writing style; her fresh, affectionate yet unflinching vision and, above all, her glamorous life as a Versailles insider who knew all of the major players – Louis XIV, Athénaïs de Montespan, Madame de Maintenon, Nicolas Foucquet, Ninon de Lenclos…

Madame de Sévigné was fortunate indeed to marry a glittering writing style with the enviable position of being on the spot in one of the most fascinating and dramatic periods in history. I can’t visit her former home, the Hôtel de Carnavalet in the Marais district without imagining her, blonde ringlets bouncing, laughing and pretty, wandering through its sun filled, beeswax scented rooms.

It could all have gone so badly wrong for Madame, who was born Marie de Rabutin-Chantal on the 5th of February 1626. Her parents died when she was still very young and she was raised first by her grandparents and then an uncle, all of whom ensured that the young Marie had the very best education possible.

On the 4th of August 1644, at the age of eighteen, Marie, who had a rather considerable dowry of 100,000 ecus, was married to the Marquis de Sévigné and had two children – the cold hearted but extremely witty and beautiful Françoise, on the 10th of October 1646 who would later briefly catch the eye of Louis XIV and then two years later in March 1648, a son, Charles who would grow to be a charming, handsome but somewhat rakish young man.

The feckless, philandering Marquis was to die on the 6th of February 1651 after fighting a duel with the Chevalier d’Albret. His widow was just twenty six years old and had two small children to provide for from the marital estates. Unusually for the time she decided, probably wisely and due to being fed up with husbands, not to remarry, despite the many suitors who clamoured for her hand and instead spent the rest of her life alone – devoting her time to her two children.

As soon as her period of mourning was at an end, Madame de Sévigné moved her family to Paris and began what must have felt like her real life as a frequenter of salons and friend of the great, good and talented but most of all an independent and popular young woman. It may have been unusual for a widow not to remarry but her position was most definitely an enviable one.

She was a prolific letter writer throughout this period – initially the bulk of her letters were addressed to her cousin, Roger de Rabutin, who had once wanted to marry her and who spent a lot of time exiled from court due to attending an orgy in holy week then writing a book, Histoire Amoureuse des Gaules, which mocked and scurrilously criticised the ladies at court and some members of the royal family.

However, most of her letters and the most celebrated were written to her daughter, Françoise after her marriage on the 27th of January 1669 to the Comte de Grignan and then, a few years later, departure from Paris to Provence. The marriage of Mademoiselle de Sévigné was a big event – the bride was twenty two years old, rather older than most brides at this time and her mother had begun to despair of her ever marrying. She was one of the great beauties at Louis XIV’s court and one of his favourite dancing partners but it seems that thanks to Athénaïs de Montespan, she had narrowly missed out on being the object of his affections.

Spoiled, haughty, lovely Mademoiselle de Sévigné, who was hailed as ‘the prettiest girl in France’ had been flattered and flirted with all her life long but had rejected a long succession of suitors before finally falling in love with a twice widowed older man who was, furthermore, rather famous for his ugliness.

I’m having to do some research into Madame de Sévigné for my current book, even though it starts in 1787, almost a hundred years after she died on the 17th of April 1696. I needed to find out when her letters were first published in print form as I wanted one of my characters to read and enjoy them just as I had done. Luckily, editions were appearing as early as 1725 so all is well.

It  also turns out that her letters were widely circulated even during her lifetime and that she inevitably chose her subjects and changed her writing style to reflect this – rather as a blogger does now. In fact from now on, I am going to consider Madame de Sévigné as the patron saint of my blog.


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