VII. MME. DE SÉVIGNÉ: 1626–96

But there are ten volumes surviving from that reign—and also by a woman—that even in the palpitation of our time can be read with a selfsurrendering delight. Marie de Rabutin-Chantal lost her parents in her childhood, and inherited their substantial fortune. Some of the best minds in France collaborated in her education, and the best families in France formed her in the arts of life. At eighteen she married Henri, Marquis de Sévigné; but this philanderer loved her fortune more than herself, squandered part of it on mistresses, fought a duel over one of these, and was killed (1651). Marie tried to forget him, but she never married again, absorbed in bringing up her son and daughter. Perhaps, as her malicious cousin Bussy-Rabutin suggested, she was of “a cold disposition”; 61or perhaps she had learned that sex depletes while parentage fulfills. Her letters are alive with happiness, almost all parental.

She loved society as much as she distrusted marriage. As a young widow with 530,000 livres, 62 she had many a noble suitor—Turenne, Rohan, Bussy . . . She saw no sense in driving all but one of them away; yet no word of scandal or liaison has clouded her name. She was loved with a less doubtful sincerity by her friends, who included de Retz, La Rochefoucauld, Mme. de La Fayette, and Fouquet. The first two were barred from the court for participation in the Fronde, the last for inexplicable wealth; Mme. de Sévigné, as warmly faithful to all four, was not welcome in the sacred precincts, though we find her receiving some gracious words from the King at a performance of Esther at St.-Cyr. Outside the court many circles took pleasure in her company, for she had all the graces of a cultured woman, and conversed as spiritedly as she wrote. This is the reverse of a more usual compliment; we are often advised, perhaps recklessly, to write as we speak.

Over fifteen hundred of her letters survive, nearly all to her daughter; for Françoise Marguerite married (1669) the Comte de Grignan, and soon went to live with him in Provence, where he was lieutenant governor. From 1671 to 1690 the mother dispatched a letter by almost every post—sometimes twice a day—to this young wife now separated from her by the length of France. “The correspondence I have with you,” she told her, “is my well-being, the sole pleasure of my life; every other consideration is but mean when put in competition with this.” 63 The love that had found no man satisfying became a passion for a daughter who felt herself unworthy of it. Françoise was of a more reserved character; she did not know how to phrase her feelings warmly; she had a husband and children to care for, and sometimes she became cross or somber; yet for twenty-five years, except when ill, she wrote to her mother twice a week, rarely missing a post, so that the fond mother worried that she was taking up too much of her daughter’s time.

The most touching incident in these letters is the life and conventual death of Mme. de Grignan’s first child. She came to Paris to be delivered under the care of her mother. Soon she sent an apology to her husband for having borne a girl—who would have to be reared painfully, dowered expensively, and then lost; and when Françoise returned to Provence she left little Marie Blanche for a while with the fascinated grandma. Mme. de Sévigné wrote to the father: “If you want a son, take the trouble to make him.” 64 She wrote to the unappreciative parents ecstatic details of the marvel they had reluctantly begotten:

Your little girl grows lovable. . ., white as snow, and laughing incessantly . . . Her complexion, her throat, all her little body, are wonderful. She does a hundred little things—babbling, coaxing, striking, making the sign of the cross, asking pardon, making a bow, kissing her hand, shrugging her shoulders, dancing, wheedling, plucking your chin . . . I amuse myself with her for hours together.” 65

It cost Grandma many a tear to let the plump miracle go to Provence; and many more when the parents put her into a convent when she was still but five years old. The child never came back. At the age of fifteen she took the vows, and disappeared from the world.

The lieutenant governor was extravagant, and entertained beyond his station. His wife periodically informed her mother of their approaching bankruptcy; the mother scolded them lovingly, and sent them great sums. “How, for the love of God or man, can one keep so much gold, so much silver, so many jewels, such furniture, amid the extreme misery of the poor who surround us in these times?” 66 To keep herself solvent after these deductions, Mme. de Sévigné traveled laboriously to her property at Les Rochers in Brittany to see that it was properly tended, and its rents transmitted to her with only reasonable pilferage. She found a new happiness in the fields, the woods, and the Breton peasantry, and wrote of them as vividly as of that Parisian society of which she was the semiweekly newsletter for her daughter.

Her son was a problem of another kind. She was very fond of him, for he was good-natured, and had, she tells us, a “fund of wit and humor. . . . He used to read us some chapters out of Rabelais, which were enough to make one die of laughter.” 67 Charles was a model son, except that he walked in his father’s steps from one port of call to another, until—but let Madame, writing to her daughter, bear responsibility for the rest; nothing could better illustrate the tone of the time:

A word or two concerning your brother . . . Yesterday he wanted to acquaint me with a dreadful accident that had befallen him. He had met with a happy moment; but when he came to the point—It was a strange thing! The poor damsel never had been so entertained in her life. The cavalier, quite defeated, retired, thinking himself bewitched; and, what you will find better than all the rest, he could not be easy till he had acquainted me with his disaster. We laughed very heartily at him; I told him I was overjoyed to find him punished in the sinful part . . . It was a scene for Molière. 68

He contracted syphilis; she berated him; but she nursed him lovingly.

She tried to infuse a little religion into him, but she had so little of it herself that she could not give him much. She was moved by Bourdaloue’s sermons, and had some spurts of piety, but she smiled at the religious processions that so pleased the people of the tenements. She read Arnauld, Nicole, and Pascal, and sympathized with Port-Royal, but she was repelled by their concentration on avoiding damnation; she could not bring herself to believe in hell. 69 In general she shied away from serious thought; such matters were not for women, and disturbed the charm of a comfortable life. Yet her reading was of the best—Virgil, Tacitus, and St. Augustine in Latin, Montaigne in French, and she knew intimately the plays of Corneille and Racine. Her humor was heartier, more joyous, than Molière’s. Hear her on a friend given to absent-minded contemplation:

Brancas was overturned the other day into a ditch, where he found himself so much at his ease that he asked those who came to help him out if they had any occasion for his services. His glasses were broken, and his head would have been so too, if he had not been more lucky than wise; but all this did not seem to have interrupted his meditation in the least. I wrote him word this morning . . . to let him know that he had been overturned and was very near breaking his neck, as I supposed he was the only person in Paris that had not heard of it. 70

Altogether, these letters make one of the most revealing portraits in literature, for the Marquise chronicles her faults and virtues carelessly. A loving mother, at home in the salons of the capital and the fields of Brittany; telling her daughter of the latest gossip of the aristocracy, but also that “the nightingale, the cuckoo, and the warbler are beginning [to sing] in the spring of the woods”; rarely uttering an ill word about the hundreds of persons who flutter through her two thousand pages; always ready to help those in trouble, and gracing her speech with delicate compliments and courtesy; guilty, now and then, of unfeeling mirth (as when she joked about the hanging of some poor Breton rebels), yet sensitive to the sufferings of the poor; condoning the immorality of her times and class, but herself of conduct irreproachable; a spirit bubbling with good will and joie de vivre; too modest to publish a book, but writing the best French in that age of the best French ever written.

Did she think her letters might be published? Sometimes she indulged in rhetorical flights as if smelling printers’ ink; yet her letters are full of business details, emotional intimacies, and compromising revelations, which she could hardly have intended for the public eye. She knew that her daughter showed her letters to friends, but such sharing was frequent in those days, when correspondence was almost the sole means of communication through distances. Her granddaughter Pauline, whom she kept from following Blanche Marie into a nunnery, inherited and preserved the letters, but they were not published till 1726, thirty years after the Marquise’s death. They are now among the most treasured classics in the literature of France, a rich bouquet whose fragrance grows with the centuries.

As she neared the end of her life she thought more about religion, and confessed her fear of death and judgment. In the mists of Brittany and the rains of Paris she developed rheumatism, lost her joy in life, and discovered that she was mortal.

I embarked upon life without my consent, and I must go out of it; this overwhelms me. And how shall I go? . . . When will it be? . . . I bury myself in these thoughts, and I find death so terrible that I hate life more because it leads me toward death than because of the thorns with which it is planted. You will say that I want to live forever. Not at all; but if my opinion had been asked, I should have preferred to die in my nurse’s arms. That would have removed me from vexations of spirit, and would have given me Heaven full surely and easily. 71

It was not true that she hated life because it led to death; she hated death because she had enjoyed life intensely for almost seventy years. Wishing to die in the home of her beloved daughter, she crossed France through four hundred miles and pains to the Château Grignan. When death came she faced it with a courage that surprised herself, comforted with the sacraments and hoping for immortality. It has been granted her.

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