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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Madame de Sévigné (1626–1696)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
AMONG the great writers of the world, Madame de Sévigné is perhaps the only one except Lady Nairne whose purely literary fame was entirely posthumous. It is true that when Louis XIV. became possessed of a number of her letters, upon the arrest of her friend Fouquet the Superintendent of Finance, he proclaimed that their style was matchless in grace of thought and expression; and the little court world which took from the King its opinions, on matters of taste as in so much else, henceforth placed Madame de Sévigné at the head of that group of charming women who wrote charming letters in seventeenth-century France. Her subsequent correspondence was frequently handed about from friend to friend; but the interest it excited depended quite as much upon the amusing news of the court and the salons which it contained, as upon the style in which the agreeable gossip was related. That in later times her name should stand high in the literature of France, and her house be visited as the shrine of her gracious memory, was anticipated by none of her contemporaries; least of all by herself.  1
  Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the only child of Celse Benigne de Rabutin, Baron de Chantal, and of Marie de Coulanges his wife, was born in the Château de Bourbilly, Burgundy, on February 5th, 1627. Left an orphan when five years old, she was consigned to the care of her uncle Philippe de Coulanges; and upon his death in 1636 she became the charge of his brother Christophe de Coulanges, Abbé de Livry. To the latter she was indebted for her careful education under the best masters of the day,—among them Chapelain and Ménage. Of the training received from “Le Bien-bon,” as she termed her uncle, she says: “I owed to him the sweetness and repose of my life; all my gayety, my good-humor, my vivacity. In a word, he has made me what I am, such as you have seen me; and worthy of your esteem and of your friendship.”  2
  When sixteen years old, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal married Henri, Marquis de Sévigné,—a profligate young noble of a distinguished Breton family. It was said of him, “He loved everywhere; but never anything so amiable as his own wife.” He was killed in 1651 in a duel, undertaken in defense of an unworthy name, leaving his wife with a young son and daughter. Madame de Sévigné spent the early years of her widowhood with her children at “Les Rochers”—her husband’s estate in Brittany—returning to Paris in 1654. Charles de Sévigné, her eldest child, inherited his father’s pleasure-loving nature; and during the years of his early manhood caused his mother much anxiety. On resigning his commission in the army, he retired to his estate in Brittany, married a good woman, became “serious,” and spent the rest of his years in the study of the Fathers and of Horace.  3
  When Madame de Sévigné presented her daughter Françoise at court, this “prettiest girl in France” seemed destined to set the world on fire. On her the affection of the mother’s heart, which had met disappointment in so many other directions, was lavished. Mademoiselle de Sévigné married in 1669 François Adhémar de Monteil, Comte de Grignan; and the following year went with him to Provence, where he exercised viceregal functions,—nominally during the minority of the Duc de Vendôme, but as the duke never in fact assumed authority, the count was the actual ruler of the province for forty years. From the moment when, on entering her daughter’s vacant room, Madame de Sévigné’s grief was renewed at sight of the familiar objects, relief was found only in pouring forth her heart in constant letters to Madame de Grignan, which every courier carried to Provence. The wonderful series is as vividly fresh now as then, when by the direct aid of Providence and the postal service of the day they reached Château Grignan on its heights above the sea.  4
  The letters were full of domestic and public news: the details of daily life, the books the writer had read, the people she had met; what was said, thought, and suspected in the world of Paris. Very much too of contemporary history is woven into the correspondence. The letters addressed in 1664 to M. de Pomponne, the former minister of Louis XIV., then living in exile on his estate, contain the most vivid and detailed account of the trial of Superintendent Fouquet which remains to us. In them the course of the proceedings is daily related, the character of witnesses and judges discussed, the nature of the testimony weighed, and the hopes and anxieties of the prisoner’s friends communicated. There are among the collection letters to other friends; but the mass of the correspondence was addressed to Madame de Grignan, and it contains a detailed account of the mother’s life from 1670 to 1696.  5
  Madame de Sévigné died at Château Grignan, on April 18th, 1696, and was buried in the church of Grignan. Her tomb was undisturbed during the storms of the Revolution, and may still be seen.  6
  Unauthorized editions of a portion of the letters of Madame de Sévigné were published in 1726; but so incomplete and full of errors were the collections, that her granddaughter, Madame de Simiane, was forced very reluctantly to consent to the issuing of the correspondence in a more correct form and under her own supervision. She disliked the publicity thus given to private letters, however, believing that “one should be at liberty to be witty with impunity in one’s family.” Even this last-named collection was not complete; and diligent research has subsequently increased the number of letters, and given rise to numerous editions of the entire correspondence. The one printed in Paris in 1823, and edited by M. Gault de Saint-Germain, contained letters from many of Madame de Sévigné’s friends, and has very full biographical and critical notices.  7
  Into the literary work of Madame de Sévigné no moral purpose obtrudes, although it unconsciously reveals not only her intellectual power but also the strongly ethical bent of her character. It had no other inspiration than the passion of motherhood, which was her controlling impulse; was conceived without reference to audience or critics, nor with thought of inspection by other eyes than those of her daughter. She wrote of the world, but not for the world; to amuse Madame de Grignan, and relieve her own heart by expressing the love and longing which filled it. The correspondence is full of wit, of humor, of epigram; not designed to dazzle or attract, but after the manner of a highly endowed and highly cultured nature. Her style, formed under the guidance of authors of distinction, has become a model for imitation throughout the world. Her language is pure in form and graceful in expression. It is true that in the freedom of family correspondence, she occasionally used provincial terms; but they were always borrowed with due acknowledgment of their source,—not as being a part of the personal appanage of the writer. It was said of her: “You don’t read her letters, you think she is speaking; you listen to her.” To her friends so much of Madame de Sévigné’s personal attraction was associated with what she wrote, that it is not strange they could not dissever them. Even after the lapse of two centuries, that personal grace and charm is so present in the written speech, that we can believe in what was said of her by her cousin Count Bussy de Rabutin:—  8
  “No one was ever weary in her society. She was one of those people who should never have died; as there are others who should never have been born.”  9
 
 
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