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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 as a Letter-Writer
By Gaston Boissier (1823–1908)
 
From the ‘Life of Madame de Sévigné’

THE PASSAGES just cited appear so simple, and utter so naturally what we all experience, that they are read the first time without surprise. There seems nothing remarkable about them except this very simplicity and naturalness. Now, these are not the qualities which attract attention. It is difficult to appreciate them in works where they occur, and it is only by reading works where they are lacking that we realize all their importance. But here, as soon as we reflect, we are astonished to perceive that this great emotion is expressed in language strong, confident, and correct, with no hesitation and no bungling. The lively sequence of these complaints implies that they were poured forth all at once, in a single outburst; and yet the perfection of the style seems impossible of attainment without some study and some retouching. It is sometimes said that a strong passion at once creates the language to express it. I greatly doubt this. On the contrary, it seems to me that when the soul is violently agitated, the words by which we try to express our feelings always appear dull and cold; we are tempted to make use of exaggerated and far-fetched expressions in order to rise to the level of our sorrow or joy. Hence come sometimes excessive terms, discordant metaphors. We might be inclined to regard these as thought out at leisure and in cold blood, while on the contrary they are the product of the first impulse of the effort we instinctively make to find an expression corresponding to the intensity of our passion. There is nothing of this kind in Madame de Sévigné’s letters; and however violent her grief may be, it always speaks in accurate and fitting language. This is a valuable quality, and one extremely rare. That we may not be surprised at finding it so highly developed in her, we need only remember what has just been said of the way in which she was unconsciously prepared to become a great writer.  1
  Another characteristic of Madame de Sévigné’s letters, not less remarkable, is that generally her most loving messages are cleverly expressed. I do not refer merely to certain isolated phrases that have sometimes appeared rather affected. “The north wind bound for Grignan makes me ache for your chest.” “My dear, how the burden within you weighs me down!” “I dare not read your letters for fear of having read them.” These are only occasional flashes; but almost always, when on the point of giving way to all her emotion, she gives her phrase an ingenious turn, she makes witty observations, is bright, pleasing, elegant. All this seems to some readers to proceed from a mind quite self-possessed, and not so far affected by passion as to be inattentive to elegant diction.  2
  Just now I placed naturalness among Madame de Sévigné’s leading qualities. There are those who are not of this opinion, and contend that naturalness is just the merit she most lacks; but we must define our meaning. Naturalness for each one is what is conformable to his nature; and as each one of us has a nature of his own very different from that of his neighbors, naturalness cannot be exactly the same in every instance. Moreover, education and habit give us each a second nature which often has more control over us than the original one. In the society in which Madame de Sévigné lived, people made a point of speaking wittily. The first few times one appeared in this society, it required a little study and effort to assume the same tone as the rest. One had to be on the watch for those pleasant repartees that, among the frequenters of the Rambouillet and Richelieu houses, gave the new-comer a good reputation; but after a while these happy sayings came unsought. To persons trained in such a school, what might at first sight appear subtle and refined is ordinary and natural. Whether they speak or write, their ideas take a certain form which is not the usual one; and bright, witty, and dainty phrases, which would require labor from others, occur to them spontaneously.  3
  To be sure, I do not mean that Madame de Sévigné wrote well without knowing it. This is a thing of which a witty woman always has an inkling; and besides, her friends did not permit her to be ignorant of it. “Your letters are delightful,” they told her, “and you are like your letters.” It was all the easier to believe this, because she paid to herself in a whisper such compliments as others addressed to her aloud. One day, when she had recently written to her friend Dr. Bourdelot, she said to her daughter, “Brava! what a good answer I sent him! That is a foolish thing to say, but I had a good, wide-awake pen that day.” It is very delightful to feel that one has wit, and we can understand how Madame de Sévigné might sometimes have yielded to this feeling with some satisfaction. In her most private correspondence, that in which she least thought of the public, we might note certain passages in which she takes pleasure in elaborating and decorating her thought, and in adding to it new details more and more dainty and ingenious. This she does without effort, to satisfy her own taste and to give herself the pleasure of expressing her thought agreeably. It has been remarked that good talkers are not sensitive to the praises of others only: they also wish to please themselves, independently of the public around them; and like to hear themselves talk. It might be said in the same sense that Madame de Sévigné sometimes likes to see herself write. This is one of those pretty artifices which in women do not exclude sincerity, and which may be united with naturalness.  4
 
 
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