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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
French Society in the Seventeenth Century
By Gaston Boissier (1823–1908)
 
From the ‘Life of Madame de Sévigné’

STUDYING the seventeenth century in the histories is one thing, and seeking to become acquainted with it by reading contemporary letters is another and a far different thing. The two procedures give rise to conflicting impressions. Historians, taking a bird’s-eye view of their subject, portray its most general characteristics; they bring out only the prominent features, and sacrificing all the rest, draw pictures whose precision and simplicity captivate our minds. We finally get into the habit of seeing an epoch as they have painted it, and cannot imagine there was anything in it besides the qualities they specify. But when we read letters relating, without alteration or selection, events as they took place, the opinions of men and things we have drawn from the historians are greatly modified. We then perceive that good and evil are at all times mingled, and even that the proportions of the mixture vary less than one would think. Cousin says somewhere, “In a great age all is great.” It is just the contrary that is true: there is no age so great that there is not much littleness about it; and if we undertake to study history we should expect this, so as not to reckon without our host. No epoch has been more celebrated, more admired, than the reign of Louis XIV.; there is danger lest the correspondence of Madame de Sévigné may much abate the warmth of our admiration. She is constantly telling strange stories that compel us to pause and reflect. When, in a society represented as so noble, so delicate, so regular, we meet with so many shameful disorders, so many ill-assorted households, so many persons whose fortunes are sustained only by dishonest expedients, with great lords buying and not paying, promising and not keeping their word, borrowing and never returning, kneeling before ministers and ministers’ mistresses, cheating at play like M. de Cessac, living like Caderousse at the expense of a great lady, surrendering like Soubise a wife to the king, or like Villarceaux a niece, or insisting with Bussy that “the chariest of their honor should be delighted when such a good fortune befalls their family,”—it seems to me we have a right to conclude that people then were hardly our superiors; that perhaps in some points we are better than they were; and that in any case it is not worth while to set them up as models to the disparagement of our own times.  1
  In one respect, however, they were unlike us. In those days there were certain subjects on which people were generally agreed, and these were precisely the subjects that now give rise to the greatest divisions,—religion and politics. Not that all were pious then,—far from it,—but almost all were believers, and almost none contested the principle of royal authority. To-day, religious belief and belief in monarchy are well-nigh extinct; and there are hardly any left of those commonly received opinions, escaped by none, impregnating all, breathed in like the air, and always found at the bottom of the heart on occasions of grave need, despite all the inward changes that experience has wrought. Is this a good or an evil? Should we rejoice at it or regret it? Each one will answer according to his character and inclinations. Daring minds that feel strong enough to form their own convictions are glad to be delivered from prejudices interfering with independence of opinion, glad to have free scope. But the rest, who form the vast majority, who are without such high aims, and whose life is moreover taken up with other cares, are troubled, uncertain, ill at ease, when they have to settle these great problems independently. They regret that they can no longer find the solutions all worked out, and sadly repeat with Jocelyn:—
  “Ah, why was I born in days stormy and dread,
When the pilgrim of life hath no rest for his head;
When the way disappears; when the spent human mind,
Groping, doubting, still strives some new pathway to find,
Unable to trust in the hopes of the Old
Or to strike out a New from its perishing mold!”
  2
  This sort of anguish of spirit was unknown in the seventeenth century, as Madame de Sévigné’s letters clearly show.  3
 
 
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