Sévigné, Marie de
SÉVIGNÉ, MARIE DE
SÉVIGNÉ, MARIE DE (Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné; 1626–1696), French letter writer. Madame de Sévigné occupies a special position in the history of French literature. She is one of the best-known writers in the language, but she never wrote anything intended for publication. Her fame derives exclusively from her correspondence, made up of thousands of letters that were first published after her death. She was born in Paris to a mother from a wealthy bourgeois family and a father who was a titled nobleman from Burgundy. Orphaned at a young age, she grew up in the large and affectionate household of her maternal grandparents. She received an education under their guardianship that emphasized broad readings in French and Italian literature and in religion. Her paternal grandmother was Jeanne de Chantal, founder, with François de Sales, of the religious order of the Visitation.
After her marriage in 1644 to Henri de Sévigné, a young nobleman, Marie had two children: Françoise-Marguerite, born in 1646, and Charles, born in 1648, and the family moved to the Sévigné estate in Brittany. She was widowed after seven years of marriage when her husband was killed in a duel fought over a mistress. She then moved back to the Marais district in Paris, where she had spent her youth, and where she was quickly assimilated into the elite social circles of court and city. As a widow of some means who enjoyed the support of her extended family, Madame de Sévigné had considerable freedom in the conduct of her life. She never remarried, but enjoyed a lifetime of close friendships with many of the principal figures on the French literary, cultural, and political scene: Marie de La Fayette, Madeleine de Scudéry, François, duc de La Rochefoucauld, Jean François Paul de Gondi, cardinal de Retz, and Jean de La Fontaine. Sévigné's close ties with the circle patronized by Nicolas Fouquet (1615–1680), minister of finance in the first years of Louis XIV's reign, drew her into the debates that polarized Parisian high society during Fouquet's trial for treason in 1664. Her letters written during the trial offer a subtle interpretation of political events and a lively, dramatic narrative.
As time went on, Sévigné was to see other close friends suffer disgrace or exile. Her letters invited her far-flung correspondents to continue their participation in social conversations and remain, at least through writing, on the "inside." In her letters to her cousin Roger de Rabutin, comte de Bussy, who spent most of his adult life trying in vain to regain favor at court, she regularly reported how his letters were read aloud, absorbed into social dialogue, and given real power in a world where gossip and political action were never very far apart. To other correspondents who spent periods away from the capital she became a prized source of information, and her own letters were circulated, read and admired by many readers, who valued them for their witty and conversational style as much as for the news they contained. Sévigné's principal correspondent was to be her daughter, Françoise-Marguerite, who in 1671 moved to Provence with her new husband, the comte de Grignan. Three-fourths of the letters of Madame de Sévigné that we know today were written from mother to daughter. They reveal an intense, often contradictory relationship. Madame de Grignan's move to the provinces precipitated a profound sense of isolation in her mother, an experience that was new to this woman known by all to be a paragon of sociability. In the process of building her correspondence with her daughter, Sévigné discovered her vocation as a writer. Her letters written from Paris are rich personal chronicles of behind-the-scenes events in an extremely volatile social milieu. Her letters written from her family property in Brittany evoke more intimate memories that she can share with her daughter. She fills her descriptions of the woods and the familiar property with allusions to their shared taste for pastoral romance, and invites her correspondent to imagine herself with her in the same stable company of their favorite landscapes and books. During the winter and spring of 1696, while Sévigné was visiting her daughter in Grignan, Françoise-Marguerite suffered a lengthy illness. Her mother exhausted herself in attending to her. In April the older woman fell ill, and died two weeks later.
Mother and daughter visited each other for lengthy periods, but their repeated experience of separation and reunion inspired Sévigné's ongoing struggle as a writer to find words to express her passion. The theme of the inadequacy of language for communicating love recurs throughout Madame de Sévigné's correspondence. To put her maternal feeling into words, she drew on a multitude of discourses from her culture—the language of prayer, erotic love, and myth—and in so doing she designed an image of a mother's passion that has become an important model for literary, historical, and psychological discussions of the mother-daughter bond. As the intimate and articulate record of a long life fully lived, Sévigné's letters have been the favorite reading of great writers from Voltaire to Virginia Woolf.
See also François de Sales ; La Fontaine, Jean de ; La Rochefoucauld, François, duc de ; Scudéry, Madeleine de .
Sévigné, Marie de. Letters from Madame la marquise de Sévigné. Edited and translated by Violet Hammersley. New York, 1956.
——. Selected Letters. Translated by Leonard Tancock. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York, 1982.
Farrell, Michèle Longino. Performing Motherhood: The Sévigné Correspondence. Hanover, N.H., 1991.
Mossiker, Frances. Madame de Sévigné: A Life and Letters. New York, 1983.
Elizabeth C. Goldsmith