Sévigné de Rabutin-Chantal, Marie
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal SÉvignÉ
A Privileged Life.
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, otherwise known to history as Madame de Sévigné, was born into an old Burgundian noble family. Orphaned at six years old, she was raised by her uncle, Philippe de Coulanges. Tutored rather than schooled, like other aristocratic girls of her time, she had a string of impressive teachers, including Jean Chapelain, one of the founding members of the French Academy. At the age of eighteen she was married to Henri de Sévigné, who introduced her to court society as well as to a prominent literary circle in Paris that met in the Hôtel de Rambouillet. The Hôtel was the home of Catherine de Vivonne, a French noblewoman, who in 1610 had first been introduced to the French court of Henri IV. Disgusted by the roughhewn manners she saw on display in the royal circle, Catherine de Vivonne, the Marquise of Rambouillet, had built her own lavish townhouse in Paris not far from the Louvre. There she continued to hold court in the mid-seventeenth century. The values of the women who circulated in this society prized "preciosity," a word that since the seventeenth century has come to have a negative connotation. At that time, however, Rambouillet and her circle used it to imply grace and refinement. The novelist Madeleine de Scudéry was a member of the Rambouillet literary circle, as were other prominent writers of the time. The group also left its mark on the young Madame de Sévigné, and her later vigorous correspondence owed much to her exposure to Rambouillet's circle.
Marital Problems and Widowhood.
Although he was from a respected noble family, Henri de Sévigné squandered his wife's money, and in 1651 he died as a result of an injury sustained in a duel. The couple had two children, whom Madame de Sévigné continued to raise, while also participating in society in and around Paris. A number of French noblemen courted her in the first years of her widowhood, although Sévigné decided not to remarry. While leading an active social life, she was also devoted to her children, but especially so to her daughter, Françoise Marguerite. When her daughter married in 1669, she left Paris to accompany her husband, a royal official, to Provence. The resulting loneliness prompted Sévigné to become one of history's most avid correspondents. Over the next years she exchanged almost 1,700 letters with her daughter, most of which were written in the first decade following their separation. In 1677, Sévigné took a lease on the Hôtel Carnavalet, a townhouse in the Marais district of Paris, and she remained there until her death. That house, now a museum of French domestic life, became one center of Parisian society, as Sévigné entertained her female friends there: the aristocratic novelist Madame de La Fayette, Madame de la Rochefoucauld, and Madame de Pomponne. In these years, Louis XIV's court was increasingly abandoning Paris for other royal châteaux in the countryside. At first, the king took up residence at St. Germain, but in the 1670s he expanded Versailles from a humble hunting lodge into a great palace, eventually making it the seat of his government in 1682. The retreat of the royal court from Paris produced great changes in the city's high society, generating an antagonism that persisted between Paris and the royal court until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Although Madame de Sévigné longed to circulate in the rarefied air of Louis' circle in these years, she only rarely did so. One of Madame's cousins had been imprisoned for a time in the Bastille, and her own friendships with those critical of the government marked her as inappropriate for life at Versailles. At two times in her life, though, Madame de Sévigné stepped out of the shell imposed upon her by familial and friendly connections. When her daughter came out in society, she was invited to the court's balls, and her mother was allowed to attend. Later, Louis XIV came under the influence of Sévigné's old friend, Madame de Maintenon, and she was invited on one occasion to a special court theatrical performance and allowed to sit with the king and his party. Otherwise, her life was lived out largely absent from the great court dramas being enacted at Versailles. Sévigné had a pious disposition that had been shaped by seventeenth-century Jansenism, and when she faced death, her friend the Count de Grignan observed that she did so with "dignity and submission."
Unlike some other female members of the French nobility of the time, Madame de Sévigné never published literary works, although she circulated in a highly literate society and was acquainted with the best authors of the age. The chief testimony to her mind and her style is her letters, which are an extraordinary documentary history, not only of her life as a mother and socialite, but also of her considerable skills as a literary stylist. Her letters reveal her sunny disposition, and are punctuated by frequent notes of humor and wit. Unlike the rule-bound French classical prose and poetry of the age, Sévigné was a natural writer, without artifice or the heavy burdens of rules. Her correspondence consequently reads like a modern document, as fresh today as it was in the seventeenth century.
A. Bernet, Madame de Sévigné, Mère passion (Paris: Perrin, 1996).
C. M. Howard, Les fortunes de Madame de Sévigné au XVIIème et au XVIIIème siècles (Tübingen, France: G. Narr, 1982).
F. Mossiker, Madame de Sévigné (New York: Knopf, 1983).