Sévigné, Marie de (1626–1696)
Sévigné, Marie de (1626–1696)
French aristocrat and landowner best known for the lively series of letters which she wrote to her daughter over the course of more than 20 years. Name variations: Marie Rabutin-Chantal; Marie de Rabutin Chantal; Madame de Sévigné; Marquise de Sevigne. Born in Paris, France, on February 5, 1626; died on April 17, 1696, at Les Rochers, Provence; only child of Celse-Bénigne de Rabutin-Chantal (1596–1627) and Marie de Coulanges (1603–1633); granddaughter of Jeanne Françoise de Chantal (1572–1641); married Henri, Marquis de Sévigné (1623–1651), on August 4, 1644; children: Françoise-Marguerite, future countess de Grignan (1646–1705); Charles (March 12, 1648–March 26, 1713).
Born into the French aristocracy but orphaned at age seven; raised by her extended family and given a good education; age 18, married a noble (1644); after husband was killed in a duel (1651), raised her children and administered her estates while maintaining her independence; became deeply attached to her daughter and wrote to her whenever the two were separated after the daughter's marriage (1670).
(edited by Roger Duchêne) Correspondance de Mme de Sévigné (Paris, 1972–78). Madame de Sévigné's letters are her main claim to fame; witty, dramatic, poetic, and boldly descriptive, they provide a unique perspective on the high politics of the reign of the magnificent Sun King, while they are also rich in the details of everyday life, revealing the feelings of a mother far away from the daughter she loves.
"M. de Langlée has given Mme de Montespan a dress of gold on gold, all embroidered with gold, all edged with gold, and on top of that a sort of gold pile stitched with gold, mixed with a certain gold, which makes the most divine stuff ever imagined. The fairies have secretly woven this work; no living hands could have devised it." Marie de Sévigné's prose glitters like the sheen of the dress she describes, and her style is as light and nimble as those magical weavers.
On her father's side, Marie's forebears were distinguished Burgundian nobility, the men with a reputation for wit and swordplay and the women known for their piety; her paternal grandmother, Jeanne de Chantal , had become a nun after she was widowed and was to be declared a saint in 1767. On the Coulanges side, the family was bourgeois rather than noble and had only recently become wealthy. Celse-Bénigne de Rabutin married Marie de Coulanges in 1623 but because of his involvement in a dueling scandal the following year, his properties were confiscated and he was sentenced to death. Probably protected by his high rank, Sévigné's father escaped and returned to Paris after a few months. A son who was born in 1624 did not survive the year; a daughter died at birth in 1625. Marie Rabutin-Chantal (later Sévigné), the couple's third child, "a survivor, blessed with a robust constitution, with a happy nature, with a touch of genius" according to Frances Mossiker , one of her biographers, was born on February 5, 1626.
I have never known a love so strong, so tender, so delicious as that you harbor for me. I sometimes think how that love … has always been the one thing in the world for which I longed most passionately.
—Madame de Sévigné to her daughter
Marie was only 18 months old when her father was killed. Involved in another illegal duel, he had left Paris to fight against the English; accounts of his gallant death report that he had three horses killed under him before he fell in battle. The little girl was orphaned in 1633, at the age of seven, when her mother suddenly died. She was cared for by her maternal grandparents for four years and, following their deaths, by her uncle; she was raised with her cousin, Philippe-Emmanuel de Coulanges whom she called "little Coulanges," her lifelong friend.
The girl received an excellent education, as befitted her aristocratic birth: she studied Italian and Spanish and was later to read works in these languages for pleasure. An avid reader from her youth, she was not an intellectual, but she knew some Latin and was able to hold her own in the company of scholars. She learned singing and dancing, skills essential for one destined to move in court circles, but, thanks to her bourgeois relatives, she also acquired a sound business sense and an appreciation for the virtues of thrift and self-restraint.
Few observers called Sévigné a great beauty, given the exacting standards of the day. Even one of her greatest friends, Countess Marie-Madeleine de La Fayette , observed in her famous "pen-portrait" that there were "imperfections." However, the countess concluded that "when one listens to you to talk, one loses sight of the fact that your features are not entirely regular; one credits you with a flawless beauty." Apart from the brilliance and wit of her conversation, Marie had the particular gifts of empathy, loyalty and kindness, gifts which were to turn her admirers, both male and female, into devoted friends.
On August 3, 1644, at age 18, she was married to a Breton noble, Henri, Marquis de Sévigné. The marquis, although he was from a family with a lineage as noble as Marie's, had reached the age of 21 without securing either a position at court or a military commission. He was good looking, hot tempered, and seems not to have been in love with his wife. The couple honeymooned at Les Rochers, the groom's romantic château in Brittany, and the new bride soon found herself frequently left alone there while her husband pursued his affairs and courted his mistresses in Paris. It was also cheaper to maintain the household in Brittany; her new husband was such a spendthrift that Marie's relatives insisted on the legal separation of her estates so that they could not be sold to cover his debts. Mme de Sévigné never forgot the humiliation of that turbulent time; she observed more than 40 years later: "The state of matrimony is a dangerous disease: far better to take to drink in my opinion."
Françoise-Marguerite de Sévigné (later countess de Grignan), the couple's first child, and the one who was always to hold first place in her mother's heart, was born in Paris on October 10, 1646; their son Charles was born 18 months later, on March 12, 1648. Her errant husband boasted of his romantic conquests to his wife's cousin, Roger, Count de Bussy-Rabutin. As Bussy tells it, in his scandalous and vindictive An Amorous History of the Gauls, he sprang to his cousin's defense: "were she not your wife, she's the one whom you would seek as your mistress." When Sévigné spurned Bussy's own offer to become her lover, he criticized "the frigidity of her nature" and, while he did not accuse her of taking other lovers, suggested that "if one judges by intent rather than action, that's another story." Bussy also observed that "for a lady of quality, her humor is a bit too broad, her manner a bit too free…. [S]he will condone and even encourage the most risque topics of conversation, as long as they are veiled in innuendo." Marie was 28 when her husband was killed in a dispute with another man over his latest mistress. He died on Marie's birthday, February 5, 1651. She was understating the case when she recollected, in a letter written in 1671, "I have been unfortunate when it comes to husbands."
Understandably, Sévigné later remembered the year of her widowhood as "calm and happy enough, a blessedly uneventful year, free of notoriety, out of the public eye." She turned to her family for support and advice. Her uncle, the Abbé de Coulanges, whom she called "Bien Bon" (very, very good), established himself as her financial manager; "he was my father and benefactor to whom I owed all the serenity and peace of mind that made my life so sweet."
She was not to stay out of the public eye for long. As a young, attractive, accomplished and wealthy widow, she was soon the center of attention and the subject of many "pen portraits," descriptive prose pieces which were the fashion of the day. Her friend, the novelist Madeleine de Scudéry , praised her physical charms, her skills in conversation, her voice, which was "sweet, well-modulated, pleasant to the ear." Scudéry observed that she "writes like she talks … that is to say, in the most delightful, most scintillating manner possible to imagine." On her return to Paris, Mme de Sévigné frequented the famous salon of Mme de Rambouillet , known for its gatherings of intellectuals and brilliant conversation. Women played leading roles in establishing new standards of civility and culture in Paris and the movement was to influence the whole of Europe. Sévigné was one of the socalled précieuses, satirized by Molière in his comedy Les Précieuses ridicules. His witty portrayal is clear indication that the male intellectuals were being made to feel somewhat insecure by the "ridiculous female pedants."
Sévigné's falling-out with her cousin Bussy dates from 1658. She had promised him a loan for a military campaign but, probably on the advice of Bien Bon, withdrew the offer. It was then that he composed his negative pen portrait, later integrated into his full-length novel, An Amorous History of the Gauls, published in 1665. Bussy's account details all her physical and moral defects, from eyes of different colors to her frigidity and fawning admiration for royalty. Mme de Sévigné was not alone in her displeasure; because of the book's unflattering description of the court of Louis XIV, Bussy was imprisoned for a year and then exiled to his Burgundian estates for the rest of his life. He seems to have genuinely regretted his depiction of his cousin; as well as sending her his repeated apologies in his letters, he expressed public regret when his collected letters were published in 1697, calling Mme de Sévigné "the prettiest woman in France, my close relative whom I have always loved, whose friendship for me I could never doubt. It is a stain on my life."
Grignan, Françoise-Marguerite de Sévigné, Countess de (1646–1705)
French intellectual. Name variations: Francoise de Sevigne. Born on October 10, 1646; died on August 16, 1705; 1646; daughter of Marie de Sévigné (1626–1696) and Henri, Marquis de Sévigné (1623–1651); educated at Sainte-Marie at Nantes; married François Adhémar de Monteil de Grignan, count de Grignan, in 1668; children: one son and a number of daughters, including Pauline de Simiane.
As a disciple of the French philosopher René Descartes, Françoise-Marguerite de Sévigné, Countess de Grignan, became known as a femme philosophe. She lived with her husband in Provence, and corresponded a great deal with her mother Marie de Sévigné , who was renowned as a woman of letters—the primary scholarly medium of the time. However, at Françoise's request, after her death her letters to her mother were burned by her daughter, Pauline de Simiane . De Simiane also feared that her mother's remaining correspondence could inspire gossip about the family. So a young cousin burned what was left, and only some fragments of Françoise's letters to her husband and to her uncle, Roger, Count de Bussy-Rabutin, remain.
Catherine Hundleby, M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Some 1,100 of Sévigné's letters survive. While she enjoyed a wide and varied correspondence with friends and relatives, the great bulk of the letters which have been preserved were to her daughter. The nature of that relationship: intense, emotional, perhaps, at times, obsessive, has been the subject of speculation and theorizing in the 300 years since her death. Readers of the letters have suggested that the passionate affection which Sévigné felt for her daughter may have been the outcome of her repressed sexuality. While her letters show her to have been flirtatious, and she certainly never lacked admirers, there is no evidence that she indulged in a single affair. Although Mossiker has called her an allumeuse (a lighter of fires), Sévigné wanted to maintain her independence, to continue to make her own decisions and to advance the interests of her children, especially her daughter. In the 20th century, Virginia Woolf , in The Death of the Moth, called the mother's feeling "a passion that was twisted and morbid," a judgment that seems unduly harsh, when close mother-daughter relationships are now celebrated and, perhaps, more common.
Françoise made her court debut in 1663 at the age of 17, dancing in a ballet with the king. In the years that followed, there were rumors that the lascivious King Louis would be adding her to his lengthening list of mistresses, but she may have already been showing signs of that aloof, reserved nature which was later to make her relations with her mother so complex. Whatever the reason, the king's glances wandered in other directions. Although she was educated, witty and, according to some, even more beautiful than her mother, Françoise was still unmarried at 21, an advanced age for an eligible and aristocratic woman. Count de Bussy, not always reliable in his judgment of character, observed that "hers is an intelligence tinged with bitterness…. She will make as many enemies for herself as her mother has made friends." Negotiations were started and abandoned with several potential suitors; Françoise might have been looking for something more than a "suitable" match.
Finally, in January 1669, Sévigné completed the arrangements for her daughter's marriage to François Adhémar de Monteil de Grignan, count de Grignan. The groom was from a noble family with an ancient lineage in Provence, the warm and exotic province of southern France, and he possessed extensive lands. The 37-year-old count had been married twice before, but both wives had died. Not handsome, but tall and graceful, the count was clearly acceptable to Françoise. Sévigné may well have put aside her sound financial instincts in the effort to please her daughter; she must have discovered during the course of negotiations that the count was a man of extravagant habits and that most of his annual revenues went towards paying off his debts. However, she liked her new son-in-law and cheerfully set about leasing a Paris house large enough to accommodate both households, clearly expecting to keep her daughter close at hand. The count's appointment as lieutenant-governor of Provence in November 1669 came as a surprise; an even greater surprise was her daughter's subsequent announcement that she planned to move to the far-off south to be with her husband. A miscarriage and another pregnancy delayed the departure, but on February 4, 1671, Françoise left Paris to live in Provence. It was with this separation that Sévigné's brilliant series of letters to her daughter commenced.
The devoted, passionate tone was established immediately: the mother wrote on February 9: "you would rather write and tell me how you feel about me than tell me so, face to face…. I think constantly of you. It is what the devout call an 'habitual thought'—the way one should think of God, if one were devout. Nothing can distract me from my thought of you." The following week's letter was full of yearning: "Oh, my darling, how I wish I could see you, if only for a moment, to hear your voice, to embrace you, just to see you pass by, if nothing more…. This separation racks my heart and soul—I feel it as if it were a physical pain."
When she was not lamenting and longing, Mme de Sévigné was soon advising and instructing. We have only one side of the dialogue; the letters from Françoise have not survived, but we see and hear her through her mother's letters. Sévigné worked at changing her daughter's haughty manner: "I see you making your curtsies, fulfilling your official duties. You are doing very well, I assure you, but try, my child, to accommodate yourself a little more to what is not really bad, to be tolerant of mediocrity, to be grateful for that which is not totally ridiculous." She was continually fearful of her daughter's repeated pregnancies, enquiring as to whether she had had her periods, advising the couple not only to sleep in separate beds but also to have someone else sleep in the room, and warning that she would not come to visit if her daughter were pregnant again. Another oft-repeated refrain was her advice to the couple to economize and live less extravagantly: "without a little substance—everything is difficult, everything is bitter. I pity those who bring on their own ruin…. I die of fear when I think of all the mouths you have to feed," yet at the same time the mother, who lived vicariously in the splendors of her daughter, recounted: "You picture it to me with an air of grandeur and a magnificence with which I am enchanted."
Deeply as she missed her daughter, Sévigné lived a full and eventful life, whether she was in the bustling city of Paris or at Les Rochers, her isolated château in rocky Brittany, and she vividly presented all of it for the delight of her absent daughter. Acutely interested in fashion, when she first saw the new short and curly hairstyle at court she dismissed it as "ridiculous." Within a few days the new style was "charming," and she told her daughter, "I will have a doll's hair dressed in this fashion and send it to you." While she was never more than on the fringes of the court circle, Sévigné was well connected, and her famous letter written in April 1671 reads like the account of an eyewitness. She tells her daughter of the king's visit to his cousin, the
Prince de Condé, at Chantilly during which Vatel, the prince's famous chef, killed himself. Recounting the dramatic tale, she uses the present tense and reports the exact words of the participants: "At four o'clock in the morning, Vatel is pacing from place to place. Everyone is asleep." Wrongly believing that there will be no more fish delivered—"'Is that all there is?' 'Yes, Monsieur'"—and that he will be disgraced, he:
places his sword against the door and runs it through his heart—although not until the third try, the first two wounds not being mortal. He falls dead. The shipments of seafood come in from all directions. They look for Vatel to distribute it. They go to his room. They try to open the door; they burst it open; they find him drowned in his own blood.
While life in Brittany may have lacked Paris' level of drama, it was not without grandeur and magnificence of its own. In the summer of 1671, for example, the governor of Brittany invited Sévigné to dinner. The event, a meal for 28, while not on the scale of dinners at the royal court, was impressive:
These are sumptuous repasts: the platters of roast are carried away from the table looking as if they have never been touched. And as for the pyramids of fruit, the doors are not high enough to accommodate them! Our forefathers did not foresee such monstrosities; they built doors scarcely over head-height…. One of these pyramids … composed of twenty pieces of porcelain, toppled as it came through a door—with a crash so loud as to drown out the violins, the oboes and the trumpets!
But after the celebrations, Sévigné was always glad to return to the tranquility of Les Rochers, observing that she "dies of hunger" at such events and longs to eat and return to her walks: "I have a happy nature which adjusts to and finds amusement in everything"; "I am convinced that most of our ills come from keeping our rumps glued to the seat of a chair."
Sévigné's letters show her to be a woman of tremendous vitality and resilience, finding delight in her surroundings, whether amidst the unprecedented splendor of the court at Versailles or the tree-lined alleés of her Brittany estate. She was blessed with energy and good health and was particularly fond of walking, a habit which doubtless assisted her in maintaining her vitality far longer than was customary in the 17th century. While the separation from her daughter, broken by Sévigné's visits to Provence and her daughter's visits to Paris, never ceased to trouble and sadden her, often the longed-for periods of reunion were not the idyllic times for which she pined. It was almost as if the realities of daily life together could not match the memories of the past nor the dreams of the future. After her daughter stayed with her in Paris for 15 months during 1674 and 1675, Sévigné wrote: "If I sometimes get my feelings hurt, it is I who am in the wrong…. There are people who wanted to make me think that the exorbitancy of my love embarrassed you, that my eagerness to know and fulfil your every wish annoyed you."
One of Sévigné's few periods of ill health commenced when she entered her 50s; the symptoms suggest that they were connected with menopause. She experienced swollen hands which made writing difficult and suffered from irregular bleeding. Her cousin Bussy sent advice from Burgundy; he claimed to have learned from a doctor "that hale and hearty women like you, who have been widowed early and who repress their natural instincts, are subject to the vapors." His solution was to suggest that she take a lover, and he expressed his regret that he was too far away to benefit from his own advice. But even the unaccustomed ailments did not dull her wit and humor; instructed to "take the cure" at the famous hot springs of Vichy, she wrote to her daughter in May 1676: "Today I started my showers. They provide a fairly good rehearsal for purgatory. One goes completely naked into a small subterranean chamber where there is a pipe of hot water controlled by a woman who directs the flow to whatever part of the body you wish. To go there with not so much as a fig leaf on is a rather humiliating experience." Humiliating or not, the results were positive: "The irregularities are regular again, and it is primarily to make this 'adieu' final and to ensure a final cleansing that I have been sent here, and I believe it was the right thing."
Sometimes Sévigné's humor verged on the macabre. In Paris during July 1676, she was among the crowd which witnessed the execution procession of the infamous Marie de Brinvilliers , a young woman who had practiced the art of poisoning in the charity hospitals before setting to work on her brothers, father, husband and others who had earned her disfavor. As Sévigné reported to her daughter: "La Brinvilliers has gone up in smoke…. Her poor little body was tossed, after the execution, into a raging fire, and her ashes scattered to the winds. So that, now, we shall all be inhaling her! And with such evil spirits in the air, who knows what poisonous humor may overcome us?"
The famous description of the dress of gold comes, fittingly, in a letter Sévigné wrote after her first visit to the already fabled new royal Palace of Versailles in July 1676. However, the sight of such wonders could not make up for her daughter's absence, and yet when they spent periods of time together they squabbled incessantly over money, the respective states of one another's health, and particularly about Françoise's repeated pregnancies. In a letter written in the spring of 1678 when her daughter was but a few steps away, sharing her house in Paris, Sévigné reveals how difficult the relationship had become: "I fear your outbursts. I cannot bear them; they leave me dumbstruck and devastated. If you think me a stupid woman you are right. Face to face with you, I always am—obsessed with you as I am." One of the few surviving letters written by Françoise dates from this period; writing to her husband in Provence she tells him how much she misses him and their children: "Oh, my God, will there never come a year when I can go to join my husband without having to desert my Mother? … But if I must choose between you, I will not hesitate to follow my very dear Count whom I love and embrace with all my heart."
As soon as they were apart, the two women became the most devoted correspondents once again, and Sévigné clung once more to the "life-line" of her daughter's letters. She was reluctant to leave Paris to attend to her Brittany estates because of the increased distance from her daughter in the south; she did not journey there to attend her son's wedding in February 1684. While she loved her son, enjoyed his company, and was generous in her financial support, her love for him had none of the obsessive passion which she felt for her daughter. When she finally made the visit in September 1684, she reported rather smugly to Françoise concerning her new daughter-in-law that she was "given to only moments of gaiety because she suffers from the vapors. She changes her expression a hundred times a day without finding one that is becoming to her. Her health is extremely delicate. She practically never takes a walk. She is always cold. By nine o'clock she has faded away completely…. One would never guess that this house has a mistress other than me."
By the early 1680s, with Sévigné in her late 50s and her daughter in her late 30s, the tone of the letters, and the nature of the relationship they reflect, begins to change. While she does not cease to worry and to give unsolicited advice, mostly on financial matters, there is a new confidence and serenity and fewer references to quarrels and misunderstandings: "You are all in all to me," she wrote in September 1684, "and never has a mother been so well loved by a well-loved daughter as I by you. Oh, my darling, how once you veiled such boundless treasures from me." Reflecting her calmer state of mind, Sévigné reported that her "health is perfect…. I am free of the vapors. I think they came over me only because I was apprehensive about them; now that I scorn them, they have gone off to frighten some other silly soul."
Despite her advancing age, she was clearly still considered a desirable woman. In the summer of 1685, when Sévigné was 59, she received a proposal of marriage from the duke de Luynes, a widower of 65. Such a marriage would have brought her a title and a position at court as well as financial security; she had left herself with only a meager income since making a generous settlement to her son upon his marriage. But she appears not to have given the offer serious consideration; she refused to take "another master" after 30 years of independence. Only the previous year, still adjusting to the presence of a new daughter-in-law, she had written with a sense of pride: "I feel strongly that my seal should read simply Madame de Sévigné. Nothing more is necessary. No one will confuse me with anyone else during my lifetime, and that's enough."
While she would never call herself "devout" and frequently expressed the wish to be closer to God, the later letters show Sévigné increasingly referring to the will of "Providence" and expressing her resignation to its dictates: "Whoever tried to deprive me of my belief in Providence would deprive me of my only comfort…. I need to believe that it is the Creator of the Universe who disposes of our lives. When it is with Him that I must take issue, I no longer take issue with any other, and so I can submit." While she was always a woman who could relish the quiet delights of the country as well as the lavish excesses of the town, the later letters seem to show Sévigné increasingly treasuring her periods of contemplation in the solitude of the countryside.
One of Sévigné's letters of June 1689 paints a picture of her life at Les Rochers for her daughter: she records rising at eight, hearing Mass, picking orange blossoms, having lunch, doing needlework and reading until five in the afternoon—she or her son, when he is at home, usually read aloud to the others. She then leaves the château to walk in the forests with a servant, taking a selection of books, including a devotional work and a history book; "I daydream a bit about God and about His Providence." She returns when she hears the bell for supper at eight and there is often more reading aloud before bed; "We live so well-regulated a life, that it is almost impossible not to keep well." When a correspondent from Paris affectionately called her "old," both Sévigné and her daughter were clearly shocked at the word: "I admit that I was astonished, because I am, as yet, conscious of no deterioration which might remind me of it…. [I]t is only when I think about it, that I realize my age." She survived the harsh Breton winter and wrote in May that she had never felt so well, attributing her state to the regular life and "gentle and healthful exercise." Drinking a little white wine and receiving a letter from her daughter by every courier, "I ask myself what has become of all those ridiculous little ailments of mine."
Sévigné's letters were full of the coming of spring in 1690; she uses a lively, teasing tone in April: "What color do you think the trees have been for the last week? Answer me! You will say 'green.' Not so! They are red! There are little buds, all ready to open up, which are truly red, but then they all unfurl and make a little leaf, and since they do not come out all at once, the effect is a lovely mixture of red and green." In a subsequent letter, she herself becomes the embodiment of the season: "I have managed so well that spring is here in all its beauty! Everything is green. It was no easy task to see to it that all those buds unfurled, that the red all turned to green. When I finished with all those elms, I had to go on to the beeches, then to the oaks…. It is my great leisure I have to thank for this opportunity and, in truth, my dear bonne, it has been the most delightful experience imaginable."
Such joie de vivre hardly accords with the picture of Sévigné presented by Harriet Ray Allentuch , whose biography describes her "brooding" in later years and writes of "a passion insatiable, demanding, and never-satisfied; illness, disappointed hopes, the spectacle of death and ruin all around her." There was, of course, some diminution in Sévigné's exuberant vitality towards the end. The year 1693 was especially difficult: her cousin and lifelong correspondent, Bussy, died as did her two closest friends, Mme de Lavardin and Mme de La Fayette. Hail damaged the crops, there was famine and disease in Paris, and Sévigné fled to Provence. There she found her daughter weak, and Françoise soon became extremely ill with severe premenopausal bleeding and a deteriorating liver condition. Perhaps with a premonition that this would be the last of her many journeys, Sévigné wrote in February 1695: "I will die without any cash on hand, but without any debt as well. That is all I ask of God, and that suffices for a Christian."
Nursed, and no doubt lectured, by her devoted mother, Françoise was too weak even to attend the wedding of her only son in November 1695, although the ceremony took place in the chapel at Grignan. Sévigné's weariness is evident in a letter to a relative in January 1696: "As for me, I am no longer good for anything. I have played my role in life, and had I been consulted, I would never have chosen so long a life…. But we are fortunate that it is the will of God by which this, as all other things in this world, is decided; everything is better left in His hands than ours." The following month brought her 70th birthday and at the end of the next month, on March 29, 1696, Sévigné wrote her last letter. It was, appropriately enough, an expression of sadness to her cousin Coulanges over the death of the young son of old friends.
On April 6, 1696, Sévigné fell ill with a fever and took to her bed. She received the Last Anointing of the Church on April 11 and died on April 17. The precise cause of her death is unknown. Even more puzzling is the absence of her beloved daughter, not only from the funeral but, according to all the evidence, from her mother's sickbed before her death. Through the centuries, there have been rumors that there had been a quarrel and that the stubborn Françoise had refused to attend her dying mother. Mossiker, on the other hand, suggests that the mother finally gave up the daughter she loved more than anything in the world in the attempt to prepare her soul for death.
It is clear that Sévigné had felt the pull of Jansenism, that austere, self-denying form of the Catholic religion, for most of her life, and that she had long realized that her passionate affection for her daughter stood between, or perhaps stood in the place of her feelings towards God. As long ago as 1671, she reported that the saintly old Jansenist of Port Royal, Arnauld d'Andilly, had reprimanded her: "[H]e told me that I was very foolish not to give thought to my salvation; that I was an outright pagan, that I had set you up as an idol in my heart, and that sort of idolatry was as dangerous as any other kind, even though it might not seem sinful to me." She had often lamented her own overly intellectual and insufficiently devout approach to religion and her later letters show her more prone to reflection and contemplation of spiritual things in her beloved woods. But if Sévigné had banned her daughter from her sickbed, she could surely not have kept her away from her funeral.
It seems more likely that the daughter, whose health had appeared to be improving under her mother's devoted care, suffered a relapse and was physically unable to be with her mother at the end. We can certainly imagine Sévigné, with her last remaining strength, insisting that her daughter not be called and that she, who had known so little sickness, would soon recover. Even at the last, she would have put her daughter's health before any other consideration. Sixteen years earlier, she had made her wishes clear: "I pray that Providence will not reverse the natural order of things which made me your mother and brought me into the world long before you…. I should be the first to go."
The life of Mme de Sévigné cannot be ranked among the most exciting and eventful lives, even of her time and place. France in the 17th century was a beacon for all the world; its culture and refinement were models to be emulated, and its most powerful citizens lived lives that seem more crammed with happenings and somehow perhaps more significant than our own. In such exalted company, Sévigné's doings are of only secondary rank: she only occasionally spoke to the king; she was not invited to all of the most fashionable events; she experienced some of the most important happenings of the day only at second hand or not at all. And yet, we have the pleasure of knowing this warm and witty woman more intimately than we know any other woman of her century or of almost any other period. In her sparkling letters, and especially in those to her daughter, she reveals her innermost thoughts and the reader is able to experience the scenes which Mme de Sévigné first evoked for her beloved daughter's eyes. When, at age 70, her voice falls silent, we feel that we have lost a friend.
sources and suggested reading:
Allentuch, Harriet Ray. Madame de Sévigné: A Portrait in Letters. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963.
Duchâtelet, Roger, ed. Correspondance de Mme de Sévigné. Paris: Fayard, 1972–78.
Mossiker, Frances. Madame de Sévigné: A Life and Letters. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Ojala, Jeanne A., and William T. Ojala. Madame de Sévigné: A Seventeenth-Century Life. NY: Berg/St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Williams, Charles G.S. Madame de Sévigné. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1981.
Thackeray, Miss (Lady Anne Isabella Ritchie ). Madame de Sévigné. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1881.
(Dr.) Kathy Garay , Acting Director of the Women's Studies Programme, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada