Madame de Sevigne, champion letter writer.
Perhaps I should have been born in another time, because the form of writing that comes easiest to me is letter-writing. No matter what I'm writing, if I'm really having trouble, I will often try writing it like a letter first. And sometimes I'll leave it that way; two out of the three short stories I've written (obviously I'm not into the short story thing) have been in letter form. The Dread Novel is letter-based (the Dread Novel still languishes unloved, by the way. Welcome to my world, Dread Novel).
You would think, then, that I should be happy, that I am living in a golden-enough age, with all the correspondence taking place via email. But most people write emails in short bursts, a couple of sentences, or points, with careless sentences and impersonal words; it is expedient, it is information, and that is all. However, I am always overflowing with long twisting sentences, big chunky paragraphs, and ten thousand extraneous asides, and this excess, combined with my speedy typing--more of a curse than a blessing--too often results in lengthy emails that easily overwhelm the poor recipient who just wanted the answer to a simple question. I try to tame myself, but I don't always succeed, and I think I lose more than I gain by my crashing, giant waves of words.
So maybe I do belong elsewhere (elsewhen?), when people used to write multipage letters, to make up for the vast amounts of time it took for one poor letter to get anywhere. You know, the kind of letters that when written by eventually famous people get collected into volumes that betray their wit, wisdom, and insight. Okay, I claim none of those, and the famous part is also proving elusive, but perhaps, given the right time period and place, and the right to luxuriate in lengthy correspondence, I might achieve literary stardom as a belle-lettrist. Like Madame de Sevigne.
A young Madame de Sevigne. Yes, I know there should be accents over the two "e"s, no, I don't know how to add them.
I first ran across Madame de Sevigne while reading Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," (I know, I am sounding almost insufferable in these opening paragraphs. Yes, strike that "maybe" if you like). The narrator's mother quoted Madame de Sevigne in her letters to him, which prompted me to ask my sister if there really was such a person or if she was a fictional author made up by Proust--I mean, there are fictional authors and composers as characters in the book. My sister looked at me with the kind of horror you'd see if I had asked her something as dumb as "Rhode Island's really an island, right?" (See, that's how I recognized her expression, because I did ask her that once. And I was a senior in high school. Our schools weren't strong on geography. I'm sure the only reason she knew was because she was halfway through her freshman year of college.) Then she haughtily explained that Madame de Sevigne was one of the great letter writers in history, who had lived during the rule of Louis XIV, and was a friend of Madame de Lafayette (whose "Princesse de Cleves," I had, luckily, read). I resolved then that I would read more about this Sevigne person and then promptly forgot about that plan for a number of years.
Well, I did finally re-remember it recently while reading my last book, "Monsieur d'Eon is a Woman," whose subject was no mean slouch him/herself when it came to letter writing. I found Frances Mosskier's "Madame de Sevigne: A Life and Letters," and after reading it, I can safely say that Madame's reputation as a great letter writer is absolutely warranted. However, I'm not sure I know much more about her life.
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal was born in 1626 to a good, but not great family--her father's family was noble, her mother's not. Both her parents died while she was still young, and she was raised by her mother's large family, a group which was economically smart, careful, and on the rise in society. They took good care of her, including arranging a marriage to Henri de Sevigne, who came from a high-born, land rich, but cash poor family. Marriage to Marie was advantageous to both--she picked up his title and estates, he got a big dowry and the secure finances of her family. A hothead who seemingly was interested in every woman in Paris but his beautiful, young wife (much to the shock of onlookers, who wondered how he could get so lucky in a wife and then ignore her) de Sevigne eventually was killed in a duel over one of his mistresses, leaving a widow with two children, a daughter and a son. Although she retained her looks, was still only in her twenties, and had a decent amount of money, Madame de Sevigne never remarried, seemingly by choice. After all, it's not like her first marriage had been anything that would inspire her to try again. Plus she had freedom, security, thanks to the watchful eye of her family, numerous friends, and her two children, especially her daughter.
Especially her daughter--those three words could define Madame de Sevigne's life. Although she loved her son, and he, charming, attentive, and similar in tastes and interests to his mother, loved her, she only loved him. Madame de Sevigne, though, adored, really worshipped her daughter, Francoise. The girl was beautiful, intelligent, and talented enough to capture the attention of the king. However, he never chose her to be his mistress, and when it came to finding her a husband, matches fell through at an alarming rate, despite the solid family name and her dowry. Correspondence between her mother and other family members hint at a girl who was perhaps cold, snobbish, and difficult. She finally found a husband in the Count de Grignan, a family of ancient and impressive lineage that delighted her mother (she also was very fond of her new son-in-law). Everything went wrong, though, when the king appointed Grignan the viceroy of Provence, meaning that Francoise had to move far away from her mother, something that devastated Madame de Sevigne.
For the rest of her life, Madame de Sevigne wrote numerous, long letters to her daughter, letters full of love, lamentation, reproach, and gossip. Madame de Sevigne was already a prolific letter writer, especially to her numerous beloved cousins, but her letters to her daughter became the subject of admiration even while she was alive, and it is because of this that her daughter carefully saved most of them. Her letters to her mother, however, were almost all destroyed, likely at her command. So while we have a full-blooded portrait of her mother in her own words, as well as the words of other busy-letter writing 17th-century Parisians, the only things we know about Francoise, Madame de Grignan, come from the guesses readers can make from her mother's letters and usually those are none too flattering. Madame de Grignan has come down through history as a cold, supercilious, haughty, sometimes mean-spirited woman, who didn’t deserve the love her generous, warm-hearted, witty mother wanted to give her. The letters, especially the early ones, seem to crackle with unheard arguments, insults, fights, tears, and apologies.
Mossiker, however, sees Madame de Grignan as a girl who while far from perfect, was really not as bad as she seemed. The fighting, she proposes, was not so much hard-heartedness as the clash you would expect between two strong-willed women, one a mother who desperately wanted the best for a daughter, and thought that could only occur if she orchestrated it, and a daughter who desperately wanted independence and her own identity. In other words, the fight you typically see between parents and children, albeit one fought out in the pages of letters rather than through the slammed-shut door of a room, or on a doorstep or in a kitchen. And not surprisingly, as they grew older, and Madame de Sevigne got used to her daughter having her own identity, and her daughter became more establishd, the fights lessened, and the protestations of love outnumbered the recriminations.
Mossiker's book is called a biography, but I'm not sure I'm convinced. The book begins with background information about Madame de Sevigne, but that is dispatched rather quickly--probably about 85% of the book covers Madame de Sevigne's life once she began writing the letters to her adult, married daughter. This is done through lengthy excerpts from the letters with short connecting paragraphs explaining what had happened in between, or summarizing the parts of the letters that aren't quoted. So indeed, it is her life IN letters, but it feels like there is lilttle else there. Of course the quoted letters are as good as advertised. Madame de Sevigne writes well about everything, from her walks in the woods, her water cure at Vichy, to her giddy meeting with the king at a performance of Racine's "Esther" (the hottest thing in 1689 theater). I loved how she always described twilight as "the hour between the dog and the wolf," as in the dog being the known and domesticated and the wolf as the flip side of the dog, unpredictable and untamed.
Letters are of course one of the great primary resources we have for learning about a time period, especially about everyday life and the small incidents that can get lost between wars and politics. And you can learn a great deal about late 17th-century life from reading the letter excerpts in Mossiker's book. However, I found myself craving something more. We hear about how Madame de Sevigne saw something, but not anyone else. I wanted to know a lot more about life in or around the Court of the Sun King than what we get from Madame de Sevigne between her pleas to her daughter. Now I know you may roll your eyes and say, "Well, then, you should be reading a history of the 17th century!" But I don't think that's the only answer--when I read a biography, I don't think it's wrong to ask for a little context, a little more than just the subject's point of view with information only added to clarify the subject's topics. We know what Madame de Sevigne thinks, but what do others think about her? What was going on in the court? What was life like for other people? The letters touch on the troubles the Count de Grignan had getting the people of Provence to agree to the taxes demanded by the king, but I never get any sense of what life was like in Provence for anyone, the ordinary citizens who were resisting that tax, or, in fact the Grignans. While we don't have the letters Madame de Grignan wrote to her mother, surely there must be something that would give us an idea of what life must have been like for a woman of Madame de Grignan's station in Provence. And the same for her mother--what was life like for women like her? Was she different than others? I just felt that I didn't get a full picture.
I also wasn't wild about the style of the author (this was in-between the letter excerpts). She writes very elegantly, but in a way that made me almost feel like I was reading something closer to a novel, perhaps a romance novel. Now of course, I love novels, but not when I want to read a biography. This is an extremely weird thing to say, I know--the best biographies should be like a story. But I think I am used to harder-edged biographies that resemble more detective stories, where a variety of evidence is described, and then conclusions are drawn, where facts are uncovered and correlated into something greater, rather than just presented.
That's not to say that the book isn't enjoyable--it's an easy read, but not quite what I was looking for. I feel I would have been just as well off with a collection of Madame de Sevigne's letters with some solid footnotes. My expectations for that would have been different, I guess. I always feel bad when I give a book anything less than a rave, so I'll say again that this book is certainly fine, just not for me.
After all that, I am left to think, though, about what it would be like to be Madame de Sevigne. Now I would be the last one who would want to live in the 17th century. I am too lazy and too used to the luxuries that come from our own time period. But oh, how I would love to have a life where I could devote a large part of my day to dreamy correspondence, which people would actually want to read, and who would have time and patience to read it. Instead I am left with this--the blog, a medium that I defy by insisting on long and rambling when I know that people prefer short and snappy. I can do that. I promise. I just would rather not. And therefore I am my own trouble.
The Hotel de Carnavalet, Madame de Sevigne's Paris home for much of her life. It's now a museum, visited by people considerably less elegant than your average 17th century tourist--though undoubtedly more comfortable.