Madame de Sévigné: French Letter Writing Luminary

The Letter as a Literary Form

17th-century in France marked a period of internal peace, a burgeoning bourgeoisie, and increasing wealth. The letter became popular in courts and intellectual circles, shaping the cultural and intellectual landscape of the period. In an era when newspapers were still in their infancy, letters played an indispensable role in connecting minds and disseminating news. For the literate elite, letter writing was more than a means of conveying information; it was a medium for expressing thoughts, emotions, and intellectual prowess. The letters exchanged during this era have since become primary historical documents, offering a window into the past.

Luminary of French Letter Writing

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, better known as Madame de Sévigné, became one of the earliest of the French letter writing luminaries, to her surprise. She was both an aristocrat, and an accomplished letter writer. Through her letters to her daughter, we get a glimpse into the lavish and turbulent world of Versailles during Louis XIV’s reign. Madame de Sévigné’s letters are a blend of keen observation, sharp wit, and deep affection. She navigated the intricate web of court politics, fashion, and social dynamics, while penning her insights with eloquence and humor. She was, by all accounts, a delightful person whose charm and wit enchanted her wide circle of friends.

Painting of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, better known as Madame de Sévigné

The Marquise de Sévigné: A Brief Biography

  • Parents: Marie de Coulanges and Celse-Bénigne de Rabutin
  • Birth: February 5, 1626, at the Hôtel Coulanges in Paris, in the aristocratic quartier of la Place Royale (now Place des Vosges), home of her maternal grandparents.
  • Marriage: Henri, Marquis de Sévigné (from 1646 to 1651). She was widowed at 25, on February 5, 1651. Despite many offers, she never remarried. Her husband was killed in a duel with François Amanieu, Seigneur d’Ambleville, Chevalier d’Albret, over Madame de Gondran, his mistress.
  • Children: Françoise-Marguerite de Sévigné: born in 1646. She grew up in Paris, celebrated for her beauty, grace, and excellent dancing skills. She married François Adhémar de Monteil de Grignan in 1669 and they had seven children, most of whom died young.
  • Charles de Sévigné: born in 1648 at the family Château des Rochers in Vitré, he adored his mother. He led a military career before serving as King’s Lieutenant in Brittany until 1703. He died without heirs.
  • Death: Madame de Sévigné died on April 17, 1696, in Grignan, France at the Château of her daughter.

Madame de Sévigné: Salonière and Précieuse

Madame de Sévigné was not only a skilled letter writer but also a famous salonière and précieuse. At these salons, hosted by influential women, intellectuals, writers, and philosophers gathered to discuss ideas, politics, and art. Letters played a pivotal role in extending these intellectual discussions beyond the salon walls. The “précieuses,” as these women were known, valued eloquence, wit, and the exchange of ideas through letters. Madame de Sévigné maintained close friendships with prominent figures of her era. They included Madame de La Fayette, author of “The Princess of Cleves,” La Rochefoucauld, and her cousin, Comte Roger de Bussy-Rabutin.

Legacy of 17th Century Correspondence

Madame de Sévigné did not intend to publish her extensive correspondence, written primarily to her daughter, as well as to various friends and acquaintances. However by 1673, because of the popularity of letters in her social circles and her artistry in letter writing, they were being copied and circulated. Aware that her letters were semi-public documents, she crafted them accordingly.

Following her death, pirated editions of these letters were collected and published posthumously. Pauline de Simiane, her granddaughter, edited her letters to replace these pirated editions. The first collection was published in 1734–1737, followed by another in 1754. However, Pauline revised these letters heavily to remove anything that reflected negatively on the family. In 1873, some early manuscript copies of the letters, based directly on Mme de Sévigné’s originals, were found in an antique shop. These accounted for about half of the letters to Mme de Grignan. Of the 1,120 known letters, only 15 percent are signed, the others having been destroyed soon after they were read. Critics celebrate Madame de Sévigné as a French letter writing luminary for her mastery of the French language, her wit, and her ability to capture the spirit of her time in her writings.

Painting of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, better known as Madame de Sévigné: French letter writing luminary

A Culture of Correspondence

The correspondence of 17th century France left an indelible mark on the country’s cultural and intellectual history. These letters, often kept in archives and published collections, still offer a vivid and authentic glimpse into life during that time..

Madame de Sévigné was far from the only famous correspondent of the century. Other writers, such as François de La Rochefoucauld, known for his collection of maxims and letters; Jean de La Fontaine, famous for his Fables; Madeleine de Scudéry, a prominent literary figure; Pierre Bayle, a philosopher and writer; François Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai; and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a minister in the court of Louis XIV, all used letters not only for personal communication but also to disseminate their ideas.

In the next century, Montesquieu expanded the form when he created the first epistolary novel, “The Persian Letters” (Lettres persanes). It was published in the 18th century (1721), but developed from an epistolary tradition already well established in France in the previous century.

Further Reading

Although readers of French can find many editions of Madame de Sévigné’s letters, few exist in English.

Stéphane Bern narrates the fine documentary Secrets d’histoire – La marquise de Sévigné, l’esprit du Grand Siècle (Intégrale) on YouTube (in French)

One notable English biography is “Madame de Sévigné: A Life and Letters” by Frances Mossiker, published in 1983. Mossiker’s biography provides a glimpse into Madame de Sévigné’s life, relationships, experiences, and the historical context of her time..

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