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Monday, April 6, 2015

“Selected Letters”, by Madame de Sévigné


320 pages, Penguin Classics, ISBN-13: 978-0140444056

One of the great defining moments of 17th Century French literature was when Madame de Sévigné’s daughter left Paris with her new husband for a life in the provinces, thus launching one of the great correspondences in history. Always the doting mother, Madame de Sévigné – or, should I say, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné – was important enough to be close to the center of events during the reign of Louis XIV, and this status allowed her access to the inner circles of power in Paris and, thus, provide an invaluable record of the day’s events.

Although the letters of Madame de Sévigné can be regarded on one level as a series of letters to relatives and friends, they represent on another level essential documents and highly literate essays on a wide variety of subjects relating to 17th Century France. A major source of debate among literary critics has been whether she should be considered as simply a letter writer or as an epistolary author: some view her work as purely private communication between individuals whereas others see the letters as one of the few means available to a woman at that time to express herself as a writer; thus, by writing to her daughter (they argue) she was able to create a certain kind of textual persona. Whichever way we may view her output, it is incontrovertible that the acuteness of her observation permeates all the letters. In this context, although she does not take up and pursue subjects in the comprehensive way many essayists do, there are three categories of observation to which her letters give rise: historical, literary, and social.

Of the historical letters, the most significant are the 14 letters written between November 1664 and January 1665 to Simon Arnauld, Marquis de Pomponne, on the trial of their mutual friend Nicolas Fouquet. Fouquet had been Minister of Finance under Cardinal Mazarin, but, after the latter’s death in 1661, Colbert (the future Minister of Commerce and Internal Affairs) collaborated with Louis XIV to arrest Fouquet on the charge of financial maladministration. Throughout the letters, Madame de Sévigné displays a broad knowledge of contemporary French literature, although her literary judgment does not always concur with that of posterity (as is shown in her unfavorable comments on some plays by Racine). Madame de Sévigné’s social observation is perhaps most particularly acute, as she is always keen to point out the absurdity of certain appearances and pretensions.

Madame de Sévigné has been widely praised, for both the seeming spontaneity and the extreme artfulness of her style. In many ways her writing can be compared to that of the theater: she creates vivid scenarios in which several characters play different roles, she herself operating as both spectator and actress. In the Fouquet letters, for example, she describes the actions and words of the leading participants as well as the response of the onlookers, including herself. But she can also be viewed as an essayist in her own right, as it was through her letters that she was able to discuss and comment upon the society in which she lived.

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