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Posts Tagged ‘Madame De Sevigne’

I first discovered Madame de Sévigné’s letters through Somerset Maugham’s book ‘The Razor’s Edge‘. In that story two of my favourite characters sit on the bank of a river everyday and read Madame de Sévigné’s letters to each other. I have wanted to read those letters since that day.

I later discovered that in Marcel Proust’sIn Search of Lost Time‘, Madame de Sévigné’s letters are the favourites of the narrator’s grandmother and mother. Not surprising, as Somerset Maugham has a long record of lifting stuff from his favourite French writers. Why would an American sit on the riverbank in the French countryside and read Madame de Sévigné’s letters with a French woman? I didn’t think like this when I read Maugham’s book. I didn’t ask this logical question. I am glad I didn’t. I wouldn’t have discovered Madame de Sévigné otherwise.

There are 1120 known letters of Madame de Sévigné today. (or 1386 letters, depending on who is counting 😊). There are around 138 that are present in this selection. The earliest letter is dated March 1648, and the last letter is dated March 1696 – that is 50 years of correspondence right there. As these are all letters written by Madame de Sévigné to her family members and friends – her daughter is the recipient of most of her letters – they are very personal. She praises her daughter and showers affection on her in every letter and it is endearing to read. However, if Madame de Sévigné was around today, she would be shocked to know that her personal letters, have been translated into many languages and are being read by strangers in other continents. But I am glad that her granddaughter broke all kinds of etiquette and published her grandmother’s correspondence. We would have lost a great literary and historical work otherwise.

There is another important feature to these letters. As Madame de Sévigné knew most of the prominent French personalities of her time – she was close friends with Madame de Lafayette and La Rochefoucauld, and she even knew the Queen and the King – her letters give a first-hand insider’s view of how historical events unfolded during her time. She writes about how a corruption scandal rocked French society of those times, about how different people gain the King’s favour and fall out of favour, how the King’s mistresses are jealous of each other, about the different wars that the French fought and the personal impact they had on Madame de Sévigné and her friends (because friends and family members were deployed in the army on the front), the complex relationship between France and England and their royal families, her own friendship with Madame de Lafayette and La Rochefoucauld – Madame de Sévigné writes about all these and more. One of my favourite parts is that in which she compares the plays of Racine and Corneille. A new play called ‘Bajazet’ by Racine has just been staged and people are raving about it, and this is what Madame de Sévigné says about it initially –

“Racine has written a tragedy called ‘Bajazet’ which raises the roof; indeed it doesn’t go from bad to worse like the others. M. de Tallard says it is as far above the plays of Corneille as those of Corneille are above those of Boyer. That is what you might call praise; it doesn’t do to keep truths hidden. We shall decide later with our own eyes and ears.”

Later having watched the play, she says this –

“‘Bajazet’ is very fine, but I do think it is a bit muddled at the end. There is plenty of passion, and not such unreasonable passion as in ‘Bérénice’. But to my taste I don’t think it comes up to ‘Andromaque’, and as for the finest plays of Corneille, they are as much above those of Racine as Racine’s are above all the others.”

In another letter she says this –

“Of course there are some good things in it, but nothing perfectly beautiful, nothing that carries you away, none of those speeches of Corneille that thrill you. My dear, let us be careful not to compare Racine to him, let us appreciate the difference. There are cold and weak parts, and he will never go further than ‘Alexandre’ and ‘Andromaque’. ‘Bajazet’ is less good in the opinion of many people and in mine, if I may make so bold as to quote myself.”

I have read neither Racine nor Corneille and so I can’t really compare. But I have seen Racine’s plays in the bookshop but I have never seen Corneille’s plays. I don’t know why. I want to read both and see whose works I like more.

Another fascinating thing I discovered from the book is about a person called Madame de Brinvilliers. Brinvilliers is accused of poisoning her family members after her lover’s papers (in which he talks about that) end up in the police’s hands, after he dies. There is not much evidence otherwise, against her, but still she is convicted and condemned to death. I am wondering whether Alexandre Dumas based his character Milady de Winter on Madame de Brinvilliers.

Madame de Sévigné’s letters are filled with beautiful lines, words of wisdom and quotable quotes. Reading her letters is like talking to our favourite aunt who has come visiting (or we have gone visiting to her place) and Aunt Marie tells us about the people she met and the interesting things that happened recently, and it is wonderful and charming to listen to. (Aunt Marie is from Marie de Rabutin–Chantal, which is Madame de Sévigné’s original name.)

Madame de Sévigné’s letters cannot be read like a journal or a diary or a novel or a nonfiction book. Because they are letters, it is assumed that the recipients know the people mentioned in them. And Madame de Sévigné mentions a lot of people. It is almost like the cast of ‘War and Peace’. So it is a more enriching experience to read them slowly, read more on the historical events she has written about, and research more on the personalities she has mentioned.

I loved reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné. It gives us an intimate, first-hand view of the happenings of that era. It is living history, as they say, and we get a glimpse of that in these pages through Aunt Marie’s charming voice. Reading this book is a perfect example of what Yoshida Kenko says – “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” Talking to Aunt Marie through this book and hearing her voice through these letters was beautiful.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. I am too lazy to type and so am sharing the picture of the page, sorry 😊

Have you read Madame de Sévigné’s letters? What do you think about them?

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