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Lettres by Madame de Sévigné
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Lettres

by Madame de Sévigné

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[From the preface to Letters from Madame La Marquise de Sévigné, edited and translated by Violet Hammersley, Secker & Warburg, 1955; reprinted in A Traveller in Romance, ed. John Whitehead, Clarkson N. Potter, 1984, pp. 107-111:]

Well over a hundred years ago, Sainte-Beuve wrote that everything that could be said about Madame de Sévigné had already been said. Since then, however, a great deal more has been said. Such being the case, the reader of these lines must not expect me to tell him anything new. All I can hope to do is to remind him of certain facts that he may have forgotten. The events of Madame de Sévigné’s life have been stated in sufficient detail by Mrs Hammersley in the introduction to her translation of the letters which she has made for the delectation of the English reader, and for these I may refer him to that. I am inclined to think that French, for all its clarity, and apparent simplicity, is probably the most difficult of all languages to translate. To translate literally may land one in absurdities. One difficulty that confronts the translator is that the French word and the English one are often the same and yet are not used in quite the same sense; another is that a word may not have the same associations in English as in French, and so translate it literally may sadly distort the author’s meaning. It is to Mrs Hammersley’s credit that she has avoided these pitfalls, and her translation, though, so far as I can judge, faithful, is easy, fluent and idiomatic.

Madame de Sévigné was a stylist of high quality. She was fortunate in the time of her birth. This took place at the very beginning of the second quarter of the seventeenth century. The best prose-writers of the preceding century, Montaigne, for instance, wrote with charm and naturalness; but, as George Saintsbury justly remarked, their prose ‘though exuberant and picturesque, was not planned or balanced, sentences were ill-formed and the periods haphazard. It was a conversational prose and had the diffuseness of conversation.’ Jean Guez de Balzac, who lived through the first half of the seventeenth century, created the literary language of French prose, and (I am again quoting from George Saintsbury) ‘taught French authors to write a prose which is written knowingly instead of a prose which is unwittingly talked’. Voiture, his contemporary, had a lighter touch than Balzac, and ‘helped to gain for French prose the tradition of vivacity and sparkle which it has always possessed as well as that of correctness and grace.’

Thus Madame de Sévigné had to her hand a perfect instrument which she had the tact, taste and talent to make admirable use of. Critics have noted that sometimes her grammar was faulty; but style does not depend on syntax, it depends, I venture to suggest, on character; and Madame de Sévigné had charm, unfailing humour, sympathy, affectionateness, common sense and keen observation. She wrote neither a treatise nor an history; she wrote letters, and she knew very well that they must have a personal touch. Hers are as easy, and as apparently spontaneous, as those Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra; but she had the advantage of having subjects to write about of wider interest than had our own Miss Austen.

Newspapers then were few and dull. Letters provided people living away from Paris with the news of the day. Madame de Sévigné was in a good position to give it to her correspondents, since by her birth and connections she moved in high society. The subjects that excited the attention of the world she lived in were the sermons of eminent preachers, criminal trials, and the rise and fall of the King’s favourites. When she went to Court she was graciously received. Once, Louis XIV danced a minuet with her, and afterwards she found herself standing beside her kinsman, Bussy de Rabutin. ‘One must acknowledge,’ she said to him, ‘that we have a great King.’ ‘Yes, without doubt,’ he answered. ‘What he has just done is truly heroic.’ But whether that witty, sarcastic man was laughing at her or at the monarch is not plain. On another occasion, Louis XIV, to the admiration of all present, talked to her for several minutes. But it was not often that Madame de Sévigné went to Court: she depended then for the latest news on an intimate friend. This was the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, the author of the imperishable maxims. He was a highly cultivated man, extremely intelligent, with a wide knowledge of the world. This knowledge had left him with few illusions. Sentimentalists have reproached him because, as a result of a lifetime’s experience, he came to the conclusion that self-interest is the mainspring of men’s behaviour. There is truth in that, but it is not the whole truth. The extraordinary, and heartening, thing about men is that though, in fact, self-interest is the mainspring of their conduct, they are capable on occasion of self-sacrifice, disinterestedness and magnanimity. The picture Madame de Sévigné draws of La Rochefoucauld is that of a good, high-minded and generous man; and she never tires of remarking on his good nature, sweetness, amiability, and on his wish to please and to be of service.

During the seventeenth century in France persons of quality took a laudable interest in literature. They read Virgil with delight, and argued intelligently over the respective merits of Corneille and Racine. They discussed the niceties of style, and were ravished by a well-turned phrase. It was, in fact, a time of high civilisation. La Rochefoucauld was in the habit of passing some hours every day with Madame de La Fayette, author of the charming Princesse de Clèves, and in her house, in the Faubourg de Vaugirard, they would be joined by Madame de Sévigné and the witty Cardinal de Retz. In summer they sat in the garden, ‘the prettiest thing in the world’, with its flowers, its fountains and its arbour. What would one not give to have heard the conversation of those four cultured, brilliant and well-bred creatures! Never can there have been talk of such savour before or since. Conversation in those happy days was cultivated as an art, and to talk well and entertainingly gave anyone, however modest his origins, an entry into that closed, aristocratic society. Voiture, the son of a vintner, was sough after for his caustic humour. The Duc d’Enghien said of him: ‘If Voiture were a gentleman (de notre condition) one couldn’t put up with him.’ There was Madame Cornuel, daughter of the steward or agent of the Duc de Guise, who was famous for her wit and so received in exclusive circles. At this great house or at that, Corneille could sometimes be induced to read an unpublished play, or La Fontaine his latest fables; La Rochefoucauld’s maxims would be admired or decried and a recent letter of Madame de Sévigné’s be read aloud.

The malicious said that her letters were written for effect. What if they were? If you have something to say, which you know will raise a laugh, of if you have a story to tell, which you think will interest, you put it as effectively as you can. I can see nothing blameworthy in that. Madame de Sévigné knew that her letters were passed from hand to hand, and there can be little doubt that she enjoyed writing them and enjoyed the pleasure they gave others. She could be serious enough when the occasion warranted, as, for example, when she gave an account of the death of Turenne; but she had a wonderful sense of fun, and when she had something amusing to relate, she made, as the humorist does, the very most of it. She did not even disdain a pun. […] Madame de Sévigné’s letters were written conversation, and the conversation of a woman who talked with wit, humour and spontaneity.

[…]

She was a great reader, especially during the long periods she spent at Les Rochers, the place in Brittany she had inherited from her worthless husband. She adored La Fontaine, and, indeed, quarrelled with Madame de Grignan [her daughter] because she did not share her admiration for the charming fabulist. She venerated Corneille, but did not much care for Racine. For all her sweetness and amiability, there was in Madame de Sévigné a certain toughness, and she found the tender author of Bérénice unduly sentimental. She read Montaigne with delight, Pascal, both his Pensées and Provinciales, but her favourite author was Nicole, the Jansenist. His good sense and sound judgement appealed to her, and she delighted in his style.

During one of her sojourns in Les Rochers the peasants and the townspeople of Brittany, downtrodden and illegally taxed, revolted. They were punished by the Duc de Chaulnes, governor of the province, with barbarity. They were hanged, drawn and quartered by the hundred. Men, women and children were driven out of their houses into the street, and no one was allowed, under pain of death, to succour them. Madame de Sévigné wrote:

The mutineers of Rennes have run away long ago; so the good will suffer for the wicked; but I find it all for the best, so long as the four thousand soldiers who are at Rennes, under MM. de Fobin and de Vins, don’t prevent me from walking about in my woods, which are very fine and marvellously beautiful.

And again:

They’ve taken sixty bourgeois; they’ll begin to hang them tomorrow. This province is a good example to the others; above all it will lead them to respect their governors, not to abuse them and not to throw stones in their gardens.

It has shocked Madame de Sévigné’s readers to see with what complaisance she wrote of these wretched people’s sufferings. It is indeed shocking. It cannot be excused, it can only be explained.

The seventeenth century in France was, as I have said, a time of high civilisation; but it was also a brutal time. Men were hard, cruel and unscrupulous. […] These cultured aristocrats, these elegant ladies – who were reduced to tears by Racine’s pathos, who admired Poussin and Claude, who crowded to listen to the sermons of Bourdaloue and Massillon, who were so delicately sensitive to the sadness and beauty of the country – looked upon the peasants as hardly human. They used them as they would never have used their horses or their dogs. Madame de Sévigné shared the common opinions of her day. That the brutes should be hanged seemed to her only fitting, and when the Duc de Chaulnes was removed from the province to rule another that brought in a larger income, she wrote she was heartbroken to lose her dear good Duke. I suppose the best one can say is that it is unfair to judge those of one generation by the standards of another. Perhaps it is well not to censure Madame de Sévigné too harshly for her indifference to the sufferings of these ill-used creatures when we remember how short a while ago we discovered that men, supposedly civilised, were capable of the cruelties we know of. It looks as though man, when his interest, his fear, his ambition, his pride, are concerned, remains very much what he always was.

The Comte de la Rivière, a relation of the lady’s, and himself a voluminous letter-writer, said somewhere: ‘When you have read one of Madame de Sévigné’s letters you feel a slight pang, because you have one less to read.’
  WSMaugham | Dec 11, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Madame de Sévignéprimary authorall editionscalculated
Aldington, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hammersley, VioletEd. And Tr.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maugham, W. SomersetPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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