Lettres, 1696, 1725, 1726, 1734-1737 (6 volumes); 1862-1868 (14 volumes); 1953-1957 (3 volumes; Letters, 1727, 1764 [10 volumes]; 1811 [9 volumes]; 1927 [7 volumes])
Madame de Sévigné (say-veen-yay) was born Marie de Rabutin-Chantal in Paris on February 5, 1626. Her father was Celse-Bénigne de Rabutin, Baron de Chantal, the son of a noble family whose titles went back at least to the twelfth century. Her paternal grandmother, Jeanne-Françoise, who as a widow had given the care of her family to her own parents, had withdrawn from the world in 1610 to embrace the religious life under the direction of the man who was to become one day Saint-François de Sales. She was canonized in 1767 for her exemplary life and work in establishing the Order of the Visitation of Saint Mary. Now known as St. Jeanne de Chantal, her extensive correspondence with St. François de Sales has been published and reveals her profound literary talent. De Sévigné’s mother, Marie de Coulanges, was the daughter of a noble but somewhat less illustrious family.
In 1627, only a year after her birth, de Sévigné’s father was killed in battle against the English. Six years later, in 1633, her mother also died, and the seven-year-old girl was sent to be cared for by her maternal grandparents. The child’s misfortunes were not yet over. Her grandmother died in 1635, and her grandfather died the following year. The ten-year-old girl was then sent to her maternal uncle, Christophe de Coulanges, abbé of Livry. There at last she found security.
The abbé took the girl’s upbringing and education quite seriously. He gave her the best teachers, from whom she learned, among other things, Latin, Spanish, and Italian, and he gave her a firm Christian education, by the tenets of which she lived her entire life, a respected and virtuous woman. Throughout the rest of his life (until 1687) the abbé, whom de Sévigné called “Kindness Itself,” was a faithful friend and counselor of his niece.
In 1644, at the age of eighteen, de Sévigné married Henri Marquis de Sévigné. It was a “good” but unhappy match. The young marquis was a gambler, a fighter, and a rake. After badly damaging his own and his wife’s fortunes, he was killed in 1651 in a duel over another woman. He left his widow with two small children, a daughter born in 1646 and a son born in 1648. De Sévigné, who, as she said, loved but did not esteem her husband, never remarried. She was much sought after for her person and her wit.
After her husband’s death, de Sévigné spent several years on her estates reorganizing her children’s patrimony. That task accomplished, she returned to Paris in 1654 and made a brilliant showing in the high society of the capital. She often appeared at the Hôtel de Rambouillet as well as at other aristocratic salons, and she was one of the most illustrious of the circle of cultured women who set the intellectual fashions of Paris. Among her many friends and admirers were François de La Rochefoucauld, Madame de La Fayette, and the great finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet (who sought to make her his mistress). Nevertheless, for the most part she devoted herself to the upbringing and education of her two children, the elder of whom, her daughter Françoise-Marguerite, she idolized.
In 1669 de Sévigné arranged the marriage of her daughter to the Comte de Grignan, who, much to the doting mother’s distress, was soon appointed governor of Provence. The enforced separation of de Sévigné and her beloved daughter was the reason for the majority of the more than fifteen hundred letters about the life and society of Paris on which de Sévigné’s literary reputation rests. She had begun writing characteristically vivid and brilliant letters to her friends before her marriage, and her circle of correspondence always remained wide. In all, she wrote more than three thousand well-crafted letters to her daughter, Madame de Grignan, and many other correspondents, including her cousin, the novelist Bussy-Rabutin, during the last three decades of her life. For these letters she has remained famous. The often tense mother-daughter relationship is the most fascinating aspect of her correspondence.
Her letters to her daughter were first published after the deaths of both de Sévigné and Madame de Grignan by de Sévigné’s granddaughter Madame de Simiane, who destroyed de Grignan’s letters but made public those of her grandmother. De Sévigné, who was visiting her daughter for only the third time since 1671, died of smallpox at her daughter’s château in Provence on April 17, 1696.