« PreviousContinue »
as woman and writer, enjoys so high a reputation. The notices prefixed to the earlier editions of her letters contain little more than a mere sketch of the family-tree, with the necessary dates of births, marriages, and deaths. Nor have those that follow helped us to many facts of her early history. Her elevated social position, and the esteem with which she was regarded by a large circle of admirers, have insured her honourable mention by the writers of her own day; but this is chiefly of course in the form of characterisation, or allusions which refer to particular incidents or conversations. It is in her own pages, rather than in those of her contemporaries, that we must read both her life and character; and we have no reason to complain of want of materials by which a correct idea of them may be formed. By a series of letters, dated from the twentieth to the last year of her life, she succeeds in making us thoroughly familiar with herself and the world to which she belongs; not only with her goings and comings, and the manner in which every day, almost every hour, is passed, but with her thoughts, feelings, and affections. As we read, her inner as well as her outward life seems to unroll itself before our delighted apprehensions-clear, distinct, and faithful to the minutest detail, as if sun-painted. And not her own life only-for with the gay, unconscious ease of a perfectly well-bred hostess, she not only makes herself known to us, but contrives to introduce us, without any effort, and as they happen to present themselves, to the multitude of notable personages by whom she is surrounded; 'makes us listen to conversations innumerable, and to the history of a thousand interesting occurrences, always set off and illustrated by her own lively comments and remarks; till at last, having lived through long years with the whole dramatis persona, we feel delightfully familiar with its every member; constrained not only to love the amiable and admire the brilliant among them, but to think some kind thoughts even of the harsh and the formidable. True genius is ever genial; it has its name hence;' and to interpret between minds the most dissimilar, is not the least service it renders. All honour, then, to the humanity of that fine medium, through which traits of kind-heartedness and of disinterested benevolence are made discernible in a Rochefoucault, and something of gentleness and heroism even in a De Retz.
It was impossible, however, that so rare and fine an insight could be used only in one direction. Our favourite, Mr Leigh Hunt-whom years and thought have so mellowed and refined, that even our own delicate Miss Austen's good-natured satire has lost its relish for him, and now tastes rather harsh-objects to Madame de Sévigné, and with perfect justice, that, with all her good-humour, the charming woman had a sharp eye for a defect.' In the full flow of a confidential correspondence between the most loving of mothers and her daughter, there was every temptation to speak of the persons who chanced to be its subject with a measure of truth and of gay freedom that would probably have
been agreeable neither to themselves, nor to their immediate descendants. We find, accordingly, without its being matter of wonder, that these matchless letters, which for the last hundred and fifty years all the world have delighted to honour, and have united in considering as models in style, sentiment, and matter, became first known to the public without consent of friends, and for a long time were published but sparingly and piecemeal. In one way and another, however, they have all at last oozed out. About forty years ago, a pretty full collection of them was published in Paris, and various memoirs of the author, chiefly drawn from this source, have since appeared both in France and England. No very good translation into English has yet been made, though two of the most celebrated letter-writers among our own countrymen, Horace Walpole and the poet Gray, were among her fervent admirers; the latter being said, though we do not see with what good reason, to have formed his style on hers. Sir James M'Intosh, in a journal kept during his tedious voyage from Bombay, the désagrémens of which were alleviated to him by the reperusal of her whole correspondence, leaves us some of the finest remarks that have ever been made on her character and genius.
About ten years ago, a new sketch of her was presented to us, in a book entitled Madame de Sévigné and her Contemporariesvaluable in itself, but more so, perhaps, from the notices to which it gave rise, among which was a pleasant and highly discriminating paper by Leigh Hunt, written for the Edinburgh Review, and afterwards republished by him in one of his delightful volumes, entitled Men, Women, and Books.
Drawing our materials from all the authentic sources within our reach, we proceed to present to our readers as complete a view of the life, letters, and character of this queen of letterwriters as our ability and the limits of this paper will permit; always, when possible, allowing her to tell the story in her own words. To do this most conveniently, as well as with the most unbroken effect, we prefer giving the quotations for which we can make room in English, instead of from the French text. In this way, no doubt, we run some risk of injuring the exquisite style and relish of the original to persons who are so happy as to know the French language as perfectly as they do their own. But this seems to us a lesser evil than to trouble or disappoint others probably the majority-who may be less favoured.
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, born Baroness de Chantal and Bourbilly, afterwards Madame de Sévigné, first saw the light in the ancestral château of Bourbilly, between Samur and Epoisses, on the 5th of February 1627. Her father, the Baron Celse Benique de Rabutin, was of the elder branch of his name, and was cousin to the famous wit and satirist, Bussy de Rabutin. Her mother, Marie de Coulanges, daughter of a secretary of state, was also of a family celebrated for wit; and her paternal
grandmother, Jeanne Françoise Fremyot, afterwards known as the Blessed Mother of Chantal, was a canonised saint. The families of Chantal and Fremyot were both remarkable for their integrity; and as the whole united stock, with the solitary exception of the worldly and intriguing Bussy, were distinguished equally for worth, spirit, and ability, we are entitled to assume, that our heroine was well-born in the very best sense of the word. In her own wit, integrity, and natural piety, we see a portion of what was best in all her kindred; and if she had also a spice of her formidable cousin's satire, she had none of his malignity or sharpness, and her graceful gaiety and fine tact set her far before him even on his own ground.
During the siege of Rochelle, and when the little Marie was scarcely a year old, the bold baron, her father, died, bravely fighting against the English in their descent on the island of Rẻ. It has been said, that he received his death-wound from the hand of Cromwell. Her mother only survived him a few years, and it was to be expected that the devout grandmother, Madame de Chantal the elder, would have taken the orphan under her own care. But whether it was that the future saint was as little interested in her son's widow and child, as some mothers-in-law among sinners have been, or that she was too much occupied in forming religious houses (of which she founded no fewer than eighty-seven), the old lady at once waived her privilege, and left her granddaughter in the hands of her maternal relations. This was a happy event for her. Instead of having her whole delightful nature cramped and formalised by the conventual education, she enjoyed all the social advantages of the time. She was brought up with her fellow-wit and future correspondent, Philippe Emanuel de Coulanges, for whom she always entertained the most sincere affection; and her uncle, Christophe, Abbé de Livry, became a second father to her. He was a man of sense and worth, with some little peculiarities of temper, and a leaning towards good eating and drinking, and an easy life. He talked to her, and encouraged her to read and to learn from his friends; sent her often to court, where she acquired polish and grace; chose a husband for her, if not wisely, at least to the best of his judgment; and helped her to bring up her children. He extricated her affairs from the confusion in which her father's extravagance and sudden death had involved them, and taught her to manage her own business and fortune with that prudent and liberal economy, the practice of which afterwards enabled her both to live in comfort and elegance herself, and to follow towards others the dictates of her natural generosity. He treated her, in short, affectionately, and with the reasonable indulgence of a parent; spent the remainder of his life with her after her widowhood; and at his death, left her his whole fortune.
In those days, no particular interest in the proper development of the youthful female intellect had as yet suggested itself to the
most benevolent minds of any country.
A few of the great
women of France were then, as at all other times, carefully educated by men of learning; but most young ladies of rank were taught little more than to read, write, dance, and embroider, with more or less attention to books of religion, as their training was or was not of the convent. Neither music nor painting seems to have formed part of the education of the upper ranks. These accomplishments were left to professional people; and Ninon de l'Enclos, who was probably too knowing to neglect any art by which she might become more attractive, is the only distinguished person who is ever named as playing on any instrument. A great deal of time was spent by them at their workframes, where they employed their ingenuity on those stupendous tapestry-hangings, specimens of which are yet shewn in some great houses, as monuments of the fine taste and industry of the ladies of old. And every lady of high degree had a demoiselle de compagnie, whose business it was to read aloud for the benefit of the workers some book of history or poetry, or some high-flown romance of Calprenede, Scudery, or La Fayette, according to the taste of the principal person of the party.
Mademoiselle de Rabutin had probably her share of such instruction as this implies, and a good deal of a better kind over and above. She was brought up at home, the companion of her clever relations; had the entrée to her uncle's library; and would no doubt be helped by him to a little Latin, and also in her Italian studies, of which she was fond. She had friends and acquaintances among the pious ladies of the Port-Royal, who would give her good advice and religious instruction; and she was liked and talked to by her uncle's friends, among whom were Chapelain, Menage, and other professors of polite literature. Here was opportunity enough for the nourishment of the affections; and if such desultory means of intellectual culture should not be deemed sufficient to account for the extent and variety of knowledge to be found in her letters, we must call to mind that, after all, the essential parts of youthful education are simply to learn the habit of acquiring information, and a knowledge of the best methods. If the vessel be prepared, and the channels open, the stream will flow readily in from all quarters. She appears to have had at least this foundation, and her own clever head and lively temperament would help her to all the rest.
In addition to these advantages of birth and breeding, our youthful Marie was blessed with a healthy frame, good spirits, a natural flow of wit, and a very agreeable person. Her features were far from being regularly beautiful; the point of her nose, as she herself merrily describes it, 'tending a little towards the square;' and her eyes, though brilliant, being rather small, and, together with the eyelashes, of different tints. She is said to have been somewhat tall for a woman, with a good shape, a pleasing voice, a fine complexion, and a profusion of light hair. This
description agrees well with a portrait there is of her in the gallery of Versailles, in which she is represented in the bloom of youth, and with the colouring of Rubens's fairest women. The ill-natured Bussy, who, while smarting under her rejection of his addresses, draws a picture of her, makes the most of the slight defects of her face, and adds to them the conventional objection to her manners, that she was too playful for a woman of quality.' He afterwards withdraws his censure, and eulogises her beauty and wit to the skies, saying 'she deserved to have been a goddess.' But the true idea we form from her portraits, her friends, and herself, is, that she was an attractive woman, in the highest sense of that term, with delightful cordial manners, and a countenance as expressive of the beautiful soul which informed it, as of that tender heart so
'Quick to catch joy, and true to touch of wo.'
Such she was at the age of eighteen, when her uncle selected for her husband Henri Marquis de Sévigné, of an ancient family of Brittany, related to the Duguesclins, the Rohans, and also to the Cardinal de Retz. The good abbé probably flattered himself, he had made a great step in advance of the old mariage de convenance, when, in preferring the marquis to his rivals, he took into consideration his youth and gay temperament, as well as his birth and fortune.
Unfortunately, the supposed similarity between the bride and bridegroom proved but a shadow, and like a shadow it passed away. He had neither her brilliant nor her solid qualities. His gaiety was nothing better than levity and imprudence, and his wit went no higher than jeering and punning. He was fond of expense and gallantry, and soon gave his wife very little of his company; at the same time, he was good-natured, and did not dislike her; and, as we catch from the tone of her early letters, she was not unhappy with him, probably because she had, even at that early age, too much knowledge of the world in which she lived, to have entertained any very exalted notions connected with matrimony. Two children were born within four years: first, Charles de Sévigné, in 1647; and second, Frances, the future Countess de Grignan, that lovely and infinitely dear child,' at once the occupation, delight, and anxiety of her mother's future life.
Bussy de Rabutin, who held the marquis in great contempt, as a mere laugher and jester, avows that, hearing him boast of the approbation of Ninon de l'Enclos, he had taken advantage of the braggart's folly, to make the gross and insulting proposal to his wife, that she should take her revenge. Bussy, who was always making love to her either in the way of flattery or banter, and had been met with constant rejection, though not perhaps treated with the severity his presumption deserved, was quite malicious enough to have invented this story against the marquis, to forward his