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Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696:


Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, who became Madame de Sévigné, was born at Paris on February 6, 1626. Her father and mother died during her childhood and Marie was left to the care of her uncle, priest of Coulanges; she received an admirable education and became a great lover of history and of classical literature. At eighteen years of age she married the Marquis Henri de Sévigné, who was killed in a duel in 1651, and thenceforth Madame de Sévigné gave herself up altogether to the care of her two children. Her wit, her kindliness, and happiness, her charity and fidelity, and especially a certain rare genius for friendship, won for her the warm devotion of many great people of that brilliant age. Her daughter was married in 1669 to the Comte de Grignan, a great official, lieutenant-general of Languedoc and then of Provence, a man of honour, but accustomed to the most lavish expenditure, which burdened his life with enormous debts. The famous "Letters" of Madame de Sévigné numbering over 1,000 were written over a period of twenty-five years, chiefly to this daughter, Madame de Grignan. They are valued for their vivacious and graceful style, the light which they throw upon the thoughts and movements of her time, but especially for their revelation of a wonderfully sweet and gracious personality. Madame de Sévigné died on April 18, 1696.

Love for her Daughter

My dear child: I have been here but three hours, and already take my pen to talk to you. I left Paris with the Abbé, Hélène, Hébert and Marphise, so that I might get away from the noise and bustle of the town until Thursday evening. I want to have perfect quietness, in which to reflect. I intend to fast for many good reasons, and to walk much to make up for the long time I have spent in my room; and above all, I want to discipline myself for the love of God.

But, my dear daughter, what I shall do more than all this, will be to think of you. I have not ceased to do so since I arrived here; and being quite unable to restrain my feelings, I have betaken myself to the little shady walk you so loved, to write to you, and am sitting on the mossy bank where you so often used to lie. But, my dear, where in this place have I not seen you? Do not thoughts of you haunt my heart everywhere I turn?--in the house, in the church, in the field, in the garden--every spot speaks to me of you. You are in my thoughts all the time, and my heart cries out for you again and again. I search in vain for the dear, dear child I love so passionately; but she is 600 miles away, and I cannot call her to my side. My tears fall, and I cannot stop them. I know it is weak, but this tenderness for you is right and natural and I cannot be strong.

I wonder what your mood will be when you receive this letter; perhaps at that moment you will not be touched with the emotions I now feel so poignantly, and then you may not read it in the spirit in which it was written. But against that I cannot guard, and the act of writing relieves my feelings at the moment--that is at least what I ask of it. You would not believe the condition into which this place has thrown me.

Do not refer to my weakness, I beg of you; but you must love me, and have respect for my tears, since they flow from a heart which is full of you.

The Brinvilliers Affair

The Brinvilliers affair is still the only thing talked of in Paris. The Marquise confessed to having poisoned her father, her brothers, and one of her children. The Chevalier Duget had been one of those who had partaken of a poisoned dish of pigeon-pie; and when the Brinvilliers was told three years later that he was still alive, her only remark was "that man surely has an excellent constitution." It seems she fell deeply in love with Sainte Croix, an officer in the regiment of her husband, the Marquis, who lived in their house. Believing that Sainte Croix would marry her if she were free, she attempted to poison her husband. Sainte Croix, not reciprocating her desire, administered an antidote, and thus saved the poor Marquis's life.

And now, all is over. The Brinvilliers is no more. Judgment was given yesterday and this morning her sentence was read to her--she was to make a public confession in front of Notre Dame, after which she was to be executed, her body burnt and her ashes scattered to the winds. She was threatened with torture, but said it was unnecessary and that she would tell all. Accordingly she recounted the history of her whole life, which was even more horrible than anyone had imagined, and I could not hear of it without shuddering.

At six in the morning she was led out, barefoot, and clad only in one loose garment, with a halter round her neck. From Notre Dame she was carried back in the same Tumbril, in which I saw her lying on straw, with the Doctor on one side of her and the executioner on the other; the sight of her struck me with horror. I am told that she mounted the scaffold with a firm step, and died as she had lived, resolutely, and without fear or emotion.

She asked her confessor to place the executioner so that she need not gaze on Degrais, who, you will remember, tracked her to England, and ultimately arrested her at Liège. After she had mounted the ladder to the scaffold she was exposed to the public for a quarter of an hour, while the executioner arranged her for execution. This raised a murmur of disapproval among the people, and it was a great cruelty. It seems that some say she was a saint; and after her body had been burned, the people crowded near to search for bones as relics, but little was to be found, as her ashes were thrown into the fire. And, it may be supposed, that we now inhale what remains of her. It is to be hoped that we shall not inhale her murderous instincts also.

She had two confessors, of whom one counselled her to tell everything, the other nothing. She laughed, and said, "I may in conscience do what pleases me best."

I was pleased to hear what you think of this horrible woman; it is not possible that she should be in Paradise; her vile soul must be separated from others.


You ask me if I am devout. Alas! No, which is a sorrow to me; but I am in a way detached from what is called the world. Old age, and a little sickness give one time to reflect. But, my dear child, what I do not give to the world, I give to you; so that I hardly advance in the region of detachment; and you know the true way towards a devout life lies in some degree of effacement, first of all, of that which our heart holds dearest.

One of my great desires is to become devout. Every day I am tormented by this idea. I do not belong to God, neither do I belong to the Devil; this indecision is a perpetual torment to me, although between ourselves, I believe this state to be a most natural one. One does not belong to the Devil, because one fears God: also, one does not belong to God, because His law is hard, and one does not like to renounce oneself. These are the luke-warm, and their great number does not surprise me at all; I can enter into their reasonings; but God hates them; therefore we must cease to serve in this state--and there is the difficulty.

I am overwhelmed by the death of M. du Mans; I had never thought of death in connection with him. Yet he has died of a trifling fever, without having had time to think either of heaven or of earth. Providence sometimes shows its authority by sudden visitations, from which we should profit.

What you say as to the anxieties which we so often and so naturally feel about the future, and as to how our inclinations are insensibly changed by necessity, is a subject worthy of a book like Pascal's; nothing is so satisfying, nothing so useful as meditations of this kind. But how many people of your age think this? I know of none; and I honour your sound reasoning and courage. With me it is not so, especially when my heart afflicts me; my words are indifferently good; I write as those who speak well; but the depth of my feeling kills me. This I feel when I write to you of the pain of separation. I have not myself found the proverb true, "To cloak oneself according to the cold." I have no cloak against cold like this. Yet I manage to find occupation, and the time passes somehow. But in general it is true that our thoughts and inclinations turn into other channels, and our sorrows cease to be such.

Love of Life

You ask me, dear child, if I am still in love with life. I must confess that I find its sorrows grievous, but my distaste for death is even stronger. It is sad to think I must finish my life with death, and if it were possible I would retrace my steps. I find myself embarked on life without my consent, and am in a perplexing situation. I shall have to take leave of life, and the fact overwhelms me: for how, or by what gate, shall I pass away? When will death come, and in what disposition will it find me? Shall I suffer a thousand pains which will make me die in despair? Shall I die in a transport of joy? Shall I die of an accident? How shall I stand before God? What shall I have to offer Him? Shall I return to Him in fear and necessity, and be conscious of no other feeling but terror? What can I hope for? Am I worthy of Paradise? Or worthy only of Hell? What an alternative! What perplexity! Nothing is so mad as to leave one's safety thus in uncertainty; but nothing is more natural; and the foolish life I lead is perfectly easy to understand. I plunge myself into these thoughts; and I find death so terrible, that I hate life more because it leads to death, than because it leads me through troublesome places. You will say I wish to live for ever. Not at all; but if I had been asked, I would willingly have died in my nurse's arms, for I should thus have avoided many sorrows and would have secured heaven with certainty and ease.

The Order of God

Providence wills order; but if order is nothing other than the will of God, almost all that occurs is done against His will: all the persecutions, for instance, against St. Athanasius; all the prosperity of ill-doers and tyrants--all this is against order and therefore against the will of God. We must surely hold to what St. Augustine says, that God permits all these things so that he may manifest His glory by means that are unknown to us. St. Augustine knows no rule nor order but the will of God. If we did not follow this doctrine, we should be forced to conclude that almost everything is contrary to the will of Him who made it, and this seems to me a dreadful conclusion.

I should like to complain to Father Malebranche about the mice which eat everything here; is that in order? Sugar, fruit, preserves, everything is devoured by them. And was it order last year, that miserable caterpillars destroyed the leaves of our forest-trees and gardens, and all the fruit in the country-side? Father Payen, most peaceable of men, has his head broken; is that order? Yes, Father, all that is doubtless good. God knows how to dispose of it to His glory, though we know not how. We must take it as true, for if we do not regard the will of God as equivalent to all law and order, we fall into great difficulties.

You are such a philosopher, my very dear child, that there is no way of being happy with you. Your mind runs on beyond our hopes to picture to itself the loss of all we hope for; and you see, in our meetings, the inevitable separation that is to follow. Surely that is not the way to deal with the good things Providence prepares for us; we should rather husband and enjoy them. But after having made this little reproach, I must confess in all honesty that I deserve it just as much as you. No one can be more daunted than I am by the flight of time, nor feel more keenly beforehand the griefs which ordinarily follow pleasures. Indeed, my daughter, life mingles its good and ill: when one has what one desires, one is all the nearer to losing it; when it is further from us, we dream of finding it. So we must just take things as God sends them. For my part, I would cherish the hope of seeing you without mixing in with other feelings; and look forward to holding you in my arms next month. I wish to believe God will allow us this perfect joy, although it would be the easiest thing in the world to mix it with bitterness, if we so desired. All that remains, my very dear one, is to breathe and to live.

The Prince of Orange and England

The Prince of Orange has declared himself protector of the religion of England, and has asked to have charge of the education of the young Prince. It is a bold step, and several of the English nobility have joined him. We are all hoping that the Prince of Orange has made a mistake, and that King James II. will give him a good beating. He has received the Milords, confirmed the attachment of those most devoted to him, and has declared entire liberty of conscience. But we understand that the King of England has united all his people round him, by affording a greater degree of religious liberty.


What shall we say of this English nation? Its customs and manners go from bad to worse. The King of England has escaped from London, apparently by kind permission of the Prince of Orange; the Queen will arrive at St. Germain in a day or two. It is quite certain that war will be declared against us soon, if indeed we are not the first to declare it. We are sending the Abbé Testu to St. Germain to help in establishing there the King and Queen of England and the Prince of Wales. Our King of France has behaved quite divinely to these Majesties of England; for to comfort and sustain, as he has done, a betrayed and abandoned king, is to act in the image of the Almighty.


It is good news that the King of England has left this morning for Ireland, where they are anxiously awaiting him. He will be better there than here. He is travelling through Brittany like lightning, and at Brest he will find Marshall d'Estrée with transport and frigates ready. He carries large treasure, and the King has given him arms for ten thousand men; as his Majesty of England was saying good-bye, he said, laughing, that he had forgotten arms for himself, and our King gave him his own. Our heroes of romance have done nothing more gallant. What will not this brave and unfortunate King accomplish with these ever victorious weapons? He goes forth with the helmet and cuirass of Renaud, Amadis, and our most illustrious paladins, supported by unexampled generosity and magnanimity.

Old Age

So you have been struck by Madame de la Fayette's words, inspired by so much friendliness. I never let myself forget the fact that I am growing old; but I must confess that I was simply astonished at what she said, because I do not yet feel any infirmity to keep me in mind of my advancing years. I think of them, however, and find that life offers us hard conditions: here have I been led, in spite of myself, to the fatal period at which one must die--old age. I see it; old age has stolen upon me; and my only desire is to go no further. I do not want to travel along that road of infirmities, pains, the loss of memory, the disfigurements to which I look forward as an outrage; yet I hear a voice saying in my ear--"You must pass down that road, whether you like it or not, or else you must die"; and this second alternative is as repugnant to nature as the first. This is the inevitable lot of whoever advances too far along the course of life. Yet, a return to God's will, and submission to that universal law which has condemned us all to death, is enough to seat reason again on her throne, and to give us patience. Do you too have patience, my darling; don't let your love, too tender, cause you tears which your reason must condemn.

Your brother has come under the Empire of Ninon de Lenclos; I fear it will bring evil; she ruined his father. We must recommend him to God. Christian women, or at least who wish to be so, cannot see disorder like his without sorrow.

But what a dangerous person this Ninon is! She finds that your brother has the simplicity of a dove, and is like his mother; it is Madame de Grignan who has all the salt of the family, and is not so simple as to be ruled. Someone, meaning to take your part, tried to correct her notion of you, but Ninon contradicted him and said she knew you better. What a corrupt creature! Because you are beautiful and spirited she must needs add to you another quality without which, on her principles, you cannot be perfect. I have been deeply troubled by the harm she is doing to my son. But do not speak of the matter to him; Madame de la Fayette and I are doing our best to extricate him from his perilous attachment.

We have been reading for our amusement those little Provincial Letters. Heavens, what charm they have! How eagerly my son reads them! I always think of my daughter, and how worthy of her is the incomparable justice of their reasoning; but your brother says that you complain that the writer is always saying the same thing. Well, well; all the better! Is it possible that there should be a more perfect style, or a finer, more delicate or more natural raillery? Could anything be more worthy of comparison with Plato's "Dialogues"? But after the first ten letters, what earnestness, solidity, force and eloquence! What love for God and for truth, what exquisite skill in maintaining it and making it understood, characterise these eight last letters with their so different tone! I understand that you have read them only hurriedly, enjoying the more amusing passages; but that is not how one reads them at leisure.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, March 2023

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