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MADAME DE SÉVIGNÉ.
(From the Quarterly Review, January, 1873.)
“MADAME DE SÉVIGNÉ, like La Fontaine, like Montaigne, is one of those subjects which are perpetually in the order of the day in France. She is not only a classic, she is an acquaintance, and, better still, a neighbour and a friend.”? She will never be this, or anything like it, in England. Her name is equally familiar, almost as much a household word; and there are always amongst us a select few who find an inexhaustible source of refined enjoyment in her letters. The Horace Walpole set affected to know them by heart : George Selwyn meditated an edition of them, and preceded Lady Morgan in that pilgrimage to the Rochers which she describes so enthusiastically in her “Book of the Boudoir.” Even in our time it would have been dangerous to present oneself often at Holland House or the Berrys', without being tolerably well up in them. Mackintosh rivalled Walpole in exalting her. But the taste is not on the increase : the worshippers decline apace: we hear of no recent English visitors to the Breton shrine : the famous flourish about the Grande Mademoiselle marriage, with the account of the death of Vattel, form the sum of what is
1 Madame de Sévigné: her Correspondence and Contemporaries. By the Comtesse de Puliga. 2 vols. London, 1873.
· Sainte-Beuve, “Causeries de Lundi.”
correctly known on this side of the Channel of her epistolary excellence : her personal history is not known at all, and maternal love is the only quality which nineteen cultivated people out of twenty could specify in illustration of her character. Yet no man or woman ever lived who was less national (in the exclusive sense) or more cosmopolitan in heart and mind, in feeling and in thought. It is not French nature, but human nature in its full breadth and variety, that she represents or typifies. Her sparkling fancy, her fine spirit of observation, her joyous confiding (and self-confiding) frankness, her utter absence of affectation, her generosity, her loyalty, her truth, are of no clime. Indeed we are by no means sure that her most sterling qualities will not just now be best understood, felt, and appreciated out of France.
Nor are the incidents with which they are mixed up, the topics which call them forth or give occasion for them, of so local and temporary a character as to repel the general reader. She is the chief chronicler of the three stirring and eventful epochs which constitute what is commonly called the age of Louis Quatorze: the choicest materials for its history are to be found in her Letters; and her private life cannot be told without connecting it, at many trying and interesting conjunctures, with the lives of her most illustrious and celebrated contemporaries. The pupil of Ménage and Chapelain, the pride of the Hôtel Rambouillet, the object of vain pursuit to such men as Bussy, Conti, Fouquet, and Turenne, the friend or associate of de Retz, Rochefoucauld, Corneille, Racine, Molière, La Fontaine, Pascal, Bossuet, La Grande Mademoiselle, the Scudérys, Madame la Fayette, Madame Maintenon-in short, of almost every Frenchman or Frenchwoman of note for more than half a century,—she might be made the central figure of a series of historic groups,
had she never been known to fame as a letter-writer. Neither can we admit the argument that all who wish to become intimately acquainted with her, to make her (what Sainte-Beuve says she is in France) a neighbour and a friend, will always repair by preference to French writers : to the exhaustive “Mémoires” of Walckenaer, or the critical “ Notice" of Mesnard. Porson frankly admitted that, consummate Grecian as he was, he never read a Greek play as easily as an English newspaper; and there is a numerous class in this country who approach the French classics with more hesitation and diffidence than Porson felt towards the Greek. They come to them as to a task : they are often obliged to pause and construe as they proceed; and therefore is it that an English biography of a Frenchwoman so far famed, yet (as regards England) so really little known as Madame de Sévigné, may confidently reckon on a favourable reception; provided it fulfil the conditions which an English public is fairly entitled to exact.
The work before us fulfils many of them. Madame de Puliga has diligently studied her subject in all its bearings; she is thoroughly imbued
1 M. Paul Mesnard is the author of the “ Notice biographique” prefixed to the annotated edition of the Letters in fourteen volumes, royal octavo, forming the commencement of the collection entitled, “ Les Grands Ecrivains de la France.” Hachette, Paris, 1862. The fullest account of Madame de Sévigné and her times (to 1680) is to be found in the “ Mémoires touchant la Vie et les Ecrits de Marie de RabutinChantal, Dame de Bourbilly, Marquise de Sévigné,” &c., &c. By Baron Walckenaer, six volumes with the Continuations. Amongst the abridged editions of the Letters, the best is the one of 1870, with a
“ Notice" by M. P. Jacquinet and a Treatise on her epistolary style by M. Suard. There is a useful English work, published in 1842, entitled “Madame de Sévigné and her Contemporaries,” composed of a series of biographical notices, one of which, of about thirty pages, is devoted to Mesdames de Sévigné et Grignan.
with the spirit of the period of which she treats: she is at home with both correspondents and contemporaries : without aiming at research or originality (for which there was neither room nor occasion on so beaten a track), she has made a judicious selection from the embarrassing abundance of materials accumulated to her hands : treading frequently on very delicate ground, she is never wanting in feminine refinement or good taste; and although she occasionally provokes a feeling of opposition by dwelling too often and too ecstatically on the virtues of her heroine, she somehow manages to bring us very nearly round to her opinion in the end.
Unluckily there is one condition that is not fulfilled. When we were expecting Madame de Sévigné in a simple English dress, she is presented to us in a costume which has obviously been fashioned after French models and is rather showily adorned with French point. In other words, the language and phraseology lead to the impression that the accomplished authoress had been accustomed to think and write exclusively in French, and that this is her first serious or sustained effort in English composition. Her style is cramped and artificial, neither flowing nor idiomatic, till she warms. But by the time she has completed half her first volume, she has worked herself tolerably free of her Gallic tendencies; which are faintly discernible in the second, and will not be found to deduct materially from the sterling value of the book. Its range is wide, and the foreground is so crowded by “contemporaries as to require no ordinary stretch of attention to keep Madame de Sévigné distinctly in view throughout. It strikes us, therefore, that a sketch of her and them on a more reduced scale may prove a