In my perusal of Paris’ history, one name makes frequent appearances during the reign of Louis XIV—Mme de Sévigné. She was France’s preeminent writer of epistles in the seventeenth century. Not trained in philosophy, yet in her extensive correspondence, de Sévigné develops a distinctive position on the philosophical disputes of her era. Her letters reflect the intellectual sophistication of the period’s salon culture.
During her lifetime, individual letters were already copied and read by members of her social circle. Circulation of letters and memoirs was not unusual in the era’s salons. The preeminent literary quality of the letters quickly established them as favored salon reading. Most of the correspondence is letters between Mme de Sévigné and her daughter.
Soon after her daughter’s marriage to Monsieur de Grignan, a scion of one of Provence’s noblest families, beyond Mme de Sévigné’s expectation, Louis XIV appointed her son-in-law Lieutenant Governor of his native Provence. The Grignans were forced to leave Paris for their ancestral estate, which prompts Mme de Sévigné to begin her writing career as a way of surviving the pain of this severance.
The mother’s correspondence has a tone of erotic possessiveness unusual in any epoch. She even expresses toward her son-in-law that she, the mother, should remain the center of her daughter’s affections. The visit to Paris becomes so strained as Mme de Sévigné’s nagging and snooping are so possessive.
The letters do not limit to domestic happenings. They also deal with the intrigues that accompanied Louis XIV’s shifting affections from Mlle. de La Valli ere to Mme. de Montespan to the future Mme. de Maintenon (Louis XIV’s second wife); the costumes, coiffures, jewelry, games and conversations displayed at the court of Versailles, which Mme de Sévigné visited once or twice a year.
Her letters brought to light the trial on charges of treason of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s Superintendant of Finances, an event on which she lavished 40 letters that offer as detailed an account as one might have of the daily account of court proceedings in 17th century.