Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Madame de Sévigné, a Woman of Letters

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (born 5 February 1626)

Best known as Madame de Sévigné, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal was married, gave birth to two children, and widowed by the time she was twenty-five years old. She never remarried, choosing instead to devote herself to raising and educating her children and to the lively, intellectually stimulating salons of Paris.

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal,
c. 1665
After her daughter Françoise married in 1669 and moved to Provence two years later, Sévigné began to write to her. On 6 February 1671, Sévigné sent the first of what would become more than a thousand letters to her daughter. Their exchange of letters continued until Sévigné's death in 1696. 

Her letters--which contained accounts of fashionable society, notes on various members of Sévigné's wide circle of friends and acquaintances, discussions of politics, morality, philosophy, and religion, and details of Sévigné's daily life and reading--were copied and circulated during her lifetime. The first small collection of selected letters from this voluminous correspondence was published in the early eighteenth century.

Sévigné's brilliant letters have long earned her a place as a significant literary figure. Despite the rather dismissive attitude of the writers of the "venerable" Encyclopedia Britannica (this is from the 2013 online edition: "The letters provide little that historians cannot find information about elsewhere, but Sévigné’s manner of telling her stories makes her version of current events and gossip unforgettable"), the significance of the content of her letters is now more widely recognized.  

Writing about Sévigné as a philosopher, John J. Conley notes, "in her correspondence, Sévigné presents her personal position on contested philosophical questions of the day. In many passages she defends her theories concerning nature, religion, moral psychology, and art." 

For Conley's introduction to Sévigné and her letters, an account that doesn't dismiss them as amusing trifles for purveying "gossip" but pays attention to the philosophical themes and issues she discusses, click here (this is an entry from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The bibliography of this essay notes useful studies for an introduction to Sévigné's moral philosophy, epistemology, and engagement with "Cartesian concepts."

But, maybe the best introduction to Sévigné is her letters. You can read them in a wonderful Penguin anthology or in a digitized edition from the Internet Archive.

Update, 4 February 2022: The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Sévigné was "revised and updated" on 1 February 2022, but its evaluation of her work has not changed, nor is there any acknowledgement of her philosophical interests and engagement.