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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Madame de Sévigné

Lettres de Madame de Sévigné. 1871. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

Madame de Sévigné (1626 –1696) lived over three hundred years ago, and yet her letters are still assigned in French classes and read by Francophiles to this day. Her letters are set during the back drop of the reign of Louis XIV, the "Sun King." The tragic events of her parents' deaths (one following shortly after the other) led to a fortunate change of circumstances for nine-year-old Sévigné. Going to live with her uncle, Christophe de Coulanges, the Abbé of Livry, she was given a rare education as a girl that included multiple languages and a solid foundation in the humanities. A brief and unhappy marriage provided her with two children whom she prized above all else — particularly her daughter, Françoise-Marguerite. A gifted chronicler, she was also prolific. She produced letters a few times a week that averaged up to 30 pages most of them starting in 1671 when her daughter married and relocated to Provence. Suffering in the absence of her daughter, she began her now legendary correspondences. She wrote to both children as a loving mother with the standard concerns about their partners and financial matters. But, she also wrote as a savvy socialite who was connected to the court and knew much about news and gossip. She was a popular figure at Versailles — giving her knowledge of racy court intrigue — but she also had a romantic side that is illustrated by some poetic contemplations about nature and and spirituality. As a result, the content of her letters spanned an impressive range from mundane gripes about her own increasing frailty, to witty remarks that demonstrated the extent of her familiarity with classic French writers. In total she wrote approximately 1,799 letters over her lifetime.

Letters of this style were often meant to be read aloud, and as a result, Madame de Sévigné adopted a lively conversational style. Although some of her views on politics can seem harsh today (she was a devout Catholic and was therefore sympathetic to the expulsion of French Protestants known as Huguenots), she was a product of the society around her and was not exposed to the variety of perspectives that would have been likely to broaden her mind. Her letters offer a rare combination of humor and historical fact that has captivated casual readers and historians for three centuries and counting.

For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: La Renaissance & Ancien Régime.

You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings:

Sévigné, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de, 1626-1696

Print & Digital Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.