Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné

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Madame de Sévigné, portrait by Claude Lefèbvre

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné (born February 5, 1626 in Paris , † April 17, 1696 at Grignan Castle , Provence ) was a member of the French nobility. She became known as an author through her letters and is counted among the classics of French literature .

Life and work

Memorial plaque on the house where Madame de Sévigné was born in Paris, Place des Vosges 2bis

She was born as Marie de Rabutin-Chantal and was the only survivor of three children of an officer from the old but somewhat impoverished Burgundian aristocracy and a mother from the new aristocratic Coulanges banking family. At the age of one and a half she lost her father, who was killed in the siege of La Rochelle , and at the age of seven also her mother. She initially stayed in the cosmopolitan Parisian house of her grandparents, Coulanges, where she had lived since she was born. But after she had lost her grandmother at eight and her grandfather at ten, her uncle and aunt on her father's side tried to bring her to Burgundy as the rich heiress she was and for a life as a nun or as the wife of one of their sons to determine the aunt. Her other grandmother, Johanna Franziska von Chantal (co-founder of the Visitation Order and later saint), managed to get her to stay in Paris as a foster child in the family of the eldest maternal uncle, Philippe de Coulanges, and his wife Marie the Elder 'Ormesson, who came from the high Parisian nobility ( noblesse de robe ). Here she received the usual aristocratic girls' education in conversation, singing, dancing and riding, but also learned Italian, some Latin and Spanish and above all was able to acquire a good literary education. She was introduced early on to the circle of writers and spiritually interested aristocrats around the Marquise de Rambouillet . One of her most ardent supporters was a younger uncle, the Abbé Christophe de Coulanges, who remained connected to her throughout his life.

After a rather happy childhood and youth despite the deaths around her, she married the 21-year-old Marquis Henri de Sévigné, who came from an old Breton nobility, in 1644 at the age of 18 and with a dowry of 300,000 francs . Sévigné was a follower of the powerful family clan of the Gondis who, with the Archbishop of Paris and his coadjutor and designated successor Paul de Gondi, also provided two of the witnesses to the marriage contract.

Rochers-Sévigné Castle in Vitré

The young couple initially stayed in Paris and lived there on a grand scale. In 1646 she had a first child, Françoise Marguerite. Later it went to Brittany, where Henri, thanks to his wife's dowry, had bought the office of governor. Son Charles was born in 1648 at the Sévignés family castle, Les Rochers near Vitré .

After the birth of the first owner, Mme de Sévigné declared her marital duties fulfilled and left her husband to his lover. She herself let herself be adored by various provincial nobles and beauties and wrote letters and apparently also verses in this context.

In 1651 her husband was fatally injured in a duel in Paris (there was the honor of his lover). During her subsequent long stay in the capital, the young widow was accepted by the coadjutor Gondi, who, having just been promoted to cardinal, acted as one of the heads of the " Fronde " (1648–1652) against the minister Cardinal Mazarin . However, their proximity to Gondi soon became a burden, because when he was arrested as ringleader after Mazarin's victory in 1652, Mme de Sévigné was part of the loser party, much like a young new friend, later Madame de La Fayette , who was under the Exile of her stepfather René de Sévigné (an uncle of Henri de Sévigné).

Madame de Sévigné as a widow. Portrait of Robert Nanteuil in the Carnavalet Museum , Paris

Mme de Sévigné returned to Paris as early as 1653 and from then on only spent her summer holidays at Rochers-Sévigné Castle in Vitré, where her friend Emilie von Hessen-Kassel also owned a country house. She did not think of a new marriage, but rather enjoyed her relative freedom as a wealthy, handsome and witty widow. She quickly created a circle z. T. high-ranking admirer around, but kept them wisely at a distance. Above all, she gained appreciation as a stimulating entertainer and conversation partner in intellectually interested circles, e.g. E.g. that of the novelist Madeleine de Scudéry or that of the finance minister and great patron Nicolas Fouquet . Well-known writers also raved about them, e. B. Jean Chapelain or Gilles Ménage , whom she already knew from the Hôtel de Rambouillet. She was portrayed very flatteringly by Mlle de Scudéry in her hit novel Clélie (1657). One of the most important caregivers in these years was her somewhat older cousin on her father's side, the military, courtier and writer Roger de Bussy-Rabutin , who would have liked to become her lover, but broke with her for some time in 1658 because she had refused to meet him to borrow a larger sum. It is not known whether she was occasionally performing at court at that time. She left the administration of her finances to her uncle Christophe, who in the meantime had become abbot of the Livry monastery near Paris, where she often visited him with her children.

Already during these years she corresponded with numerous people, and early on she enjoyed a certain reputation as the author of interesting and entertaining letters, which were often shown around, read out or even copied.

One of her correspondents was also Fouquet, which is why she feared new difficulties when he was arrested and charged with enrichment in the office in the autumn of 1661. Indeed, her letters to Fouquet were presented to the young King Louis XIV . But he was taken with them, and instead of ostracizing the scribe as one of Fouquet's loyalists, he opened the court to her in 1662. Her daughter Françoise was even allowed to dance with him several times in ballet performances, and in May 1664 both women were guests of the splendid festival with which the Park of Versailles was inaugurated. In the following years, however, the connection between Mme de Sévignés and Ludwig loosened, initially perhaps because she had blocked his attempts to approach Françoise. Later, her contacts with former frondeurs (such as Duke François de La Rochefoucauld ) and other regime-critical, e. B. Jansenist- oriented aristocratic circles a certain distance from the increasingly authoritarian monarch. This did not mean that she was completely alienated from him and the court, and in 1689 she was flattered when Ludwig, as she proudly reports in a letter, approached her after a theater performance and asked her for her opinion.

Madame de Sévigné (right) and her daughter Madame de Grignan. Portraits in Bussy-Rabutin Castle

Most of Mme de Sévigné's letters from the 1640s to 1660s have been lost. An exception is a series of letters from the end of 1664 in which she kept another intimate of Fouquet who had been banished to the province up to date about his trial. Because she received information on this from one of the judges, Olivier d'Ormesson, a brother of her foster mother, whom she might even be able to influence in the sense of softening the initially targeted death sentence.

Hôtel Carnavalet (Musée), Paris
View of Grignan

A profound change in the role of Mme de Sévignés as letter writer finally meant the fact that her daughter, who had married Count François de Grignan ( who had already been widowed twice) in 1669, disappeared with him in early 1671 to Provence , where he took over the official business in Aix of the governor took over. After that, in addition to her occasional letters to other addressees, she began regularly to write two or three letters a week to her daughter, with the exception of course when she was visiting Aix or at Grignan Castle near Montélimar , from where she was also visited her close Parisian friend, the Princess of Monaco , or, conversely, she lived with her daughter and her family in Paris, where in 1677 she had rented a palace, the Hôtel Carnavalet , in order to be able to offer an inviting atmosphere.

It is the corpus of these letters to the daughter, which with 764 pieces is apparently almost completely preserved, that ultimately determined the image of the author, namely as the prototype of the loving mother and loyal grandmother. In these texts, intended as very private messages, she repeatedly reassures the daughter of her almost idolatrous love and solicits the reciprocal love of the somewhat brittle. Rather alongside, she describes effectively, lively and without make-up, sometimes even drastically, her changing sensitivities and experiences in Paris and elsewhere, e.g. B. on Les Rochers, on the road on trips or at spa stays, and the reflexes of great politics or the gossip from the common circle of friends and of course from the court.

Over the years she developed her letter art into a literary genre sui generis , the style of which she varied artistically in the sense of the appearance of the greatest possible lightness, naturalness and spontaneity and, especially when writing to other addressees, occasionally reflected. In spite of the time and effort she invested in the letters, she never thought of having a collection that she had acquired or even licensed printed. This is also shown by the fact that she did not make copies or had them made.


Statue of the Marquise de Sévigné in Grignan
Fountain with statue of the Marquise de Sévigné in Grignan
Summer evening in Grignan (2011) in front of the fountain with the statue of the Marquise de Sévigné

Letters from her were first printed after her death, in the context of two works by her cousin Bussy-Rabutin, which were also published posthumously, namely his memoirs (1696) and his correspondence with her (1697). The editors, a son and a daughter of Bussys, thought it appropriate to shorten the total of 115 letters to Mme de Sévignés and to edit them in a more conventional, literary style.

The editors of the first individual editions, which, incidentally, appeared on the basis of copies, felt that the editors of the first individual editions had to undertake the same shortening, smoothing and dampening. In 1725 these editions were a small volume of historically interesting letters or extracts from letters and in 1726 a two-volume pirated print with 137 letters to the daughter. These had been selected from her mother's estate by a granddaughter, Pauline de Simiane, and sent to Bussy junior for publication, but had fallen into strange hands when he suddenly died earlier.

In 1734, the same granddaughter therefore commissioned a quasi-official publication of all the letters from her grandmother that she had. In doing so, she agreed with the editor, Denis-Marius Perrin, that passages that appeared too private should be erased (about a third of the amount of text was lost) and that the letters as a whole should be morally clean and stylistically smoothed. She destroyed the originals as well as her mother's reply letters that were still in existence. The six-volume collection, the last two volumes of which appeared shortly after her death in 1737, comprised 614 letters. In 1754 Perrin brought out a larger new edition with 722 letters.

Later editions, like those of 1754, were enriched by systematically researching aristocratic estates and family archives after Mme de Sévigné had become famous. Not only were there about 250 previously unknown letters (including the above-mentioned series from the end of 1664), but copies of known and already printed letters that were obviously closer to the original texts than the printed versions were found. Overall, the number of letters received amounts to approx. 1120, of which only about 5% are available as autographs . Most of the letters addressed to addressees other than the daughter must be considered lost, including the approx. 600, of whose former existence one indirectly knows.

A total of several hundred editions of Sévigné's letters have appeared from 1725 to the present day. On the one hand, these are the complete editions from 1862–1867 and 1972–1978, but above all, selected editions that have been compiled according to a wide variety of criteria and offer texts that are often edited in one way or another, i. H. for a specific audience, e.g. B. Schoolchildren, young women, etc. Ä., are processed.

For readers interested in history, the letters are an invaluable source of information about people close to the author and about the everyday life and imagination of the French high nobility under Louis XIV.

A more recent selection in German translation was published in 1996 as an island paperback ( ISBN 3-458-32095-4 ).


Madame de Sévigné, Correspondance. Nouvelle édition […] by R. Duchêne (Paris 1972–1978)


  • Letters from Miss Ninon de Lenclos to the Marquis de Sévigné. In addition to a life story of the letter writer (= Kulturhistorische Liebhaberbibliothek. Volume 37, ZDB -ID 543416-6 ). German translation by Hanns Heinz Ewers based on the original edition by François Joly Amsterdam 1750–1752. Friedrich Rothbarth, Leipzig 1908.
  • Edward FitzGerald : Dictionary of Madame de Sévigné. 2 volumes. Edited and commented by Mary Eleanor FitzGerald Kerrich. Macmillan, London 1914 (online: digitized volume 1 , digitized volume 2 ).
  • Marianne Schmidt: Madame de Sévigné and the public life of her time. Munich 1935, DNB 571205550 (dissertation, University of Munich, 1935).
  • Fritz Nies : Genre poetics and audience structure. On the history of the Sévigné letters (= theory and history of literature and the fine arts. Volume 21, ISSN  0563-4415 ). Fink, Munich 1972 (habilitation thesis, University of Heidelberg).
  • Madame de Sévigné: Letters (= Insel-Taschenbuch. Volume 395). Edited and translated by Theodora von der Mühll. Insel-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1979, ISBN 3-458-32095-4 (several editions).
  • Erich Köhler : Lectures on the history of French literature. Part: Classic II. Edited by Henning Krauss and Dietmar Rieger. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart et al. 1983, ISBN 3-17-007698-1 .
  • Christiane Solte-Gresser: Living in Dialogue. Ways of self-assurance in the letters of Marie de Sévigné and Isabelle de Charrière (= Frankfurt feminist texts, literature and philosophy. Volume 4). Helmer, Königstein im Taunus 2000, ISBN 3-89741-035-4 .
  • Gerlinde Kraus: Important French women (Christine de Pizan, Émilie du Châtelet, Madame de Sévigné, Germaine de Staël, Olympe de Gouges, Madame Roland, George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir). Schröder, Mühlheim am Main 2006, ISBN 3-9811251-0-X .
  • Susanne Schürmann (Ed.): Madame de Sévigné. Letters to the daughter . Selected and translated from the French by Susanne Schürmann. Nostrum Verlag, Mülheim an der Ruhr 2020, ISBN 978-3-9816465-8-0 .


In 1979 the television film Claude Jade lit Madame de Sévigné was made , with actress Claude Jade at Château Grignan for France 3 .

Web links

Commons : Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Readers with a good knowledge of French are recommended to read the article on the French Wiki, which also contains text examples.