17th Century Facebook with Madame de Sévigné

17th Century Facebook with Madame de Sévigné

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Madame de Sévigné's letters courtesy of Grignan-guide
Madame de Sévigné’s letters courtesy of Grignan-guide

During the 17th century there were no phones, certainly no email, and the postal services were no faster than a horse. The equivalent of Facebook at this time, and for centuries to come, was letter writing. The legacy of carefully constructed letters, frequently beautifully handwritten on sturdy stationery with pen and ink, is a moment of time preserved for the future. They can be a window into life as it was at the time of writing.

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné was a French aristocrat who lived during the reign of Louis XIV. During her time Marie was considered the most beautiful woman in Paris. Her husband was killed in a duel when she was just 25 and she spent the rest of her life as a widow. But she was never lonely, devoting herself to her two small children. When Françoise married at age 23 and moved to Provence, her mother sent letters two, sometimes three times each week, beginning a correspondence that lasted for 27 years.

Marquise de Sévigné by Lefebvre
Marquise de Sévigné by Lefebvre/ courtesy of Carnavalet

Madame de Sévigné had received a solid classical education, studying several languages. She was an avid reader and already a prolific letter writer. The Marquise was extremely well connected so she had all fingers on the pulse of life in Paris, making her a popular and regular participant in the literary salons.

As with FaceBook, Madame de Sévigné’s letters were copied and shared with her circle of friends. This was not unusual in the salons of this time and because her letters were so eloquent, she enjoyed the equivalent of a massive number of “likes”. Her letters became preferred reading in the salons. Madame’s correspondence to family and friends survived and now they give us a vibrant, real-life record of that time in history. Her expressive letters are full of sass and scandal but they are also sprinkled with introspection and the love she had for her two children.

A statue of Madame de Sévigné in Grignan /by MOSSOT-Wikipedia
A statue of Madame de Sévigné in Grignan /by MOSSOT-Wikipedia

Letter to her daughter Madame de Grignan: Wednesday 29 April 1676

     “Mme de Brinvilliers is not as happy as I am, she is in prison. She is managing pretty well. Yesterday she asked if she could play piquet because she was bored. Her confession has been found. She tells us that at seven she was no longer a virgin, that she went on in the same way, that she had poisoned her father, her brothers, one of her own children and herself, but this was only in order to try out an antidote. Medea had not done as much. She admitted that this confession was in her own hand (a very silly thing to do), but says she was in a high fever when she wrote it, that it was an act of lunacy, an extravagance that could not be taken seriously.”

(from “Madame de Sévigné – Selected Letters by Penguin Classics)

During the final two decades of her life, Madame de Sévigné lived for some of the time in Hôtel Carnavalet. This stunning mansion in the Marais is now half of Musée Carnavalet, which is devoted to the history of the city– from the 3rd century BC Parisii village of Lutetia to 21st century Paris. Entering the museum is like trespassing on a film set. This really is remembrance of times past, in three dimensions. As you move from room to room you also move from time to another time. The opulence is luscious; the details extraordinary.

The Carnavalet museum by Gai Reid
The Carnavalet museum by Gai Reid

The woman who is now regarded one of the great icons of French literature, once walked through the rooms of this mansion, sat at her secretaire and chose carefully the words that have given us such insight into her world. Several portraits of Madame and many of her belongings live on at Musée Carnavalet.

Musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris. 23 Rue de Sévigné 75003 Paris. Metro: Saint-Paul. Tel: +33 (0)1 44 59 58 58. Open Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. Admission FREE. Please note that the museum is now closed for renovations until the end of 2019.

A portrait at the Carnavalet Museum
A portrait at the Carnavalet Museum, courtesy of Carnavalet

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks. I was aware of her but you piqued my interest. I love the Musee and plan to look more closely for her on my next visit.

  2. Wonderfully well written, thank you! I just had to share it on our TLC Doll Tours Facebook page! Carnavalet is often overlooked by tourists who get worn out by the time they try to fit the d’Orsay, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower all into one day! A much better plan is to start with the Musée Carnavalet, followed by lunch in the Marais, then one of the following: Musée D’Orsay OR selected sections of the Louvre, OR the Eiffel Tower at sunset…

    • Merci Lynn, I agree with you that Carnavalet is one of the best ways to get a picture of Paris past. It is often my first stop after arriving in Paris and I stay until the jet lag sends me back to bed! Your dolls are very beautiful, thank you for sharing.

  3. Madame de Sévigné’s letters (mainly the correspondence with her daughter) were published in 7 volumes in French. They were translated into English in 1927. My husband bought a set a few years ago at an antique store for me for Christmas. They are a delightful read. If you are a French history fan you will love them; so great to read about events from someone who actually witnessed many of them! When the museum reopens in 2019 it is definitely a must see! I was there in 2015 and it was partially closed due to renovation. I plan to revisit when it reopens. Thank you for the reminder!

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