The Queen of Gossip in 17th Century Paris

The Queen of Gossip in 17th Century Paris
Is the past really a different country? Reading the gossipy letters of Mme de Sévigné, which give such a delightful insight into the upper echelons of 17th-century Paris society, the answer seems to be yes … and no!  The luxurious court of Louis XIV does seem far-distant, but the human dramas which played out there are instantly relatable. Mme de Sévigné was very well-placed to observe Parisian high society. She was born in the Place des Vosges (then called the Place Royale) and lived for many years in the nearby Hôtel Carnavalet. As a wealthy aristocratic widow, she moved in the highest circles. It is said that she knew personally “almost everybody, from the highest in the court downwards.” When her daughter married and moved to Provence, she began a correspondence with her that has left us the priceless legacy of detailed, colorful descriptions of life in Paris, laced with gossip and her own incisive commentary. The letters span nearly 30 years, from 1669 to her death in 1696. Aerial view of the Place des Vosges (C) (CC BY 3.0) The subject of her daughter’s marriage is an early insight into her outlook. She writes to a friend that Françoise-Marguerite, “the prettiest girl in France,” is to marry Monsieur de Grignan, “one of the most honorable men in the kingdom.” Others advised caution because this was his third marriage, but Mme de Sévigné could see the advantages. Both wives had died, she says, and so had his son, so he was “richer than he has ever been” and no one else had a call on the money. He was, she explained, “by virtue of his rank, property and personal qualities, a man after our own hearts.” He was an excellent prospect, and so “we are not haggling with him, as people usually do.” Françoise-Marguerite de Sévigné (C) Unknown, Public Domain She enjoyed a very full social life. One evening in February 1674, she planned to attend the opera, where she would be mixing with royalty: “Monsieur le Prince, Monsieur Le Duc and the Duchess will be there.” But that was just the start, because she had a number of options in mind for later on: “From there I shall perhaps go to supper at Gourville’s with Mme de Lafayette, Monsieur le Duc, Mme de Thianges and M de Vivonne. If this party is canceled, I shall go to see Mme de Chaulnes, – I have had the most pressing invitation from the lady of the house and from Cardinals de Retz and Bouillon, who made me promise to go.” Master of the Night Ballet, Costume for the Rising Sun in the last entry of the Night Ballet, 1653, pen, wash and gouache heightened with gold, BnF, Prints and photography © BNF

Lead photo credit : Marquise de sevignee (C) Unknown, Public Domain

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.