Friday, February 12, 2010

If Mme Sévigné Used Email Would Her Daughter Have Begged For Mercy?

A widowed marquise of the French nobility, she was devoted to her children. When her daughter married and moved away, she became despondent. Loneliness prompted her to begin writing letters to Françoise Marguerite, a correspondence that by her death had numbered an estimated 1,700 epistles. It is the “most intimate and sustained chronicle of a mother-daughter relationship ever recorded” (New Oxford Companion to Literature in French).

“After her daughter had gone to Provence, Sevigne was indeed inconsolable. Her devotion to the absent Francoise was intense; she and her friends wondered if it was too intense. In February 1671, four days after Francoise had left Paris, Sevigne wrote to her:

"'But if you think of me, my dear, rest assured that I think constantly of you. It is what the devout call an 'habitual thought' --- the way one should think of God, if one were devout. Nothing can distract me from my thought of you. I am constantly with you in thought'” (Mossiker, Madame de Sévigné A Life and Letters, p. 75).

Seventeen hundred letters to her daughter within seven years. That’s 242 letters a year; a letter every day-and-a-half. That is, to be sure, a lot of letters but given Mme Sévigné’s sense of isolation from a beloved child during an era without telephones, not difficult to understand. I strongly suspect that if Mme Sévigné had a telephone, her daughter would have received two-three calls a day.

Four years after her first letter to Françcoise, the marquise wrote:

As a matter of fact, I found myself so wholly preoccupied with thoughts of you --- my heart so incapable of any other love --- that I was denied permission to take the sacrament at Pentecost (Mossiker, p. 181).

Oh, brother.

I’ve known women who were extremely close to their mothers and received multiple daily phone calls from Mom. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, the constant, often exasperating calls are indulged by sense of love and dutiful-daughter responsibilities.

If Madame de Sévigné had email available to her I strongly suspect that the flood of autograph correspondence would have morphed into a constant, daily deluge, three a day, minimum, that over seven years would have totaled 7,665 billets as a steady stream of email bulletins.

Curiously, none of Françoise’s letters to her mother have survived; they, apparently, were lost. But in the digital world nothing is truly lost and forensic computer whizzes have recovered a few of the letters of Françoise.

17 juin 1673

Dearest Mama:
You know, dear one, how much I enjoy receiving your postes electronique but, really, once a day is more than sufficient. Mon Dieu, have you nothing better to do?
Please do not misunderstand me. I know how alone you must feel. It tears at my heart. But write a blog, something, anything!
Of the Comtesse de ***, yes, I am aware that the fake mole on her cheek has been affixed to the spot for so long that it is now spontaneously sprouting hairs. You have told me so in four prior letters. Today.
Enough, mama. You are driving me bat-merde.

Yes, I promise to wear a raincoat and galoshes when it rains. Your suggestion not to mix perfumes is duly noted; I have no desire to “smell like a salade de cologne.” Thank you for drawing this deep character flaw to my attention. For the thousandth time.

Yours eternally (or so it seems),

23 septembre 1678
Mama mia! (yes, I have finally learned Italian per your constant suggestions since puberty),

You will be the death of me. Sacrebleu! Never has one mother written so many letters about so much that she cares about but that her daughter hasn’t a sou’s worth of interest in.
You declare your love for me but you can be so impersonal. Are you so afraid of Mr. Louie Sun King’s postal police who read every single email in case a plot is afoot to lose a head?
I have a life. Do you? I cannot possibly keep up with your incessant notes. and please, no guilt trips - I love you, I love you, I love you. Get the message?

Please mama, give me a break,


While we have no surviving autograph letters from Françoise to get a sense of her relationship with mom, a few of Mme Sévigné’s letters provide a peek into the pathology of their relationship.

But what I do not like to hear you say is that I was a curtain which concealed you, cut you off from view. What if I did once overshadow you? You were simply all the more dazzling when the curtain was drawn aside, and you stood revealed. You must be in full view to appear in your full perfection, as we have said a thousand times.

A month later:

You tell me that you are happy to hear that I am persuaded of your love for me, that you had no such assurance when we were together. Alas, my bonne, with no intention of reproaching you, I must say that all the fault was not on my side. How highly I always prized the least sign of your affection! Did not each one fill me with delight? And how dismayed I was at evidence to the contrary! (Mossiker, p. 77).

Things went downhill.

"The greatest breach between mother and daughter seems to have come in 1676, after they had lived together in Paris for six months. Both were ill; each apparently felt that she was the cause of the other's illness --- and felt required to give the other unwanted advice. Finally, family and friends intervened and urged Francoise to return to Provence. Three weeks after her daughter had left, Sevigne wrote:

'Oh, my God, will we never see one another again to bask in one another's love and affection? Will we not pluck out the thorns, will we not prevent their ever saying to us again---and with a cruel barbarity to which I cannot accustom myself: 'Ah, how much better off you are, 500,000 leagues apart! You see how well Mme. de Grignan is doing, now. She would be dead if she had stayed on here. You will be the death of one another.' I do not know how you react to such remarks; as for me, I find them crushing....

'So let us do better next time, my darling!... Let us restore our good reputation. Let us show them that we are sensible enough to live together when Providence decrees.... In short, my daughter, let us correct our fault, let us see one another again, let us not give our love the appearance of hatred and dissension"'
(Mossiker, pp. 237-38).

"A few days later, however, Sevigne acknowledged that the disagreements were inevitable and the separation perhaps necessary:

'Oh my daughter, at the end, we had come to a point where we had no choice but to do what we did.... There, now, it has been said, once and for all. But let us make our reflections, each on her own side, so that when it pleases God for us to be reunited, we will never again come to such a pass!"' (Mossiker, p.238).

This, I think, was the 17th century French version of You’ll be sorry if I die and you have not made peace with me; I will haunt you from the grave.

Is it possible that Mme Sévigné was a closet Jewess, the mother that could not let go and reminded you at every waking moment of your debt to her for bringing you into the world?

13 octobre 1678
Dearest Mama:
Received the digital chicken soup via your oh so heavy attachment. It was a virtual rock. You have, as usual, made the matzoh balls too hard, despite that fact that you know very well that I like them soft and fluffy. I know, “soft and fluffy is for poodles” but I like poodles and I like matzoh balls and I like them the same way. Is it possible that once, just once, you will make them as I prefer? Or would you prefer that I continue to use them in lieu of cannon-shot?

Your suggestion that we begin to exchange text messages? LMAO! Have you gone mad?
Yes, I do not know what I would do without you. But I fantasize, oh how I fantasize?

One more email and I shall either murder you or kill myself. Please advise me - as you no doubt will anyway - which you prefer, your blood or mine?

Yours until I completely lose my mind (don't you dare say 'Too late'),

Your loving daughter,

Edition of 1738.
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1626-1696), was one hell of a correspondent.

“Most of the letters, written without literary intention or ambition, were composed in the first seven years of their separation in 1671. The letters recount current news and events in fashionable society, describe prominent persons, comment on contemporary topics, and provide details of her life from day to day—her household, her acquaintances, her visits, and her taste in reading. Sévigné’s conversational manner makes her stories of current events and gossip unforgettable.

“The natural, spontaneous tone of the letters broke established rules for the genre and served as a new model. Of old Burgundian nobility, she was introduced into court society in Paris after her marriage in 1644 to Henri de Sévigné, a Breton gentleman of nobility who squandered most of her money before being killed in a duel in 1651. Mme de Sévigné was left with two children, Françoise Marguerite (b. 1646) and Charles (b. 1648). For some years she continued to frequent the fashionable social circles of Paris while also devoting herself to her children. In 1669 her daughter married Count de Grignan and then moved to Provence with him. The separation from her daughter provoked acute loneliness in Sévigné; it also prompted her to write the letters on which her reputation is based" (Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature).

“The correspondence of Madame de Sévigné, covering almost fifty years of a rich and turbulent period in French history and culture (1648-1696), has been the favorite reading of great writers from Voltaire to Virginia Woolf. From the time of their first publication in 1726, Sévigné’s letters have provided a standard against which other important letter collections can be measured…

"As a writer, Sévigné occupies a special position in the history of French literature. She wrote nothing but letters, thousands of them, letters that constitute a treasure of information for historians and that have been admired as masterpieces of style. Sévigné’s body of work, though, has not been stable—it has changed its shape at least once every few decades since
the end of the seventeenth century.

"Since the letters were first written, they have been edited, corrected, copied, recopied, and even willfully destroyed by a long line of readers with a variety of motives. During Sévigné’s lifetime the letters were published only once, when her cousin Roger de Bussy-Rabutin included a few of them in a volume of his memoirs, which he presented to Louis XIV. After her death on 17 April 1696, a larger number of letters was included in the published correspondence of Bussy-Rabutin, generating enough public interest to persuade Sévigné’s granddaughter Pauline de Simiane to undertake the task of preparing her grandmother’s letters for publication.

"This project resulted in the intermittent release of selected letters at intervals over the next hundred years and spawned enough family quarreling and tension between the copyists and de Simiane's descendants that in 1784 her son-in-law burned all of the several hundred letters she had left in his possession. When the literary scholar L.J.N. Monmerqué undertook the first critical edition of Sévigné’s letters in 1818, there were already few original autographs left. He had to verify his material by comparing the many published editions of selected letters and the copies of letters that had been compiled by editors and never published.

"Since the first ‘complete’ edition of the letters was published from 1862 to 1868 (Monmerqué having spent more than thirty years on the project), there has been one major discovery of a 1720 manuscript copy of some of the letters and two new critical editions, the definitive one being Roger Duchêne’s edition of the correspondence published in three volumes from 1972 to 1978. Duchêne’s edition includes more than 1,500 letters by Sévigné and more than 1,000 letters addressed to her, and it draws on all of the available copies of the letters as well as the relatively few autographs that remain in museums and archives across France” (Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, “Marie de Rabutin Chantal, Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696)” (Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 268: 17th Century French Writers [2002], pp. 351-359).

There is the distinct possibility that had Mme Sévigné used and abused email, her letters would have been shuttled to the junk folder and, ultimately, deleted.

Another argument for good, old-fashined letter writing. But email is so seductively convenient. 

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