Madame de Sevigne
by Harriet Ray Allentuch
Johns Hopkins, 235 pp., $5.50
There are many books on Mme. de Sévigné: this seems to be the first American one. The author is said, in the blurb, to follow a “characteriological approach in tracing the structure of her subject’s attitudes.” Good gracious! What is she going to do to the poor Marquise? Nothing much—her book is enjoyable and beautifully produced, but we put it down very little the wiser about her subject or the structure of her attitudes.
Mme de Sévigné was what the French call une force de la nature and does not, I think, lend herself to a clever, detailed analysis of every word she wrote. We only need to let her torrent flow over us to know what she would have been like as a friend and as a lover. An adorable friend: an insupportable lover. Her letters were scribbled in haste for the post; often used as a means of letting off steam: seldom re-read before despatch, still less corrected, like other works of literature, later on, in cold blood. Mme. de Sévigné sometimes repeated and often contradicted herself and if her letters are read too carefully she may well appear to be what Mrs. Allentuch calls “multifaceted, complex and changeable.” She was not a calculating intellectual with one eye on the psychologist of the future but a high-spirited, well-educated woman who was apt to write down whatever popped into her head, knowing that her correspondent would make allowances for overstatement.
Mrs. Allentuch is on her side, she loves her, and is anxious to defend her against various accusations. The first chapter is designed to prove that she was not cold and heartless. It seems odd that anybody who knew her, or who has read the letters to the love of her life, could entertain such an idea, but apparently many people have. Bussy Rabutin, in that ‘histoire’ amoureuse which he wrote in order to torment his friends, said that M. de Sévigné told him his wife was frigid. (One is glad to know that Bussy was punished for his spitefulness by years of boring exile, well deserved.) Others have called her an allumeuse, a cruel flirt. Now it is true that her husband died when she was only twenty-five, and that, although surrounded by adorers, she never married again or took a lover—unless, possibly, Fouquet. Obviously she did not care for men but this does not mean that she was cold; she was devoured by a different sort of love. As for heartlessness, she is supposed to have been flippant about the fate of Mme. de Brinvilliers and indifferent to the sufferings of the Breton rebels. As George Saintsbury said, “Here the historic estimate sufficiently disposes of some of the objections, a little commonsense of the others and a very little charity of the rest.”
It may seem odd to us that Mme. de Sévigné should have gone to see the broken form of Mme. de Brinvilliers on the way to her final sufferings but at …