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 the time it would have been unusual to have stayed at home. The whole town turned out on these occasions and people specially went if they knew the victim. She was in the street to see Fouquet go by after his trial, too. Coldness and indifference would have been more likely to keep her away; in any case she would have done anything in her power to help a friend in distress.
After she has proved that Mme. de Sévigné was not cold and heartless it is rather hard to see what Mrs. Allentuch is getting at. That the letters have been universally admired for three hundred years is no news to a European; we were all brought up on them. (Incidentally I must protest against Edward Fitzgerald being called “a curious Victorian devotee of the Marquise”—surely he is one of her most enlightened followers?) Mrs. Allentuch’s characteriological approach makes her look for strange meaning in ordinary human activities. “Usually one considers a taste or rather a need for physical activity the expression of an inner urge,” she says, when examining Mme. de Sévigné’s love of walking in her woods. But anybody brought up by an English nanny has this taste; the French are enormous walkers; have we all got an inner urge? How sinister! Mme. de Sévigné’s intimate relationship with servants and peasants surprises Mrs. Allentuch, but it is normal for a woman of her background. Servants were part of the family; when Bussy complained that she was too familiar with all classes he was certainly not thinking of them.
It is very true to say that Mme. de Sévigné seems alive today. A friend of mine went to stay with a French bishop. In his room there was a needlework picture of Les Rochers. When he asked his host about it he was told “Oh, Mme. de Sévigné left that last time she stayed here.” Mrs. Allentuch quotes Sir James Mackintosh: “She has so filled my heart with affectionate interest in her as a living friend that I can scarcely bring myself to think of her as a writer.”
I think Mrs. Allentuch’s mistake is that she examines the Marquise, as it were, in a vacuum. We are not told enough about her friends and relations and correspondents; above all not nearly enough about Mme. de Grignan. For the dreadful truth is that Mme. de Sévigné was in love with her daughter, a situation unique, as far as I know, in history, myth, and fable. With all her psychological erudition and all her research, Mrs. Allentuch has not thrown a single ray of new light on this interesting passion; she seems almost frightened of it (no wonder!) and constantly sheers off onto other topics. Mme. de Grignan holds the key to her mother’s soul; characteriology should have been brought to bear upon hers. (We are not even told about the fate of her letters and the reason for it.) This is where the book falls down. We learn that Mme. de Sévigné was a radiant creature, full of love and goodwill, worldly, loyal, and funny. But what of the canker at her heart?