Puslapio vaizdai

jects, when they presented themselves to her mind. So, in her famous notice of the death of Louvois the minister-never, in a few words, were past ascendency and sudden nothingness more impressively contrasted.

• I am so astonished at the news of the sudden death of M. de Louvois, that I am at a loss how to speak of it. Dead, however, he is, this great minister, this potent being, who occupied so great a place ; whose me, (le moi,) as M. Nicole says, had so wide a dominion ; who was the centre of so many orbs. What affairs had be not to manage! what designs, what projects, what secrets! what interests to unravel, what wars to undertake, what intrigues, what noble games at chess to play and to direct! Ah! my God, give me a little time: I want to give check to the Duke of Savoy-checkmate to the Prince of Orange. No, no, you shall not bave a moment—not a single moment. Are events like these to be talked of ? Not they. We must reflect upon them in our closets.'

This is part of a letter to her cousin Coulanges, written in the year 1691. Five years afterwards she died.

The two English writers who have shown the greatest admiration of Madame de Sévigné, are Horace Walpole and Sir James Mackintosh. The enthusiasm of Walpole, who was himself a distinguished letter-writer and wit, is mixed up with a good deal of self-love. He bows to his own image in the mirror beside her. During one of his excursions to Paris, he visits the Hôtel de Carnavalet and the house at Livry; and has thus described his impressions, after his half-good half-affected fashion :

• Madame de Chabot I called on last night. She was not at home, but the Hôtel de Carnavalet was ; and I stopped on purpose to say an Ave-Maria before it.' (This pun is suggested by one in Bussy-Rabutin.) • It is a very singular building, not at all in the French style, and looks like an ex voto, raised to her honour by some of her foreign votaries. I don't think her half-honoured enough in her own country.' *

His visit to Livry is recorded in a letter to his friend Montague :

• One must be just to all the world. Madame Roland, I find, has been in the country, and at Versailles, and was so obliging as to call on me this morning; but I was so disobliging as not to be awake. I was dreaming dreams; in short, I had dined at Livry ; yes, yes, at Livry, with a Langlade and De la Rochefoucauld. The abbey is now possessed by an Abbé de Malherbe, with whom I am acquainted, and who had given me a general invitation. I put it off to the last moment, that the bois and allées might set off the scene a little, and contribute to the vision ; but it did not want it. Livry is situate in the Forêt de Bondi,

* Letters, fc. Vol. V., p. 74, Edit. 1840.

very agreeably on a fat, but with hills near it, and in prospect. There is a great air of simplicity and rural about it, more regular than our taste, but with an old-fashioned tranquillity, and nothing of colifichet, (frippery.) Not a tree exists that remembers the charming woman, because in this country an old tree is a traitor, and forfeits his head to the crown; but the plantations are not young, and might very well be as they were in her time. The Abbé's house is decent and snug ; a few paces from it is the sacred pavilion built for Madame de Sévigné by her uncle, and much as it was in her day; a small saloon below for dinner, then an arcade, but the niches now closed, and painted in fresco with medallions of her, the Grignan, the Fayette, and the Rochefoucauld. Above, a handsome large room, with a chimneypiece in the best taste of Louis the Fourteenth's time; a Holy Family in good relief over it, and the cipher of ber uncle Coulanges; a neat little bedchamber within, and two or three clean little chambers over thern. On one side of the garden, leading to the great road, is a little bridge of wood, on which the dear woman used to wait for the courier that brought her daughter's letters. Judge with what veneration and satisfaction I set my foot upon it! If you will come to France with me next year, we will go and sacrifice on that sacred spot together.'---(Id. p. 142.)

Sir James Mackintosh became intimate with the letters of Madame de Sévigné during his voyage from India, and has left some remarks upon them in the Diary published in his Life.

• The great charm,' he says, ' of her character seems to me a natural virtue. In what she does, as well as in what she says, sh is unforced and unstudied ; nobody, I think, had so much morality without constraint, and played so much with amiable feelings without falling into vice. Her ingenious, lively, social disposition, gave the direction to her mental power. 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, or as having a style ; but she has become a celebrated, perhaps an immortal writer, without expecting it: she is the only classical writer who never conceived the possibility of acquiring fame. Without a great force of style, she could not have communicated those feelings. In what does that talent consist? It seems mainly to consist in the power of working bold metaphors, and unexpected turns of expression, out of the most familiar part of conversational language.'*

Sir James proceeds to give an interesting analysis of this kind of style, and the way in which it obtains ascendency in the most polished circles; and all that he says of it is very true. But it seems to us, that the main secret of the charm' of Madame de Sévigné is to be found neither in her natural 'virtue,' nor in the style in which it expressed itself, but in something which interests us still more for our own sakes than the

* Memoirs of the Life of the Right Hon. Sir James Mackintosh. Sec. Edit., Vol. II., p. 217.

writer's, and which instinctively compelled her to adopt that style as its natural language. We doubt extremely, in the first place, whether any great. charm’ is ever felt in her virtue, natural or otherwise, however it may be respected. Readers are glad, certainly, that the correctness of her reputation enabled her to write with so much gaiety and boldness; and perhaps (without at all taking for granted what Bussy-Rabutin intimates about secret lovers) it gives a zest to certain freedoms in her conversation, which are by no means rare; for she was any thing but a prude. We are not sure that her character for personal correctness does not sometimes produce even an awkward impression, in connexion with her relations to the court and the mistresses; though the manners of the day, and her superiority to sermonizing and hypocrisy, relieve it from one of a more painful nature. Certain we are, however, that we should have liked her still better, had she manifested a power to love somebody else besides her children; had she married again, for instance, instead of passing a long widowhood from her five-and-twentieth year, not, assuredly, out of devotion to her husband's memory. Such a marriaye, we ihink, would bave been quite as natural as any virtue she possessed. The only mention of her husband that we recollect in all her correspondence, with the exception of the allusion to Ninon, is in the following date of a letter :• Paris, Friday Feb. 5, 1672. This day thousand years

I married.'

We do not accuse her of heartlessness. We believe she had a very good heart. Probably, she liked to be her own mistress ; but this does not quite explain the matter in so loving a person, There were people in her own time who doubted the love for her daughter-surely with great want of justice. But natural as that virtue was, and delightful as it is to see it, was the excess of it quite so natural ? or does a thorough intimacy with the letters confirm our belief in that excess ? It does not.

The love was real and great; but the secret of what appears to be its extravagance is, perhaps, to be found in the love of power; or, not to speak harshly, in the inability of a fond mother to leave off her habits of guidance and dictation, and the sense of her importance to her child. Hence a fidgetiness on one side, which was too much allied to exaction and self-will, and a proportionate tendency to ill-concealed, and at last open impatience on the other. The demand for letters was not only incessant and avowed; it was to be met with as zealous a desire, on the daughter's part, to supply them. If little is written, pray write more: if much, don't write so much for fear of headaches. If the headaches are complained of, what misery! if not complained of, something worse and more cruel has taken place it is a con


cealment. Friends must take care how they speak of the daughter as too weil and happy. The mother then brings to our mind the Falkland of Sheridan, and expresses her disgust at these

perfect-health folks.' Even lovers tire under such surveillance ; and as affections between mother and child, however beautiful, are not, in the nature of things, of a like measure of reciprocity, a similar result would have been looked for by the discerning eyes of Madame de Sévigné, had the case been any other than her own.

But the tears of self-love mingle with those of love, and blind the kindest natures to the difference. It is too certain, or rather it is a fact which reduces the love to a good honest natural size, and therefore ought not, so far, to be lamented, that this fond mother and daughter, fond though they were, janyled sometimes, like their inferiors, both when absent and present, leaviny nevertheless a large measure of affection to diffuse itself in joy and comfort over the rest of their intercourse. It is a common case, and we like neither of them a jot the less for it. We may only be allowed to repeat our wish (as Madame de Grignan must often have done) that the dear Marie de Rabuting'as Sir James Mackintosh calls her, had bad a second husband, to divert some of the responsibilities of affection from her daughter's head. Let us recollect, after all, that we should not have heard of the distress but for the affection; that millions who might think fit to throw stones at it, would in reality have no right to throw a pebble; and that the wit which has rendered it immortal, is beautiful for every species of truth, but this single deficiency in self-knowledge.

That is the great charm of Madame de Sévigné— truth. Truth, wit, and animal spirits compose the secret of her delightfulness; but truth above all, for it is that which shows all the rest to be true. If she had not more natural virtues than most other good people, she had more natural manners ; and the universality of her taste, and the vivacity of her spirits, giving her the widest range of enjoyment, she expressed herself naturally on all subjects, and did not disdain the simplest and most familiar phraseology, when the truth required it. Familiarities of style, taken by themselves, have been common more or less to all wits, from the days of Aristophanes to those of Byron; and, in general, so have animal spirits. Rabelais was full of both. The followers of Pulci and Berni, in Italy, abound in them. What distinguishes Madame de Sévigné is, first, that she was a woman so writing, which till her time had been a thing unknown, and has not been since witnessed in any such charming degree; and second, and above all, that she writes the truth, the whole

truth, and nothing but the truth ;' never giving us falsehood of any kind, not even a single false metaphor, or only half

[merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors]

true simile or description; nor writing for any purpose on earth, but to say what she felt, and please those who could feel with her. If we consider how few writers there are, even among the best, to whom this praise, in its integrity, can apply, we shall be struck, perhaps, with a little surprise and sorrow for the craft of authors in general; but certainly with double admiration for Madame de Sévigné. We do not mean to say that she is always right in opinion, or that she had no party or conventional feelings. She entertained, for many years, some strong prejudices. She was bred up in so exclusive an admiration for the poetry of Corneille, that she thought Racine would go out of fashion. Her loyalty made her astonished to find that Louis was not invincible; and her connexion with the Count de Grignan, who was employed in the dragonades against the Huguenots, led her but negatively to disapprove those inhuman absurdities. But these were accidents of friendship or education : her understanding outlived them; nor did they hinder her, meantime, from describing truthfully what she felt, and from being right as well as true in nine-tenths of it all. Her sincerity made even her errors a part of her truth. She never pretended to be above what she felt; never assumed a profound knowledge; never disguised an ignorance. Her mirth, and her descriptions, may sometimes appear exaggerated; but the spirit of truth, not of contradiction, is in them ; and excess in such cases is not falsehood, but enjoyment-not the wine adulterated, but the cup running

All her wit is healthy; all its images entire and applicable throughout-not palsy-stricken with irrelevance; not forced in, and then found wanting, like Walpole's conceit about the trees, in the passage above quoted. Madame de Sévigné never wrote such a passage in her life. All her lightest and most fanciful images, all her most daring expressions, have the strictest propriety, the most genuine feeling, a home in the heart of truth ;-as when, for example, she says, amidst continual feasting, that she is "fa

mished for want of hunger;' that there were no “interlineations' in the conversation of a lady who spoke from the heart; that she went to vespers one evening out of pure opposition, which taught her to comprehend the sacred obstinacy of martyrdom;' that she did not keep a philosopher's shop;' that it is difficult for people in trouble to bear thunder-claps of bliss in others. It is the same from the first letter we have quoted to the last; from the proud and merry boasting of the young mother with a boy, to the candid shudder about the approach of old age, and the refusal of death to grant a moment to the dying statesman—' no, not a single moment. She loved nature and truth without misgiving; and nature and truth loved her in return, and have crowned her with glory and honour.


[ocr errors]
« AnkstesnisTęsti »