Tuesday, June 24, 2014

17th Century: Words Preserved - A Life Honored

I'm grateful that so many memoirs and letters remain, so we can read about the thoughts and lives of those who came before us.  It's important to somehow honor them by considering and pondering their concerns, loves, problems, joys.

An especially well-known collection of letters is that of Madame de Sévigné...  She lived in Paris in the 17th Century, during the reign of Louis XIV and the thousand plus letters that she wrote to her daughter, married and living elsewhere, began to be published even during their lifetimes.  The letters are a fertile source of information about Seventeenth Century court life as well as a window into mother-daughter connection.  Biographers have made much of the complex relationship and comment upon the "passion and pathos," as one book reviewer put it, of the mother's letters.  Madame Sévigné's was what might be called "intense" today.  Her daughter, Mme de Grignan's, letters haven't survived, so one must glean impressions of the daughter and her letters by reading responses in the mother's letters - if that makes sense.

Madame Sévigné's former home is one of two buildings that house my favorite museum, Musée Carnavalet, in Paris.  Is it not easy to imagine the expression on my face as gaze on the courtyard trying to absorb what it all means?

The letters covered many topics - politics, financial and health problems, extended relatives, the postal service, the war, the relationship with her daughter, court gossip, fashion, the war, her travels.

A few examples...

From a grandmother's point of view:

In 1672, Madame de Sévingé's first granddaughter, Marie-Blanche, stayed with her grandmother in Paris for awhile and grandmother sent affectionate reports on the toddler's development back to Marie-Blanche's mother:

...  I love her [Marie-Blanche] totally,  I had her hair cut and dressed in the"hurluberlu" style.  That coiffure is made for her,  Her complexion, her neck, all her little body is perfection,  She knows a hundred little tricks:  she talks, she kisses, she slaps, she makes the sign of the cross, she begs pardon, she makes a bow, she kisses one's hand, she shrugs her shoulders, she dances, she flatters, she rasies her chin...   all in all, she is adorable!  I amuses myself with her, for hours on end.  I do not want anything to happen to that little darling."

A few years later, after Marie-Blanche had returned home, the decision was made to send her to a convent. I don't know enough about their situation to know what factors played into such a move, but do know they, like many of their counterparts, had financial problems.  The economical solution to the name rich/cash poor dilemma faced by some members of the aristocracy was to send their daughters to be raised in a convent.  Similarly, both the grandmother and mother of the child had spent parts of their childhood in convents.  Upon learning of the plan, grandmother wrote to her daughter, Marie-Blanche's mother.:

May 6, 1676
My heart aches for my little girl.  She will be in despair at being separated from you, at being - as you say - in prison.  I wonder how I found the courage to put you in a convent:  the thought of seeing you often and retrieving you shortly strengthened my resolve to that barbaric act which, at the time, was considered essential to your education.  But, in the long run, we must bow to Providence which controls our destinies."

Why, I don't know, but for some reason, Marie Blanche never did return home to be with her family.  The next year, Mme de Grignan youngest child, who had been born with birth defects, died at just over a year old.  Sending her condolences, Madame wrote,

"Alas, my dear, how sorry I am to hear about your poor little baby!  It is impossible not to be distressed.  Not, as you know, that I had had any hope of his living, from what you had told me, I deemed it a hopeless case, but nonetheless, it is a loss for you,  That makes three you have lost.  May God preserve the one son remaining to you!"

She urged her daughter to find comfort in her remaining children and not to send three year old Pauline to join seven year old Marie-Blanche in the convent.  

"Love, oh, please, love Pauline!  Give yourself that pleasure.  Don't play the martyr by depriving yourself of that little creature...  You can place her in a convent later, if you find it necessary.  Allow yourself the experience of maternal love."

My mother attended school at The Visitation convent in Mobile.   This is an old picture.  The cluster of buildings in the center are all that remain.  There were boarders, but she was a day student.  She loved it. I'm not entirely sure Mom didn't regret not becoming a nun, if only for the solitude.  Solitude was in short supply with seven delinquent children.  Well. four delinquent ones and three, younger, precious ones.


Thankfully, in most parts of the world, one doesn't see this sort of thing anymore.:

Mme de Sévigné wrote to her daughter about the execution of a murderess whose case and trial had held the attention of all of Paris.  The Marquise de Brinvilliers, had used hospital patients as guinea pigs for her poison recipe in preparation for doing away with her father and brothers, so she could grab the family fortune for herself and her lover.  

Now, at last it is over and done with.  La Brinvilliers has gone up in smoke.  Her poor little body was tossed, after the execution, into a raging fire, and her ashes scattered to the wind!  So that, now, we shall all be inhaling her!  and, with such evil little spirits in the air who knows what poisonous humor may overcome us?

At around six o'clock she was taken, naked under her chemise and with a rope around her neck to make the Honorable Amend at Nôtre Dame.*  Then she was put back in the tumbril where I saw her, flung upon her back in the straw, wearing a chemise and a mobcap, the priest on one side of her, the executioner on the other.  To be honest, I trembled at the sight.  Those who witnessed the decapitation say that she mounted the scaffold very bravely.  As for me, I was standing on the Nôtre Dame Bridge with good d'Escars.  Never has Paris scene such a crowd of people.  But if you ask me what people saw, I can only tell you that all I saw was a mobcap!"


Less morbidly, just to prove to doubters that I'm capable of lightness and cheer, I offer a sunny travelogue, mother-to-daughter.:

Thurs., May 9, "writing romantically upon the river bank"

I want to write you every night, my dear child;  it is my sole diversion.  I move about, I walk, I pick up a book but, no matter how hard I try, I am bored, and it is my writing case I need!  I have to talk to you, and even though this letter will go off neither today nor tomorrow, I will write you every night to tell you of the day's happenings.  We embarked at six in the morning in the most perfect weather imaginable.  I had them put aboard the body of my large carriage, and placed it as such an angle as to avoid direct sun.  We lowered the windows.   The opening at the front frames a marvelous picture while, with the view from the portieres, and the side windows, we can see out on all sides.  There are just the two of us, the Abbé and I, in these snug private quarters, seated on soft cushions, with plenty of fresh air, very comfortable!  All the rest [the domestic staff] sprawl like pigs on the straw,  We have had our soup and boiled meat, served good and hot.  There is a little stove;  we eat on a plank in our carriage, like the King and Queen.  Just see how luxurious things have become on the Loire!"


Micah said...

Hi Mommy, it's Micah - on Joanne's computer. I love you. You're my favorite. So much. So thankful you're mine.

Madeleine Doak said...

Thanks for visiting my little blog, darling girl, and for commenting. Comments make me even happier than french fries. That's pretty happy! I love you!

Joanne B. said...

I am so happy Micah shared your blog with me! I've heard so many great things from your wonderful daughter; I hope to you meet you soon.

Madeleine Doak said...

Joanne, I just woke up in the middle of the night and discovered your comment on my blog. All hopes for additional sleep are dashed. Thanks for your kind words on blog and daughter! I've heard so many great things about you from her, as well. Let's try to meet when I get home. How about Goode Company Seafood?

Tracie Turner said...

love your blog! I too love history and wish I had seen all of the things you mention while I was in Paris last May.