(Walk) In the footsteps of Madame de Sévigné in Paris

(Walk) In the footsteps of Madame de Sévigné in Paris

The famous 17th century letter writer lived most of her life in Paris, in the Marais district. On the occasion of the release of the film Madame de Sévigné, Le Pèlerin invites you to follow in her footsteps, in the company of her biographer.

On the first floor, six tall windows in blond limestone pierce the red brick of the walls of Place des Vosges, in Paris. It is there, in this “pavilion” – a private mansion -, on the edge of the rue des Francs-Bourgeois, that Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, future Marquise de Sévigné, was born on February 5, 1626. “And it It was there that she grew up until the age of 12, raised by her maternal family, the Coulanges, since her parents died when she was a child,” says historian Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac, who has just dedicated an imposing biography of this aristocrat, contemporary of Louis XIV, who became famous thanks to the posthumous publication of her abundant and witty correspondence.

At the Coulanges, Marie will receive a free and affectionate education. The biographer sees this as one of the keys to her liveliness in observing her contemporaries, her independence vis-à-vis the court and the powerful and her ability to form solid friendships “because she cares about others”.

The very recent Place des Vosges was then called Place Royale. All around, in this district called “the Marais” – because the land was marshy -, large noble families or rich financiers built beautiful freestone residences “between which many half-timbered houses remain , more modest,” she explains. From one private mansion to another, the Marquise moved six times, spending most of her life in the Marais, but always as a tenant. “Her land provides her with a comfortable income that she will manage reasonably throughout her life. Through her marriage in 1644 to Henri de Sévigné, she also became the owner of the Château des Rochers, near Vitré (Orne), where she would stay for long periods. But she will never have such a fortune at her disposal that it would allow her to buy a Parisian hotel,” specifies the historian.

From the Seine to the Marais

The young bride thus moved in 1645, to 11 rue des Lions-Saint-Paul, near the Seine, in accommodation which still exists. We can guess the noble floor at the back of the courtyard – “because people of quality did not live on the street” -, the servants’ wing, an old wooden door and a terracotta staircase which seems from the period… Henri de Sévigné comes from an old family. But the young woman quickly discovers that he is a philanderer, a spendthrift and draped in his “honor” as a gentleman: he dies in 1651, during a duel…

The Marquise de Sévigné will never remarry, too satisfied to lead her life as she pleases. “However, at that time, we lived in households,” specifies the historian. Marie initially lived on rue du Temple, with one of her aunts. Then, she will look for a place to share with her son Charles, with her daughter’s family, after her marriage, and one of her prelate uncles. » From 1677, she moved to the Hôtel Carnavalet, which today has become the history museum of the city of Paris, at 23 rue… de Sévigné! The facade and the main courtyard have changed little. “She lived on the first floor, above her daughter, but we don’t know how her apartments were composed,” explains curator Anne-Laure Sol who is preparing an exhibition on Paris in the life and letters of Madame de Sévigné, for 2026 In the meantime, visitors can admire her beautiful portrait in one of the two rooms which evoke the Marquise and her loved ones.

The Paris of the “precious”

Marie de Sévigné is surrounded by friends including several women of letters such as Madame de La Fayette, author in 1678 of The Princess of Cleves . “Faced with the violence of the resuming wars, the insecurity of the streets of Paris and the provincial roads, this circle of “precious” people, as they will be called, seeks to establish enriching and peaceful human relationships around poetry, games of letters and minds, in an atmosphere of deep friendship and banter,” summarizes Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac.

For her cousin Roger de Bussy-Rabutin, exiled by the king in Burgundy, for her daughter Françoise, who in 1671 joined her husband in Provence, in Grignan, the letter writer describes the activities of this circle, the anecdotes of the court, the latest Parisian fashions. From a pen so elegant and creative that its many recipients read it aloud. “Nevertheless, she did not seek to create literary work,” underlines her biographer. So much so that we broke into his privacy a little, particularly in his complex relationship with Françoise, subject of the film which will soon be released in theaters (read p. 34) .

Of the 1,120 preserved letters from Madame de Sévigné, 764 are addressed to Françoise, whose responses have not reached us. The Carnavalet museum has the original of one of these letters, exceptional for its rarity. We also know of around thirty other correspondents to the Marquise and we estimate that we have found only a quarter of her letters.

Over time and reciprocal visits, his relationship with Françoise calmed down and Marie la Parisienne ended her days at the Château de Grignan, in the arms of her family, on April 17, 1696. From her, there remains a cheerful voice which opens the doors to these intimidating houses of the Grand Siècle.

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