A Plaything for Aristocrats
Madame de Sévigné, Selected Letters (1648-1696)
My interest in Madame de Sévigné grew out of my interest in Proust; those familiar with In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past/A la recherche du temps perdu (whatever title you prefer) will recall that the narrator’s grandmother is one of the most affecting characters in the first couple of books; Madame de Sévigné is her favourite author, and she carries a book of her letters around with her and continuously re-reads it. The Penguin edition (pictured above) is a useful introduction, though I would have appreciated a few more explanatory notes.
This passage is from a letter, dealing with issues of household economy, from Madame de Sévigné to her daughter (the majority of her letters are to her daughter):
M. de Grignan [Mme de Sévigné’s son-in-law] is asking for a very good jerkin. This is a matter of seven or eight hundred francs. What has become of a very fine one he had? Do let me remind you, my love, that one doesn’t exactly give away rags of this kind and that even the pieces are good. For God’s sake do save at least some of the excessive expense. Without knowing exactly what effect it will have, do keep a general eye so as not to let anything be lost and not to relax your efforts about anything. Don’t, as they say, throw away the handle after the axe. Look at Canada as a good thing no longer available. M. de Frontenac possesses it, and others don’t always have the same resources. (134; letter dated April 6, 1672)
The basic meaning of the letter is clear: Madame de Sévigné is instructing her daughter not to be wasteful or careless with money, and reminding her that once something is gone, you can’t always recover it. First she quotes a cliché (marked by “as they say”) about not throwing away the handle with the axe; this leads directly into Canada as an example of a “good thing no longer available.”
But in what sense is Canada “no longer available”? Unlike the reference to Canada in Casanova, which occurs after France lost Canada to England in 1759, this mention of Canada occurs when it was still solidly in French possession. In fact Frontenac had just been made Governor General of New France at the time of the letter – Madame de Sévigné observes that he now “possesses” its “resources.”
This is a classically colonialist view of Canada as a treasure trove of natural resources to be exploited by a European country. But Madame de Sévigné seems to see it in very personal terms, as though it is not really France that possesses Canada, but only Frontenac. Why?
I found the answer here:
Francis Parkman’s 1877 book Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV, which includes the following:
The Comte de Grignan, son-in-law of Madame de Sévigné, was an unsuccessful competitor with Frontenac for the government of Canada. (20; footnote in Chapter 1)
So there it is: Madame de Sévigné seems to take Frontenac’s possession of Canada personally because, for her, it was personal. She is essentially telling her daughter, “If your husband had been made governor of Canada, he could have all the new jerkins he wanted. But since he wasn’t, you have to be more frugal.”
This reveals another way Canada was viewed by Europeans: as a career opportunity which would, no doubt, offer plenty of chances for self-enrichment; and also as a kind of bauble that could be passed by the King to a favourite courtier as a reward for some service or as a sign of favour – or to get him out of the way so that the King could court his mistress, as Parkman suggests may have been the case with Frontenac.
It’s fascinating to see how large-scale political decisions about who would govern our country could be made on the basis of nothing more than royal whim, and then reverberate all the way down to such a personal level that they would become part of a domestic discussion about spending money on a jerkin.
And would our history be different if Grignan, rather than Frontenac, had been made Governor? Who knows; certainly some details would have changed. Quebec City’s most famous hotel, for example, might be called the Chateau Grignan.