Reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné. The anthologies of mother-daughter correspondence that come out today seem precious and strained beside her enormous expressions of love. She can hardly control herself in her excitement to get everything out, while her developed, delightful skill of entertaining exacts a complete control. She can gossip and even get bitchy, but she is never small-minded or cruel. But this is only the start. Madame de Sévigné’s view of the court world is broad. Her Catholicism is devout and needful. Her honesty about her own talents, especially as reflected in that of her very fortunate daughter, endears her increasingly. Her confession that she does not understand some of M. La Rochefoucauld’s new maxims is an almost perfect example of her civilization: she obviously comprehends the rest of them. Her self-analysis, as when she fears that her love for her daughter is idolatry, has about it the sudden back cut of Christina Stead. But it is her spirit – the thing you get in the spry openings, the witty build-ups, the rolling pages of personal descriptions – that can still seduce.
Entry in Notebooks, 16th August 1989