PROVENCE: LADY OF LETTERS
Tracking the telltale of Versailles to a chateau in Provence
With its Roman-tiled roofs, warm stone walls, cobbled streets and commanding chateau, Grignan could be any other medieval Provencal village. Like so many of its neighbours, its streets have commonsense names: Grande Rue, Rue des Ecoles and Rue du Four, with its 14th-century oven. Grignan, however, has a trump card. It boasts a link with Madame de Sevigne, France’s First Lady of Letters.
Had it not been for Madame de Sevigne, we might never have learned the intimate details of life at Versailles under Louis XIV, its politics and scandals, fashion and food. We might never have known about the craze for fresh young green peas. Even after dining at court, she wrote, ladies will go home and eat peas before going to bed, risking indigestion.
These tidbits were not part of a daily journal but rather were contained in the reams of letters Madame de Sevigne wrote to friends and family and, in particular, to her daughter, Francoise-Marguerite, who had married the Count of Grignan and accompanied him to faraway Provence. Her mother was heartbroken and over the next 25 years, until her death at Grignan, she sent three or four letters a week.
What with managing and renovating Chateau de Grignan, I can imagine the new countess having better things to do than constantly follow her mother’s advice — cut your hair, but not too short; use Narbonne honey instead of sugar to sweeten your coffee; drink chocolate if you’re not feeling well and not sleeping. But not too much chocolate, she warns, as she tells her daughter about the marquise who consumed so much chocolate during her pregnancy that she gave birth to a little boy as black as the devil.
In her three visits, together amounting to nearly four years, Madame de Sevigne changed her initial opinions and came to appreciate Provence. She admired the sweeping views from the chateau, as far as Mont Ventoux, and praised the superbly sweet melons, grapes and figs. And, she wrote, she had never eaten more succulent partridge, nourished on wild thyme and marjoram.
A mere in-law perhaps, but she has been enthusiastically adopted as Grignan’s favourite daughter. Presiding over the 19th-century Fontaine Sevigne in the Place Sevigne is a statue of Madame herself, quill in hand, poised and reflective as she prepares for yet another epistle. The Hotel Sevigne, Brasserie Cafe Le Sevigne and Tabac Presse Le Sevigne confirm her stamp on the village.
I’m here to pay homage and to visit the chateau, soaring above the blue fields of lavender in late spring. Not even the local specialities at Au Secret de Madame de Sevigne boutique distract me as I climb to the entrance. An elegantly balustraded stone staircase leads to the first floor but then I have my first disappointment as this is not the chateau Madame de Sevigne knew. Stripped and pillaged during the Revolution, systematically demolished under government orders, it was a ruin for most of the following century. Images from 1855 show a tumbledown wall, remnants of the Renaissance facade and fragmented sculptures scattered in the grounds.
The first attempts at reconstruction failed for lack of funds, and it was not until 1902, when the chateau was bought by Marie Fontaine, that serious restoration started. Over the next 20 years she devoted her considerable fortune to systematically rebuilding, refurnishing and redecorating, relying on paintings and sketches of the former chateau to achieve historical authenticity.
Her own apartment, however, was more contemporary in style. And it is to Marie Fontaine’s apartment that visitors are first directed. This is my second disappointment. Madame de Sevigne has to share the honours, and might even have to be satisfied with second best.
Yet as I stroll from room to room, I have to agree Marie Fontaine deserves the bouquets. The vast stone fireplace and painted ceiling beams in La Salle du Roi, or the King’s Room, could have been there forever. The 17th-century Aubusson tapestries, fortuitously rescued as walls crumbled, have been restored to their rightful places. Looking at the chateau from the inner courtyard, it’s almost impossible to tell that the long western gallery, now used for summer concerts, is a 20th-century reconstruction.
Still, portraits of Madame de Sevigne ensure she is not forgotten. In the Saint-Sauveur Collegiate Church adjoining the chateau, a simple marble plaque pays respect to this remarkable woman.
A bust of Madame’s granddaughter, who edited and published the first official volumes of the correspondence, has pride of place in the formal reception room in the eastern tower. And in May, the apartment reserved for Madame de Sevigne will be opened to visitors — both the bedroom in which she died and the writing alcove where she composed her letters — thanks to continuing restoration by the Drome departement, which acquired the property in 1979.
But the most poignant souvenir, left until last, comes as a surprise. Standing on the terrace, gazing across to the neighbouring hilltop village of Chamaret, I happen to look down. There below me, inside a walled garden, is a kind of puzzle in which I can make out the shape of an elongated S,a G, an N. Then I remember reading about the Jardin Sevigne, a box hedge maze composed of the letters of her name that commemorates the 300th anniversary of her death. This evergreen sculpture is a fitting tribute to the endurance of her words. • avignon-et-provence.com/en
The vast stone fireplace and painted ceiling beams in La Salle du Roi, or the King’s Room, could have been there forever
Chateau de Sevigne, top; visitors can tour the royal apartments, above right; Madame de Sevigne, above left