Two of the greatest prose masters of seventeenth century French were women: Madame de La Fayette (1634–1693) and Madame de Sévigné (1626–1696). Both were aristocrats who were prominent in the salon life of later seventeenth century Paris. Madame de La Fayette was a friend of the noble François de la Rochefoucauld, and together the two of them formed a literary circle that encouraged a restrained and commanding classical style. La Fayette became an author, and her masterpiece, The Princess of Cleves (1678), was first published anonymously. It is generally recognized as the finest French historical novel of the time. Set in the mid sixteenth century, its plot revolves around the efforts of a young aristocratic wife to suppress her passion for another man. The illicit couple’ slove remains unrequited, a fact that provided La Fayette with a springboard for examining the passions and their psychological effects, a central preoccupation of many of the French authors of the age.
By contrast, Madame de Sévigné did not devote her efforts to the writing of fiction. Instead she compiled a voluminous correspondence that is one of the remarkable literary artifacts of the age. A member of fashionable Parisian society for most of her life, she became an astute letter writer after her beloved daughter’s marriage. In the years following their separation the two exchanged almost 1,700 letters. They are generally informal and newsy, but they show a keen and discerning mind that was aware of all the best literary canons of the day. Although they are not formal in the manner of much Baroque state and diplomatic correspondence, they were nevertheless carefully crafted with a fine eye and ear for eliciting the best responses of those that read them. Above all, they show modern readers a letter writer who must also have been an astute conversationalist since, much like the conventions of salon speech, they ramble elegantly from one topic to another.
In the final decades of the seventeenth century, new moral influences at Versailles’ court led to a resurgence of religious and moralistic writing. Indeed much of French writing in the seventeenth century had been religious in tone, as elsewhere in Europe. The seventeenth century had opened with the great devotional works of François de Sales (1567–1622) and others who argued for a reform in the church and the amendment of individual lives. At mid-century the controversies between Jesuits and Jansenists had resulted in a steady outpouring of polemical tracts and satirical works like Blaise Pascal’s famous Provincial Letters.
Yet after 1680 a change in the tone in the literary circles surrounding King Louis XIV is also evident. In these years the king increasingly fell under the influence of his mistress, and later wife, Madame de Maintenon, an uncompromising moralist long credited with encouraging Louis to revoke the Edict of Nantes and to take other actions to uphold French Catholicism. At court, once gay theatrical comedies disappeared in favor of the new serious and “morally uplifting” operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Balls and other festivities disappeared, and many at court dedicated themselves to the devotional life. Among the great writers who took up this charge to moral perfection, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) had perhaps the broadest influence. Eventually, he roseto become a bishop, but in his midlife he was also one of the ablest preachers in France, and in the years he spent preaching in Paris, he exercised a hold over his audience’s imaginations similar to that of the great John Donne in England. In his later years as an important churchman, Bossuet intervened in a number of controversies, a fact that has often continued to mar his reputation. In his literary works, though, he produced a body of work that has consistently been lauded for its elevated style and good taste.
Ancients and Moderns
At the end of the seventeenth century one debate that began in and around the French Academy was to spread far beyond France’s borders. Disputes similar to this seventeenth century battle between the “ancients” and the “moderns” had occurred throughout Europe since the Renaissance, with literary figures and critics weighing the relative merits of “contemporary” or “modern” literature when judged against the testimony of Antiquity. In France the debate that flared up on these themes at the end of theseventeenth century the socalled “Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns” did not produce any decisive victory for either side. In this controversy, figures like Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711) supported imitation of the works of ancient authors as the only true path to sure and certain literary excellence. To these essentially conservative sentiments, Charles Perrault (1628–1703)