French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné's letters display a wit that has stood the test of time for 300 years despite patronising attitudes by men – Laura Waddell

I was browsing the antiquarian section of Oxfam Books in Glasgow’s Byres Road the other day, as I do periodically, on that particular occasion having ducked out of the alarmingly horizontal rain outside, when a collection of 17th-century letters caught my eye.

Madame de Sévigné had a humorous and camp writing style (Picture by Eugenio Camerini)

Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696) was a French noblewoman whose feckless-sounding husband was killed in a duel after squandering her inheritance.

Nevertheless, she remained in a gilded social position in Paris, fluttering around the edges of the royals, and was decidedly anti-revolution. At one point, she describes extending credit to workers struggling to pay dues on time, only to splutter “good heavens!” upon seeing a farmer’s wife wearing a new gown.

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She sent as many as three doting letters a week to an adult daughter, relaying high-society gossip, restorative retreats to the countryside, and everyday life (“I have acquired a tiny dog”), and even the quickest dip into the book reveals a writing style of humour and high camp.

Paris, Wednesday, December 8, 1688, referring to her 17-year-old son’s return from war: “Would you believe it? That little rascal after announcing himself for Tuesday evening arrived, without the slightest compunction, the day before yesterday at seven of the clock, and before I was back from town.

"His uncle received him with open arms, and as for me, when I saw him gay, debonair, charming, we set to embracing one another with a will, our one bone of contention being that he wanted to kiss my hands, and I wished to kiss him on both cheeks. I seized his head in my two hands, and embraced him to my heart’s content: I asked to see his bruises, but as they are, pray do not think me indelicate, in the region of his left thigh, I could scarcely expect him to accommodate me by taking down his breeches.”

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The edition I acquired is not, alas, an original but a handsome 1955 reprint, which cost me £12.99, and one of the joys of vintage tomes is the hidden extras hinting at the life of whoever owned it before.

This one came with a bookmark tucked inside bearing the address of a Toronto bookshop, and, hinting at a louche evening by lamplight, a sooty cigarette burn on page 221 strong enough to have left a scorch mark 20 pages thereafter, tobacco-brown blotches fading in intensity with each turn of the page. When it comes to character, bubblegum-flavoured vape clouds just aren’t the same.

It is a curious thing to read a book description that understands the value of the letters within, not just for their considerable entertainment (Sévigné composed the letters with the knowledge her daughter would often read them aloud to entertain her friends) and as a window into 17th-century French society (at a time when any literature by a woman was comparatively rare) but also feels the need to reassure the 1950s reader Sévigné was “a woman of natural cleverness, serious in her views of life and seldom superficial”.

The publisher might as well have written "Well yes, I’m afraid the author is a lady, but if you can bear to open the book…” Some things are slow to change. If only we could slam the book on that kind of attitude and leave it languishing on a dusty shelf.

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