Madame de Sablé and Her Salon
Since their first authorized publication in 1665, the Maximes of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld have remained in print and widely read. Most readers of La Rochefoucauld are aware that his maxims were composed in the salon of Madame de Sablé. But few are aware that the Marquise de Sablé composed 81 maxims of her own, and that hers may have preceded those of La Rochefoucauld. Madame de Sablé and the Duc de la Rochefoucauld were close friends, and agreed on many propositions concerning human nature. But they held distinct attitudes about the nature of human relationships, and their differences emerge clearly in their respective collections of maxims. One cannot imagine the Duc publicly supporting the sentiments of Madame de Sablé's #43, for example.
Madeleine de Souvré, Marquise de Sablé (1599-1678) was the middle daughter of Gilles de Souvré, marquis de Courtenvaux. The Marquis rose as a successful courtier under Henri III, Henri IV, and Louis XIII. He provided all seven of his children with an excellent education; and his own career seemed to assure them good prospects in life.
Madeleine de Souvré was well-educated, the daughter of a rising star in court, and a beauty. Philippe Emmanuel de Laval, Marquis de Sablé, undoubtedly took all these factors into account when he married her in 1614. The marquise bore him several children, one of whom rose to the rank of bishop in the Church. Another son seemed headed for a brilliant military career, but died in the Battle of Dunkirk. Little is known of Madame de Sablé's and her husband's private life together. We only know that she often wrote to her friends about her inadequate income; and her husband's death in 1640 left the Marquise in some financial difficulty (the barony and town of Sablé in western France left her control and came into possession of Colbert de Torcy).
With her friend the Comtesse de St. Maur she took rooms in the Porte Royal in Paris. Once established there, Mme de Sablé joined the luminaries who made the salon of Madame de Rambouillet. It was here that she learned how a woman of strength and finesse could manage to keep a roomful of competitive men and women discussing ideas with grace and polish. The disruptions of the Fronde revolution, coupled with Madame de Rambouillet's increasing infirmities, brought an end to that famous salon. Then, in 1655, Madame de Sablé took rooms, with the comtesse de St. Maur, at the Convent of Port Royale des Champs.
What first drew Madame de Sablé to Port-Royal in Paris was its position as the center of the Jansenist sect. Here, she lived a life that must appear puzzling to the modern reader -- a life divided between the dazzling social and intellectual world of Madame de Sevigné. Madame de Lafayette, and the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, and the pious life of the spirit encouraged by Jansenist belief and practice.
But it would be a mistake to see Madame de Sablé's life, and the atmosphere of her salon, as a kind of schizophrenia, or ironic contradiction to her more spiritual interests. When the men and women gathered at her salon, they specifically avoided those topics which give rise to so much human passion -- religion and politics -- though privately, all of them were very much involved in following the cabals and intrigues of the court. But when the Duc d'Enghien, the Princesse de Guémené, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, Arnaud d'Andilly, and the Duchesse de Nemours gathered in Madame de Sablé's rooms, they gathered for serious discussions about human nature and the human situation in general.
It was the Duc de la Rochefoucauld's special care to take the many (but not all) of the ideas discussed in the salons, return to his own chambers, and polish them into compact essays called sentences (or reflections) and maxims. From time to time he would submit them to Madame de Sablé herself; and he commented in a letter to her: "You know well that my sentences are not complete until you have approved them.”
It is worth mentioning that the Marquise was renowned as an excellent gourmet chef. Rochefoucauld would often ask (facetiously, perhaps) that he be "paid" for his maxims with one of her meals. Her specialty consisted of preparing dishes that did not distort the face of the diner while the food was being chewed. Clearly, she was a woman always concerned with appearances.
In the course of her frequent correspondence with la Rochefoucauld and others of her circle, Madame de Sablé herself undertook the formulation of well-crafted notions about the operations of the human mind and spirit. The nature of her maxims reveals a more forgiving heart than that of la Rochefoucauld's; but still we see far more areas of agreement and difference between the two: human beings are motivated by self-love; relations between people are filled with treachery and snares; we often mistake the difference between appearances and realities; human nature is fundamentally corrupt.
A number of her own epigrams closely parallel those of la Rochefoucauld; and it is impossible at this time to determine whose maxims came first. Indeed, it might be fairer to say that both sets of maxims were coauthored, not only by each other, but by all the members in the salon. The final formulations, of course, belong to the individual authors; but it is fair to say that without the polite friction of discussion within the salon, the maxims of Madame de Sablé and of la Rochefoucauld would never have been written.
When the Jansenist convent was temporarily closed (the result of a long-standing theological controversy) in 1661, she moved to Auteuil. In 1669 she returned to the Port Royal convent in Paris, where she died on January 16, 1678.
"It would be difficult to overestimate the benefits conferred by the salons upon French literature, language, and even thought during the first half of the seventeenth century, whilst some of the greatest writers of the second half had been brought up in them. In the linguistic field the constant influence of such ladies as Mme de Rambouillet and Mme de Sablé upon most of the great writers of the day gradually transformed the picturesque and over-rich legacy of the sixteenth century into the clearest and most elegant medium for conveying abstract thought known to the modern world."
-- L.W. Tancock, introduction to La Rochefoucauld, Maxims (Baltimore, 1959), page 10
Madame de Sablé Bibliography
Adam, Antoine. L'Age Classique, I (Paris:Arthaud, 1968). The chapter "Vie Sociale et Vie Littéraire" has a brief discussion of Madame de Sablé's influence, along with some interesting assessments of her force of character.
Ivanoff, N. La Marquise de Sablé et Son Salon (Paris: Les Presses Modernes, 1929). The most complete work on Madame de Sablé's life and work.
Lafond, Jean, editor. La Rochefoucauld: refléxions ou Sentences etMaximes morales suivi de réflexions divers et des Maximes de Madame de Sablé (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1978). The most accessible version of the complete maxims of Madame de Sablé.
Lafond, Jean. La Rochefoucauld: Augustinisme et Littérature (Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1977). A substantial discussion of the religious and moral dimensions of La Rochefoucauld's maxims, with numerous references to Madame de Sablé.
Lafond, Jean. La Rochefoucauld moraliste, le penseur et l'écrivan (Paris: Thèse, 1974). Contains a close comparison of Madame de Sablé's maxims with counterparts in Gracián's Oráculo.
Moore, W.G. La Rochefoucauld: His Mind and Art ( Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1969). Chapter Five, "Influence of the Salon," has a good, brief discussion of the 17th-century French salon, and of the role played by Madame de Sablé in its development.