Tag Archives: Madame de Sevigne

Feminism and the museum guard

26 Apr

Courtyard Musee Carnavelet Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerUncomfortable official uniforms and cheerless expressions do nothing to suggest to me that museum guards love their jobs. I can’t claim to know what their full job description looks like, but from what I see, standing in a room for hours making sure people don’t make off with or stick their mucky fingers on museum pieces must be mind numbing.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised then, when, the other day, a museum guard wanted to chat, but I was. When he first spoke to me, my instinct was to take a step away for the picture I was looking at, put my hands in the air, and look at him with an, ‘I’m not doing anything wrong’ expression.

He smiled and asked again, ‘Where do you come from?’ in heavily accented English. No one else was around and he wanted to talk.

He’d been to Scotland, didn’t see the Loch Ness monster and was a fan of Sean Connery. He didn’t much care for Scotch, preferring Cognac, but did like Braveheart. This established I moved to start looking at the exhibits again.

‘This time was a very violent time,’ he said gesturing around him.  We were on the top floor of the Musee Carnavalet, in the section devoted to the French Revolution.  ‘I hear teachers everyday tell their students that this was a marvelous time for France. But the truth is, this was a very violent time.’

Indeed, we were standing in front of a picture depicting an angry mob pulling an aristocrat from his home. The aristocrat’s wife and children, huddled together with pained faces, were to the right of the action. In the centre, two men held the aristocrat’s arms. A third member of the mob was raising an ax.  The aristocrat’s face was painted grey anticipating death.  It was pretty terrifying.

The museum guard gestured to a painting on the opposite wall, ‘This was important.’

The painting portrayed the contents of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  This document formed the basis of the first French constitution and was heavily influenced by the US Declaration of Independence.

‘Did you know that a Declaration of the Rights of Woman was written the same time this was written?’ the museum guard asked.

‘I’d like to see that,’ I said. ‘Do you have a copy here at the museum?’

‘No,’ he shook his head. ‘And you know what, I’ve never seen a copy of it.’

One woman not forgotten at the Musee Carnavalet is Madame de Sevigne (1626-96).  The magnificent, Renaissance -style Hotel, or mansion, which houses a large part of the Musee, was her home for the last 20 years of her life. I am currently reading a selection of her letters, which she is famous for, and could not help but try to imagine her, writing, in many of the rooms. 

The forward to the translation of her letters starts in the following way:

‘With the possible exception of Voltaire, Mme de Sevigne is the greatest letter-writer in French literature.’

However, translator Leonard Tancock (1982) then tries not to apologise for the content of her letters being domestic in nature and full of gossip. He then describes her as “… a writer of supremely articulate ‘averageness’….”  Surely, if we are still reading her letters 340 years after they were written, the woman was anything but average.

Sadly, the section of the museum devoted to Madame de Sevigne and the 17th century was closed the day I visited.  I will have to come back to this wonderful museum to see how she is commemorated and look elsewhere to see, hopefully someday, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman.