In the heart of the Tricastin Plain, the splendid Renaissance façade of Grignan Castle looks out from its hilltop vantage over the higgledy-piggledy tiles of the village that clings below its ramparts, spilling down the hillside to meet an aromatic sea of lavender. Rising above the roofs of the village, a scarlet quill is emblazoned on the side of the 17th-century white-stone belfry – an icon of the town's annual summer festival and a symbol of its affinity with the dying art of penmanship.
The marquise and the quill
Grignan's love affair with the written word began towards the end of the 17th century, when the Count of Grignan – a knight in the service of King Louis XIV and Governor-General of Provence – married Françoise-Marguerite Sévigné, daughter of the marquise, Madame de Sévigné.
Married at 18, Madame de Sévigné was widowed at the age of 25 when her husband was mortally wounded in a dual over his mistress. Left with two children, Françoise-Marguerite and Charles, Madame de Sévigné raised and home-schooled them in Paris, introducing her daughter to the court of Louis XIV where she met and married the Count of Grignan in 1669. Clearly besotted with her daughter, when Françoise-Marguerite moved to Grignan Castle with her husband, Madame de Sévigné was heartbroken and set about writing long, daily letters to her whenever they were apart, beginning just two days after the marriage and continuing for 25 years.
Frequently running to 20 or 30 pages, the letters were a lively account of life in Paris and of the goings-on in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles as well as a vehicle for the marquise's musings on philosophy, nature, religion and love. Narrated with a natural ease and liberally peppered with humorous anecdotes, the letters were regularly read aloud in Parisian salons for the amusement of the aristocratic and literary society. A frequent visitor to Grignan Castle to see her daughter, Madame de Sévigné had her own quarters which she adored and where she ended her days, a victim of smallpox, in 1696.
After her death, a selection of Madame de Sévigné's letters were published and she became one of France's most celebrated writers, her text being adopted into the curriculum by French secondary schools in the 19th century. Historians, researchers and philosophers continue to draw from the rich source of narrative contained within the letters – how society lived in Paris and in the country; how they travelled; their manners and mannerisms; how a marriage was proposed, an affair treated, and a dual settled; the costumes, the wigs and the scandal from the court of Louis XIV, so vividly brought to life in the BBC drama, Versailles, whose researchers no doubt availed themselves of Madame de Sévigné's accounts. The only person who, it seems, was not enamoured by the writings of Madame de Sévigné, was alas her daughter who found her mother's constant missives and outpouring of affection suffocating – quel dommage!
In Madame de Sévigné's memory and honour, every July Grignan holds a Writing Festival featuring readings, exhibitions, performances and book markets, and workshops on handwriting and calligraphy held in writing rooms filled with beautiful writing paper and beautiful envelopes and beautiful quills and beautiful inks – the lost tools of an art perfected by the marquise.
During the French Revolution, Grignan Castle was all but destroyed and left to decay until 1838 when it was acquired by Léopold Faure who began the arduous job of its restoration, hunting down and buying back the furniture and paintings that had originally adorned it. Unfortunately, when Faure died in 1883 the castle was bought by the famous dandy, Boniface de Castellane, who set about stripping it once again. The castle's redemption came in the form of Marie Fontaine, a rich widow from the north who bought it in 1912 and undertook to spend her fortune restoring it. Fontaine did a splendid job of the restoration but when she died in 1937, her heirs did not continue the work. Finally acquired by the Drôme départément in 1979, restoration work continues while the castle is open to the public and contains exquisite collections spanning four centuries and three floors, including the quarters of one Madame de Sévigné.