GRIGNON, FRANCE – Marie de Rabutin-Chantal was a French aristocrat remembered in Grignon and all of France for the letters she wrote to her estranged daughter over the course of seven years. They survived the test of time because of their vivid descriptions, her humor and the raw emotions she was able to convey at a time when stoicism was the norm in the writing community.
Marie was born in Paris in 1626 and died in Grignon in 1696. Most of her life story sounds a lot like other nobility and aristocrats of that era with a few interesting wrinkles along the way.
Orphaned at age six, Marie lived with her uncle in Paris. She had a happy childhood and was well educated by noteworthy tutors. She was introduced to society in Paris after marrying Henry de Sevigne in 1644. Henry, it was reported by a tour guide as I sat at a cafe in the town square, cheated on his wife, squandered her inheritance, and was killed in a duel in 1651, leaving Marie a single mother of two children – Françoise Marguerite, her six year old daughter, and Charles, her three year old son. It was also reported that she dedicated her life to the children until they came of age.
In 1669 her daughter Françoise Marguerite married the Count of Grignon, who owned an astounding castle/mansion/estate on the top of the mountain that looked down on the village. Marie moved with them from Paris and lived at the estate until the Count received a job offer in Provence that he could not refuse. Marie stayed in Grignon without her daughter.
Although the amount changes depending on who you ask or what historical website you reference, Marie rifled-off in the vicinity of 1,700 letters to her daughter in about seven years. And without literary intention or any ambition beyond communicating with her daughter, she went on to write arguably the most recognizable volume of letters in French history.
Just to give you an example of her name recognition and stature, the village of Grignon was referenced to a host I stayed with in Belgium, and immediately he mentioned Marie. The estate in Grignon where she lived is now a historic museum and at least half of it is dedicated to her.
And in the town square, there is a statue of Marie with quill in hand.
The letters to her daughter recounted current news and events, fashion, society, described prominent people that visited the estate, provided day to day details of her life, her acquaintances, her visits to the village, her taste in reading, and most of all her emotions of being separated from her daughter.
Although historians and storytellers alike have referenced and used the letters, there is nothing contained in them that couldn’t have been found elsewhere. It is also worth noting that her writing style broke a lot of rules as they applied to the 17th century “best practices” of writers at that time, yet her letter writing style outlasted better-known writers of that era.
Where Marie de Rabutin-Chantal succeeded in making her writing stand the test of time is in her authenticity and in her passion for both the subject of her letters and her perceived audience – her beloved daughter Françoise Marguerite.
She wasn’t writing history, she was telling a story to her daughter.
It is with this same passion and authenticity that I believe the story of Apopka icons Billie Dean and Mayor John Land should come to life on the pages of a modern biography.
Historians and biographers from other ages have used a tried and true generic style of chronicling the lives and events of history, but unfortunately, they are rarely used for more than a reference guide years later. From the Greek and Roman empires to the Middle Ages and even into the world wars of the 20th century, these scholars have published volumes and volumes of important writings about historic figures and events since the dawn of time. I thank them all and honor their efforts and accomplishments as I have read countless historical accounts, biographies, and novels that have enhanced my knowledge and love of history.
But there is a new style of biography that tells the story of a person rather than telling their history. It weaves the subject into the time, environment and conditions in which they lived. It not only tells the story of the person but tells the story of the time they lived. It’s the type of style that lands in must-read lists, rather than on a bookcase where it is lost in time.
Billie Dean is a bonafide Apopka icon who lived in tumultuous times and accomplished a successful career when most African Americans were simply struggling to survive. John Land is simply the most noteworthy Apopkan who ever lived.
Their life’s work should not be left to generational anecdotes, photos, statues, or roads named after them. All remembrances are valuable and show a community’s love and admiration of the person, but they do not tell the story of a person’s life like a written biography.
I hope that you will consider partnering with the Billie Dean Project to make this first biography a reality.