A Comment on the Death of François Vatel, as reported by Madame de Sévigné

There are two basic problems with many of Web discussions of the death of François Vatel. The first is a simple error of fact, and has bearing also on the second: Madame de Sévigné was not present at the event; she heard about it second hand.
The second is the occasional statement, from sources as outwardly respectable as The Columbia Encyclopedia, that the story is probably a legend, and never in fact happened.
Both of these problems are worsened by the fact that most extracts of the relevant letter on the Web omit the relevant passages. I will therefore first translate the fullest version of the letter which I have, which may be the whole letter (French text below). It is the text which appears in both Classiques Larousse and the Bordas textbooks.

Paris, Sunday, April 26 (1671)

It is Sunday, April 26; this letter won't leave until Wednesday; but this isn't a letter, it's that which Moreuil has just told me so that I could repeat it to you, about what happened at Chantilly concerning Vatel. On Friday I wrote to you that he stabbed himself: here are the details of the matter.

The King arrived Thursday evening; hunting, lanterns, moonlight, a promenade, the meal in a place carpeted with jonquils, everything that one could wish. Supper was served; there were some tables at which there was no roast, because there were several more guests than were expected. This affected Vatel; he said several times: "I have lost honor; this is a disgrace which I can't bear." He said to Gourville: "My head is spinning, I haven't slept for twelve nights; help me give orders." Gourville help him as best he could. The roast which had been lacking, not at the King's table, but at the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, kept coming back to his mind. The Prince went to his room and said to him, "Vatel, everything is going fine, nothing was ever as lovely as the King's supper." Vatel answered, "Sir, your goodness is too much for me; I know that there was no roast at two tables." "That's nothing at all," said the prince, "don't fret about it, everything is going fine."

Night falls. The fireworks fail, because of a fog over everything; they had cost sixteen thousand francs. At 4:00 AM Vatel was everywhere, but he found everyone asleep; he ran into a small purveyor who brought him only two loads of fish; Vatel asked him, "Is that all?" He answered, "Yes, sir." He didn't know that Vatel had sent to all the ports. Vatel waited a while; the other purveyors didn't come; his head felt hot, he thought that he would have no other fish; he found Gourville, and said to him: "Sir, I will not survive this disgrace; I have honor and a reputation to lose." Gourville laughed at him. Vatel went up to his room, stood his sword against the door, and passed it through his heart; but that was only at the third stab, for the first two weren't fatal: He fell dead. However, the fish started coming from all sides; they looked for Vatel to distribute it; they went to his room, they started banging, they broke down the door; they found him drowned in his blood; they ran to the Prince, who was in despair. The Duke cried; he had come from Burgundy only because of Vatel. The Prince said to the King with great sadness: "They say it was because of his pride"; people praised him greatly, they praised and blamed his courage. The King said that he hadn't been to Chantilly for five years because he knew how much strain his visits caused. He told the Prince that he should only have had two tables, and not pay any attention to the others. He swore that he would not put up with the Prince's doing things like that any more; but it was too late for poor Vatel.

Gourville tried to make up for the loss of Vatel; it worked: they dined very well, they had their light meals, they supped, the took their walks, they hunted. Everywhere the scent of jonquils, everything was enchanted. Yesterday, which was Saturday, they did the same again; and in the evening the King went to Liancourt, where he ordered a midnight meal like the ones after fasts; he has to stay there today.

That's what Moreuil told me, so that I should send it to you. I throw my bonnet above the mill, and that's all I know of the story. M. de Hacqueville, who was there, will no doubt write to you about it, but since my handwriting is more legible than his, I'm writing anyway. I've written a lot of details, but since I would want them in your place, I'm sending them to you.

It is probably the words "I throw my bonnet above the mill" which cause some interpreters to claim that the whole story of Vatel's suicide is a fable. Émile Feuillatre notes in the Larousse edition that these were customary words for ending a children's story. However, that hardly proves that the tragedy never occurred, and in fact, it almost certainly did.
I know of no other case where anyone has even claimed that the gossip and other stories which Madame de Sévigné wrote to her daughter were fiction, and there's no reason to assume that she made up a story this time. Not only Vatel, but all of the other characters in the story were too well known. It is particularly unlikely that someone would include the King's rebuke to the Prince of Condé in a silly story. The concluding formula is probably a jocular reference to the style of the story, either in the melodramatic version in which Moreuil told it to Madame de Sévigné or in the bittersweet version in which she passed it on to her daughter.
One last opinion: Though it grieves me terribly to have to agree with those who praise Madame de Sévigné as a literary figure out of political correctness, she was indeed a great and original writer, and this is one of her best letters. It's no wonder that cooks have been using it as a subject of our daily devotions for three hundred years.

À Paris, ce dimanche 26e avril

Il est dimanche 26 avril; cette lettre ne partira que mercredi; mais ceci n'est pas une lettre, c'est une relation que vient de me faire Moreuil, à votre intention, de ce qui s'est passé à Chantilly touchant Vatel. Je vous écrivis vendredi qu'il s'était poignardé: voici l'affaire en détail.

Le Roi arriva jeudi au soir; la chasse, les lanternes, le clair de la lune, la promenade, la collation dans un lieu tapissé de jonquilles, tout cela fut à souhait. On soupa; il y eut quelques tables où le rôti manqua, à cause de plusieurs dîners où l'on ne s'était point attendu. Cela saisit Vatel; il dit plusieurs fois: « Je suis perdu d'honneur; voici un affront que je ne supporterai pas. » Il dit à Gourville: « La tête me tourne, il y a douze nuits que je n'ai dormi; aidez-moi à donner des ordres. » Gourville le soulagea en ce qu'il put. Ce rôti qui avait manqué, non pas à la table du Roi, mais aux vingt-cinquièmes, lui revenait toujours à la tête. Monsieur le Prince alla jusque dans sa chambre, et lui dit: « Vatel, tout va bien, rien n'était si beau que le souper du Roi. » Il lui dit: « Monseigneur, votre bonté m'achève; je sais que le rôti a manqué à deux tables. - Point du tout, dit Monsieur le Prince, ne vous fâchez point, tout va bien. »

La nuit vient: le feu d'artifice ne réussit pas, il fut couvert d'un nuage; il coûtait seize mille francs. À quatre heures du matin, Vatel s'en va partout, il trouve tout endormi; il rencontre un petit pourvoyeur qui lui apportait seulement deux charges de marée; il lui demande: « Est-ce là tout? » Il lui dit: « Oui, Monsieur. » Il ne savait pas que Vatel avait envoyé à tous les ports de mer. Il attend quelque temps; les autres pourvoyeurs ne viennent point; sa tête s'échauffait, il croit qu'il n'aura point d'autre marée; il trouve Gourville, et lui dit : « Monsieur, je ne survivrai pas à cet affront-ci; j'ai de l'honneur et de la réputation à perdre. » Gourville se moqua de lui. Vatel monte à sa chambre, met son épée contre la porte, et se la passe au travers coeur; mais ce ne fut qu'au troisième coup, car il s'en donna deux qui n'étaient pas mortels: il tombe mort. La marée cependant arrive de tous côtés; on cherche Vatel pour la distribuer; on va à sa chambre; on heurte, on enfonce la porte; on le trouve noyé dans son sang; on court à Monsieur le Prince, qui fut au désespoir. Monsieur le Duc pleura; c'était sur Vatel que roulait tout son voyage de Bourgogne. Monsieur le Prince le dit au Roi fort tristement: on dit que c'était à force d'avoir de l'honneur en sa manière; on le loua fort, on loua et blâma son courage. Le Roi dit qu'il y avait cinq ans qu'il retardait de venir à Chantilly, parce qu'il comprenait l'excès de cet embarras. Il dit à Monsieur le Prince qu'il ne devait avoir que deux tables et ne se point charger du reste. Il jura qu'il ne souffrirait plus que Monsieur le Prince en usât ainsi; mais c'était trop tard pour le pauvre Vatel.

Cependant Gourville tâche de réparer la perte de Vatel; elle le fut: on dîna très bien, on fit collation, on soupa, on se promena, on joua, on fut à la chasse; tout était parfumé de jonquilles, tout était enchanté. Hier, qui était samedi, on fit encore de même; et le soir, le Roi alla à Liancourt, où il avait commandé un medianoche; il y doit demeurer aujourd'hui.

Voilà ce que m'a dit Moreuil, pour vous mander. Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus le moulin, et je ne sais rien du reste. M. de Hacqueville qui était à tout cela, vous fera de des relations sans doute; mais comme son écriture n'est pas si lisible que la mienne, j'écris toujours. Voilà bien des détails, mais parce que je les aimerais en pareille occasion, je vous les mande.

Note added on November 7, 2010:

I recently read Dominique Michel's book Vatel et la naissance de la gastronomie. The book does have its faults, but after reading it, and most especially after having followed the references, the only way that one could believe that Vatel didn't kill himself more or less under the circumstances described by Mme de Sévigné would be by assuming that the story of Vatel's death was a conspiracy by Mme de Sévigné, Gourville, and Mlle de Montpensier. As to Mme de Sévigné, nuff said. Gourville, himself a celebrated personage and one of the main actors in the event, also mentions it in his memoirs - unless Michel made up the detailed reference out of whole cloth - as does Mlle de Montpensier, who was apparently at the same party (although I haven't yet found an important detail which Michel cites; it may be that there are significantly different versions of the text).


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