Twilight Approaches

David A. Bell

There is a fable about the French past that goes as follows. Sometime in the 17th century, the country’s proud noble caste was humbled and tamed by imperious ministers and kings. Where once it had swayed the destinies of Europe, it was now confined to the gilded cage of the royal court, and the elegant salons of Paris. Others might have raged against this fate, but the French nobility adapted to it. Its members developed exquisite manners. They made beauty their grail, and cultivated sophisticated, graceful pleasures. Guided by refined salonnières, they revelled in wit, savoured the joys of idleness, and raised polished conversation to the level of fine art. Sometimes their delights devolved into debauch, but even the debauch retained a certain indefinable elegance. The nobles never forgot who they were. And when the supreme test came, in the French Revolution, they did their duty with a gallantry that shamed their coarse, plebeian tormentors. In the killing fields of the Vendée, noblemen and noblewomen alike rediscovered the heroism of their chivalric ancestors. In the Jacobin prisons, they retained their dignity and savoir-vivre. According to Hippolyte Taine, ‘women particularly went to the scaffold with the ease and serenity with which they attended a soirée.’

This fable has had remarkable staying power, in popular history, fiction and film – yet nearly everything about it is wrong. The French nobility was never a caste. It was a porous and untidy social category that incorporated hundreds of thousands of individuals, ranging from the grand aristocrats of Versailles to retired provincial aldermen. The French state sold off noble titles by the bushel to support its perennially woeful finances, with the result that by 1789 a large majority of title-holders could not trace their noble ancestry back beyond 1600. Only a small percentage of the nobility ever lived at Versailles, and a sizeable proportion of the men there did not pass their lives in idle court ritual, but remained devoted to the traditional calling of their class, the military. Despite a loss of independent political power, nobles continued to dominate the state apparatus. In the provinces, they managed their estates with an almost bourgeois dedication to profit, and led the way in developing mining, metallurgy and the beginnings of French industry. In the Revolution, most nobles did not stand and fight gallantly. They fled abroad, or kept their heads low, or became revolutionaries themselves. The Duc de Lauzun, renowned as the best-mannered aristocratic dandy of the 18th century, fought in the Vendée on the side of the Jacobins, helping to slaughter the region’s Catholic, royalist rebels.

Graceful and refined conversation did take place in the Ancien Régime, and the ideal of graceful idleness held a powerful allure. So did the famous salons, often presided over by wealthy noblewomen, which brought together high-ranking aristocrats and fashionable writers and artists. But this institution also served some very serious social purposes, as Antoine Lilti shows in his new book Le Monde des salons: sociabilité et mondanité à Paris au XVIIIème siècle.[*] It was a site for the socialisation of elites, for the negotiation of patronage relationships, for competition between different aristocratic cliques, for the establishment of the most severe sorts of social distinction. The degree of aesthetic refinement that prevailed there is easily exaggerated. Lilti also makes clear that the salons varied widely in their social composition, in the role women played, and in their relationship to literary life.

Benedetta Craveri’s book on the salons, The Age of Conversation, first published in Italy in 2001, often resembles the fable more than the reality. To be sure, it is grounded in serious research. Craveri has read through the voluminous memoirs and correspondence about the salons, and the voluminous historical writing on the subject as well. She pays the American scholar Daniel Gordon, author of an important study of Enlightenment ideas of sociability, the compliment of following him so closely as to lapse, on occasion, into paraphrase. And yet, time and again, the entrancing fable dances away with her like a seducer at a ball.

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[*] Fayard, 572 pp., £30, October 2005, 2 213 62292 2.