It is as well to establish at the outset what Madame du Deffand was not. She was not, whatever the publisher of Benedetta Craveri’s book may claim, a woman who ‘approached love and sex with a frankness centuries ahead of her time’: her time was the 18th-century Regency, which took a casual view of fidelity, and the hedonistic age of Louis XV. She died in the reign of Louis XVI, a couple of years ahead of the publication of Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, which may be read as, among other things, an exposé of the immorality of the Ancien Régime. But on any count she was a remarkable woman, perhaps the brightest in a constellation of salonnières which included Madame Geoffrin and Julie de Lespinasse, and she held triumphant court in that pre-Revolutionary age when, as Madame Vigée Le Brun put it, ‘woman reigned supreme.’ Her story and that of her age are marvellously well told by Craveri, who succeeds in bringing a whole world to life.
Deffand always resented the fact that she had been scantily educated, but she possessed wit of a kind learning cannot sharpen. There were enough ‘femmes savantes’ around – Voltaire’s mistress Emilie du Châtelet foremost among them – and plenty of solid female artistic achievement. Women wrote novels (Madame du Tencin, the scandalous, unmarried mother of Deffand’s erstwhile friend d’ Alembert, or the Madame Riccoboni who thought that Laclos had traduced her sex in the Liaisons), painted pictures – though they were usually confined to the ‘lesser’ genres of portraiture and still-life because they were debarred from studying the male nude – and made music. But few spoke as well as Deffand, or wrote better letters. The letter, of course, was a minor genre too, and one which accommodated so-called women’s weaknesses, the tendency to ramble or dwell on minutiae. It did not have to be composed, as plays and epics did, and was at its most satisfying perhaps when it appeared as an artless ‘reflection of the other person’ (which did not mean it was not highly artful). When she was writing to Voltaire, Deffand felt almost inhibited by the consciousness of who her correspondent was. But Voltaire was able to reassure her, cajole and coax her into alertness, and extract splendid letters from her.
How did all this begin? Madame du Deffand might have remained just another well-born woman vegetating in a country retreat and married unsatisfactorily to a man several years her senior. She might have become one of those 18th-century mothers who produced their brood – usually consigning them to others for their upbringing, and crucially denying them that maternal warmth whose lack led Rousseau to mount a campaign for breast-feeding – and then retired to a convent, their duty done. But she did none of these things. The closest she came to motherhood was in her ‘adoption’ of a niece, Julie de Lespinasse, who then betrayed her by establishing a rival salon and luring regulars like d’Alembert to it. And she had very little time either for her husband or for country living.
Her background was aristocratic but impoverished. She had the convent schooling common to girls of her class – they learned the catechism and other preparations for first communion, but otherwise acquired little formal knowledge – and as a small girl was already showing the intellectual fearlessness that was to mark her later life, preaching irreligion to her young companions. When the abbess summoned the celebrated preacher Massillon, to whom the child explained the reasons for her ungodliness, he could find nothing more to say than ‘She is charming.’ Perhaps the roots of her later malaise, the melancholia for which she became well-known, were in the Pascalian ‘misère de l’homme sans Dieu’; but it seems unlikely.
Her marriage was to a distant cousin, who quickly discovered where he stood. Deffand was to be one of those defiantly independent 18th-century women – Vigée Le Brun and the novelist Françoise de Graffigny were others – who made their own way in the world, while never spurning useful contacts. Because it was a Regency marriage, its byword was freedom: freedom from illusion, principally. When Deffand wrote that love was not necessary in marriage, she did not mean what Rousseau’s Julie meant in La Nouvelle Héloïse – namely, that conjugal respect and a mutual sense of responsibility make better bedfellows than amour-passion. She was simply signalling her emotional indifference to her husband, a pathetic soul who adored her.
Cutting conjugal ties meant investing energy in other relationships, however. Initially there was love (her first affair was with the Regent himself), then highly-charged friendship. Madame de Lambert, another celebrated salonnière and Marivaux’s patron, famously wrote that ‘there are no rules in friendship,’ and Deffand availed herself fully of this libertarian attitude. The most important friendship in the years immediately following her marriage was with the Président Hénault, and was conducted against the exquisite background of the château of Sceaux.
Sceaux was where the formidable Duchesse du Maine held court. This monstre sacré exercised a formative influence on the younger woman, demonstrating in a grande dame way that was alien to Deffand’s tastes the possibilities for elegant, worldly living in a hyper-civilised environment. (Watteau is said to have been thinking of Sceaux when he painted L’Embarquement pour l’île de Cythère.) Perhaps the Duchess influenced Deffand in other ways, too: the ennui she suffered from, the nuits de Sceaux (entertainments designed to draw the sting from insomnia), anticipate the sometimes desperate late-night gatherings in the rue St-Dominique, where guests were encouraged to linger until the small hours so that their hostess need not face the horrors of her own sleeplessness. But it was a perverse way of living – ‘Wit and ironic gaiety survived in a pleasurable existence overflowing with boredom,’ as Sainte-Beuve said – and it set the pattern for Deffand’s own angst-ridden and finally barren life.
Eventually she decided she must spread her wings, feeling that she had acquired enough of the skills of the hostess to set up on her own. Not that she ever regarded her gifts very highly: ‘You know nothing,’ she wrote to Voltaire, ‘of the condition of those who think and are reflective, who have a certain energy, but who are without talent, passion, occupation or distraction.’
Yet she was alert to the ways in which literature and the arts – and their exponents-could be brought together in the new century, and to the democratic spirit that modified or sharpened the perceptions of the aristocracy. Deffand was not particularly snobbish – she lionised the illegitimate, graceless, but brilliant d’Alembert, though she seems to have drawn the line at the more robust and unbuttoned Diderot – and she liked mixing guests. She remained convinced that a salon hostess’s role was essentially maieutic, drawing out treasures from others rather than trying to implant wisdom in them herself. So her lack of education was no great disadvantage, and for an autocratic and self-centred woman she was a remarkably good listener.
She was, however, inordinately jealous. D’Alembert’s defection to the Lespinasse establishment was seen as an unforgivable act of perfidy: had she not won him membership of the Académie Française after two failed attempts? It led to a breach that was never healed; like Proust’s Madame Verdurin, Deffand had her clan and she expected the fidèles to observe the basic decencies. Far worse, though, was the treachery of Julie de Lespinasse. Originally a self-effacing companion and a tactful presence at the soirées, she eventually allowed her own intellectual ambitions and impatience with Deffand’s tyranny to galvanise her into independent action. Her salon – also in the rue St-Dominique – became the meeting place for liberal intellectuals, and the conservative Deffand never forgave her. Nor could the protégée’s febrile intensity (she became an opium addict, and conducted life-threateningly passionate affairs at the same time as cohabiting with the possibly impotent d’Alembert) furnish the kind of emotional reassurance Deffand needed before the secession. The older woman liked brilliance in men, which is why Voltaire’s friendship delighted her so much; but it unsettled her in women.
In the rue St-Dominique conversation reigned, an art which only Madame de Staël’s salon really maintained after the Revolution, and which counted for so much in the douceur de vivre of the Ancien Régime. Like Madame Geoffrin, Deffand could imperiously put an end to philosophe enthusiasms when they threatened to go too far, but in general she provided an accommodating environment for the airing of ideas and cultural views. The exquisite ambience – the famous yellow watered silk, the beautiful furniture – helped to keep up the lofty tone and for a long time presiding over her perfectly ordered world enabled Deffand to keep her melancholy at bay.
But it always threatened to engulf her, and she came to epitomise the crippling disease which in the early 19th century would be called the ‘mal du siècle’, but whose origins are much earlier. Ennui, as Benedetta Craveri observes, became the focus of her existence. It came in part from a sense of entrapment, in part – women in the 18th century suffered much more from this existential distemper than men, and even women as intellectually and socially liberated as Madame du Deffand lacked freedoms which the opposite sex took for granted – and from her fifties onwards en-croaching blindness. This was a more debilitating form of imprisonment, and even for someone whose activities centred on listening rather than doing, it was a source of black despair. It should have made her insomniac’s dread of the night-time less acute, and perhaps it did, but it greatly intensified her melancholy. She made some wrong decisions, too, in her efforts to break the stranglehold of depression. Her retirement to the country was particularly ill-advised, for she needed to be taken out of herself, not plunged into further solitude, and she had no natural affinity with the vegetable world. So she returned again to Paris.
Two friendships above all sustained her. Voltaire refused to allow her to become eaten up with self-pity, and his letters answer her gloom with bright shafts of wit. He joked at her ungodliness, and her preference for long English novels over the Old Testament, but refrained from pointing out what consolations religion might have brought her. Besides, he epitomised a certain kind of worldliness which she found restorative, and his cynicism matched her disillusion.
Another worldling became even more important to her. Horace Walpole evidently grew concerned at the interpretations which society might put on this much older woman’s amitié amoureuse for him, and directed that she eventually destroy his letters. But hers to him remain, betraying something of the intoxication of calf-love along with the disabused mondanité and intense possessiveness her correspondence with others also reveals. It was a friendship of its age, free – at least on her side – of any rules, however exacting it appeared, and a monument to the sustaining power of the letter in the 18th century. Ultimately the relationship disappointed her, as it came to weary him; but Deffand had long since come to expect only disappointment of life.