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.

For instance, she ends the book with a long passage from Hippolyte Taine that describes, in prose worthy of The Scarlet Pimpernel, imprisoned aristocrats defying their Jacobin jailers by paying social calls from cell to cell, composing madrigals, retaining utter self-control and carrying on with light, debonair conversation, even while awaiting the tumbrils that would take them to the guillotine. Is there any reason why we should trust this late 19th-century reactionary – an interesting thinker, but an exceptionally sloppy and tendentious historian? The republican historian Alphonse Aulard filled a short book enumerating the factual errors in Taine’s history of the Revolution. Taine based the passage in question on noble memoirs and letters, and they are as self-serving and mythological as any sources of this kind. Did middle-class prisoners in the Luxembourg whimper in fear while the aristocrats held fast to their savoir-vivre? Or did some of the commoners face death stoically, perhaps even compose a madrigal or two, while some of the aristocrats cowered? Taine won’t tell us, and neither will Craveri. Instead, she cites the passage as proof that in the Revolution ‘the privileged order revealed its true value and the strength of its civilisation.’

The problem with this statement, and with Craveri’s book, is not so much that France’s privileged order depended for its existence on a vast structure of misery and exploitation, although of course it did, but that Craveri takes idealised, flattering descriptions of noble life, and rules for how to behave in salons, as accurate accounts of their historical reality. Although she introduces the book as ‘the story of an ideal’, the distinction between ideal and real quickly blurs in her pages. In describing the first great salon of the early 17th century, that of Madame de Rambouillet in her famous ‘Blue Room’, she repeatedly uses one particular adjective: ‘a utopian place’, ‘this frankly utopian quality’, ‘this utopian way of life’, ‘the Blue Room’s utopian world’. Is she referring to the way the authors wanted to see the room, or to the way she believes it actually was? She never quite makes it clear. At another moment she quotes several descriptions of the room, including this: ‘The air is always scented … various magnificent baskets of flowers impart a continuous springtime to her chamber, and the room where one usually sees her is so agreeable and so well conceived that one imagines oneself in an enchanted place.’ But this particular passage comes from Mlle de Scudéry’s novel Le Grand Cyrus, which may be ‘thinly veiled’ fiction, but is still, decidedly, fiction. Craveri devotes all too little attention to the difficult questions of early modern French generic conventions, literary style, the meaning of patronage relations for literature, and the effect that authors intended to have through their writing.

In justifying her approach, Craveri writes that she sought a ‘narrative mode unburdened by academic language’. She has succeeded, but academic language is not always pointless jargon. Some brief, clear analyses of literary conventions, of modes of representation, of social structure, even of (dread word) ‘discourse’, might have given her book a degree of badly needed precision. And then there is the problem that, in practice, her ‘narrative mode’ can stray perilously close to the style of Mills and Boon. A noble home is ‘illuminated by a thousand candles, shimmering with crystal and silver, and teeming with the full flower of the French nobility’. Mlle d’Epernon had ‘a tender, chaste love’ for the Chevalier de Fiesque, while ‘no one had a happier youth than Mlle de Bourbon.’ Noblemen are generally ‘glorious’, ‘bold’ or ‘valorous’. As for the unfortunate Mme de Montbazon, she ‘knew no law other than her own desire. She loved love, sex, money and power, which she high-handedly demanded, bowling men over with her sumptuous, sensual beauty.’ All that is lacking are tenderly heaving bosoms and a hero’s stern, noble brow (Teresa Waugh, the book’s translator, is not to blame here – the prose is just as purple in the original).

Despite these problems, Craveri sketches vivid portraits of individual salons and salonnières. She starts with Madame de Rambouillet and the select company who gathered in her Blue Room, conversing on courtly love and courtly virtue, composing light verse in rounds, and partaking of deceptively casual conversation. It was in this setting that the basic roster of salon activities – meals, reading out loud, theatricals, music, dancing and conversation – took definitive shape. Craveri describes how, with the mid-17th-century Fronde, this extended romantic idyll gave way to more insistent forms of aristocratic sociability, exemplified by Mme de Montbazon. She also writes about the salon hostesses and their retinues who subsequently gravitated towards the gloomy, austere Catholicism of the Jansenists. The brilliant, phobic Madame de Sablé (afraid of falling too deeply asleep, she had a servant sit by her side through the night, shaking her at regular intervals) set up a glittering salon in the grounds of the sober Jansenist convent at Port-Royal.

While Craveri stresses the continuities in salon life across the 17th and 18th centuries, she also shows how certain salons of the later period developed important new intellectual ambitions, attracting the likes of Montesquieu, Diderot, d’Alembert, d’Holbach and Helvétius, and becoming central institutions of the French Enlightenment. Indeed, the style of salon conversation arguably shaped much of Enlightenment thought. ‘I have neither the time nor the taste for reading,’ Diderot once told a friend. ‘To read all alone with no one to talk to, no one to argue with, no one to shine in front of, to listen to or to listen to one, is impossible.’ The salon, not the study, was Diderot’s true milieu, and the playful, speculative, deliberately unfinished quality of his writing owes everything to it. His most daring philosophical work, D’Alembert’s Dream, took the form of a salon-style conversation, and introduced the salonnière Julie de Lespinasse as a character. Craveri doesn’t mention the fact, but the great early condemnation of European imperialism and slavery called Histoire des deux Indes, on which Diderot collaborated, was compiled in large part during salon discussions.

Throughout her book, Craveri argues for the importance of the salons for women – or, at least, that small number of aristocratic women to whom they offered unprecedented influence and freedom. There was no other early modern country in which women took on the effective leadership of polite society so fully, and also helped shape the direction of literary life. They exercised leadership because it was in the intimate, feminine spaces of salons that the high aristocracy sought refuge from the glare of the royal court, and solace for their loss of independent political power. They shaped literary life because they acted as arbiters of the spoken language. Despite their generally poor education (and notoriously awful spelling), the conversation of salonnières set the standard for polite, appropriate speech, and therefore directly influenced the literature that emerged from their homes, whether the playful poetry of Vincent Voiture, the tart maxims of La Rochefoucauld, or Diderot’s philosophical speculations.

Beyond making these points, Craveri has an eye for some delightful stories. A nine-year-old Mlle Montmorency was chided by her tutor, Mme de Richelieu, for a small fault. ‘I could kill you,’ Richelieu exclaimed to her charge. ‘It would not be the first time that the Richelieus were executioners of the Montmorencys,’ the girl replied (too good to be true, perhaps, but first recorded in a private diary). Writing to an 11-year-old princess, Voiture, the poet laureate of the Blue Room, fantasised about being tossed in a blanket, so high that all Europe appeared below him: ‘I saw the winds and the clouds passing under my feet; I discovered countries I had never seen and seas I had never imagined … I saw you crossing the Saône at Lyon … I could not easily discern who was with you, because I was upside down at the time.’ The fastidious Madame de Sablé objected to the sight of a nun’s body awaiting burial at Port-Royal: ‘The day advances, twilight approaches,’ the convent’s famous abbess, Angélique Arnaud, gently explained. Nonetheless, from then on the nuns kept corpses well away from their wealthy benefactress.

Craveri does particularly well with the character of Claudine Guérin de Tencin, one of the greatest, most colourful figures from the world of the salons. Born to a family of Grenoble magistrates in 1681, she entered a convent at her father’s wish, but not before secretly visiting a notary to sign an affidavit stating her unwillingness to take the veil. After her father’s death, she used it to sue, successfully, for a release from her vows, and moved to Paris. There, she wrote several fine novels, and started a series of affairs with the most powerful men in the kingdom, using her influence over them to advance her brother’s career in the Church (she did it so well he ended up a cardinal). She also founded the first great literary salon of the century, attracting Montesquieu, Fontenelle, Marivaux and Bolingbroke, among others. After giving birth to an illegitimate child in 1717, she left him on the stairs of the Church of Saint-Jean-le-Rond in Paris, never to acknowledge his existence. The boy grew up to become the philosopher and mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert, co-editor with Diderot of the Encyclopédie, and a popular salon figure in his own right. Mme de Tencin’s story is not unfamiliar, but Craveri tells it with great verve.

What larger meanings do these stories have? In recent years, the salons and their privileged denizens have featured with remarkable frequency in arguments about the origins of modern culture. It has been argued that they represented a new sort of space for free, critical discussion, prefiguring the modern, democratic public sphere. It has been claimed that they helped engender modern ideas of sociability, and society. Like Craveri, several historians have emphasised the freedom and influence that they offered to women, and even suggested that they spawned a sort of proto-feminism. Dena Goodman has contended that the gentle guidance given by salonnières to philosophical discussion itself constituted a critical contribution to Enlightenment thought. Lilti powerfully criticises all this work (including Craveri’s) for focusing arbitrarily on a small number of salons which actually formed part of a far larger web of aristocratic sociability, much of it dominated by men, and relatively indifferent to the joys of literary conversation. The very idea that there existed a distinct, female-dominated literary institution called the ‘salon’, Lilti contends, is an invention of post-Revolutionary aristocratic nostalgia for what Talleyrand termed the vanished ‘sweetness of life’ in the Ancien Régime. The word ‘salon’ itself was not used to describe gatherings like Madame de Rambouillet’s until 1794.

Craveri, unfortunately, has surrendered far more deeply to the nostalgic myths than the other work Lilti criticises. For, very much like the 19th-century memoirists and belletrists who first cultivated the fable of the salons, she has no desire to see them as modern in any significant way. For her, they represent precisely what a cold, grasping modernity has largely destroyed: a utopian realm of beauty, refinement, wit, cultivated leisure and sexual equality. ‘How,’ she asks in her introduction, ‘can we compare the intimidating, prefabricated notion of “free time” with a culture of leisure in which art, literature, music, dance, theatre and conversation all constituted a permanent training for the body and the mind?’

This is a perfectly defensible view (if rather distressingly indifferent to all those servants and serfs whose sweat made the ‘culture of leisure’ possible), and one shared by many scholars. But in Craveri’s hands, the sheer weight of nostalgic celebration, and the stubborn unwillingness to distinguish representation from reality, leave the critique of modern life largely unpersuasive. It is one thing to hold up our modern forms of social interaction against the actual practices of past societies, and to find ourselves wanting. It is quite another to compare our present lives with past ideals, flattery and myths. There is nothing wrong with writing history in an elegiac mode. But Craveri has written the elegy of a dream. It makes for charming reading, but not for convincing scholarship.

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