The Women of the French Salons by Amelia Ruth Gere Mason - HTML preview

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It has been a labor of love with many distinguished Frenchmen to recall

the memories of the women who have made their society so illustrious,

and to retouch with sympathetic insight the features which time was

beginning to dim. One naturally hesitates to enter a field that has

been gleaned so carefully, and with such brilliant results, by men

like Cousin, Sainte-Beuve, Goncourt, and others of lesser note. But the

social life of the two centuries in which women played so important a

role in France is always full of human interest from whatever point of

view one may regard it. If there is not a great deal to be said that is

new, old facts may be grouped afresh, and old modes of life and thought

measured by modern standards.

In searching through the numerous memoirs, chronicles, letters, and

original manuscripts in which the records of these centuries are hidden

away, nothing has struck me so forcibly as the remarkable mental vigor

and the far-reaching influence of women whose theater was mainly a

social one. Though society has its frivolities, it has also its serious

side, and it is through the phase of social evolution that was begun

in the salons that women have attained the position they hold today.

However beautiful, or valuable, or poetic may have been the feminine

types of other nationalities, it is in France that we find the

forerunners of the intelligent, self-poised, clear-sighted, independent

modern woman. It is possible that in the search for larger fields the

smaller but not less important ones have been in a measure forgotten.

The great stream of civilization flows from a thousand unnoted rills

that make sweet music in their course, and swell the current as surely

as the more noisy torrent. The conditions of the past cannot be revived,

nor are they desirable. The present has its own theories and its own

methods. But at a time when the reign of luxury is rapidly establishing

false standards, and the best intellectual life makes hopeless struggles

against an ever aggressive materialism, it may be profitable as well as

interesting to consider the possibilities that lie in a society equally

removed from frivolity and pretension, inspired by the talent, the

sincerity, and the moral force of American women, and borrowing a

new element of fascination from the simple and charming but polite

informality of the old salons.

It has been the aim in these studies to gather within a limited compass

the women who represented the social life of their time on its

most intellectual side, and to trace lightly their influence upon

civilization through the avenues of literature and manners. Though the

work may lose something in fullness from the effort to put so much into

so small a space, perhaps there is some compensation in the opportunity

of comparing, in one gallery, the women who exercised the greatest power

in France for a period of more than two hundred years.

The impossibility

of entering into the details of so many lives in a single volume is

clearly apparent. Only the most salient points can be considered. Many

who would amply repay a careful study have simply been glanced at, and

others have been omitted altogether. As it would be out of the question

in a few pages to make an adequate portrait of women who occupy so

conspicuous a place in history as Mme. De Maintenon and Mme. De Stael,

the former has been reluctantly passed with a simple allusion, and

the latter outlined in a brief resume not at all proportional to the

relative interest or importance of the subject.

I do not claim to present a complete picture of French society, and

without wishing to give too rose-colored a view, it has not seemed to

me necessary to dwell upon its corrupt phases. If truth compels one

sometimes to state unpleasant facts in portraying historic characters,

it is as needless and unjust as in private life to repeat idle and

unproved tales, or to draw imaginary conclusions from questionable data.

The conflict of contemporary opinion on the simplest matters leads

one often to the suspicion that all personal history is more or less

disguised fiction. The best one can do in default of direct records

is to accept authorities that are generally regarded as the most


This volume is affectionately dedicated to the memory of my mother, who

followed the work with appreciative interest in its early stages, hut

did not live to see its conclusion.

Amelia Gere Mason Paris, July 6, 1891



Characteristics of French

Woman--Gallic Genius for Conversation--Social Conditions--Origin of the

Salons--Their Power--Their Composition--Their Records CHAPTER II. THE HOTEL DE RAMBOUILLET Mme. De Rambouillet--The

Salon Bleu--Its Habitues--Its

Diversions--Corneille--Balzac--Richelieu--Romance of the Grand Conde--the Young Bossuet--Voiture--The Duchesse de Longueville--Angelique Paulet--Julie d'Angennes--Les Precieuses

Ridicules--Decline of the Salon--Influence upon Literature and Manners


Salons of the

Noblesse--"The Illustrious Sappho"--Her Romances--The Samedis--Bons Mots

of Mme. Cornuel--Estimate of Mlle. De Scudery CHAPTER IV. LA GRANDE MADEMOISELLE Her Character--Her Heroic Part in the

Fronde--Her Exile--Literary Diversions of her Salon--A Romantic Episode



Worldly Life--Her Retreat--Her Friends--Pascal--The Maxims of La

Rochefoucauld--Last Days of the Marquise CHAPTER VI. MADAME DE SEVIGNE Her Genius--Her Youth--Her Unworthy

Husband--Her Impertinent Cousin--Her love for her Daughter--Her

Letters--Hotel de Carnavalet--Mme. Duplessis Guengaud--

Mme. De

Coulanges--The Curtain Falls


Sevigne--Her Education--Her Devotion to the Princess Henrietta--Her

Salon--La Rochefoucauld-- Talent as a Diplomatist--

Comparison with Mme.

De Maintenon--Her Literary Work--Sadness of her Last Days--Woman in



Characteristics of

the Eighteenth Century--Its Epicurean Philosophy--

Anecdote of Mme. Du

Deffand--The Salon an Engine of Political Power--Great Influence of

Woman--Salons Defined--Literary Dinners--Etiquette of the Salons--An

Exotic on American Soil


Lambert--Her "Bureau d'Esprit"--Fontenelle--Advice to her Son--Wise

Thoughts on the Education of Women--Her Love of Consideration--Her

Generosity--Influence of Women upon the Academy CHAPTER X. THE DUCHESSE DU MAINE Her Capricious Character--Her

Esprit--Mlle. De Launay--Clever Portrait of her Mistress--Perpetual

Fetes at Sceaux--Voltaire and the "Divine Emilie"--

Dilettante Character

of this Salon


Chanoinesse--Her Singular Fascination--Her Salon--Its Philosophical

Character--Mlle. Aisse--Romances of Mme. De Tencin--

D'Alembert--La Belle


Cradles of the New

Philosophy--Noted Salons of this Period--Character of Mme. Geoffrin--Her

Practical Education--Anecdotes of her Husband--

Composition of her

Salon--Its Insidious Influence--Her Journey to Warsaw--

Her Death



Graffigny--Baron D'Holbach--Mme. D'Epinay's Portrait of Herself--Mlle.

Quinault--Rousseau--La Chevrette--Grimm--Diderot--The Abbe

Galiani--Estimate of Mme. D'Epinay


La Marechale

de Luxenbourg--The Temple--Comtesse de Boufflers--Mme.

Du Dufand--Her

Convent Salon--Rupture with Mlle. De Lespinasse--Her Friendship with

Horace Walpole--Her Brilliancy and her Ennui CHAPTER XV. MADEMOISELLE DE LESPINASSE A Romantic Career--Companion

of Mme. Du Deffand--Rival Salons--Association with the Encyclopedists--D'Alembert--A Heart Tragedy--Impassioned Letters--A Type

Unique in her Age

CHAPTER XVI. THE SALON HELVETIQUE The Swiss Pastor's Daughter--Her

Social Ambition--Her Friends Mme. De Marchais--Mme.


de Lauzun--Character of Mme. Necker--Death at Coppet--

Close of the Most

Brilliant Period of the Salons


Change in the

Character of the Salons--Mme. De Condorcet--Mme.

Roland's Story of

her Own Life--A Marriage of Reason--Enthusiasm for the Revolution--Her

Modest Salon--Her Tragical Fate

CHAPTER XVIII. MADAM DE STAEL Supremacy of Her Genius--

Her Early

Training--Her Sensibility--A Mariage de Convenance--Her Salon--Anecdote

of Benjamin Constant--Her Exile--Life at Coppet--Secret Marriage--Close

of a Stormy Life



Transition period--Mme. De Montesson--Mme. De Genus--

Revival of the

Literary Spirit--Mme. De Beaumont--Mme. De Remusat--Mme.

De Souza--Mme.

De Duras--Mme. De Krudener--Fascination of Mme.


Friends--Her Convent Salon--Chateaubriand Decline of the Salon


_Characteristics of French Woman--Gallic Genius for Conversation--Social

Conditions--Origin of the Salons--Their Power--Their Composition--Their


"Inspire, but do not write," said LeBrun to women.

Whatever we may think

today of this rather superfluous advice, we can readily pardon a man

living in the atmosphere of the old French salons, for falling somewhat

under the special charm of their leaders. It was a charm full of subtle

flattery. These women were usually clever and brilliant, but their

cleverness and brilliancy were exercised to bring into stronger relief

the talents of their friends. It is true that many of them wrote,

as they talked, out of the fullness of their own hearts or their own

intelligence, and with no thought of a public; but it was only an

incident in their lives, another form of diversion, which left them

quite free from the dreaded taint of feminine authorship. Their peculiar

gift was to inspire others, and much of the fascination that gave them

such power in their day still clings to their memories.

Even at this

distance, they have a perpetual interest for us. It may be that the

long perspective lends them a certain illusion which a closer view might

partly dispel. Something also may be due to the dark background against

which they were outlined. But, in spite of time and change, they stand

out upon the pages of history, glowing with an ever-fresh vitality, and

personifying the genius of a civilization of which they were the fairest


The Gallic genius is eminently a social one, but it is, of all others,

the most difficult to reproduce. The subtle grace of manner, the magic

of spoken words, are gone with the moment. The conversations of two

centuries ago are today like champagne which has lost its sparkle.

We may recall their tangible forms--the facts, the accessories, the

thoughts, even the words, but the flavor is not there.

It is the

volatile essence of gaiety and wit that especially characterizes French

society. It glitters from a thousand facets, it surprises us in a

thousand delicate turns of thought, it appears in countless movements

and shades of expression. But it refuses to be imprisoned. Hence the

impossibility of catching the essential spirit of the salons. We know

something of the men and women who frequented them, as they have left

many records of themselves. We have numerous pictures of their social

life from which we may partially reconstruct it and trace its influence.

But the nameless attraction that held for so long a period the most

serious men of letters as well as the gay world still eludes us.

We find the same elusive quality in the women who presided over these

reunions. They were true daughters of a race of which Mme. De Graffigny

wittily said that it "escaped from the hands of Nature when there had

entered into its composition only air and fire." They certainly were not

faultless; indeed, some of them were very faulty. Nor were they, as a

rule, remarkable for learning. Even the leaders of noted literary salons

often lacked the common essentials of a modern education. But if they

wrote badly and spelled badly, they had an abundance of that delicate

combination of intellect and wit which the French call ESPRIT. They had

also, in superlative measure, the social gifts which women of genius

reared in the library or apart from the world, are apt to lack. The

close study of books leads to a knowledge of man rather than of men. It

tends toward habits of introspection which are fatal to the clear and

swift vision required for successful leadership of any sort. Social

talent is distinct, and implies a happy poise of character and

intellect; the delicate blending of many gifts, not the supremacy of

one. It implies taste and versatility, with fine discrimination, and

the tact to sink one's personality as well as to call out the best

in others. It was this flexibility of mind, this active intelligence

tempered with sensibility and the native instinct of pleasing, that

distinguished the French women who have left such enduring traces upon

their time. "It is not sufficient to be wise, it is necessary also

to please," said the witty and penetrating Ninon, who thus very aptly

condensed the feminine philosophy of her race. Perhaps she has revealed

the secret of their fascination, the indefinable something which is as

difficult to analyze as the perfume of a rose.

A history of the French salons would include the history of the entire

period of which they were so prominent a factor. It would make known to

us its statesmen and its warriors; it would trace the great currents of

thought; it would give us glimpses of every phase of society, from the

diversions of the old noblesse, with their sprinkling of literature and

philosophy, to the familiar life of the men of letters, who cast about

their intimate coteries the halo of their own genius.

These salons were

closely interwoven with the best intellectual life of more than two

hundred years. Differing in tone according to the rank, taste, or

character of their leaders, they were rallying points for the most

famous men and women of their time. In these brilliant centers, a new

literature had its birth. Here was found the fine critical sense that

put its stamp on a new poem or a new play. Here ministers were created

and deposed, authors and artists were brought into vogue, and vacant

chairs in the Academie Francaise were filled. Here the great philosophy

of the eighteenth century was cradled. Here sat the arbiters of manners,

the makers of social success. To these high tribunals came, at last,

every aspirant for fame.

It was to the refinement, critical taste, and oral force of a rare

woman, half French and half Italian, that the first literary salons owed

their origin and their distinctive character. In judging of the work of

Mme. De Rambouillet, we have to consider that in the early days of the

seventeenth century knowledge was not diffused as it is today. A new

light was just dawning upon the world, but learning was still locked

in the brains of savants, or in the dusty tomes of languages that were

practically obsolete. Men of letters were dependent upon the favors of

noble but often ignorant patrons, whom they never met on a footing of

equality. The position of women was as inferior as their education,

and the incredible depravity of morals was a sufficient answer to the

oft-repeated fallacy that the purity of the family is best maintained

by feminine seclusion. It is true there were exceptions to this reign

of illiteracy. With the natural disposition to glorify the past, the

writers of the next generation liked to refer to the golden era of the

Valois and the brilliancy of its voluptuous court. Very likely they

exaggerated a little the learning of Marguerite de Navarre, who was said

to understand Latin, Italian, Spanish, even Greek and Hebrew. But

she had rare gifts, wrote religious poems, besides the very secular

"Heptameron" which was not eminently creditable to her refinement, held

independent opinions, and surrounded herself with men of letters. This

little oasis of intellectual light, shadowed as it was with vices,

had its influence, and there were many women in the solitude of remote

chateaux who began to cultivate a love for literature.

"The very

women and maidens aspired to this praise and celestial manna of good

learning," said Rabelais. But their reading was mainly limited to his

own unsavory satires, to Spanish pastorals, licentious poems, and their

books of devotion. It was on such a foundation that Mme.

De Rambouillet

began to rear the social structure upon which her reputation rests.

She was eminently fitted for this role by her pure character and fine

intelligence; but she added to these the advantages of rank and

fortune, which gave her ample facilities for creating a social center

of sufficient attraction to focus the best intellectual life of the age,

and sufficient power to radiate its light. Still it was the tact and

discrimination to select from the wealth of material about her, and

quietly to reconcile old traditions with the freshness of new ideas,

that especially characterized Mme. De Rambouillet.

It was this richness of material, the remarkable variety and originality

of the women who clustered round and succeeded their graceful leader,

that gave so commanding an influence to the salons of the seventeenth

century. No social life has been so carefully studied, no women have

been so minutely portrayed. The annals of the time are full of them.

They painted one another, and they painted themselves, with realistic

fidelity. The lights and shadows are alike defined. We know their joys

and their sorrows, their passions and their follies, their tastes and

their antipathies. Their inmost life has been revealed.

They animate,

as living figures, a whole class of literature which they were largely

instrumental in creating, and upon which they have left the stamp of

their own vivid personality. They appear later in the pages of Cousin

and Sainte-Beuve, with their radiant features softened and spiritualized

by the touch of time. We rise from a perusal of these chronicles of a

society long passed away, with the feeling that we have left a company

of old friends. We like to recall their pleasant talk of themselves, of

their companions, of the lighter happenings, as well as the more serious

side of the age which they have illuminated. We seem to see their faces,

not their manner, watch the play of intellect and feeling, while they

speak. The variety is infinite and full of charm.

Mme. de Sevigne talks upon paper, of the trifling affairs of every-day

life, adding here and there a sparkling anecdote, a bit of gossip, a

delicate characterization, a trenchant criticism, a dash of wit, a

touch of feeling, or a profound thought. All this is lighted up by

her passionate love of her daughter, and in this light we read the

many-sided life of her time for twenty-five years. Mme.

de La Fayette

takes the world more seriously, and replaces the playful fancy of her

friend by a richer vein of imagination and sentiment.

She sketches for

us the court of which Madame (title given to the wife of the king's

brother) is the central figure--the unfortunate Princes Henrietta whom

she loved so tenderly, and who died so tragically in her arms. She

writes novels too; not profound studies of life, but fine and exquisite

pictures of that side of the century which appealed most to her poetic

sensibility. We follow the leading characters of the age through the

ten-volume romances of Mlle. de Scudery, which have mostly long since

fallen into oblivion. Doubtless the portraits are a trifle rose-colored,

but they accord, in the main, with more veracious history. The Grande

Mademoiselle describes herself and her friends, with the curious naivete

of a spoiled child who thinks its smallest experiences of interest to

all the world. Mme. de Maintenon gives us another picture, more serious,

more thoughtful, but illuminated with flashes of wonderful insight.

Most of these women wrote simply to amuse themselves and their friends.

It was only another mode of their versatile expression.

With rare

exceptions, they were not authors consciously or by intention. They

wrote spontaneously, and often with reckless disregard of grammar and

orthography. But the people who move across their gossiping pages are

alive. The century passes in review before us as we read. The men and

women who made its literature so brilliant and its salons so famous,

become vivid realities. Prominent among the fair faces that look out

upon us at every turn, from court and salon, is that of the Duchesse de

Longueville, sister of the Grand Conde, and heroine of the Fronde. Her

lovely blue eyes, with their dreamy languor and

"luminous awakenings,"

turn the heads alike of men and women, of poet and critic, of statesman

and priest. We trace her brief career through her pure and ardent youth,

her loveless marriage, her fatal passion for La Rochefoucauld, the final

shattering of all her illusions; and when at last, tired of the world,

she bows her beautiful head in penitent prayer, we too love and forgive

her, as others have done. Were not twenty-five years of suffering and

penance an ample expiation? She was one of the three women of whom

Cardinal Mazarin said that they were "capable of governing and

overturning three kingdoms." The others were the intriguing Duchesse de

Chevreuse, who dazzled the age by her beauty and her daring escapades,

and the fascinating Anne de Gonzague, better known as the Princesse

Palatine, of whose winning manners, conversational charm, penetrating

intellect, and loyal character Bossuet spoke so eloquently at her death.

We catch pleasant glimpses of Mme. Deshoulieres, beautiful and a poet;

of Mme. Cornuel, of whom it was said that "every sin she confessed

was an epigram"; of Mme. de Choisy, witty and piquante; of Mme. de

Doulanges, also a wit and femme d'esprit.

Linked with these by a thousand ties of sympathy and affection were the

worthy counterparts of Pascal and Arnauld, of Bossuet and Fenelon, the

devoted women who poured out their passionate souls at the foot of the

cross, and laid their earthly hopes upon the altar of divine love. We

follow the devout Jacqueline Pascal to the cloister in which she buries

her brilliant youth to die at thirty-five of a w