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

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the savant had learned in his closet passed more or less into current

coin. Conversation gave point to thought, clearness to expression,

simplicity to language. Women of rank and recognized ability imposed

the laws of good taste, and their vivid imaginations changed lifeless

abstractions into something concrete and artistic. Men of letters, who

had held an inferior and dependent position, were penetrated with the

spirit of a refined society, while men of the world, in a circle where

wit and literary skill were distinctions, began to aspire to the role

of a bel esprit, to pride themselves upon some intellectual gift and the

power to write without labor and without pedantry, as became their rank.

Many of them lacked seriousness, dealing mainly with delicate fancies

and trivial incidents, but pleasures of the intellect and taste became

the fashion. Burlesques and chansons disputed the palm with madrigals

and sonnets. A neatly turned epigram or a clever letter made a social


Perhaps it was not a school for genius of the first order. Society

favors graces of form and expression rather than profound and serious

thought. No Homer, nor Aeschylus, nor Milton, nor Dante is the outgrowth

of such a soil. The prophet or seer shines by the light of his own soul.

He deals with problems and emotions that lie deep in the pulsing heart

of humanity, but he does not best interpret his generation. It is the

man living upon the level of his time, and finding his inspiration in

the world of events, who reflects its life, marks its currents, and

registers its changes. Matthew Arnold has aptly said that "the qualities

of genius are less transferable than the qualities of intelligence, less

can be immediately learned and appropriated from their product; they are

less direct and stringent intellectual agencies, though they may be

more beautiful and divine." It was this quality of intelligence that

eminently characterized the literature of the seventeenth century. It

was a mirror of social conditions, or their natural outcome. The spirit

of its social life penetrated its thought, colored its language, and

molded its forms. We trace it in the letters and vers de societe which

were the pastime of the Hotel de Rambouillet and the Samedis of Mlle. de

Scudery, as well as in the romances which reflected their sentiments and

pictured their manners. We trace it in the literary portraits which were

the diversion of the coterie of Mademoiselle, at the Luxembourg, and in

the voluminous memoirs and chronicles which grew out of it. We trace it

also in the "Maxims" and "Thoughts" which were polished and perfected in

the convent salon of Mme. de Sable, and were the direct fruits of a wide

experience and observation of the great world. It would be unfair to say

that anything so complex as the growth of a new literature was wholly

due to any single influence, but the intellectual drift of the time

seems to have found its impulse in the salons. They were the alembics in

which thought was fused and crystallized. They were the schools in which

the French mind cultivated its extraordinary clearness and flexibility.

As the century advanced, the higher literature was tinged and modified

by the same spirit. Society, with its follies and affectations, inspired

the mocking laughter of Moliere, but its unwritten laws tempered his

language and refined his wit. Its fine urbanity was reflected in the

harmony and delicacy of Racine, as well as in the critical decorum of

Boileau. The artistic sentiment rules in letters, as in social life. It

was not only the thought that counted, but the setting of the thought.

The majestic periods of Bossuet, the tender persuasiveness of Fenelon,

gave even truth a double force. The moment came when this critical

refinement, this devotion to form, passed its limits, and the inevitable

reaction followed. The great literary wave of the seventeenth century

reached its brilliant climax and broke upon the shores of a new era.

But the seeds of thought had been scattered, to spring up in the great

literature of humanity that marked the eighteenth century.


_Salons of the Noblesse--"The Illustrious Sappho"--Her Romances--The

Samedis--Bon Mots of Mme. Cornuel--Estimate of Mlle. de Scudery_

There were a few contemporary salons among the noblesse, modeled more or

less after the Hotel de Rambouillet, but none of their leaders had the

happy art of conciliating so many elements. They had a literary flavor,

and patronized men of letters, often doubtless, because it was the

fashion and the name of a well-known litterateur gave them a certain

eclat; but they were not cosmopolitan, and have left no marked traces.

One of the most important of these was the Hotel de Conde, over which

the beautiful Charlotte de Montmorency presided with such dignity and

grace, during the youth of her daughter, the Duchesse de Longueville.

Another was the Hotel de Nevers, where the gifted Marie de Gonzague,

afterward Queen of Poland, and her charming sister, the Princesse

Palatine, were the central attractions of a brilliant and intellectual

society. Richelieu, recognizing the power of the Rambouillet circle,

wished to transfer it to the salon of his niece at the Petit Luxembourg.

We have a glimpse of the young and still worldly Pascal, explaining

here his discoveries in mathematics and his experiments in physics. The

tastes of this courtly company were evidently rather serious, as we

find another celebrity, of less enduring fame, discoursing upon the

immortality of the soul. But the rank, talent, and masterful character

of the Duchesse d'Aiguillon did not suffice to give her salon the

wide influence of its model; it was tainted by her own questionable

character, and always hampered by the suspicion of political intrigues.

There were smaller coteries, however, which inherited the spirit and

continued the traditions of the Hotel de Rambouillet.

Prominent among

these was that of Madeleine de Scudery, who held her Samedis in modest

fashion in the Marais. These famous reunions lacked the prestige and the

fine tone of their model, but they had a definite position, and a wide

though not altogether favorable influence. As the forerunner of Mme.

de La Fayette and Mme. de Sevigne, and one of the most eminent literary

women of the century with which her life ran parallel, Mlle. de Scudery

has a distinct interest for us and it is to her keen observation and

facile pen that we are indebted for the most complete and vivid picture

of the social life of the period.

The "illustrious Sappho," as she was pleased to be called, certainly did

not possess the beauty popularly accorded to her namesake and prototype.

She was tall and thin, with a long, dark, and not at all regular face;

Mme. Cornuel said that one could see clearly "she was destined by

Providence to blacken paper, as she sweat ink from every pore." But,

if we may credit her admirers, who were numerous, she had fine eyes,

a pleasing expression, and an agreeable address. She evidently did

not overestimate her personal attractions, as will be seen from the

following quatrain, which she wrote upon a portrait made by one of her


Nanteuil, en faisant mon image,

A de son art divin signale le pouvoir;

Je hais mes yeux dans mon miroir,

Je les aime dans son ouvrage.

She had her share, however, of small but harmless vanities, and spoke

of her impoverished family, says Tallemant, "as one might speak of the

overthrow of the Greek empire." Her father belonged to an old and noble

house of Provence, but removed to Normandy, where he married and died,

leaving two children with a heritage of talent and poverty. A trace of

the Provencal spirit always clung to Madeleine, who was born in 1607,

and lived until the first year of the following century.

After losing

her mother, who is said to have been a woman of some distinction, she

was carefully educated by an uncle in all the accomplishments of

the age, as well as in the serious studies which were then unusual.

According to her friend Conrart she was a veritable encyclopedia

of knowledge both useful and ornamental. "She had a prodigious

imagination," he writes, "an excellent memory, an exquisite judgment,

a lively temper, and a natural disposition to understand everything

curious which she saw done, and everything laudable which she heard

talked of. She learned the things that concern agriculture, gardening,

housekeeping, cooking, and a life in the country; also the causes and

effects of maladies, the composition of an infinite number of remedies,

perfumes, scented waters and distillations useful or agreeable. She

wished to play the lute, and took some lessons with success." In

addition to all this, she mastered Spanish and Italian, read extensively

and conversed brilliantly. At the death of her uncle and in the

freshness of her youth, she went to Paris with her brother who had some

pretension as a poet and dramatic writer. He even posed as a rival

of Corneille, and was sustained by Richelieu, but time has long since

relegated him to comparative oblivion. His sister, who was a victim of

his selfish tyranny, is credited with much of the prose which appeared

under his name; indeed, her first romances were thus disguised. Her love

for conversation was so absorbing, that he is said to have locked her

in her room, and refused her to her friends until a certain amount of

writing was done. But, in spite of this surveillance, her life was so

largely in the world that it was a mystery when she did her voluminous


Of winning temper and pleasing address, with this full equipment of

knowledge and imagination, versatility and ambition, she was at an early

period domesticated in the family of Mme. de Rambouillet as the friend

and companion of Julie d'Angennes. Her graces of mind and her amiability

made her a favorite with those who frequented the house, and she was

thus brought into close contact with the best society of her time. She

has painted it carefully and minutely in the "Grand Cyrus," a romantic

allegory in which she transfers the French aristocracy and French

manners of the seventeenth century to an oriental court.

The Hotel

de Rambouillet plays an important part as the Hotel Cleomire. When

we consider that the central figures were the Prince de Conde and

his lovely sister the Duchesse de Longueville, also that the most

distinguished men and women of the age saw their own portraits, somewhat

idealized but quite recognizable through the thin disguise of Persians,

Greeks, Armenians, or Egyptians, it is easy to imagine that the ten

volumes of rather exalted sentiment were eagerly sought and read. She

lacked incident and constructive power, but excelled in vivid portraits,

subtle analysis, and fine conversations. She made no attempt at local

color; her plots were strained and unnatural, her style heavy and

involved. But her penetrating intellect was thoroughly tinged with the

romantic spirit, and she had the art of throwing a certain glamour over

everything she touched. Cousin, who has rescued the memory of Mlle. de

Scudery from many unjust aspersions, says that she was the "creator

of the psychological romance." Unquestionably her skill in character

painting set the fashion for the pen portraits which became a mania a

few years later.

She depicts herself as Sapppho, whose opinions may be supposed to

reflect her own. In these days, when the position of women is discussed

from every possible point of view, it may be interesting to know how it

was regarded by one who represented the thoughtful side of the age in

which their social power was first distinctly asserted.

She classes her

critics and enemies under several heads. Among them are the "light and

coquettish women whose only occupation is to adorn their persons

and pass their lives in fetes and amusements--women who think that

scrupulous virtue requires them to know nothing but to be the wife of a

husband, the mother of children, and the mistress of a family; and men

who regard women as upper servants, and forbid their daughters to read

anything but their prayer books."

"One does not wish women to be coquettes," she writes again, "but

permits them to learn carefully all that fits them for gallantry,

without teaching them anything which can fortify their virtue or occupy

their minds. They devote ten or a dozen years to learning to appear

well, to dress in good style, to dance and sing, for five or six; but

this same person, who requires judgment all her life and must talk

until her last sigh, learns nothing which can make her converse more

agreeably, or act with more wisdom."

But she does not like a femme savante, and ridicules, under the name

of Damophile, a character which might have been the model for Moliere's

Philaminte. This woman has five or six masters, of whom the least

learned teaches astrology. She poses as a Muse, and is always surrounded

with books, pencils, and mathematical instruments, while she uses large

words in a grave and imperious tone, although she speaks only of little

things. After many long conversations about her, Sappho concludes thus:

"I wish it to be said of a woman that she knows a hundred things of

which she does not boast, that she has a well-informed mind, is familiar

with fine works, speaks well, writes correctly, and knows the world; but

I do not wish it to be said of her that she is a femme savante. The two

characters have no resemblance." She evidently recognized the fact that

when knowledge has penetrated the soul, it does not need to be worn on

the outside, as it shines through the entire personality.

After some further discussion, to the effect that the wise woman will

conceal superfluous learning and especially avoid pedantry, she defines

the limit to which a woman may safely go in knowledge without losing her

right to be regarded as the "ornament of the world, made to be served

and adored."

One may know some foreign languages and confess to reading Homer,

Hesiod, and the works of the illustrious Aristee (Chapelain), without

being too learned. One may express an opinion so modestly that, without

offending the propriety of her sex, she may permit it to be seen that

she has wit, knowledge, and judgment. That which I wish principally to

teach women is not to speak too much of that which they know well, never

to speak of that which they do not know at all, and to speak reasonably.

We note always a half-apologetic tone, a spirit of compromise between

her conscious intelligence and the traditional prejudice which had in

no wise diminished since Martial included, in his picture of a domestic

menage, "a wife not too learned..." She is not willing to lose a woman's

birthright of love and devotion, but is not quite sure how far it might

be affected by her ability to detect a solecism. Hence, she offers

a great deal of subtle flattery to masculine self-love.

With curious

naivete she says:

Whoever should write all that was said by fifteen or twenty women

together would make the worst book in the world, even if some of them

were women of intelligence. But if a man should enter, a single one,

and not even a man of distinction, the same conversation would suddenly

become more spirituelle and more agreeable. The conversation of men

is doubtless less sprightly when there are no women present; but

ordinarily, although it may be more serious, it is still rational, and

they can do without us more easily than we can do without them.

She attaches great importance to conversation as "the bond of society,

the greatest pleasure of well-bred people, and the best means of

introducing, not only politeness into the world, but a purer morality."

She dwells always upon the necessity of "a spirit of urbanity, which

banishes all bitter railleries, as well as everything that can offend

the taste," also of a certain "esprit de joie."

We find here the code which ruled the Hotel de Rambouillet, and the very

well-defined character of the precieuse. But it may be noted that Mlle.

de Scudery, who was among the avant-coureurs of the modern movement

for the advancement of women, always preserved the forms of the old

traditions, while violating their spirit. True to her Gallic instincts,

she presented her innovations sugar-coated. She had the fine sense of

fitness which is the conscience of her race, and which gave so

much power to the women who really revolutionized society without

antagonizing it.

Her conversations, which were full of wise suggestions and showed a

remarkable insight into human character, were afterwards published in

detached form and had a great success. Mme. de Sevigne writes to her

daughter: "Mlle. De Scudery has just sent me two little volumes of

conversations; it is impossible that they should not be good, when they

are not drowned in a great romance."

When the Hotel de Rambouillet was closed, Mlle. de Scudery tried to

replace its pleasant reunions by receiving her friends on Saturdays.

These informal receptions were frequented by a few men and women of

rank, but the prevailing tone was literary and slightly bourgeois. We

find there, from time to time, Mme. de Sable, the Duc and Duchesse de

Montausier, and others of the old circle who were her lifelong friends.

La Rochefoucauld is there occasionally, also Mme. de. La Fayette, Mme.

de Sevigne, and the young Mme. Scarron whose brilliant future is hardly

yet in her dreams. Among those less known today, but of note in their

age, were the Comtesse de la Suze, a favorite writer of elegies, who

changed her faith and became a Catholic, as she said, that she "might

not meet her husband in this world or the next;" the versatile Mlle.

Cheron who had some celebrity as a poet, musician, and painter; Mlle.

de la Vigne and Mme. Deshoulieres, also poets; Mlle.

Descartes, niece

of the great philosopher; and, at rare intervals, the clever Abbess de

Rohan who tempered her piety with a little sage worldliness. One of the

most brilliant lights in this galaxy of talent was Mme.

Cornuel, whose

bons mots sparkle from so many pages in the chronicles of the period.

A woman of high bourgeois birth and of the best associations, she had a

swift vision, a penetrating sense, and a clear intellect prompt to seize

the heart of a situation. Mlle. De Scudery said that she could paint

a grand satire in four words. Mme. de Sevigne found her admirable, and

even the grave Pomponne begged his friend not to forget to send him all

her witticisms. Of the agreeable but rather light Comtesse de Fiesque,

she said: "What preserves her beauty is that it is salted in folly."

Of James II of England, she remarked, "The Holy Spirit has eaten up

his understanding." The saying that the eight generals appointed at the

death of Turenne were "the small change for Turenne" has been attributed

to her. It is certainly not to a woman of such keen insight and ready

wit that one can attach any of the affectations which later crept into

the Samedis.

The poet Sarasin is the Voiture of this salon. Conrart, to whose house

may be traced the first meetings of the little circle of lettered men

which formed the nucleus of the Academie Francaise, is its secretary;

Pellisson, another of the founders and the historian of the same learned

body, is its chronicler. Chapelain is quite at home here, and we

find also numerous minor authors and artists whose names have small

significance today. The Samedis follow closely in the footsteps of the

Hotel de Rambouillet. It is the aim there to speak simply and naturally

upon all subjects grave or gay, to preserve always the spirit of

delicacy and urbanity, and to avoid vulgar intrigues.

There is a

superabundance of sentiment, some affectation, and plenty of esprit.

They converse upon all the topics of the day, from fashion to politics,

from literature and the arts to the last item of gossip.

They read their

works, talk about them, criticize them, and vie with one another in

improvising verses. Pellisson takes notes and leaves us a multitude of

madrigals, sonnets, chansons and letters of varied merit. He says there

reigned a sort of epidemic of little poems. "The secret influence began

to fall with the dew. Here one recites four verses; there, one writes

a dozen. All this is done gaily and without effort. No one bites his

nails, or stops laughing and talking. There are challenges, responses,

repetitions, attacks, repartees. The pen passes from hand to hand, and

the hand does not keep pace with the mind. One makes verses for every

lady present." Many of these verses were certainly not of the best

quality, but it would be difficult, in any age, to find a company of

people clever enough to divert themselves by throwing off such poetic

trifles on the spur of the moment.

In the end, the Samedis came to have something of the character of a

modern literary club, and were held at different houses.

The company was

less choice, and the bourgeois coloring more pronounced.

These reunions

very clearly illustrated the fact that no society can sustain itself

above the average of its members. They increased in size, but decreased

in quality, with the inevitable result of affectation and pretension.

Intelligence, taste, and politeness were in fashion.

Those who did not

possess them put on their semblance, and, affecting an intellectual

tone, fell into the pedantry which is sure to grow out of the effort to

speak above one's altitude. The fine-spun theories of Mlle. de Scudery

also reached a sentimental climax in "Clelie," which did not fail of its

effect. Platonic love and the ton galant were the texts for innumerable

follies which finally reacted upon the Samedis. After a few years,

they lost their influence and were discontinued. But Mlle. de Scudery

retained the position which her brilliant gifts and literary fame had

given her, and was the center of a choice circle of friends until

a short time before her death at the ripe age of ninety-four. Even

Tallemant, writing of the decline of these reunions, says, "Mlle. De

Scudery is more considered than ever." At sixty-four she received the

first Prix D'Eloquence from the Academie Francaise, for an essay on

Glory. This prize was founded by Balzac, and the subject was specified.

Thus the long procession of laureates was led by a woman.

In spite of her subtle analysis of love, and her exact map of the Empire

of Tenderness, the sentiment of the "Illustrious Sappho"

seems to

have been rather ideal. She had numerous adorers, of whom Conrart and

Pellisson were among the most devoted. During the long imprisonment

of the latter for supposed complicity with Fouquet, she was of great

service to him, and the tender friendship ended only with his life, upon

which she wrote a touching eulogy at its close. But she never married.

She feared to lose her liberty. "I know," she writes,

"that there are

many estimable men who merit all my esteem and who can retain a part of

my friendship, but as soon as I regard them as husbands, I regard them