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.
CHAPTER III. MADEMOISELLE DE SCUDERY AND THE SAMEDIS
_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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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"
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