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Produced by Theresa Armao


By Amelia Gere Mason


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, but
did not live to see its conclusion.

Amelia Gere Mason Paris, July 6, 1891


Woman - Gallic Genius for Conversation - Social Conditions - Origin of the
Salons - Their Power - Their Composition - Their Records

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

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

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
Emilie - Voltaire - the Two Women Compared

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

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

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. D'Houdetot - Duchesse
de Lauzun - Character of Mme. Necker - Death at Coppet - Close of the Most
Brilliant Period of the Salons

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. Recamier - Her
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 wounded conscience and a
broken heart. Many a bruised spirit, as it turns from the gay world
to the mystic devotion which touches a new chord in its jaded
sensibilities, finds support and inspiration in the strong and fervid
sympathy of Jacqueline Arnauld, better known as Mere Angelique of Port
Royal. This profound spiritual passion was a part of the intense life of
the century, which gravitated from love and ambition to the extremes of
penitence and asceticism.

A multitude of minor figures, graceful and poetic, brilliant and
spirituelles, flit across the canvas, leaving the fragrance of an
exquisite individuality, and tempting one to extend the list of the
versatile women who toned and colored the society of the period. But we
have to do, at present, especially with those who gathered and blended
this fresh intelligence, delicate fancy, emotional wealth, and religious
fervor, into a society including such men as Corneille, Balzac, Bossuet,
Richelieu, Conde, Pascal, Arnault, and La Rochefoucauld - those who are
known as leaders of more or less celebrated salons. Of these, Mme. de
Rambouillet and Mme. de Sable were among the best representative types
of their time, and the first of the long line of social queens who,
through their special gift of leadership, held so potent a sway for two


_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_

The Hotel de Rambouillet has been called the "cradle of polished
society," but the personality of its hostess is less familiar than that
of many who followed in her train. This may be partly due to the fact
that she left no record of herself on paper. She aptly embodied the kind
advice of Le Brun. It was her special talent to inspire others and to

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Online LibraryAmelia Ruth Gere MasonThe Women of the French Salons → online text (page 1 of 22)