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Issue Date:  August 11, 2006

By Benedetta Craveri
New York Review Books, 504 pages, $18.95
How witty women changed the world


Even book lovers must admit it’s rare for a work of history to evoke a sense of empathetic connection with the yearnings, sorrows, amusements and social adaptations of long-dead people. But Benedetta Craveri’s The Age of Conversation is an unusual book. The personalities seem alive, original and real. Focusing on the lives of aristocratic women in 17th and 18th century France, Dr. Craveri uses an anecdotal narrative strategy to present the rise and demise of the French salon.

The Marquise de Rambouillet originated the first salon as a social alternative to the crude sexual gamesmanship she had experienced at the court of Henri IV. Her salon, primarily populated by other noblewomen, was an oasis for polite discussion, refined manners, literary composition and playful banter. Seeking to entertain her friends, the marquise once held a dinner at which the guest of honor was served only dishes he detested; after an interval, servants cleared the offending foodstuffs and replaced them with a luscious repast.

Wit enabled an aristocracy newly unsure of its larger role and status to find the fullest pleasure in others’ company, and to protect against the normal consequences of stepping outside convention. The Marquise de Rambouillet was subversive in withdrawing from the court, pioneering a new cultural institution and arrogating to herself aspects of male social authority. But other salonières flouted convention more completely. As a young woman, Ninon de Lenclos announced, “From this moment on, I am becoming a man.” She slept with whomever she pleased, refused to submit to the queen mother’s instructions and disregarded standard religious practices. When a priest walking under Ninon’s window during Lent in 1651 was hit on the head by a falling bone, he complained to the queen; the queen issued a command that Ninon retire to a convent. Ninon responded that she’d prefer the Grand Cordeliers, an infamous order of debauched monks. The queen’s laughter presaged her withdrawal of the mandate.

A professor of French literature at the University of Tuscia in Viterbo, Italy, Dr. Craveri explains that her purpose in revisiting the topic of French pre-revolutionary salons is to make clear the continuity between its 17th- and 18th-century versions. The 17th-century salon initiated social arts of pleasant conversation, witty play and the preservation of others’ self-respect. By the 18th century, salons were increasingly devoted to intellectual analysis of human nature and of the social order, and though still run by women, were now populated by male philosophers, writers, scientists and government officials. Games had given way to critical examination of social convention. Yet open discussion of the merit of others’ ideas was made possible by the innovation of 17th-century noblewomen who insisted on conversational politeness toward others, even those of lesser rank. One had to get along with others to converse seriously and fruitfully. Hence, as Dr. Craveri notes of one 18th-century participant, “Morellet would turn to his adversary and address him as ‘Monsieur and dear atheist.’ ”

Although the salon was a fairly protected space for mutual inquiry, some ideas, including atheism and anti-monarchism, were sufficiently radical that those in attendance needed to be careful about what they said. “Madame Geoffrin silenced her overbold guests with her famous ‘Voila qui est bien’ -- ‘That’s enough for now,’ ” Dr. Craveri notes. Despite such caution, however, discussion eventually undercut the aristocratic way of life and helped to usher in the French Revolution. But even in prison awaiting execution, the nobles gathered in the dark halls, bent upon deploying the gracious manners they had created over the previous two centuries. The art of conversation had many uses.

Dr. Craveri’s anecdotal approach means her character portraits achieve full humanity. Her long-dead Frenchwomen suffered, strove and tossed off brilliant one-liners, such as Madame du Deffand’s capsule review of a rival: “Her mind is as badly designed as her face and just as conspicuous.” Yet there are drawbacks to this approach. The names, dates and historical allusions are often too plentiful for the non-specialist to follow. Dr. Craveri’s flood of details also represents a choice to favor anecdote over thematic exposition. Readers may wish for more guidance in understanding salonières’ contributions to the development of modern society, selfhood, gender relations and intellectual mores. The concepts wait just below the surface of the narrative: Aristocratic women transformed upper class manners into “the most elegant of games” and thereby created a context in which the nobility, formerly devoted to military functions, could now agree with Fontenelle, who said that “he did not like war because it spoiled conversation.”

Stereotypically female values supplanted traditionally male concerns; the aristocracy helped to create a culture of personal and intellectual merit. But the French Revolution the nobles accidentally helped to usher in swept them away.

Elizabeth Sperry teaches philosophy at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2006

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