Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Women of the French Salons

Imagine a society composed of a leisure class with more or less intellectual tastes; men eminent in science and letters; men less eminent, whose success depended largely upon their social gifts, and clever women supremely versed in the art of pleasing, who were the intelligent complements of these men...

[A]dd a universal talent for conversation, a genius for the amenities of social life, habits of daily intercourse, and manners formed upon an ideal of generosity, amiability, loyalty, and urbanity...

[C]onsider, also, the fact that the journals and the magazines, which are so conspicuous a feature of modern life, were practically unknown; that the salons were centers in which the affairs of the world were discussed, its passing events noted--and the power of [the French] salons may be to some extent comprehended.
Women of the French Salons, by Amelia Gere Mason, presents a broad view of some of the major salons--showing who the dominant characters of each were; how their power increased, or not; and the ideas that animated both the characters and their salons.

I found a lot of the characters in the book fascinating. There is, for example, Julie d'Angennes, "the petted daughter of the house, the devoted companion and clever assistant of her mother."
Her gaiety of heart, amiable temper, ready wit, and gracious manners surrounded her with an atmosphere of perpetual sunshine. Fertile in resources, of fine intelligence, winning the love alike of men and women, she was the soul of the serious conversations, as well as of the amusements which relieved them...
And there is Anne Marie Louise d'Orleans, Duchesse de Montpensier--i.e., the Grande Mademoiselle--who says of herself:
"I am of a birth to do nothing that is not grand or elevated. One may call that what one likes. As for myself, I call it to follow my own inclination and to go my own way. I am not born to take that of others."
There is Fontenelle, the philosopher who preached that everything must be done in moderation--and who followed what he preached to the extent that he could. He smiled, but did not laugh; frowned, but did not cry. His last words were said to be, "I do not suffer, my friends, but I feel a certain difficulty in existing."

And there is a student of Fontenelle's, who measured her lover's passion mathematically. As the author explains:
"He was in the habit of accompanying her home from the house of a friend. When he began to cross the square, instead of going round it, she concluded that his love had diminished in the exact proportion of two sides of a square to the diagonal."
A lot of these characters are described via "pen portraits"--where a person was drawn not by the strokes of a painter's brush but by the strokes of a pen. For example, here is Mme. de La Fayette at work, describing a friend:
"Your mind so adorns and embellishes your person, that there is no one in the world so fascinating when you are animated by a conversation from which constraint is banished. All that you say has such a charm, and becomes you so well, that the words attract the Smiles and the Graces around you; the brilliancy of your intellect gives such luster to your complexion and your eyes, that although it seems that wit should touch only the ears, yours dazzles the sight.

"Your soul is great and elevated. You are sensitive to glory and to ambition, and not less so to pleasures; you were born for them and they seem to have been made for you ... In a word, joy is the true state of your soul, and grief is as contrary to it as possible. You are naturally tender and impassioned; there was never a heart so generous, so noble, so faithful ... You are the most courteous and amiable person that ever lived, and the sweet, frank air which is seen in all your actions makes the simplest compliments of politeness seem from your lips protestations of friendship."
This fascinating group of characters had particular thoughts on the value of friendship, on what should determine a person's rank in society, and on how to bring individuals together in such a way that the pleasures of both the body and the intellect could be maximized.
Mason presents these thoughts along with the results masterfully--going into just enough detail as to whet one's appetite for more, but not so much as to lose sight of the big picture (how these people came together and interacted over the history of the salons).
I'll share some excerpts making the above statement more objective in a second part to this review.

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