All About Eve

Madame du Deffand
Madame du Deffand; drawing by David Levine

The trouble with many biographies is that their authors have drawn on a stock pattern, the standard sort of thing for the class of subject they have in hand, whether pioneering scientist, maligned statesman, celebrated courtesan, or poet who died young. The result may be not exactly false but, for the particular human case in question, the accents do not fall in the right place, the structure of the narrative is not really meaningful; a story gets told, but it might be that of a dozen other people. It is a pleasure, then, to encounter a biography, like the present one, where the rhythm of a life has been pondered and caught and the shaping of the narrative is really expressive—in a word, where the subject has been allowed to breathe. There is something attractive, moreover, in the tone of this biography, a sort of grave bienséance or propriety. This is not pastiche. Craveri’s references to recent scholarship are unimpeachably post-Freudian and even, maybe, post-Foucauldian. Nevertheless she manages to convey a sense that leisurely and judicious “character-drawing” in the grand siècle manner—as practiced by Mme du Deffand herself, who was mad about it, but here with more human sympathy—is still an intellectually respectable pursuit.

Of the many famous salons in eighteenth-century France, Madame du Deffand’s is perhaps the best-known of all, partly because of a picturesque circumstance: that, by the time it entered its greatest period (roughly the middle years of the century), she was already blind. Contemporary memoirs abound in vignettes of her, in her apartment in the Convent of Saint Joseph, and the airy and nasal tones in which, sitting in her great hooded chair—her tonneau, or “tub of Diogenes”—fondling angora cats and defended by her ferocious pet dog Tonton, she would let fall cutting mots, the sting of which might not register till many moments later.

We here run up against a problem always facing the student of eighteenth-century salons: that though the memoirists are eloquent about the tone and the spectacle at these gatherings, they can rarely tell you what anybody actually said. This could be because the brilliances were too dragonfly-like and elusive, they depended too much on tone and manner, for preservation in print; but of course it might also mean that they were very vapid and are better forgotten. It is a question on which there often seems to be no firm ground for deciding.

However, the case of Mme du Deffand is better than most. For she was, after all, the author of the most famous of all eighteenth-century mots: the one about Saint Denis carrying his severed head for several leagues. On being told by a cardinal that he had done so, she replied, “Oh, Monseigneur, il n’y a que le premier pas qui coûte.” (“It’s the first step that counts.”) Also another nice impromptu of hers is recorded: that…

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