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The Pleasure of Their Company

The Age of Conversation

by Benedetta Craveri, translated from the Italian by Teresa Waugh
New York Review Books, 488 pp., $30.00

Not long after World War I, the art critic Clive Bell set out to define and defend the “civilization” his nation had allegedly been fighting for. Looking back from Bloomsbury to Voltaire and beyond, he picked out what were by common consent three summits of civilized living: Periclean Athens, Renaissance Italy, and France between the mid-seventeenth century and the Revolution. The last of these he calls “that charming age,” speaking of the “peculiar deliciousness” of Parisian society. By 1928, this image of pre-Revolutionary France as an exquisitely sociable world had a long history. Much nearer the time, Germaine de Staël, exiled by Napoleon, had evoked in her De l’Allemagne the lost pleasures of French conversation:

Paris is recognized as the one city in the world where wit and a taste for conversation are most widespread; and what is known as the mal du pays, that indefinable mourning for one’s country…, is particularly applicable to the pleasure of discourse, which the French find nowhere to the same degree as at home.

Such proclamations of a “French exception” naturally aroused the envy and sometimes the hostility of less blessed nations.

Staël wrote out of nostalgia, and if in 1928 Bell was interested in this lost world, it was as a provocative antidote to tendencies in the British society of his day. In recent decades, however, the complex of practices, beliefs, and ideas that are evoked by terms such as courtesy, civility, politeness, and civilization has become a subject of academic research for cultural historians. Thus the advocacy of polite behavior and polite literature in eighteenth-century England and Scotland is currently described as an essential factor in the creation of a homogeneous and peaceful society after the wars of the seventeenth century. But it is France, the exemplar of polite sociability, that has attracted the most attention. Here too, the enterprise of civilization is often seen in political terms, coming as it does after the Wars of Religion between 1562 and 1598 and coinciding with the assertion of centralized royal power. At the same time though, many scholars, of whom the most prominent is Marc Fumaroli, have painted an attractive picture of this elite culture as a uniquely valuable creation, a work of art in its own right.

It is this society—whether myth or reality—that Benedetta Craveri evokes in The Age of Conversation, first published in Italian, much praised in its French version, and now translated into English by Teresa Waugh. In her thoughtful book, Craveri, the author of an earlier book about the salonnière Madame du Deffand and her world, draws effectively on the vast range of recent scholarship in this field, which is listed and discussed in a substantial and extremely useful bibliographical essay. But the main part of the book is not so much a study as an attractive story, written in a style “unburdened by academic language” (a style that might have appealed to the people she writes about, though the English translation sometimes blurs the clarity or misses the sense of the original).

The story is told through a series of heroines, the women who presided over the salon conversations in which upper-class society of France found its most distinctive expression. This is not to suggest that polite conversation was an entirely feminine creation; men figure prominently in the story, above all the writers and philosophers who gave the salons much of their luster. But compared with the prestigious court of Urbino described in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, French society of the old regime is remarkable for the central part played by women in determining the ground rules of polite conversation, the appropriate language for it, and thus the language of the literature which reflected and developed the oral culture of the salons. It was a commonplace among contemporary male writers that the conversation of women was the best school of politeness; as Craveri puts it, official culture almost unanimously recognized in women “a linguistic competence superior to men’s.” Foreign observers, and not only the fictitious Persian travelers of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, all spoke of the unusual prominence—and, some would add, freedom—of women in French society.

The main characters here will be familiar to those who have some knowledge of classical France. We begin in 1618 with the Marquise de Rambouillet, whose Paris house, with its “Blue Room,” was the model, both architecturally and socially, for many similar gatherings over the next 170 years. Craveri writes that the house, with

its Italian-inspired, light, harmonious look was infused with a quite new feeling of intimacy and comfort…. Although the marquise’s taste may have been dictated by a deep-seated desire for beauty and harmony, it is impossible not to sense from the permanent animation in her house her continuous need for distraction and amusement.

Then, after briefer discussions of some of the eye-catching heroines of the Fronde, the French civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century, there are substantial chapters on the brilliant Madame de Sablé, in whose salon La Rochefoucauld’s acid maxims were conceived, and on Mademoiselle de Montpensier (“la Grande Mademoiselle”), Louis XIV’s extravagant cousin who created her own more literary version of the Blue Room in exile at Saint-Fargeau. Madeleine de Scudéry, the muse of preciosity, whose enormous novels offered an absorbing mirror of the world ruled by these society ladies, is discussed along with Montpensier, but also in an important chapter shared by two of the great writers of the time, Madame de Sévigné and Madame de Lafayette, whose close friendship offers an outstanding example of female solidarity (later salons were more likely to be dominated by a queen bee). Then there is a relatively brief discussion of La Fontaine’s patroness, the learned Madame de la Sablière, described with characteristic superlatives as “the most enchanting of all the Grand Siècle‘s distinguished women,” and a contrastive presentation of two friends who made very different marks in the world, the super-courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and Louis XIV’s morganatic wife, Madame de Maintenon.

The seventeenth century occupies about two thirds of The Age of Conversation, while the salonnières of the Enlightenment (who are probably better known in the English-speaking world) are treated more rapidly. The main figures here are the Marquise de Lambert, who brought a new seriousness to salon talk, the scandalous Madame de Tencin (“the Enlightenment adventuress”), the bourgeois Madame Geoffrin, who was perhaps the greatest orchestrator of intelligent conversation, the penetrating and acerbic Madame du Deffand, and her protégée, then rival, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, at once intellectually liberated and a victim of unrequited passion. But in the chapters devoted to the eighteenth century we also get a glimpse of other, less female-dominated circles in which the new philosophy was aired and elaborated, from Voltaire’s domain at Ferney on the Genevan border to the atheist gatherings at the Baron d’Holbach’s houses in Paris and in the country.

Although these salons came to symbolize French culture, they only involved a tiny fraction of the population, a leisured elite. Craveri is not concerned here with the many other forms of sociability that coexisted with the salons, and least of all with the peasantry, who made up most of the French population. Her heroines and heroes rarely had to concern themselves with earning a living, with child-rearing, or with domestic chores. This is not to say that they had easy lives. Political disgrace, exile, war, financial ruin, disease, blindness, and early death all lay in wait for them, especially in the earlier period; indeed it was to shelter themselves against the violence and instability of the world that they created these islands of elegance and well-being (like the locus amoenus of the Decameron, a refuge from the plague in Florence). In the first instance, the salons created by Madame de Rambouillet and her successors were attempts to provide a new raison d’être for a nobility that was losing its political importance and being robbed of its old fighting function by the increasing concentration of power in the monarchy. Guided by the salonnières, noblemen could exchange the brutal manners of the military camp for a polite way of life. As Craveri puts it,

Henceforth it would be by their way of living, of speaking, of acting, of amusing themselves, of enjoying each other’s company that the noble elite would persuade themselves of the unshakeable certainty of their own superiority.

Elegant conversation and refined manners proclaimed the distinction without which nobility was worthless.

There was a problem with this: the manners of an exclusive group could be copied by those anxious to rise in society. Or to put it more positively, politeness gradually spread to all levels of society, to such a degree that by the early twentieth century large sections of French and British society were distantly echoing the manners of the ancien régime. Roger Chartier has written interestingly of the way in which politeness, as it is divulged and disseminated, loses its power to confer distinction, so that new forms are constantly needed to maintain the necessary distances.1 The very words used to denote polite manners became outmoded: the originally exclusive courtoisie and civilité were devalued as they spread to non-elite groups and were replaced by honnêteté (a broad term with no necessary connection to honesty, which referred rather to a sense of style and taste, and the ability to be sociable and agreeable) and politesse (which in its turn was downgraded or challenged in later periods).

In the same way, in mid-twentieth-century Britain, there was a great to-do about what was “U” (upper-class) and what “non-U”: items of equipment (e.g., fish knives) or words (e.g., “dessert”) which seemed distinguished to their users were considered by those in the know as sure signs of not belonging to the elite. Mystery and mystification are the name of the game—one of the key phrases describing stylistic distinction in classical France was the ineffable je ne sais quoi.

At the same time, though, the noble ladies were willing enough to co-opt commoners, particularly men of letters who could play the game, and whose creative contribution was essential to the quality of the conversation. The prime example of this in the early days was Vincent Voiture, a wine merchant’s son, whose wit, expressed in verse, in letters, and in talk, made him an indispensable member of the Rambouillet circle. There might seem to be a democracy of talent at work here—the salons have often been seen in this light—but in Voiture’s case it is equally possible, as Craveri puts it, to see the witty commoner, “a true master of flattering statements,” as a descendant of the medieval court jester, who could be painfully put in his place by the grandees who thought it fit to do so.

In a similar way, a century later, Voltaire was surprised to find that a nobleman could have him beaten up with impunity. In general, though, the position of men of letters, thinkers (philosophes), and even artists improved markedly in the salons of the Enlightenment. Jean le Rond d’Alembert, a foundling and a mathematical genius, was the life and soul of Madame du Deffand’s circle until he abandoned her for Julie de Lespinasse. But it is worth noting that D’Alembert also wrote an essay on “the relations between men of letters and the aristocracy [les grands]” in which he complained of the way in which writers and philosophers in France had to dance attendance on their patrons. Looking across the Channel, he wrote:

  1. 1

    Lectures et lecteurs dans la France de l’ancien régime (Paris: Seuil, 1987).

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