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 …