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:

In England it was enough that Newton was the greatest mathematician of his century; in France he would have been expected to be agreeable too.

For polite society, charming as it might be, was a discipline that could be irksome. The word itself suggests policing (a false etymology, it is true), and this is the aspect of the “civilizing process” that is highlighted in Norbert Elias’s celebrated study, where we see the development of polite manners as part of the taming of society that absolute monarchy required.2 (One is reminded of Nietzsche’s reflections in The Genealogy of Morals about the violence that must have been necessary to teach human beings to keep their word.)

Craveri refers to this negative aspect of “the art of conversation,” but she is more inclined to celebrate the positive achievements of the new politeness, which she rightly sees as quite separate from the royal court. Salon culture, centered in the great town houses of the nobility, is seen in Craveri’s book rather as a refuge from public affairs, the creation of a beautiful world of leisure. If court politeness has the cold polish of marble, town politeness is “easy,” relaxed, entertaining. From this perspective, true politeness is a moral quality, whereby the self is abnegated (concealed, Pascal would have said) in order to further the happiness of the group—although there is a tricky frontier here between complaisance (obligingness) and insincere flattery.

The salons were an experiment in social living, but they might also be a network of opposition to the authorities of the day. In the mid-seventeenth century many of them were connected with the anti-royal Fronde or with the subversive politics of Jansenism. Versailles had its period of hegemony between about 1680 and the death of Louis XIV in 1715, but thereafter cultural power flowed back to the city in what Craveri calls the “revenge of Paris.” Indeed it is arguable that the salons, particularly in the eighteenth century, were the principal site in which public opinion or Jurgen Habermas’s “civil society”—a continuing discussion not controlled from above—was constituted. Official appointments, elections to academies, domestic and foreign politics were all influenced by what went on in salon life. And decorous as they were, the conversations of men and women of the world, writers, and philosophers at Madame Geoffrin’s or Mademoiselle de Lespinasse’s were a kind of counter-culture, discreetly undermining the social and political organization which made them possible. They were not alone, of course, and there is a danger that in telling their glamorous story one may overlook the important part played by other groups and organizations, provincial academies for instance, clubs and circles, and that great new stage for free speech, the coffeehouse.

But what actually went on in these salons? It is hard to be sure, since all we have to go on are written records that can hardly give back to us this lost world as it really was. Occasionally, it is true, we have what purports to be records of what was actually said (for instance Diderot’s engaging accounts of conversations at Holbach’s in his letters to Sophie Volland), but more frequently we find idealized images, whether in memoirs, in novels, in theoretical and critical essays, or lower down the scale in the many handbooks of etiquette that sold so well. We can also look at the writing of some of the main participants—the letters of Sévigné or Voltaire, the maxims of La Rochefoucauld, the poems of La Fontaine. If we take these classics to represent the world in which they were produced, it is not surprising if the overall picture is a golden one, but the skeptical reader may wonder how intelligent, amusing, and elegant salon life really was.

It wasn’t all witty conversation, literature, art, and music by any means. As well as eating and drinking, there was a good deal of play, some of it pretty crude (Diderot describes a scene at Holbach’s, admittedly not one of the great salons, where an elderly lady jumps on the back of a chaplain and rides around, laughing so hard she wets herself). But conversation was certainly the key. It’s impossible to generalize across so many different salons, but generally the talk was well ordered, sometimes strictly controlled in the manner of a concert under the baton of the lady of the house. Craveri quotes a fine passage from Marmontel’s memoirs about Madame du Deffand’s company:

When they were with her, they found themselves to be as harmonious as the strings of a cleverly strung instrument…. I might say that she played this instrument with an art that touched on genius.

People took turns, doing their best to shine and entertain, but without hogging the conversation—which is why the unstoppable Diderot did not feel at home in the more formal salons. The sincerity of Molière’s misanthrope Alceste was not welcome either—it was more important to play a part well. Complaisance was essential, but if the conversation was not to be dull, it needed to be seasoned with raillerie (mockery)—a tricky tightrope that not everyone could manage.

Not all subjects were acceptable; Madame Geoffrin in particular was adept at reining in her guests when the talk threatened to “cause political inconvenience,” as her daughter put it. To a certain extent the salons originated the embargo on both controversy and business that came to be the mark (some would say the bane) of polite conversation. In Craveri’s words,

Reflecting the true honnête homme, society conversation was idle, its aim none other than the pleasure of conversation for its own sake. It abhorred affectation. Unlike the conversation of savants, it made no display of learning, it wished neither to demonstrate nor to persuade.

But as Craveri also observes, it would be misleading to suggest that these conversations were empty. In their pleasurable way, they touched on the most important subjects, moral, metaphysical, aesthetic, religious, and political, and those taking part were among the greatest minds of their generation. Racine gave a pre-production reading of three and a half acts of his tragedy Alexandre le Grand at the salon of Madame du Plessis-Guénégaud in 1665 to an audience which included noblemen and women and four outstanding writers, Madame de Sévigné, Madame de Lafayette, La Rochefoucauld, and Boileau. Nearly a century later, Madame Geoffrin’s guests included almost all the well-known writers and philosophers of the period—and they were not likely to confine themselves to anodyne topics.

As this suggests, there was a close relation between salon culture and the literature of the period. This was perhaps the last time in Western culture that writers came so directly face to face, for better or worse, with the most influential members of their public, many of whom were also their patrons. Conversation has been described by Marc Fumaroli as the genre des genres of classical culture, the genre from which all others flow. And indeed, much French writing of this time has the qualities of good conversation: wit, lightness, clarity, variety. Voltaire’s philosophical tales seem made for oral performance, and the conte was just one of many genres that prolonged in writing some of the favorite activities of the salons: dialogues, letters, essays, portraits, maxims, epigrams, satires, light verse of all kinds. The new journalism carried the refinements of Paris to those in country exile, and the novel, still barely respectable but hugely popular, reflected the life of polite society, discussed its favorite topics of love and friendship, and was in turn discussed in the salons. The theater above all, and especially the comic theater, stood at the very center of cultural life; conversations were a kind of play-acting, and plays gave a refracted version of the talk of the elite.

But there was more to French classical literature than the chatter of polite circles. The peculiar quality of many of the masterpieces of this era lies in the juxtaposition of salon elegance and the darker threads which underlie it—and to which it was a form of response. Jean de la Fontaine offers perhaps the best example. No writer embodied the lightness, grace, and wit of polite conversation better than he did, yet his fables—much too adult for the children to whom they are usually given—express a tragic awareness of the impossibility of sustaining this ideal of sweetness and light.

And then there were those who did not want to play a game which could seem futile and constricting even to the best performers; it would be good to know where some of them went on to after emerging from the salons, and whether they didn’t breathe a sigh of relief on getting out into the open. The Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Diogenes figure to whom conversational manners did not come easily, was no friend of Parisian politeness. Particularly interesting is the passage from his novel La Nouvelle Héloïse, quoted by Craveri, in which an enthusiastic first impression of city conversation (“easy and natural…polite but not affected”) is followed by a disenchanted description of the selfishness and deceit that lies beneath this veneer. To the ceremony of society conversation he preferred informal and intimate talk, and not only with members of the elite. Was Rousseau the exception, or did he voice the unstated thoughts of others?

Foreign reactions to French polish were notably ambivalent, especially in Germany and Britain. Some British visitors who experienced this polite world at first hand—Lord Chesterfield, Horace Walpole, David Hume—saw it as a model to be envied, though even the civilized Hume wrote home to Adam Smith from Paris that he missed the rough cut and thrust of Edinburgh’s Poker Club. The well-named Poker was a men-only institution, of course, and much of the standard British criticism of the overcivilized effeminate French, like Rousseau’s, was distinctly misogynistic in tone. The plain and manly manners of the Englishman were set against the frills of the nation of dancing masters and pastry cooks across the Channel.

What of us now? What are we to make of this vanished world? Benedetta Craveri is well aware of the problems and painful aspects of salon culture, but the dominant tone of her book, as of much recent French writing on the subject, is one of celebration and nostalgia. The introduction speaks of the “irresistible attraction” drawing us to this society, which Craveri sets against our modern way of living:

In times like ours, when artificial models of behavior imposed from outside follow one another with monotonous regularity, often to the point of caricature, one can only admire the sovereign naturalness of those social beings who, with perfect mastery of word and gesture, interpreted the model they had forged for themselves and by which they were recognized.

Expressions such as “sovereign naturalness” and “perfect mastery”—and they recur throughout The Age of Conversation—reveal how the past is being idealized here, while the characterization of modern society does scant justice to the many forms of sociability, conversation, and (yes) politeness that allow people of all kinds to live together with a degree of amity and pleasure—even if these are far removed from the ceremonies of the salons. But there is no need to scorn the present in order to admire the achievement of these remarkable women and men. For it is an achievement that in the long run affected a much wider spectrum of society than the privileged, small group described here.

Politeness is often seen dismissively in our time as no more than a matter of superficial etiquette, but the talk and behavior described in these pages were something else, and they offer, as Craveri suggests, a model which can still be useful, in societies which are a far remove from the Blue Room of the Hôtel de Rambouillet. We may not gather in groups of a dozen or so privileged people for long, leisured sessions devoted to elegant conversation, verbal portraits, society verse, and so on; our meetings and exchanges of opinion take quite different forms from the seventeenth-century salon. But in its many different locations, from the TV discussion to the bar, the seminar to the dinner table, modern society needs as much as ever some of the qualities developed under the aegis of the great salonnières: the ability to listen, to take turns, to be witty without being hurtful, to seek harmony rather than confrontation, to make the other members of the group happier with themselves and with life. It’s an ideal rather than a reality, no doubt, and by no means the whole story—but was it much different in the France so eloquently evoked in The Age of Conversation?

This Issue

June 23, 2005