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The Women of the French Salons by Amelia Gere Mason

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modest, pure, and loyal.

But the eighteenth century brings new types to the surface. The
precieuses, with their sentimental theories and naive reserves,
have had their day. It is no longer the world of Mme. de
Rambouillet that confronts us with its chivalrous models, its
refined platonism, and its flavor of literature, but rather that
of the epicurean Ninon, brilliant, versatile, free, lax,
skeptical, full of intrigue and wit, but without moral sense of
spiritual aspiration. Literary portraits and ethical maxims have
given place to a spicy mixture of scandal and philosophy,
humanitarian speculations and equivocal bons mots. It is piquant
and amusing, this light play of intellect, seasoned with clever
and sparkling wit, but the note of delicacy and sensibility is
quite gone. Society has divested itself of many crudities and
affectations perhaps, but it has grown as artificial and self-
conscious as its rouged and befeathered leaders.

The woman who presided over these centers of fashion and
intelligence represent to us the genius of social sovereignty.
We fall under the glamour of the luminous but factitious
atmosphere that surrounded them. We are dazzled by the subtlety
and clearness of their intellect, the brilliancy of their wit.
Their faults are veiled by the smoke of the incense we burn
before them, or lost in the dim perspective. It is fortunate,
perhaps, for many of our illusions, that the golden age, which is
always receding, is seen at such long range that only the softly
colored outlines are visible. Men and women are transfigured in
the rosy light that rests on historic heights as on far-off
mountain tops. But if we bring them into closer view, and turn
on the pitiless light of truth, the aureole vanishes, a thousand
hidden defects are exposed, and our idol stands out hard and
bare, too often divested of its divinity and its charm.

To do justice to these women, we must take the point of view of
an age that was corrupt to the core. It is needless to discuss
here the merits of the stormy, disenchanting eighteenth century,
which was the mother of our own, and upon which the world is
likely to remain hopelessly divided. But whatever we may think of
its final outcome, it can hardly be denied that this period,
which in France was so powerful in ideas, so active in thought,
so teeming with intelligence, so rich in philosophy, was poor in
faith, bankrupt in morals, without religion, without poetry, and
without imagination. The divine ideals of virtue and
renunciation were drowned in a sea of selfishness and
materialism. The austere devotion of Pascal was out of fashion.
The spiritual teachings of Bossuet and Fenelon represented the
out-worn creeds of an age that was dead. It was Voltaire who
gave the tone, and even Voltaire was not radical enough for many
of these iconoclasts. "He is a bigot and a deist," exclaimed a
feminine disciple of d'Holbach's atheism. The gay, witty,
pleasure-loving abbe, who derided piety, defied morality, was the
pet of the salon, and figured in the worst scandals, was a fair
representative of the fashionable clergy who had no attribute of
priesthood but the name, and clearly justified the sneers of the
philosophers. Tradition had given place to private judgment and
in its first reaction private judgment knew no law but its own
caprices. The watchword of intellectual freedom was made to
cover universal license, and clever sophists constructed theories
to justify the mad carnival of vice and frivolity. "As soon as
one does a bad action, one never fails to make a bad maxim," said
the clever Marquise de Crequi. "As soon as a school boy has his
love affairs, he wishes no more to say his prayers; and when a
woman wrongs her husband, she tries to believe no more in God."

The fact that this brilliant but heartless and epicurean world
was tempered with intellect and taste changed its color but not
its moral quality. Talent turned to intrigue, and character was
the toy of the scheming and flexible brain. The maxims of La
Rochefoucauld were the rule of life. Wit counted for everything,
the heart for nothing. The only sins that could not be pardoned
were stupidity and awkwardness. "Bah! He has only revealed
every one's secret," said Mme. du Defand to an acquaintance who
censured Helvetius for making selfishness the basis of all human
actions. To some one who met this typical woman of her time, in
the gay salon of Mme. de Marchais, and condoled with her upon the
death of her lifelong friend and lover, Pont de Veyle, she
quietly replied, "Alas! He died this evening at six o"clock;
otherwise you would not see me here." "My friend fell ill, I
attended him; he died, and I dissected him" was the remark of a
wit on reading her satirical pen portrait of the Marquise du
Chatelet. This cold skepticism, keen analysis, and undisguised
heartlessness strike the keynote of the century which was
socially so brilliant, intellectually so fruitful, and morally so

The liberty and complaisance of the domestic relations were
complete. It is true there were examples of conjugal devotion,
for the gentle human affections never quite disappear in any
atmosphere; but the fact that they were considered worthy of note
sufficiently indicates the drift of the age. In the world of
fashion and of form there was not even a pretense of preserving
the sanctity of marriage, if the chronicles of the time are to be
credited. It was simply a commercial affair which united names
and fortunes, continued the glory of the families, replenished
exhausted purses, and gave freedom to women. If love entered
into it at all, it was by accident. This superfluous sentiment
was ridiculed, or relegated to the bourgeoisie, to whom it was
left to preserve the tradition of household virtues. Every one
seems to have accepted the philosophy of the irrepressible Ninon,
who "returned thanks to God every evening for her esprit, and
prayed him every morning to be preserved from follies of the
heart." If a young wife was modest or shy, she was the object of
unflattering persiflage. If she betrayed her innocent love for
her husband, she was not of the charmed circle of wit and good
tone which frowned upon so vulgar a weakness, and laughed at
inconvenient scruples.

"Indeed," says a typical husband of the period, "I cannot
conceive how, in the barbarous ages, one had the courage to wed.
The ties of marriage were a chain. Today you see kindness,
liberty, peace reign in the bosom of families. If husband and
wife love each other, very well; they live together; they are
happy. If they cease to love, they say so honestly, and return
to each other the promise of fidelity. They cease to be lovers;
they are friends. That is what I call social manners, gentle
manners." This reign of the senses is aptly illustrated by the
epitaph which the gay, voluptuous, and spirtuelle Marquise de
Boufflers wrote for herself:

Ci-git dans une paix profonde
Cette Dame de Volupte
Qui, pour plus grande surete,
Fit son paradis de ce monde.

"Courte et bonne," said the favorite daughter of the Regent, in
the same spirit.

It is against such a background that the women who figure so
prominently in the salons are outlined. Such was the air they
breathed, the spirit they imbibed. That it was fatal to the
finer graces of character goes without saying. Doubtless, in
quiet and secluded nooks, there were many human wild flowers that
had not lost their primitive freshness and delicacy, but they did
not flourish in the withering atmosphere of the great world. The
type in vogue savored of the hothouse. With its striking beauty
of form and tropical richness of color, it had no sweetness, no
fragrance. Many of these women we can only consider on the
worldly and intellectual side. Sydney Smith has aptly
characterized them as "women who violated the common duties of
life, and gave very pleasant little suppers." But standing on
the level of a time in which their faults were mildly censured,
if at all, their characteristic gifts shine out with marvelous
splendor. It is from this standpoint alone that we can present
them, drawing the friendly mantle of silence over grave
weaknesses and fatal errors.

In this century, in which women have so much wider scope, when
they may paint, carve, act, sing, write, enter professional life,
or do whatever talent and inclination dictate, without loss of
dignity or prestige, unless they do it ill,--and perhaps even
this exception is a trifle superfluous,--it is difficult to
understand fully, or estimate correctly, a society in which the
best feminine intellect was centered upon the art of entertaining
and of wielding an indirect power through the minds of men.
These Frenchwomen had all the vanity that lies at the bottom of
the Gallic character, but when the triumphs of youth were over,
the only legitimate path to individual distinction was that of
social influence. This was attained through personal charm,
supplemented by more or less cleverness, or through the gift of
creating a society that cast about them an illusion of talent of
which they were often only the reflection. To these two classes
belong the queens of the salons. But the most famous of them
only carried to the point of genius a talent that was universal.

In its best estate a brilliant social life is essentially an
external one. Its charm lies largely in the superficial graces,
in the facile and winning manners, the ready tact, the quick
intelligence, the rare and perishable gifts of conversation--in
the nameless trifles which are elusive as shadows and potent as
light. It is the way of putting things that tells, rather than
the value of the things themselves. This world of draperies and
amenities, of dinners and conversaziones, of epigrams,
coquetries, and sparkling trivialities in the Frenchwoman's
milieu. It has little in common with the inner world that surges
forever behind and beneath it; little sympathy with inconvenient
ideals and exalted sentiments. The serious and earnest soul to
which divine messages have been whispered in hours of solitude
finds its treasures unheeded, its language unspoken here. The
cares, the burdens, the griefs that weigh so heavily on the great
heart of humanity are banished from this social Eden. The
Frenchman has as little love for the somber side of life as the
Athenian, who veiled every expression of suffering. "Joy marks
the force of the intellect," said the pleasure-loving Ninon. It
is this peculiar gift of projecting themselves into a joyous
atmosphere, of treating even serious subjects in a piquant and
lively fashion, of dwelling upon the pleasant surface of things,
that has made the French the artists, above all others, of social
life. The Parisienne selects her company, as a skillful leader
forms his orchestra, with a fine instinct of harmony; no single
instrument dominates, but every member is an artist in his way,
adding his touch of melody or color in the fitting place. She
aims, perhaps unconsciously, at a poetic ideal which shall
express the best in life and thought, divested of the rude and
commonplace, untouched by sorrow or passion, and free from

But the representative salons, which have left a permanent mark
upon their time, and a memory that does not seem likely to die,
were no longer simply centers of refined and intellectual
amusement. The moral and literary reaction of the seventeenth
century was one of the great social and political forces of the
eighteenth. The salon had become a vast engine of power, an
organ of public opinion, like the modern press. Clever and
ambitious women had found their instrument and their opportunity.
They had long since learned that the homage paid to weakness is
illusory; that the power of beauty is short-lived. With none of
the devotion which had made the convent the time-honored refuge
of tender and exalted souls, finding little solace in the
domestic affections which played so small a role in their lives,
they turned the whole force of their clear and flexible minds to
this new species of sovereignty. Their keenness of vision, their
consummate skill in the adaptation of means to ends, their
knowledge of the world, their practical intelligence, their
instinct of pleasing, all fitted them for the part they assumed.
They distinctly illustrated the truth that "our ideal is not out
of ourselves, but in ourselves wisely modified." The intellect
of these women was rarely the dupe of the emotions. Their
clearness was not befogged by sentiment, nor, it may be added,
were their characters enriched by it. "The women of the
eighteenth century loved with their minds and not with their
hearts," said the Abbe Galiani. The very absence of the
qualities so essential to the highest womanly character,
according to the old poetic types, added to their success. To be
simple and true is to forget often to consider effects.
Spontaneity is not apt to be discriminating, and the emotions are
not safe guides to worldly distinction. It is not the artist who
feels the most keenly, who sways men the most powerfully; it is
the one who has most perfectly mastered the art of swaying men.
Self-sacrifice and a lofty sense of duty find their rewards in
the intangible realm of the spirit, but they do not find them in
a brilliant society whose foundations are laid in vanity and
sensualism. "The virtues, though superior to the sentiments, are
not so agreeable," said Mme. du Deffand; and she echoed the
spirit of an age of which she was one of the most striking
representatives. To be agreeable was the cardinal aim in the
lives of these women. To this end they knew how to use their
talents, and they studied, to the minutest shade, their own
limitations. They had the gift of the general who marshals his
forces with a swift eye for combination and availability. To
this quality was added more or less mental brilliancy, or, what
is equally essential, the faculty of calling out the brilliancy
of others; but their education was rarely profound or even
accurate. To an abbe who wished to dedicate a grammar to Mme.
Geoffrin she replied: "To me? Dedicate a grammar to me? Why, I
do not even know how to spell." Even Mme. du Deffand, whom
Sainte Beuve ranks next to Voltaire as the purest classic of the
epoch in prose, says of herself, "I do not know a word of
grammar; my manner of expressing myself is always the result of
chance, independent of all rule and all art."

But it is not to be supposed that women who were the daily and
lifelong companions and confidantes of men like Fontenelle,
d'Alembert, Montesquieu, Helvetius, and Marmontel were deficient
in a knowledge of books, though this was always subservient to a
knowledge of life. It was a means, not an end. When the salon
was at the height of its power, it was not yet time for Mme. de
Stael; and, with rare exceptions, those who wrote were not
marked, or their literary talent was so overshadowed by their
social gifts as to be unnoted. Their writings were no measure of
their abilities. Those who wrote for amusement were careful to
disclaim the title of bel esprit, and their works usually reached
the public through accidental channels. Mme. de Lambert herself
had too keen an eye for consideration to pose as an author, but
it is with an accent of regret at the popular prejudice that she
says of Mme. Dacier, "She knows how to associate learning with
the amenities; for at present modesty is out of fashion; there is
no more shame for vices, and women blush only for knowledge."

But if they did not write, they presided over the mint in which
books were coined. They were familiar with theories and ideas at
their fountain source. Indeed the whole literature of the period
pays its tribute to their intelligence and critical taste. "He
who will write with precision, energy, and vigor only," said
Marmontel, "may live with men alone; but he who wishes for
suppleness in his style, for amenity, and for that something
which charms and enchants, will, I believe, do well to live with
women. When I read that Pericles sacrificed every morning to the
Graces, I understand by it that every day Pericles breakfasted
with Aspasia." This same author was in the habit of reading his
tales in the salon, and noting their effect. He found a happy
inspiration in "the most beautiful eyes in the world, swimming in
tears;" but he adds, "I well perceived the cold and feeble
passages, which they passed over in silence, as well as those
where I had mistaken the word, the tone of nature, or the just
shade of truth." He refers to the beautiful, witty, but erring
and unfortunate Mme. de la Popeliniere, to whom he read his
tragedy, as the best of all his critics. "Her corrections," he
said, "struck me as so many rays of light." "A point of morals
will be no better discussed in a society of philosophers than in
that of a pretty woman of Paris," said Rousseau. This constant
habit of reducing thoughts to a clear and salient form was the
best school for aptness and ready expression. To talk wittily
and well, or to lead others to talk wittily and well, was the
crowning gift of these women. This evanescent art was the life
and soul of the salons, the magnet which attracted the most
brilliant of the French men of letters, who were glad to discuss
safely and at their ease many subjects which the public
censorship made it impossible to write about. They found
companions and advisers in women, consulted their tastes, sought
their criticism, courted their patronage, and established a sort
of intellectual comradeship that exists to the same extent in no
country outside of France. Its model may be found in the limited
circle that gathered about Aspasia in the old Athenian days.

It is perhaps this habit of intellectual companionship that, more
than any other single thing, accounts for the practical
cleverness of the Frenchwomen and the conspicuous part they have
played in the political as well as social life of France.
Nowhere else are women linked to the same degree with the success
of men. There are few distinguished Frenchmen with whose fame
some more or less gifted woman is not closely allied. Montaigne
and Mlle. de Gournay, La Rochefoucauld and Mme. de La Fayette,
d'Alembert and Mlle. de Lespinasse, Chateaubriand and Mme.
Recamier, Joubert and Mme. de Beaumont--these are only a few of
the well-known and unsullied friendships that suggest themselves
out of a list that might be extended indefinitely. The social
instincts of the French, and the fact that men and women met on a
common plane of intellectual life, made these friendships
natural; that they excited little comment and less criticism made
them possible.

The result was that from the quiet and thoughtful Marquise de
Lambert, who was admitted to have made half of the Academicians,
to the clever but less scrupulous Mme. de Pompadour, who had to
be reckoned with in every political change in Europe, women were
everywhere the power behind the throne. No movement was carried
through without them. "They form a kind of republic," said
Montesquieu, "whose members, always active, aid and serve one
another. It is a new state within a state; and whoever observes
the action of those in power, if he does not know the women who
govern them, is like a man who sees the action of a machine but
does not know its secret springs." Mme. de Tenein advised
Marmontel, before all things, to cultivate the society of women,
if he wished to succeed. It is said that both Diderot and
Thomas, two of the most brilliant thinkers of their time, failed
of the fame they merited, through their neglect to court the
favor of women. Bolingbroke, then an exile in Paris, with a few
others, formed a club of men for the discussion of literary and
political questions. While it lasted it was never mentioned by
women. It was quietly ignored. Cardinal Fleury considered it
dangerous to the State, and suppressed it. At the same time, in
the salon of Mme. de Tenein, the leaders of French thought were
safely maturing the theories which Montesquieu set forth in his
"Esprit des Lois," the first open attack on absolute monarchy, the
forerunner of Rousseau, and the germ of the Revolution.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

But the salons were far from being centers of "plain living and
high thinking." "Supper is one of the four ends of man," said
Mme. du Deffand; and it must be admitted that the great doctrine
of human equality was rather luxuriously cradled. The supreme
science of the Frenchwomen was a knowledge of men. Understanding
their tastes, their ambitions, their interests, their vanities,
and their weaknesses, they played upon this complicated human
instrument with the skill of an artist who knows how to touch the
lightest note, to give the finest shade of expression, to bring
out the fullest harmony. In their efforts to raise social life
to the most perfect and symmetrical proportions, the pleasures of
sense and the delicate illusions of color were not forgotten.
They were as noted for their good cheer, for their attention to
the elegances that strike the eye, the accessories that charm the
taste, as for their intelligence, their tact, and their

But one must look for the power and the fascination of the French
salons in their essential spirit and the characteristics of the
Gallic race, rather than in any definite and tangible form. The
word simply suggests habitual and informal gatherings of men and
women of intelligence and good breeding in the drawing-room, for
conversation and amusement. The hostess who opened her house for
these assemblies selected her guests with discrimination, and
those who had once gained an entree were always welcome. In
studying the character of the noted salons, one is struck with a
certain unity that could result only from natural growth about a
nucleus of people bound together by many ties of congeniality and
friendship. Society, in its best sense, does not signify a
multitude, nor can a salon be created on commercial principles.
This spirit of commercialism, so fatal to modern social life, was
here conspicuously absent. It was not at all a question of debit
and credit, of formal invitations to be given and returned.
Personal values were regarded. The distinctions of wealth were
ignored and talent, combined with the requisite tact, was, to a
certain point, the equivalent of rank. If rivalries existed,
they were based upon the quality of the guests rather than upon
material display. But the modes of entertainment were as varied
as the tastes and abilities of the women who presided. Many of
the well-known salons were open daily. Sometimes there were
suppers, which came very much into vogue after the petits soupers
of the regent. The Duchesse de Choiseul, during the ministry of
her husband, gave a supper every evening excepting on Friday and
Sunday. At a quarter before ten the steward glanced through the
crowded rooms, and prepared the table for all who were present.
The Monday suppers at the Temple were thronged. On other days a
more intimate circle gathered round the tables, and the ladies
served tea after the English fashion. A few women of rank and
fortune imitated these princely hospitalities, but it was the
smaller coteries which presented the most charming and
distinctive side of French society. It was not the luxurious
salon of the Duchesse du Maine, with its whirl of festivities and
passion for esprit, nor that of the Temple, with its brilliant
and courtly, but more or less intellectual, atmosphere; nor that
of the clever and critical Marechale de Luxembourg, so elegant,
so witty, so noted in its day--which left the most permanent
traces and the widest fame. It was those presided over by women
of lesser rank and more catholic sympathies, of whom Voltaire
aptly said that "the decline of their beauty revealed the dawn of
their intellect;" women who had the talent, tact, and address to
gather about them a circle of distinguished men who have crowned
them with a luminous ray from their own immortality. The names
of Mme. de Lambert, Mme. de Tencin, Mme. Geoffrin, Mme. du
Deffand, Mme. Necker, Mme. de Stael, and others of lesser note,
call up visions of a society which the world is not likely to see

Not the least among the attractions of this society was its
charming informality. A favorite custom in the literary and
philosophical salons was to give dinners, at an early hour, two
or three times a week. In the evening a larger company assembled
without ceremony. A popular man of letters, so inclined, might
dine Monday and Wednesday with Mme. Geoffrin, Tuesday with Mme.
Helvetius, Friday with Mme. Necker, Sunday and Thursday with Mme.
d'Holbach, and have ample time to drop into other salons
afterward, passing an hour or so, perhaps, before going to the
theater, in the brilliant company that surrounded Mlle. de
Lespinasse, and, very likely, supping elsewhere later. At many
of these gatherings he would be certain to find readings,
recitations, comedies, music, games, or some other form of
extemporized amusement. The popular mania for esprit, for
literary lions, for intellectual diversions ran through the
social world, as the craze for clubs and culture, poets and
parlor readings, musicales and amateur theatricals, runs through
the society of today. It had numberless shades and gradations,
with the usual train of pretentious follies which in every age
furnish ample material for the pen of the satirist, but it was a
spontaneous expression of the marvelously quickened taste for
things of the intellect. The woman who improvised a witty verse,
invented a proverb, narrated a story, sang a popular air, or
acted a part in a comedy entered with the same easy grace into
the discussion of the last political problem, or listened with
the subtlest flattery to the new poem, essay, or tale of the
aspiring young author, whose fame and fortune perhaps hung upon
her smile. In the musical and artistic salon of Mme. de la
Popeliniere the succession of fetes, concerts, and receptions
seems to have been continuous. On Sunday there was a mass in the
morning, afterward a grand dinner, at five o'clock a light
repast, at nine a supper, and later a musicale. One is inclined
to wonder if there was ever any retirement, any domesticity in
this life so full of movement and variety.

But it was really the freedom, wit, and brilliancy of the
conversation that constituted the chief attraction of the salons.
Men were in the habit of making the daily round of certain
drawing rooms, just as they drop into clubs in our time, sure of
more or less pleasant discussion on whatever subject was
uppermost at the moment, whether it was literature, philosophy,
art, politics, music, the last play, or the latest word of their
friends. The talk was simple, natural, without heat, without
aggressive egotism, animated with wit and repartee, glancing upon
the surface of many things, and treating all topics, grave or
gay, with the lightness of touch, the quick responsiveness that
make the charm of social intercourse.

The unwritten laws that governed this brilliant world were drawn
from the old ideas of chivalry, upon which the etiquette of the
early salons was founded. The fine morality and gentle virtues
which were the bases of these laws had lost their force in the
eighteenth century, but the manners which grew out of them had
passed into a tradition. If morals were in reality not pure, nor
principles severe, there was at least the vanity of posing as
models of good breeding. Honor was a religion; politeness and
courtesy were the current, though by no means always genuine,
coin of unselfishness and amiability; the amenities stood in the
place of an ethical code. Egotism, ill temper, disloyalty,
ingratitude, and scandal were sins against taste, and spoiled the
general harmony. Evil passions might exist, but it was agreeable
to hide them, and enmities slept under a gracious smile.
noblesse OBLIGE was the motto of these censors of manners; and as
it is perhaps a Gallic trait to attach greater importance to
reputation than to character, this sentiment was far more potent
than conscience. Vice in many veiled forms might be tolerated,
but that which called itself good society barred its doors
against those who violated the canons of good taste, which
recognize at least the outward semblance of many amiable virtues.
Sincerity certainly was not one of these virtues; but no one was
deceived, as it was perfectly well understood that courteous
forms meant little more than the dress which may or may not
conceal a physical defect, but is fit and becoming. It was not
best to inquire too closely into character and motives, so long
as appearances were fair and decorous. How far the individual
may be affected by putting on the garb of qualities and feelings
that do not exist may be a question for the moralist; but this
conventional untruth has its advantages, not only in reducing to
a minimum the friction of social machinery, and subjecting the
impulses to the control of the will, but in the subtle influence
of an ideal that is good and true, however far one may in reality
fall short of it.

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; add 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; consider,
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 these
salons may be to some extent comprehended.

The reason, too, why it is idle to dream of reproducing them
today on American soil will be readily seen. The forms may be
repeated, but the vitalizing spirit is not there. We have no
leisure class that finds its occupation in this pleasant daily
converse. Our feverish civilization has not time for it. We sit
in our libraries and scan the news of the world, instead of
gathering it in the drawing rooms of our friends. Perhaps we
read and think more, but we talk less, and conversation is a
relaxation rather than an art. The ability to think aloud,
easily and gracefully, is not eminently an Anglo-Saxon gift,
though there are many individual exceptions to this limitation.
Our social life is largely a form, a whirl, a commercial
relation, a display, a duty, the result of external accretion,
not of internal growth. It is not in any sense a unity, nor an
expression of our best intellectual life; this seeks other
channels. Men are immersed in business and politics, and prefer
the easy, less exacting atmosphere of the club. The woman who
aspires to hold a salon is confronted at the outset by this
formidable rival. She is a queen without a kingdom, presiding
over a fluctuating circle without homogeneity, and composed
largely of women--a fact in itself fatal to the true esprit de
societe. It is true we have our literary coteries, but they are
apt to savor too much of the library; we take them too seriously,
and bring into them too strong a flavor of personality. We find
in them, as a rule, little trace of the spontaneity, the variety,
the wit, the originality, the urbanity, the polish, that
distinguished the French literary salons of the last century.
Even in their own native atmosphere, the salons exist no longer
as recognized institutions. This perfected flower of a past
civilization has faded and fallen, as have all others. The salon
in its widest sense, and in some modified form, may always
constitute a feature of French life, but the type has changed,
and its old glory has forever departed. In a foreign air, even
in its best days, it could only have been an exotic, flourishing
feebly, and lacking both color and fragrance. As a copy of past
models it is still less likely to be a living force. Society,
like government, takes its spirit and its vitality from its own

The Marquise de Lambert--Her "Bureau d'Esprit"--Fontenelle--
Advice to her Son--Wise Thoughts on the Education of Women--Her
love of Consideration--Her Generosoty--Influence of Women upon
the Academy.

While the gay suppers of the regent were giving a new but by no
means desirable tone to the great world of Paris, and chasing
away the last vestiges of the stately decorum that marked the
closing days of Louis XIV, and Mme. de Maintenon, there was one
quiet drawing room which still preserved the old traditions. The
Marquise de Lambert forms a connecting link between the salons of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, leaning to the side of
the latter, intellectually, but retaining much of the finer
morality that distinguished the best life of the former. Her
attitude towards the disorders of the regency was similar to that
which Mme. de Rambouillet had held towards the profligate court
of Henry IV, though her salon never attained the vogue of its
model. It lacked a certain charm of youth and freshness perhaps,
but it was one of the few in which gambling was not permitted,
and in which conversation had not lost its serious and critical

If Mme. de Lambert were living today she would doubtless figure
openly as an author. Her early tastes pointed clearly in that
direction. She was inclined to withdraw from the amusements of
her age, and to pass her time in reading, or in noting down the
thoughts that pleased her. The natural bent of her mind was
towards moral reflections. In this quality she resembled Mme. de
Sable, but she was a woman of greater breadth and originality,
though less fine and exclusive. She wrote much in later life on
educational themes, for the benefit of her children and for her
own diversion; but she yielded to the prejudices of her age
against the woman author, and her works were given to the world
only through the medium of friends to whom she had read or lent
them. "Women," she said, "should have towards the sciences a
modesty almost as sensitive as towards vices." But in spite of
her studied observance of the conventional limits which tradition
still assigned to her sex, her writings suggest much more care
than is usually bestowed upon the amusement of an idle hour. If,
like many other women of her time, she wrote only for her
friends, she evidently doubted their discretion in the matter of

As the child who inherited the rather formidable name of Anne
Theresa de Marguenat de Coucelles was born during the last days
of the Hotel de Rambouillet, she doubtless cherished many
illusions regarding this famous salon. Its influence was more or
less apparent when the time came to open one of her own. Her
father was a man of feeble intellect, who died early; but her
mother, a woman more noted for beauty than for decorum, was
afterward married to Bachaumont, a well-known bel esprit, who
appreciated the gifts of the young girl, and brought her within a
circle of wits who did far more towards forming her impressible
mind than her light and frivolous mother had done. She was still
very young when she became the wife of the Marquis de Lambert, an
officer of distinction, to whose interests she devoted her
talents and her ample fortune. The exquisitely decorated Hotel
Lambert, on the Ile Saint Louis, still retains much of its old
splendor, though the finest masterpieces of Lebrun and Lesueur
which ornamented its walls have found their way to the Louvre.
"It is a home made for a sovereign who would be a philosopher,"
wrote Voltaire to Frederick the Great. In these magnificent
salons, Mme. de Lambert, surrounded by every luxury that wealth
and taste could furnish, entertained a distinguished company.
She carried her lavish hospitalities also to Luxembourg, where
she adorned the position of her husband, who was governor of that
province for a short period before his death in 1686. After this
event, she was absorbed for some years in settling his affairs,
which were left in great disorder, and in protecting the fortunes
of her two children. This involved her in long and vexatious
lawsuits which she seems to have conducted with admirable
ability. "There are so few great fortunes that are innocent,"
she writes to her son, "that I pardon your ancestors for not
leaving you one. I have done what I could to put in order our
affairs, in which there is left to women only the glory of
economy." It was not until the closing years of her life, from
1710 to 1733, that her social influence was at its height. She
was past sixty, at an age when the powers of most women are on
the wane, when her real career began. She fitted up luxurious
apartments in the Palais Mazarin, employing artists like Watteau
upon the decorations, and expending money as lavishly as if she
had been in the full springtide of life, instead of the golden
autumn. Then she gathered about her a choice and lettered
society, which seemed to be a world apart, a last revival of the
genius of the seventeenth century, and quite out of the main
drift of the period. "She was born with much talent," writes one
of her friends; "she cultivated it by assiduous reading; but the
most beautiful flower in her crown was a noble and luminous
simplicity, of which, at sixty years, she took it into her head
to divest herself. She lent herself to the public, associated
with the Academicians, and established at her house a bureau
d'esprit." Twice a week she gave dinners, which were as noted
for the cuisine as for the company, and included, among others,
the best of the forty Immortals. Here new works were read or
discussed, authors talked of their plans, and candidates were
proposed for vacant chairs in the Academy. "The learned and the
lettered formed the dominant element," says a critic of the time.
"They dined at noon, and the rest of the day was passed in
conversations, in readings, in literary and scientific
discussions. No card tables; it was in ready wit that each one
paid his contribution." Ennui never came to shed its torpors
over these reunions, of which the Academy furnished the most
distinguished guests, in company with grands seigneurs eager to
show themselves as worthy by intelligence as by rank to play a
role in these gatherings of the intellectual elite. Fontenelle
was the presiding genius of this salon, and added to its critical
and literary spirit a tinge of philosophy. This gallant savant,
who was adored in society as "a man of rare and exquisite
conversation," has left many traces of himself here. No one was
so sparkling in epigram; no one talked so beautifully of love, of
which he knew nothing; and no one talked to delightfully of
science, of which he knew a great deal. But he thought that
knowledge needed a seasoning of sentiment to make it palatable to
women. In his "Pluralite des Mondes," a singular melange of
science and sentiment, which he had written some years before and
dedicated to a daughter of the gay and learned Mme. de La
Sabliere, he talks about the stars, to la belle marquise, like a
lover; but his delicate flatteries are the seasoning of serious
truths. It was the first attempt to offer science sugar-coated,
and suggests the character of this coterie, which prided itself
upon a discreet mingling of elevated thought with decorous
gaiety. The world moves. Imagine a female undergraduate of
Harvard or Columbia taking her astronomy diluted with sentiment!

President Henault, the life-long friend of Mme. du Deffand, whose
light criticism of a pure-minded woman might be regarded as
rather flattering than otherwise, says: "It was apparent that
Mme. de Lambert touched upon the time of the Hotel de
Rambouillet; she was a little affected, and had not the force to
overstep the limits of the prude and the precieuse. Her salon
was the rendevous of celebrated men . . . . In the evening the
scenery changed as well as the actors. A more elegant world
assembled at the suppers. The Marquise took pleasure in
receiving people who were agreeable to each other. Her tone,
however, did not vary, and she preached la belle galanterie to
some who went a little beyond it. I was of the two parties; I
dogmatized in the morning and sang in the evening." The two
eminent Greek Scholars, La Motte and Mme. Dacier, held spirited
discussions on the merits of Homer, which came near ending in
permanent ill-feeling, but the amiable hostess gave a dinner for
them, "they drank to the health of the poet, and all was
forgotten." The war between the partizans of the old and the new
was as lively then as it is today. "La Motte and Fontenelle
prefer the moderns," said the caustic Mme. du Deffand; "but the
ancients are dead, and the moderns are themselves." The names of
Sainte-Aulaire, de Sacy, Mairan, President Henault, and others
equally scholarly and witty, suffice to indicate the quality of
the conversation, which treated lightly and gracefully of the
most serious things. The Duchesse du Maine and her clever
companion, Mlle. de Launay were often among the guests; also the
beautiful and brilliant Mme. de Caylus, a niece of Mme. de
Maintenon, whom some poetical critic has styled "the last flower
of the seventeenth century." Sainte-Aulaire, tired of the
perpetual excitement at Sceaux, characterized this salon by a
witty quatrain:

Je suis las de l'esprit, il me met en courroux,
Il me renverse la cervelle;
Lambert, je viens chercher un asile chez vous,
Entre La Motte et Fontenelle.

The wits of the day launched many a shaft of satire against it,
as they had against the Hotel de Rambouillet a century earlier;
but it was an intellectual center of great influence, and was
regarded as the sanctuary of old manners as well as the asylum of
new liberties. Its decorous character gave it the epithet of
"very respectable;" but this eminently respectable company, which
represented the purest taste of the time, often included Adrienne
Lecouvreur, who was much more remarkable for talent than for
respectability. We have a direct glimpse of it through the pen
of d'Artenson:

"I have just met with a very grievous loss in the death of the
Marquise de Lambert" (he writes in 1733). "For fifteen years I
have been one of her special friends, and she has done me the
favor of inviting me to her house, where it is an honor to be
received. I dined there regularly on Wednesday, which was one of
her days . . . . . She was rich, and made a good and amiable use
of her wealth, for the benefit of her friends, and above all for
the unfortunate. A pupil of Bachaumont, having frequented only
the society of people of the world, and of the highest
intelligence, she knew no other passion than a constant and
platonic tenderness."

The quality of character and intellect which gave Mme. de Lambert
so marked an influence, we find in her own thoughts on a great
variety of subjects. She gives us the impression of a woman
altogether sensible and judicious, but not without a certain
artificial tone. Her well-considered philosophy of life had an
evident groundwork of ambition and worldly wisdom, which appears
always in her advice to her children. She counsels her son to
aim high and believe himself capable of great things. "Too much
modesty," she says, "is a languor of the soul, which prevents it
from taking flight and carrying itself rapidly towards glory"--a
suggestion that would be rather superfluous in this generation.
Again, she advises him to seek the society of his superiors, in
order to accustom himself to respect and politeness. "With
equals one grows negligent; the mind falls asleep." But she does
not regard superiority as an external thing, and says very
wisely, "It is merit which should separate you from people, not
dignity or pride." By "people" she indicates all those who think
meanly and commonly. "The court is full of them," she adds. Her
standards of honor are high, and her sentiments of humanity quite
in the vein of the coming age. She urges her daughter to treat
her servants with kindness. "One of the ancients says they
should be regarded as unfortunate friends. Think that humanity
and Christianity equalize all."

Her criticisms on the education of women are of especial
interest. Behind her conventional tastes and her love of
consideration she has a clear perception of facts and an
appreciation of unfashionable truths. She recognizes the
superiority of her sex in matters of taste and in the enjoyment
of "serious pleasures which make only the MIND LAUGH and do not
trouble the heart" She reproaches men with "spoiling the
dispositions nature has given to women, neglecting their
education, filling their minds with nothing solid, and destining
them solely to please, and to please only by their graces or
their vices." But she had not always the courage of her
convictions, and it was doubtless quite as much her dislike of
giving voice to unpopular opinions as her aversion to the
publicity of authorship, that led her to buy the entire edition
of her "Reflexions sur les Femmes," which was published without her

One of her marked traits was moderation. "The taste is spoiled
by amusements," she writes. "One becomes so accustomed to ardent
pleasures that one cannot fall back upon simple ones. We should
fear great commotions of the soul, which prepare ennui and
disgust." This wise thought suggests the influence of
Fontenelle, who impressed himself strongly upon the salons of the
first half of the century. His calm philosophy is distinctly
reflected in the character of Mme. de Lambert, also in that of
Mme. Geoffrin, with whom he was on very intimate terms. It is
said that this poet, critic, bel esprit, and courtly favorite,
whom Rousseau calls "the daintiest pedant in the world," was
never swayed by any emotion whatever. He never laughed, only
smiled; never wept; never praised warmly, though he did say
pretty things to women; never hurried; was never angry; never
suffered, and was never moved by suffering. "He had the gout,"
says one of his critics, "but no pain; only a foot wrapped in
cotton. He put it on a footstool; that was all." It is perhaps
fair to present, as the other side of the medallion, the portrait
drawn by the friendly hand of Adrienne LeCouvreur. "The charms
of his intellect often veiled its essential qualities. Unique of
his kind, he combines all that wins regard and respect.
Integrity, rectitude, equity compose his character; an
imagination lively and brilliant, turns fine and delicate,
expressions new and always happy ornament it. A heart pure,
actions clear, conduct uniform, and everywhere principles . . . .
Exact in friendship, scrupulous in love; nowhere failing in the
attributes of a gentleman. Suited to intercourse the most
delicate, though the delight of savants; modest in his
conversation, simple in his actions, his superiority is evident,
but he never makes one feel it." He lived a century, apparently
because it was too much trouble to die. When the weight of years
made it too much trouble to live, he simply stopped. "I do not
suffer, my friends, but I feel a certain difficulty in existing,"
were his last words. With this model of serene tranquillity, who
analyzed the emotions as he would a problem in mathematics, and
reduced life to a debit and credit account, it is easy to
understand the worldly philosophy of the women who came under his

But while Mme. de Lambert had a calm and equable temperament, and
loved to surround herself with an atmosphere of repose, she was
not without a fine quality of sentiment. "I exhort you much more
to cultivate your heart," she writes to her son, "than to perfect
your mind; the true greatness of the man is in the heart." "She
was not only eager to serve her friends without waiting for their
prayers or the humiliating exposure of their needs," said
Fontenelle, "but a good action to be done in favor of indifferent
people always tempted her warmly . . .. The ill success of some
acts of generosity did not correct the habit; she was always
equally ready to do a kindness." She has written very delicately
and beautifully of friendships between men and women; and she had
her own intimacies that verged upon tenderness, but were free
from any shadow of reproach. Long after her death, d'Alembert,
in his academic eulogy upon de Sacy, refers touchingly to the
devoted friendship that linked this elegant savant with Mme. de
Lambert. "It is believed," says President Henault, "that she was
married to the Marquis de Sainte-Aulaire. He was a man of
esprit, who only bethought himself, after more than sixty years,
of his talent for poetry; and Mme. de Lambert, whose house was
filled with Academicians, gained him entrance into the Academy,
not without strong opposition on the part of Boileau and some
others." Whether the report of this alliance was true or not,
the families were closely united, as the daughter of Mme. de
Lambert was married to a son of Sainte-Aulaire; it is certain
that the enduring affection of this ancient friend lighted the
closing years of her life.

Though tinged with the new philosophy, Mme. de Lambert regarded
religion as a part of a respectable, well-ordered life.
"Devotion is a becoming sentiment in women, and befitting in both
sexes," she writes. But she clearly looked upon it as an
external form, rather than an internal flame. When about to die,
at the age of eighty-six, she declined the services of a friendly
confessor, and sent for an abbe who had a great reputation for
esprit. Perhaps she thought he would give her a more brilliant
introduction into the next world; this points to one of her
weaknesses, which was a love of consideration that carried her
sometimes to the verge of affectation. It savors a little of the
hypercritical spirit that is very well illustrated by an anecdote
of the witty Duchesse de Luxenbourg. One morning she took up a
prayer book that was lying upon the table and began to criticize
severely the bad taste of the prayers. A friend ventured to
remark that if they were said reverently and piously, God surely
would pay no attention to their good or bad form. "Indeed,"
exclaimed the fastidious Marechale, whose religion was evidently
a becoming phase of estheticism, "do not believe that."

The thoughts of Mme. de Lambert, so elevated in tone, so fine in
moral quality, so rich in worldly wisdom, and often so felicitous
in expression, tempt one to multiply quotations, especially as
they show us an intimate side of her life, of which otherwise we
know very little. Her personality is veiled. Her human
experiences, her loves, her antipathies, her mistakes, and her
errors are a sealed book to us, excepting as they may be dimly
revealed in the complexion of her mind. Of her influence we need
no better evidence than the fact that her salon was called the
antechamber to the Academie Francaise.

The precise effect of this influence of women over the most
powerful critical body ot eh century, or of any century, perhaps,
we can hardly measure. In the fact that the Academy became for a
time philosophical rather than critical, and dealt with theories
rather than with pure literature, we trace the finger of the more
radical thinkers who made themselves so strongly felt in the
salons. Sainte=Beuve tells us that Fontenelle, with other
friends of Mme. de Lambert, first gave it this tendency; but his
mission was apparently an unconscious one, and strikingly
illustrates the accidental character of the sources of the
intellectual currents which sometimes change the face of the
world. "If I had a handful of truths, I should take good care
not to open it," said this sybarite, who would do nothing that
was likely to cause him trouble. But the truths escaped in spite
of him, and these first words of the new philosophy were perhaps
the more dangerous because veiled and insidious. "You have
written the 'Histoire des Oracles,'" said a philosopher to him,
after he had been appointed the royal censor, "and you refuse me
your approbation." "Monsieur," replied Fontenelle, "if I had
been censor when I wrote the 'Histoire des Oracles,' I should have
carefully avoided giving it my approbation." But if the
philosophers finally determined the drift of this learned body,
it was undoubtedly the tact and diplomacy of women which
constituted the most potent factor in the elections which placed
them there. The mantle of authority, so gracefully worn by Mme.
de Lambert, fell upon her successors, Mme. Geoffrin and Mlle. de
Lespinasse, losing none of its prestige. As a rule, the best men
in France were sooner or later enrolled among the Academicians.
If a few missed the honor through failure to enlist the favor of
women, as has been said, and a few better courtiers of less merit
attained it, the modern press has not proved a more judicious

Her Capricious Character--Her Esprit--Mlle. de Launay--Clever
Portrait of Her Mistress--Perpetual Fetes at Sceaux--Voltaire
and the "Divine Emilie"--Dilettante Character of this Salon.

The life of the eighteenth century, with its restlessness, its
love of amusements, its ferment of activities, and its essential
frivolity, finds a more fitting representative in the Duchesse du
Maine, granddaughter of the Grand Conde, and wife of the favorite
son of Louis XIV, and Mme. de Montespan. The transition from the
serene and thoughtful atmosphere which surrounded Mme. de
Lambert, to the tumultuous whirl of existence at Sceaux, was like
passing from the soft light and tranquillity of a summer evening
to the glare and confusion of perpetual fireworks. Of all the
unique figures of a masquerading age this small and ambitious
princess was perhaps the most striking, the most pervading. It
was by no means her aim to take her place in the world as queen
of a salon. Louise-Benedicte de Bourbon belonged to the royal
race, and this was by far the most vivid fact in her life. She
was but a few steps from the throne, and political intrigues
played a conspicuous part in her singular career. But while she
waited for the supreme power to which she aspired, and later,
when the feverish dream of her life was ended, she must be
amused, and her diversions must have an intellectual and
imaginative flavor. Wits, artists, literary men, and savants
were alike welcome at Sceaux, if they amused her and entertained
her guests. "One lived there by esprit, and esprit is my God,"
said Mme. du Deffand, who was among the brightest ornaments of
this circle.

Born in 1676, the Duchesse du Maine lived through the first half
of the next century, of which her little court was one of the
most notable features. Scarcely above the stature of a child of
ten years, slightly deformed, with a fair face lighted by fine
eyes; classically though superficially educated; gifted in
conversation, witty, brilliant, adoring talent, but cherishing
all the prejudices of the old noblesse--she represented in a
superlative degree the passion for esprit which lent such
exceptional brilliancy to the social life of the time.

In character the duchess was capricious and passionate. "If she
were as good as she is wicked," said the sharp-tongued Palatine,
"there would be nothing to say against her. She is tranquil
during the day and passes it playing at cards, but at its close
the extravagances and fits of passion begin; she torments her
husband, her children, her servants, to such a point that they do
not know which way to turn." Her will brooked no opposition.
When forced to leave the Tuileries after the collapse of her
little bubble of political power, she deliberately broke every
article of value in her apartments, consigning mirrors, vases,
statues, porcelains alike to a common ruin, that no one else
might enjoy them after her. This fiery scion of a powerful
family, who had inherited its pride, its ambition, its
uncontrollable passions, and its colossal will, had little
patience with the serene temperament and dilettante tastes of her
amiable husband, and it is said she did not scruple to make him
feel the force of her small hands. "You will waken some morning
to find yourself in the Academie Francaise, and the Duc d'Orleans
regent," she said to him one day when he showed her a song he had
translated. Her device was a bee, with this motto: "I am small,
but I make deep wounds." Doubtless its fitness was fully
realized by those who belonged to the Ordre de la Mouche-a-miel
which she had instituted, and whose members were obliged to
swear, by Mount Hymettus, fidelity and obedience to their
perpetual dictator. But what pains and chagrins were not
compensated by the bit of lemon-colored ribbon and its small meed
of distinction!

The little princess worked valiantly for political power, but she
worked in vain. The conspiracy against the regent, which seemed
to threaten another Fronde, came to nothing, and this ardent
instrigante, who had the disposition to "set the four corners of
the kingdom on fire" to attain her ends, found her party
dispersed and herself in prison. But this was only an episode,
and though it gave a death blow to her dreams of power, it did
not quench her irrepressible ardor. If she could not rule in one
way, she would in another. As soon as she regained her freedom,
her little court was again her kingdom, and no sovereign ever
reigned more imperiously. "I am fond of company," she said, "for
I listen to no one, and every one listens to me." It was an
incessant thirst for power, a perpetual need of the sweet incense
of flattery, that was at the bottom of this "passion for a
multitude." "She believed in herself," writes Mlle. de Launay,
afterward Baronne de Staal, "as she believed in God or Descartes,
without examination and without discussion."

This lady's maid, who loved mathematics and anatomy, was familiar
with Malebranche and Descartes, and left some literary reputation
as a writer of gossipy memoirs, was a prominent figure in the
lively court at Sceaux for more than forty years, and has given
us some vivid pictures of her capricious mistress. A young girl
of clear intellect and good education, but without rank, friends,
or fortune, she was forced to accept the humiliating position of
femme de chambre with the Duchesse du Maine, who had been
attracted by her talents. She was brought into notice through a
letter to Fontenelle, which was thought witty enough to be copied
and circulated. If she had taken this cool dissector of human
motives as a model, she certainly did credit to his teaching.
Her curiously analytical mind is aptly illustrated by her novel
method of measuring her lover's passion. 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. Promoted to the position of a
companion, she devoted herself to the interests of her restless
mistress, read to her, talked with her, wrote plays for her, and
was the animating spirit of the famous Nuits Blanches. While the
duchess was in exile she shared her disgrace, refused to betray
her, and was sent to the Bastille for her loyalty. She resigned
herself to her imprisonment with admirable philosophy, amused
herself in the study of Latin, in watching the gambols of a cat
and kitten, and in carrying on a safe and sentimental flirtation
with the fascinating Duc de Richelieu, who occupied an adjoining
cell and passed the hours in singing with her popular airs from
Iphigenie. "Sentimental" is hardly a fitting word to apply to
the coquetries of this remarkably clear and calculating young
woman. She returned with her patroness to Sceaux, found many
admirers, but married finally with an eye to her best worldly
interests, and, it appears, in the main happily--at least, not
unhappily. The shade of difference implies much. She had a
keen, penetrating intellect which nothing escaped, and as it had
the peculiar clearness in which people and events are reflected
as in a mirror, her observations are of great value. "Aside from
the prose of Voltaire, I know of none more agreeable than that of
Mme. de Staal de Launay," said Grimm. Her portrait of her
mistress serves to paint herself as well.

"Mme. la Duchesse du Maine, at the age of sixty years, has yet
learned nothing from experience; she is a child of much talent;
she has its defects and its charms. Curious and credulous, she
wishes to be instructed in all the different branches of
knowledge; but she is contented with their surface. The
decisions of those who educated her have become for her
principles and rules upon which her mind has never formed the
least doubt; she submits once for all. Her provision for ideas
is made; she rejects the best demonstrated truths and resists the
best reasonings, if they are contrary to the first impressions
she has received. All examination is impossible to her
lightness, and doubt is a state which her weakness cannot
support. Her catechism and the philosophy of Descartes are two
systems which she understands equally well . . . . Her mirror
cannot make her doubt the charms of her face; the testimony of
her eyes is more questionable than the judgment of those who have
decided that she is beautiful and well-formed. Her vanity is of
a singular kind, but seems the less offensive because it is not
reflective, though in reality it is the more ridiculous,
Intercourse with her is a slavery; her tyranny is open; she does
not deign to color it with the appearance of friendship. She
says frankly that she has the misfortune of not being able to do
without people for whom she does not care. She proves it
effectually. One sees her learn with indifference the death of
those who would call forth torrents of tears if they were a
quarter of an hour too late for a card party or a promenade."

But this vain and self-willed woman read Virgil and Terence in
the original, was devoted to Greek tragedies, dipped into
philosophy, traversed the surface of many sciences, turned a
madrigal with facility, and talked brilliantly. "The language is
perfect only when you speak it or when one speaks of you," wrote
Mme. de Lambert, in a tone of discreet flattery. "No one has
ever spoken with more correctness, clearness, and rapidity,
neither in a manner more noble or more natural," said Mlle. de

Through this feminine La Bruyere, as Sainte-Beuve has styled her,
we are introduced to the life at Sceaux. It was the habit of the
guests to assemble at eight, listen to music or plays, improvise
verses for popular airs, relate racy anecdotes, or amuse
themselves with proverbs. "Write verses for me," said the
insatiable duchess when ill; "I feel that verses only can give me
relief." The quality does not seem to have been essential,
provided they were sufficiently flattering. Sainte-Aulaire wrote
madrigals for her. Malezieu, the learned and versatile preceptor
of the Duc du Maine, read Sophocles and Euripides. Mme. du Maine
herself acted the roles of Athalie and Iphigenie with the famous
Baron. They played at science, contemplated the heavens through
a telescope and the earth through a microscope. In their eager
search for novelty they improvised fetes that rivaled in
magnificence the Arabian Nights; they posed as gods and
goddesses, or, affecting simplicity, assumed rustic and pastoral
characters, even to their small economies and romantic
platitudes. Mythology, the chivalry of the Middle Ages,
costumes, illuminations, scenic effects, the triumphs of the
artists, the wit of the bel esprit--all that ingenuity could
devise or money could buy was brought into service. It was the
life that Watteau painted, with its quaint and grotesque fancies,
its sylvan divinities, and its sighing lovers wandering in
endless masquerade, or whispering tender nothings on banks of
soft verdure, amid the rustle of leaves, the sparkle of
fountains, the glitter of lights, and the perfume of innumerable
flowers. It was a perpetual carnival, inspired by imagination,
animated by genius, and combining everything that could charm the
taste, distract the mind, and intoxicate the senses. The
presiding genius of this fairy scene was the irrepressible
duchess, who reigned as a goddess and demanded the homage due to
one. Well might the weary courtiers cry out against les galeres
du bel esprit.

But this fantastic princess who carried on a sentimental
correspondence with the blind La Motte, and posed as the tender
shepherdess of the adoring but octogenarian Sainte-Aulaire, had
no really democratic notions. There was no question in her mind
of the divine right of kings or of princesses. She welcomed
Voltaire because he flattered her vanity and amused her guests,
but she was far enough from the theories which were slowly
fanning the sparks of the Revolution. Her rather imperious
patronage of literary and scientific men set a fashion which all
her world tried to follow. It added doubtless to the prestige of
those who were insidiously preparing the destruction of the very
foundations on which this luxurious and pleasure-loving society
rested. But, after all, the bond between this restless,
frivolous, heartless coterie and the genuine men of letters was
very slight. There was no seriousness, no earnestness, no
sincerity, no solid foundation.

The literary men, however, who figured most conspicuously in the
intimate circle of the Duchesse du Maine were not of the first
order. Malezieu was learned, a member of two Academies, faintly
eulogized by Fontenelle, warmly so by Voltaire, and not at all by
Mlle. de Launay; but twenty-five years devoted to humoring the
caprices and flattering the tastes of a vain and exacting
patroness were not likely to develop his highest possibilities.
There is a point where the stimulating atmosphere of the salon
begins to enervate. His clever assistant, the Abbe Genest, poet
and Academician, was a sort of Voiture, witty, versatile, and
available. He tried to put Descartes into verse, which suggests
the quality of his poetry. Sainte-Aulaire, who, like his friend
Fontenelle, lived a century, frequented this society more or less
for forty years, but his poems are sufficiently light, if one may
judge from a few samples, and his genius doubtless caught more
reflections in the salon than in a larger world. He owed his
admission to the Academy partly to a tender quatrain which he
improvised in praise of his lively patroness. It is true we have
occasional glimpses of Voltaire. Once he sought an asylum here
for two months, after one of his numerous indiscretions, writing
tales during the day, which he read to the duchess at night.
Again he came with his "divine Emilie," the learned Marquise du
Chatelet, who upset the household with her eccentric ways. "Our
ghosts do not show themselves by day," writes Mlle. de Launay;
"they appeared yesterday at ten o'clock in the evening. I do not
think we shall see them earlier today; one is writing high facts,
the other, comments upon Newton. They wish neither to play nor
to promenade; they are very useless in a society where their
learned writings are of no account." But Voltaire was a
courtier, and, in spite of his frequent revolts against
patronage, was not at all averse to the incense of the salons and
the favors of the great. It was another round in the ladder that
led him towards glory.

The cleverest women in France were found at Sceaux, but the
dominant spirit was the princess herself. It was amusement she
wanted, and even men of talent were valued far less for what they
were intrinsically than for what they could contribute to her
vanity or to her diversion. "She is a predestined soul," wrote
Voltaire. "She will love comedy to the last moment, and when she
is ill I counsel you to administer some beautiful poem in the
place of extreme unction. One dies as one has lived."

Mme. du Maine represented the conservative side of French society
in spite of the fact that her abounding mental vitality often
broke through the stiff boundaries of old traditions. It was not
because she did not still respect them, but she had the defiant
attitude of a princess whose will is an unwritten law superior to
all traditions. The tone of her salon was in the main
dilettante, as is apt to be the case with any circle that plumes
itself most upon something quite apart from intellectual
distinction. It reflected the spirit of an old aristocracy, with
its pride, its exclusiveness, its worship of forms, but faintly
tinged with the new thought that was rapidly but unconsciously
encroaching upon time-honored institutions. Beyond the clever
pastimes of a brilliant coterie, it had no marked literary
influence. This ferment of intellectual life was one of the
signs of the times, but it led to no more definite and tangible
results than the turning of a madrigal or the sparkle of an

An Intriguing Chanoinesse--Her Singular Fascination--Her Salon
--Its Philosophical Character--Mlle. Aisse--Romances of Mme. de
Tencin--D'Alembert--La Belle Emilie--Voltaire--The Two Women

It was not in the restless searchings of an old society for new
sensations, new diversions, nor in the fleeting expressions of
individual taste or caprice, which were often little more than
the play of small vanities, that the most potent forces in the
political as well as in the intellectual life of France were
found. It was in the coteries which attracted the best
representatives of modern thought, men and women who took the
world on a more serious side, and mingled more or less of
earnestness even in their amusements. While the Duchesse du
Maine was playing her little comedy, which began and ended in
herself, another woman, of far different type, and without rank
or riches , was scheming for her friends, and nursing the germs
of the philosophic party in one of the most notable salons of the
first half of the century. Mme. de Tencin is not an interesting
figure to contemplate from a moral standpoint. "She was born
with the most fascinating qualities and the most abominable
defects that God ever gave to one of his creatures," said Mme. du
Deffand, who was far from being able to pose, herself, as a model
of virtue or decorum. But sin has its degrees, and the woman who
errs within the limits of conventionality considers herself
entitled to sit in judgment upon her sister who wanders outside
of the fold. Measured even by the complaisant standards of her
own time, there can be but one verdict upon the character of Mme.
de Tencin, though it is to be hoped that the scandal-loving
chroniclers have painted her more darkly than she deserved. But
whatever her faults may have been, her talent and her influence
were unquestioned. She posed in turn as a saint, an intrigante,
and a femme d'esprit, with marked success in every one of these
roles. But it was not a comedy she was playing for the amusement
of the hour. Beneath the velvet softness of her manner there was
a definite aim, an inflexible purpose. With the tact and
facility of a Frenchwoman, she had a strong, active intellect,
boundless ambition, indomitable energy, and the subtlety of an

An incident of her early life, related by Mme. du Deffand,
furnishes a key to her complex character, and reveals one secret
of her influence. Born of a poor and proud family in Grenoble,
in 1681, Claudine Alexandrine Guerin de Tencin was destined from
childhood for the cloister. Her strong aversion to the life of a
nun was unavailing, and she was sent to a convent at Montfleury.
This prison does not seem to have been a very austere one, and
the discipline was far from rigid. The young novice was so
devout that the archbishop prophesied a new light for the church,
and she easily persuaded him of the necessity of occupying the
minds of the religieuses by suitable diversions. Though not yet
sixteen, this pretty, attractive, vivacious girl was fertile in
resources, and won her way so far into the good graces of her
superiors as to be permitted to organize reunions, and to have
little comedies played which called together the provincial
society. She transformed the convent, but her secret
disaffection was unchanged. She took the final vows under the
compulsion of her inflexible father, then continued her role of
devote to admirable purpose. By the zeal of her piety, the
severity of her penance, and the ardor of her prayers, she gained
the full sympathy of her ascetic young confessor, to whom she
confided her feeling of unfitness for a religious life, and her
earnest desire to be freed from the vows which sat so uneasily
upon her sensitive conscience. He exhorted her to steadfastness,
but finally she wrote him a letter in which she confessed her
hopeless struggle against a consuming passion, and urged the
necessity of immediate release. The conclusion was obvious. The
Abbe Fleuret was horrified by the conviction that this pretty
young nun was in love with himself, and used his influence to
secure her transference to a secular order at Neuville, where as
chanoinesse, she had many privileges and few restrictions. Here
she became at once a favorite, as before, charming by her modest
devotion, and amusing by her brilliant wit. Artfully, and by
degrees, she convinced those in authority of the need of a
representative in Paris. This office she was chosen to fill.
Playing her pious part to the last, protesting with tears her
pain at leaving a life she loved, and her unfitness for so great
an honor she set out upon her easy mission. There are many tales
of a scandalous life behind all this sanctity and humility, but
her new position gave her consideration, influence, and a good
revenue. "Young, beautiful, clever, with an adorable talent,"
this "nun unhooded" fascinated the regent, and was his favorite
for a few days. But her ambition got the better of her prudence.
She ventured upon political ground, and he saw her no more. With
his minister, the infamous Dubois, she was more successful, and
he served her purpose admirably well. Through her notorious
relations with him she enriched her brother and secured him a
cardinal's hat. The intrigues of this unscrupulous trio form an
important episode in the history of the period. When Dubois
died, within a few months of the regent, she wept, as she said,
"that fools might believe she regretted him."

Her clear, incisive intellect and conversational charm would have
assured the success of any woman at a time when these things
counted for so much. "At thirty-six," wrote Mme. du Deffand,
"she was beautiful and fresh as a woman of twenty; her eyes
sparkled, her lips had a smile at the same time sweet and
perfidious; she wished to be good, and gave herself great trouble
to seem so, without succeeding." Indolent and languid with
flashes of witty vivacity, insinuating and facile, unconscious of
herself, interested in everyone with whom she talked, she
combined the tact, the finesse, the subtle penetration of a woman
with the grasp, the comprehensiveness, and the knowledge of
political machinery which are traditionally accorded to a man.
"If she wanted to poison you, she would use the mildest poison,"
said the Abbe Trublet.

"I cannot express the illusion which her air of nonchalance and
easy grace left with me," says Marmontel. "Mme. de Tencin, the
woman in the kingdom who moved the most political springs, both
in the city and at court, was for me only an indolente. Ah, what
finesse, what suppleness, what activity were concealed beneath
this naive air, this appearance of calm and leisure!" But he
confesses that she aided him greatly with her counsel, and that
he owed to her much of his knowledge of the world.

"Unhappy those who depend upon the pen," she said to him;
"nothing is more chimerical. The man who makes shoes is sure of
his wages; the man who makes a book or a tragedy is never sure of
anything." She advises him to make friends of women rather than
of men. "By means of women, one attains all that one wishes from
men, of whom some are too pleasure-loving, others too much
preoccupied with their personal interests not to neglect yours;
whereas women think of you, if only from idleness. Speak this
evening to one of them of some affair that concerns you; tomorrow
at her wheel, at her tapestry, you will find her dreaming of it,
and searching in her head for some means of serving you."

Prominent among her friends were Bolingbroke and Fontenelle. "It
is not a heart which you have there," she said to the latter,
laying her hand on the spot usually occupied by that organ, "but
a second brain." She had enlisted what stood in the place of it,
however, and he interested himself so far as to procure her final
release from her vows, through Benedict XIV, who, as Cardinal
Lambertini, had frequented her salon, and who sent her his
portrait as a souvenir, after his election to the papacy.

Through her intimacy with the Duc de Richelieu, Mme. de Tencin
made herself felt even in the secret councils of Louis XV. Her
practical mind comprehended more clearly than many of the
statesmen the forces at work and the weakness that coped with
them. "Unless God visibly interferes," she said, "it is
physically impossible that the state should not fall in pieces."
It was her influence that inspired Mme. de Chateauroux with the
idea of sending her royal lover to revive the spirits of the army
in Flanders. "It is not, between ourselves, that he is in a
state to command a company of grenadiers," she wrote to her
brother, "but his presence will avail much. The troops will do
their duty better, and the generals will not dare to fail them so
openly . . . A king, whatever he may be, is for the soldiers and
people what the ark of the covenant was for the Hebrews; his
presence alone promises success."

Her devotion to her friends was the single redeeming trait in her
character, and she hesitated at nothing to advance the interests
of her brother, over whose house she gracefully presided. But
she failed in her ultimate ambition to elevate him to the
ministry, and her intrigues were so much feared that Cardinal
Fleury sent her away from Paris for a short time. Her
disappointments, which it is not the purpose to trace here, left
her one of the disaffected party, and on her return her drawing
room became a rallying point for the radical thinkers of France.

Such was the woman who courted, flattered, petted, and patronized
the literary and scientific men of Paris, called them her
menagerie, put them into a sort of uniform, gave them two suppers
a week, and sent them two ells of velvet for small clothes at New
Year's. Of her salon, Marmontel gives us an interesting glimpse.
He had been invited to read one of his tragedies, and it was his
first introduction.

"I saw assembled there Montesquieu, Fontenelle, Mairan, Marivaux,
the young Helvetius, Astruc, and others, all men of science or
letters, and, in the midst of them, a woman of brilliant
intellect and profound judgment, who, with her kind and simple
exterior, had rather the appearance of the housekeeper than the
mistress. This was Mme. de Tencin. . . . I soon perceived that
the guests came there prepared to play their parts, and that
their wish to shine did not leave the conversation always free to
follow its easy and natural course. Every one tried to seize
quickly and on the wing the moment to bring in his word, his
story, his anecdote, his maxim, or to add his dash of light and
sparkling wit; and, in order to do this opportunely, it was often
rather far-fetched. In Marivaux, the impatience to display his
finesse and sagacity was quite apparent. Montesquieu, with more
calmness, waited for the ball to come to him, but he waited.
Mairan watched his opportunity. Astruc did not deign to wait.
Fontenelle alone let it come to him without seeking it, and he
used so discreetly the attention given him, that his witty
sayings and his clever stories never occupied more than a moment.
Alert and reserved, Helvetius listened and gathered material for
the future."

Mme. de Tencin loved literature and philosophy for their own
sake, and received men of letters at their intrinsic value. She
encouraged, too, the freedom of thought and expression at that
time so rare and so dangerous. It was her influence that gave
its first impulse to the success of Montesquieu's esprit DES
LOIS, of which she personally bought and distributed many copies.
If she talked well, she knew also how to listen, to attract by
her sympathy, to aid by her generosity, to inspire by her
intelligence, to charm by her versatility.

Another figure flits in and out of this salon, whose fine
qualities of soul shine so brightly in this morally stifling
atmosphere that one forgets her errors in a mastering impulse of
love and pity. There is no more pathetic history in this arid
and heartless age than that of Mlle. Aisse, the beautiful
Circassian, with the lustrous, dark, Oriental eyes," who was
brought from Constantinople in infancy by the French envoy, and
left as a precious heritage to Mme. de Ferriol, the intriguing
sister of Mme. de Tencin, and her worthy counterpart, if not in
talent, in the faults that darkened their common womanhood. This
delicate young girl, surrounded by worldly and profligate
friends, and drawn in spite of herself into the errors of her
time, redeemed her character by her romantic heroism, her
unselfish devotion, and her final revolt against what seemed to
be an inexorable fate. The struggle between her self-forgetful
love for the knightly Chevalier d'Aydie and her sensitive
conscience, her refusal to cloud his future by a portionless
marriage, and her firmness in severing an unholy tie, knowing
that the sacrifice would cost her life, as it did, form an
episode as rare as it is tragical. But her exquisite
personality, her rich gifts of mind and soul, her fine
intelligence, her passionate love, almost consecrated by her
pious but fatal renunciation, call up one of the loveliest
visions of the century--a vision that lingers in the memory like
a medieval poem.

Mme. de Tencin amused her later years b writing sentimental
tales, which were found among her papers after her death. These
were classed with the romances of Mme. de La Fayette. Speaking
of the latter, La Harpe said, "Only one other woman succeeded, a
century later, in painting with equal power the struggles of love
and virtue." It is one of the curious inconsistencies of her
character, that her creations contained an element which her life
seems wholly to have lacked. Behind all her faults of conduct
there was clearly an ideal of purity and goodness. Her stories
are marked by a vividness and an ardor of passion rarely found in
the insipid and colorless romances of the preceding age. Her
pictures of love and intrigue and crime are touched with the
religious enthusiasm of the cloister, the poetry of devotion, the
heroism of self-sacrifice. Perhaps the dark and mysterious facts
of her own history shaped themselves in her imagination. Did the
tragedy of La Fresnaye, the despairing lover who blew out his
brains at her feet, leaving the shadow of a crime hanging over
her, with haunting memories of the Bastille, recall the innocence
of her own early convent days? Did she remember some long-buried
love, and the child left to perish upon the steps of St. Jean le
Rond, but grown up to be her secret pride in the person of the
great mathematician and philosopher d'Alembert? What was the
subtle link between this worldly woman and the eternal passion,
the tender self-sacrifice of Adelaide, the loyal heroine who
breathes out her solitary and devoted soul on the ashes of La
Trappe, unknown to her faithful and monastic lover, until the
last sigh? The fate of Adelaide has become a legend. It has
furnished a theme for the poet and the artist, an inspiration for
the divine strains of Beethoven, another leaf in the annals of
pure and heroic love. But the woman who conceived it toyed with
the human heart as with a beautiful flower, to be tossed aside
when its first fragrance was gone. She apparently knew neither
the virtue, nor the honor, nor the purity, nor the truth of which
she had so exquisite a perception in the realm of the
imagination. Or were some of the episodes which darken the story
of her life simply the myths of a gossiping age, born of the
incidents of an idle tale, to live forever on the pages of

But it was not as a literary woman that Mme. de Tencin held her
position and won her fame. Her gifts were eminently those of her
age and race, and it may be of interest to compare her with a
woman of larger talent of a purely intellectual order, who
belonged more or less to the world of the salons, without
aspiring to leadership, and who, though much younger, died in the
same year. Mme. du Chatelet was essentially a woman of letters.
She loved the exact sciences, expounded Leibnitz, translated
Newton, gave valuable aid to Voltaire in introducing English
thought into France, and was one of the first women among the
nobility to accept the principles of philosophic deism. "I
confess that she is tyrannical," said Voltaire; "one must talk
about metaphysics, when the temptation is to talk of love. Ovid was
formerly my master; it is now the turn of Locke." She
has been clearly but by no means pleasantly painted for us in the
familiar letters of Mme. de Graffigny, in the rather malicious
sketches of the Marquise de Crequi, and in the still more
strongly outlined portrait or Mme. du Deffand, as a veritable bas
bleu, learned, pedantic, eccentric, and without grace or beauty.
"Imagine a woman tall and hard, with florid complexion, face
sharp, nose pointed--VOILA LA BELLE EMILIE," writes the latter;
"a face with which she was so contented that she spared nothing
to set it off; curls, topknots, precious stones, all are in
profusion . . . She was born with much esprit; the desire of
appearing to have more made her prefer the study of the abstract
sciences to agreeable branches of knowledge; she thought by this
singularity to attain a greater reputation and a decided
superiority over all other women. Madame worked with so much
care to seem what she was not, that no one knew exactly what she
was; even her defects were not natural." "She talks like an
angel"--"she sings divinely"--"our sex ought to erect altars
to her," wrote Mme. de Graffigny during a visit at her chateau.
A few weeks later her tone changed. They had quarreled. Of such
stuff is history made. But she had already given a charming
picture of the life at Cirey.

Mme. du Chatelet plunged into abstractions during the day. In
the evening she was no more the savante, but gave herself up to
the pleasures of society with the ardor of a nature that was
extreme in everything. Voltaire read his poetry and his dramas,
told stories that made them weep and then laugh at their tears,
improvised verses, and amused them with marionettes, or the magic
lantern. La belle Emilie criticized the poems, sang, and played
prominent parts in the comedies and tragedies of the philosopher
poet, which were first given in her little private theater.
Among the guests were the eminent scientist, Maupertuis, her
life-long friend and teacher; the Italian savant, Algarotti,
President Henault, Helvetius, the poet, Saint-Lambert, and many
others of equal distinction. "Of what do we not talk!" writes
Mme. de Graffigny. "Poetry, science, art, everything, in a tone
of graceful badinage. I should like to be able to send you these
charming conversations, these enchanting conversations, but it is
not in me."

Mme. du Chatelet owned for several years the celebrated Hotel
Lambert, and a choice company of savants assembled there as in
the days when Mme. de Lambert presided in those stately
apartments. But this learned salon had only a limited vogue.
The thinking was high, but the dinners were too plain. The real
life of Mme. du Chatelet was an intimate one. "I confess that in
love and friendship lies all my happiness," said this astronomer,
metaphysician, and mathematician, who wrote against revelation
and went to mass with her free-thinking lover. Her learning and
eccentricities made her the target for many shafts of ridicule,
but she counted for much with Voltaire, and her chief title to
fame lies in his long and devoted friendship. He found the
"sublime and respectable Emilie" the incarnation of all the
virtues, though a trifle ill-tempered. The contrast between his
kindly portrait and those of her feminine friends is striking and
rather suggestive.

"She joined to the taste for glory a simplicity which does not
always accompany it, but which is often the fruit of serious
studies. No woman was ever so learned, and no one deserves less
to be called a femme savante. Born with a singular eloquence,
this eloquence manifested itself only when she found subjects
worthy of it . . . The fitting word, precision, justness, and
force were the characteristics of her style. She would rather
write like Pascal and Nicole than like Mme. de Sevigne; but this
severe strength and this vigorous temper of her mind did not
render her inaccessible to the beauties of sentiment. The charms
of poetry and eloquence penetrated her, and no one was ever more
sensitive to harmony . . . She gave herself to the great world
as to study. Everything that occupies society was in her
province except scandal. She was never known to repeat an idle
story. She had neither time nor disposition to give attention to
such things, and when told that some one had done her an
injustice, she replied that she did not wish to hear about it."

"She led him a life a little hard," said Mme. de Graffigny, after
her quarrel; but he seems to have found it agreeable, and broke
his heart--for a short time--when she died. "I have lost half
of my being," he wrote--"a soul for which mine was made." To
Marmontel he says: "Come and share my sorrow. I have lost my
illustrious friend. I am in despair. I am inconsolable." One
cannot believe that so clear-sighted a man, even though a poet,
could live for twenty years under the spell of a pure illusion.
What heart revelations, what pictures of contemporary life, were
lost in the eight large volumes of his letters which were
destroyed at her death!

While Mme. de Tencin studied men and affairs, Mme. du Chatelet
studied books. One was mistress of the arts of diplomacy, gentle
but intriguing, ambitious, always courting society and shunning
solitude. The other was violent and imperious, hated finesse,
and preferred burying herself among the rare treasures of her
library at Cirey.

The influence of Mme. de Tencin was felt, not only in the social
and intellectual, but in the political life of the century. The
traditions of her salon lingered in those which followed,
modified by the changes that time and personal taste always
bring. Mme. du Chatelet was more learned, but she lacked the
tact and charm which give wide personal ascendancy. Her
influence was largely individual, and her books have been mostly
forgotten. These women were alike defiant of morality, but taken
all in all, the character of Mme. Chatelet has more redeeming
points, though little respect can be accorded to either. With
the wily intellect of a Talleyrand, Mme. de Tencin represents the
social genius, the intelligence, the esprit, and the worst vices
of the century on which she has left such conspicuous traces.

"She knew my tastes and always offered me those dishes I
preferred," said Fontenelle when she died in 1740. "It is an
irreparable loss." Perhaps his hundred years should excuse his
not going to her funeral for fear of catching cold.

Cradles of the New Philosophy--Noted Salons of this Period--
Character of Mme. Geoffrin--Her Practical Education--Anecdotes
of her Husband--Composition of her Salon--Its Insidious
Influence--Her Journey to Warsaw--Her Death

During the latter half of the eighteenth century the center of
social life was no longer the court, but the salons. They had
multiplied indefinitely, and, representing every shade of taste
and thought, had reached the climax of their power as schools of
public opinion, as well as their highest perfection in the arts
and amenities of a brilliant and complex society. There was a
slight reaction from the reckless vices and follies of the
regency. If morals were not much better, manners were a trifle
more decorous. Though the great world did not take the tone of
stately elegance and rigid propriety which it had assumed under
the rule of Mme. de Maintenon, it was superficially polished, and
a note of thoughtfulness was added. Affairs in France had taken
too serious an aspect to be ignored, and the theories of the
philosophers were among the staple topics of conversation;
indeed, it was the great vogue of the philosophers that gave many
of the most noted social centers their prestige and their fame.
It is not the salons of the high nobility that suggest themselves
as the typical ones of this age. It is those which were animated
by the habitual presence of the radical leaders of French
thought. Economic questions and the rights of man were discussed
as earnestly in these brilliant coteries as matters of faith and
sentiment, of etiquette and morals, had been a hundred years
before. Such subjects were forced upon them by the inexorable
logic of events; and fashion, which must needs adapt itself in
some measure to the world over which it rules, took them up. If
the drawing rooms of the seventeenth century were the cradles of
refined manners and a new literature, those of the eighteenth
were literally the cradles of a new philosophy.

The practical growth and spread of French philosophy was too
closely interwoven with the history of the salons not to call for
a word here. Its innovations were faintly prefigured in the
coterie of Mme. de Lambert, where it colored almost imperceptibly
the literary and critical discussions. But its foundations were
more firmly laid in the drawing room of Mme. de Tencin, where the
brilliant wit and radical theories of Montesquieu, as well as the
pronounced materialism of Helvetius, found a congenial
atmosphere. Though the mingled romance and satire of the "Persian
Letters," with their covert attack upon the state and society,
raised a storm of antagonism, they called out a burst of
admiration as well. The original and aggressive thought of men
like Voltaire, Rousseau, d'Alembert, and Diderot, with its
diversity of shading, but with the cardinal doctrine of freedom
and equality pervading it all, had found a rapidly growing
audience. It no longer needed careful nursing, in the second
half of the century. It had invaded the salons of the haute
noblesse, and was discussed even in the anterooms of the court.
Mme. de Pompadour herself stole away from her tiresome lover-king
to the freethinking coterie that met in her physician's
apartments in the Entresol at Versailles, and included the
greatest iconoclasts of the age. If she had any misgivings as to
the outcome of these discussions, they were fearlessly cast aside
with "Apres Nous le Deluge." "In the depth of her heart she was
with us," said Voltaire when she died.

There were clairvoyant spirits who traced the new theories to
their logical results. Mme. du Deffand speaks with prophetic
vision of the reasoners and beaux esprits "who direct the age and
lead it to its ruin." There were conservative women, too, who
used their powerful influence against them. It was in the salon
of the delicate but ardent young Princesse de Robecq that
Palissot was inspired to write the satirical comedy of "The
Philosophers," in which Rousseau was represented as entering on
all fours, browsing a lettuce, and the Encyclopedists were so
mercilessly ridiculed. This spirited and heroic daughter-in-law
of the Duchesse de Luxembourg, the powerful patroness of
Rousseau, was hopelessly ill at the time, and, in a caustic reply
to the clever satire, the abbe Morellet did not spare the
beautiful invalid who desired for her final consolation only to
see its first performance and be able to say, "Now, Lord, thou
lettest thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen
vengeance." The cruel attack was thought to have hastened her
death, and the witty abbe was sent to the Bastille; but he came
out in two months, went away for a time, and returned a greater
hero than ever. There is a picture, full of pathetic
significance, which represents the dying princess on her pillow,
crowned with a halo of sanctity, as she devotes her last hours to
the defense of the faith she loves. One is reminded of the sweet
and earnest souls of Port Royal; but her vigorous protest, which
furnished only a momentary target for the wit of the
philosophers, was lost in the oncoming wave of skepticism.

The vogue of these men received its final stamp in the admiring
patronage of the greatest sovereigns in Europe. Voltaire had his
well-known day of power at the court of Frederick the Great.
Grimm and Diderot, too, were honored guests of that most liberal
of despots, and discussed their novel theories in familiar
fashion with Catherine II, at St. Petersburg. The reply of this
astute and clear-sighted empress to the eloquent plea of Diderot
may be commended for its wisdom to the dreamers and theorists of

"I have heard, with the greatest pleasure, all that your
brilliant intellect has inspired you to say; but with all your
grand principles, which I comprehend very well, one makes fine
books and bad business. You forget in all your plans of reform
the difference of our two positions. You work only on paper,
which permits everything; it is quite smooth and pliant, and
opposes no obstacles to your imagination nor to your pen; while
I, poor empress, I work upon the human cuticle, which is quite
sensitive and irritable."

It is needless to say that the men so honored by sovereigns were
petted in the salons, in spite of their disfavor with the
Government. They dined, talked, posed as lions or as martyrs,
and calmly bided their time. The persecution of the
Encyclopedists availed little more than satire had done, in
stemming the slowly rising tide of public opinion. Utopian
theories took form in the ultra circles, were insidiously
disseminated in the moderate ones, and were lightly discussed in
the fashionable ones. Men who talked, and women who added
enthusiasm, were alike unconscious of the dynamic force of the
material with which they were playing.

Of the salons which at this period had a European reputation, the
most noted were those of Mme. du Deffand, Mlle. de Lespinasse,
and Mme. Geoffrin. The first was the resort of the more
intellectual of the noblesse, as well as the more famous of the
men of letters. The two worlds mingled here; the tone was spiced
with wit and animated with thought, but it was essentially
aristocratic. The second was the rallying point of the
Encyclopedists and much frequented by political reformers, but
the rare gifts of its hostess attracted many from the great
world. The last was moderate in tone, though philosophical and
thoroughly cosmopolitan. Sainte-Beuve pronounced it "the most
complete, the best organized, and best conducted of its time; the
best established since the foundation of the salons; that is,
since the Hotel de Rambouillet."

"Do you know why La Geoffrin comes here? It is to see what she
can gather from my inventory," remarked Mme. de Tencin on her
death bed. She understood thoroughly her world, and knew that
her friend wished to capture the celebrities who were in the
habit of meeting in her salon. But she does not seem to have
borne her any ill will for her rather premature schemes, as she
gave her a characteristic piece of advice: "Never refuse any
advance of friendship," she said; "for, if nine out of ten bring
you nothing, one alone may repay you. Everything is of service
in a menage if one knows how to use his tools." Mme. Geoffrin
was an apt pupil in the arts of diplomacy, and the key to her
remarkable social success may be found in her ready assimilation
of the worldly wisdom of her sage counselor. But to this she
added a far kinder heart and a more estimable character.

Of all the women who presided over famous salons, Mme. Geoffrin
had perhaps the least claim to intellectual preeminence. The
secret of her power must have lain in some intangible quality
that has failed to be perpetuated in any of her sayings or
doings. A few commonplace and ill-spelled letters, a few wise or
witty words, are all the direct record she has left of herself.
Without rank, beauty, youth, education, or remarkable mental
gifts of a sort that leave permanent traces, she was the best
representative of the women of her time who held their place in
the world solely through their skill in organizing and conducting
a salon. She was in no sense a luminary; and conscious that she
could not shine by her own light, she was bent upon shining by
that of others. But, in a social era so brilliant, even this
implied talent of a high order. A letter to the Empress of
Russia, in reply to a question concerning her early education,
throws a ray of light upon her youth and her peculiar training.

"I lost my father and mother," she writes, "in the cradle. I was
brought up by an aged grandmother, who had much intelligence and
a well-balanced head. She had very little education; but her
mind was so clear, so ready, so active, that it never failed her;
it served always in the place of knowledge. She spoke so
agreeably of the things she did not know that no one wished her
to understand them better; and when her ignorance was too
visible, she got out of it by pleasantries which baffled the
pedants who tried to humiliate her. She was so contented with
her lot that she looked upon knowledge as a very useless thing
for a woman. She said: 'I have done without it so well that I
have never felt the need of it. If my granddaughter is stupid,
learning will make her conceited and insupportable; if she has
talent and sensibility, she will do as I have done--supply by
address and with sentiment what she does not know; when she
becomes more reasonable, she will learn that for which she has
the most aptitude, and she will learn it very quickly.' She
taught me in my childhood simply to read, but she made me read
much; she taught me to think by making me reason; she taught me
to know men by making me say what I thought of them, and telling
me also the opinion she had formed. She required me to render
her an account of all my movements and all my feelings,
correcting them with so much sweetness and grace that I never
concealed from her anything that I thought or felt; my internal
life was as visible as my external. My education was continual."

The daughter of a valet de chambre of the Duchess of Burgundy,
who gave her a handsome dowry, Marie Therese Rodet became, at
fourteen, the wife of a lieutenant-colonel of the National Guard
and a rich manufacturer of glass. Her husband did not count for
much among the distinguished guests who in later years frequented
her salon, and his part in her life seems to have consisted
mainly in furnishing the money so essential to her success, and
in looking carefully after the interests of the menage. It is
related that some one gave him a history to read, and when he
called for the successive volumes the same one was always
returned to him. Not observing this, he found the work
interesting, but "thought the author repeated a little." He read
across the page a book printed in two columns, remarking that "it
seemed to be very good, but a trifle abstract." One day a
visitor inquired for the white-haired old gentleman who was in
the habit of sitting at the head of the table. "That was my
husband," replied Mme. Geoffrin; "he is dead."

But if her marriage was not an ideal one, it does not appear that
it was unhappy. Perhaps her bourgeois birth and associations
saved her youth from the domestic complications which were so far
the rule in the great world as to have, in a measure, its
sanction. At all events her life was apparently free from the
shadows that rested upon many of her contemporaries.

"Her character was a singular one," writes Marmontel, who lived
for ten years in her house, "and difficult to understand or
paint, because it was all in half-tints and shades; very decided
nevertheless, but without the striking traits by which one's
nature distinguishes and defines itself. She was kind, but had
little sensibility; charitable, without any of the charms of
benevolence; eager to aid the unhappy, but without seeing them,
for fear of being moved; a sure, faithful, even officious friend,
but timid and anxious in serving others, lest she should
compromise her credit or her repose. She was simple in her
taste, her dress, and her furniture, but choice in her
simplicity, having the refinements and delicacies of luxury, but
nothing of its ostentation nor its vanity; modest in her air,
carriage, and manners, but with a touch of pride, and even a
little vainglory. Nothing flattered her more than her
intercourse with the great. At their houses she rarely saw them,
--indeed she was not at her ease there,--but she knew how to
attract them to her own by a coquetry subtly flattering; and in
the easy, natural, half-respectful and half-familiar air with
which she received them, I thought I saw remarkable address."

In a woman of less tact and penetration, this curious vein of
hidden vanity would have led to pretension. But Mme. Geoffrin
was preeminently gifted with that fine social sense which is apt
to be only the fruit of generations of culture. With her it was
innate genius. She was mistress of the amiable art of
suppressing herself, and her vanity assumed the form of a
gracious modesty. "I remain humble, but with dignity," she
writes to a friend; "that is, in depreciating myself I do not
suffer others to depreciate me." She had the instinct of the
artist who knows how to offset the lack of brilliant gifts by the
perfection of details, the modesty that disarms criticism, and a
rare facility in the art of pleasing.

There was an air of refinement and simple elegance in her
personality that commanded respect. Tall and dignified, with her
silvery hair concealed by her coif, she combined a noble presence
with great kindliness of manner. She usually wore somber colors
and fine laces, for which she had great fondness. Her youth was
long past when she came before the world, and that sense of
fitness which always distinguished her led her to accept her age
seriously and to put on its hues. The "dead-leaf mantle" of Mme.
de Maintenon was worn less severely perhaps, but it was worn
without affectation. Diderot gives us a pleasant glimpse of her
at Grandval, where they were dining with Baron d'Holbach. "Mme.
Geoffrin was admirable," he wrote to Mlle. Volland. "I remark
always the noble and quiet taste with which this woman dresses.
She wore today a simple stuff of austere color, with large
sleeves, the smoothest and finest linen, and the most elegant
simplicity throughout."

In her equanimity and her love of repose she was a worthy
disciple of Fontenelle. She carefully avoided all violent
passions and all controversies. To her lawyer, who was
conducting a suit that worried her, she said, "Wind up my case.
Do they want my money? I have some, and what can I do with money
better than to buy tranquillity with it?" This aversion to
annoyance often reached the proportions of a very amiable
selfishness. "She has the habit of detesting those who are
unhappy," said the witty Abbe Galiani, "for she does not wish to
be so, even by the sight of the unhappiness of others. She has
an impressionable heart; she is old; she is well; she wishes to
preserve her health and her tranquillity. As soon as she learns
that I am happy she will love me to folly."

But her generosity was exceptional. "Donner et pardonner" was
her device. Many anecdotes are related of her charitable temper.
She had ordered two marble vases of Bouchardon. One was broken
before reaching her. Learning that the man who broke it would
lose his place if it were known, and that he had a family of four
children, she immediately sent word to the atelier that the
sculptor was not to be told of the loss, adding a gift of twelve
francs to console the culprit for his fright. She often
surprised her impecunious friends with the present of some bit of
furniture she thought they needed, or an annuity delicately
bestowed. "I have assigned to you fifteen thousand francs," she
said one day to the Abbe Morellet; "do not speak of it and do not
thank me." "Economy is the source of independence and liberty"
was one of her mottoes, and she denied herself the luxuries of
life that she might have more to spend in charities. But she
never permitted any one to compromise her, and often withheld her
approbation where she was free with her purse. To do all the
good possible and to respect all the convenances were her
cardinal principles. Marmontel was sent to the Bastille under
circumstances that were rather creditable than otherwise; but it
was a false note, and she was never quite the same to him
afterwards. She wept at her own injustice, schemed for his
election to the Academy, and scolded him for his lack of
diplomacy; but the little cloud was there. When the Sorbonne
censured his Belisarius her friendship could no longer bear the
strain, and, though still received at her dinners, he ceased to
live in her house.

Her dominant passion seems to have been love of consideration, if
a calm and serene, but steadily persistent, purpose can be called
a passion. No trained diplomatist ever understood better the
world with which he had to deal, or managed more adroitly to
avoid small antagonisms. It was her maxim not to create jealousy
by praising people, nor irritation by defending them. If she
wished to say a kind word, she dwelt upon good qualities that
were not contested. She prided herself upon ruling her life by
reason. Sainte-Beuve calls her the Fontenelle of women, but it
was Fontenelle tempered with a heart.

This "foster-mother of philosophers" evidently wished to make
sure of her own safety, however matters might turn out in the
next world. She had a devotional vein, went to mass privately,
had a seat at the Church of the Capucins, and an apartment for
retreat in a convent. During her last illness the Marquise de la
Ferte-Imbault, who did not love her mother's freethinking
friends, excluded them, and sent for a confessor. Mme. Geoffrin
submitted amiably, and said, smiling, "My daughter is like
Godfrey of Bouillon; she wishes to defend my tomb against the

Into the composition of her salon she brought the talent of an
artist. We have a glimpse of her in 1748 through a letter from
Montesquieu. She was then about fifty, and had gathered about
her a more or less distinguished company, which was enlarged
after the death of Mme. de Tencin, in the following year. She
gave dinners twice a week--one on Monday for artists, among whom
were Vanloo, Vernet, and Boucher; and one on Wednesday for men of
letters. As she believed that women were apt to distract the
conversation, only one was usually invited to dine with them.
Mlle. de Lespinasse, the intellectual peer and friend of these
men, sat opposite her, and aided in conducting the conversation
into agreeable channels. The talent of Mme. Geoffrin seems to
have consisted in telling a story well, in a profound knowledge
of people, ready tact, and the happy art of putting every one at
ease. She did not like heated discussions nor a too pronounced
expression of opinion. "She was willing that the philosophers
should remodel the world," says one of her critics, "on condition
that the kingdom of Diderot should come without disorder or
confusion." But though she liked and admired this very free and
eloquent Diderot, he was too bold and outspoken to have a place
at her table. Helvetius, too, fell into disfavor after the
censure which his atheistic DE L'esprit brought upon him; and
Baron d'Holbach was too apt to overstep the limits at which the
hostess interfered with her inevitable "Voila qui est bien."
Indeed, she assumed the privilege of her years to scold her
guests if they interfered with the general harmony or forgot any
of the amenities. But her scoldings were very graciously
received as a slight penalty for her favor, and more or less a
measure of her friendship. She graded her courtesies with fine
discrimination, and her friends found the reflection of their
success or failure in her manner of receiving them. Her keen,
practical mind pierced every illusion with merciless precision.
She defined a popular abbe who posed for a bel esprit, as a "fool
rubbed all over with wit." Rulhiere had read in her salon a work
on Russia, which she feared might compromise him, and she offered
him a large sum of money to throw it into the fire. The author
was indignant at such a reflection upon his courage and honor,
and grew warmly eloquent upon the subject. She listened until he
had finished, then said quietly, "How much more do you want, M.

The serene poise of a character without enthusiasms and without
illusions is very well illustrated by a letter to Mme. Necker.
After playfully charging her with being always infatuated, never
cool and reserved, she continues:

"Do you know, my pretty one, that your exaggerated praises
confound me, instead of pleasing and flattering me? I am always
afraid that your giddiness will evaporate. You will then judge
me to be so different from your preconceived opinion that you
will punish me for your own mistake, and allow me no merit at
all. I have my virtues and my good qualities, but I have also
many faults. Of these I am perfectly well aware, and every day I
try to correct them.

"My dear friend, I beg of you to lessen your excessive
admiration. I assure you that you humiliate me; and that is
certainly not your intention. The angels think very little about
me, and I do not trouble myself about them. Their praise or
their blame is indifferent to me, for I shall not come in their
way; but what I do desire is that you should love me, and that
you should take me as you find me."

Again she assumes her position of mentor and writes: "How is it
possible not to answer the kind and charming letter I have
received from you? But still I reply only to tell you that it
made me a little angry. I see that it is impossible to change
anything in your uneasy, restless, and at the same time weak

Horace Walpole, who met her during his first visit to Paris, and
before his intimacy with Mme. du Deffand had colored his
opinions, has left a valuable pen-portrait of Mme. Geoffrin. In
a letter to Gray, in 1766, he writes:

"Mme. Geoffrin, of whom you have heard much, is an extraordinary
woman, with more common sense than I almost ever met with, great
quickness in discovering characters, penetrating and going to the
bottom of them, and a pencil that never fails in a likeness,
seldom a favorable one. She exacts and preserves, spite of her
birth and their nonsensical prejudices about nobility, great
court and attention. This she acquires by a thousand little arts

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