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Five-hundred years ago, Paris was the intellectual capital of the world. Literary, political and philosophical groups called Salons spanned the city limits. Women were the hostesses of these highly sought-after, cerebral get-togethers. These women were les Grandes Dames des Salons Parisiens, the Great Ladies of the Parisian Salons. The guest lists of these meetings were as infamous as they were celebrated including some of the greatest minds and personalities of the Enlightenment – Volatire, Molière, Madame de Sévigné, David Hume, Horace Walpole, Benjamin Franklin – as well as the enlightened monarchs of Europe such as Frederick of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia and Gustav III of Sweden.

As the centuries progressed so too did the structure and attendance of these Salons. By the late 19th and early 20th century, the hostesses were almost as famous for their own intellect and writing as the guests they entertained. The women we think of in this category of salonnière are George Sand, Gertrude Stein, Colette and Edith Wharton. The list of their invitees was no less a who’s-who of 19th century greats in music, art, academia, theatre and literature than at the birth of these Salons. Some of the most notable guest included Balzac, Frédéric Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Eugène Delacroix, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.

Some of these hostesses, the Great Ladies, were highly original with extraordinarily intriguing personalities. Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet is one such woman and is often credited with the creation of the French Salon. In the late 1590s, she was brought to Paris from Italy to marry the son of a rich French nobleman. Quickly bored with her life, lacking all connection to love and incensed by the lack of culture and style that surrounded her, she began to accumulate in her presence the very essence of what Paris is now famous for: food, conversation, style and literature.

About a hundred years later, after a string of other salonnières, another undeniably influential member of this particular genre of Grande Dame appeared on the French scene: Madame de Pompadour. Of course, Pompadour was a courtesan, the King’s mistress, and thus enjoyed another stratosphere of luxurious notoriety and popularity. However, her mark on the style and graces of French culture cannot be denied. She surrounded herself with great minds and great talent and as a consequence made both the standard of sophistication and elegance in Europe.  Voltaire, as well as the Sun King, was devoted to her.

Other Grandes Dames salonnières include Madame Geoffrin, Princesse Mathilde, Empress Joséphine, Madame du Deffand, and Germaine de Staël.

Madame de Staël is a fascinating case. Living during the reign of Napoleon in the late 1700s, her father was a rich banker, one of the richest men in France, and she was in her own right one of the women in French post-Revolutionary history with the most political power and influence. The story goes that the evening she met Napoleon at a ball in Paris’ exclusive 7ème arrondissement she was eager to talk to the newly appointed ruler of the land about the progress of the country and how she thought she could aid his cause. She wanted him to acknowledge her, perhaps even to fall under her charms thus extended her special brand of political influence. But he completely ignored her. When she did finally stalk him down, the exchange between the two apparently went so badly that people spoke of it for years to come:

‘General!’ she said. ‘Who most represents your ideal of a wife?’

‘Mine!’ replied Bonaparte.

‘That is simple enough, but what kind of woman would you admire the most?’

‘She who is the best housekeeper,’ he answers.

In a flurry of frustration, Staël continues, ‘Who is the greatest woman alive or dead?’

Bonaparte turned to face her. ‘The one who has made the most children.’

(Holdforth, p 184)

Napoleon was known to fear, or at the very least to be intimidated by, the power French women held over politics and thought in France. His views are only too transparent from his exchange with Madame de Staël, particularly when we remember that she was the most famous female political figure of the time. Her Salon was patroned by Napoleon’s speech writer, his Minister of Foreign Affairs and most of the rich and powerful members of society. Madame de Staël was eventually exiled by the Emperor which only, to my eye, reinforces the truth regarding how much power she wielded in post-Revolutionary France.

Of course today these Salons are no more. Or perhaps they have taken another form nowadays. I’m not quite sure what the cause was of their eventual demise. Perhaps modern society places less importance on such things; or perhaps now that most of us can attain a higher education, these sorts of gatherings are done on a more informal basis in living rooms and coffee shops around the world. Perhaps we thoughtful folk now discuss through blogs and comments or email rather than face-to-face over port and petit fours. Perhaps the formality of the thing is the only part that has disappeared? Or perhaps it’s a consequence of the demise of the leisure class. Or, even still, perhaps today’s leisure class has other less cerebral concerns to discuss during their gatherings. I’ve often thought what a delight it would be to reintroduce the formal custom, to create another generation of literary Salons in Paris.

On verra bien!

For more in-depth reading on this subject, I recommend True Pleasures by the Australian author Lucinda Holdforth, from where I gleaned much of the information found in this post. True Pleasures was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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