She sought to gather all that was most distinguished, whether for wit, beauty, talent, or birth, into an atmosphere of refinement and simple elegance, which should tone down all discordant elements and raise life to the level of a fine art. There was a strongly intellectual flavor in the amusements, as well as in the discussions of this salon, and the place of honor was given to genius, learning, and good manners, rather than to rank.

This is the historical description of Mme. de Rambouillet’s salon, which reached its heights under Richelieu. But the description could just as well belong to a present day salon of your own making–provided that you first learn how the great salons came about (and went away).

The above is of course one of the main values that reading Women of the French Salons has to offer.
Amelia Gere Mason, the book’s author, shows two of the crucial foundations for the salons: how these great women viewed friendship and the value they most respected in the person of another.

The attribute held in the highest regard was of course intelligence–as illustrated by the following quote from Mme. de Stael: “I would not open my window to see the Bay of Naples for the first time, but I would travel five hundred leagues to talk with a clever man whom I have not met.”

The view of friendship most common to these ladies is expressed best by Mme. de Tencin. She advised others to “never refuse any advance of friendship, for, if nine out of ten bring you nothing, one alone may repay you.”

To a large extent, these women were collectors of fine people, in the same way and for the same reasons that people collect fine arts and wines. And, as far as their salons went, they were just as selective.

“The hostess who opened her house for these assemblies selected her guests with discrimination,” Mason writes.

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 personality.

Here, guests would improvise sonnets, praise each other in verse, and either “talk wittily and well” or lead others to do so.

At many of these gatherings [a guest] would be certain to find readings, recitations, comedies, music, games, or some other form of extemporized amusement…
…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 showing the history of these salons–from the thoughts on friendship and the code of conduct to the activities and the people who led them–Mason provides both inspiration and a sort of guidebook to those looking to start a modern day salon.
She also shows some of the reasons for the decline of the salons–in particular and in general. As far as the latter is concerned, Mason points to the decay of aristocratic institutions as but a superficial reason. “…[T]he most formidable enemy of the salon has been the press,” she says. Continuing:
Intelligence has become too universal to be focused in a few drawing rooms. Genius and ambition have found a broader arena. When interest no longer led men to seek the stimulus and approval of a powerful coterie, it ceased to be more than an elegant form of recreation, a theater of small talents, the diversion of an idle hour. When the press assumed the sovereignty, the salon was dethroned.

In an inversion of Hugo’s famous phrase from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mason’s point can be stated that that (the printing press) killed this (the salons we have been talking about).
While I think the most fundamental reason for the end of the salons was philosophical, Mason’s point without a doubt has a lot of truth to it. And those eager for a resurgence of the salons would do well to keep it in mind–for, if the salons did end with the press, in a way they began again with the internet.

Written by Daniel Wahl

Author Daniel Wahl works at The Purposeful Reader