MoboReader > Literature > Women of Modern France

   Chapter 4 No.4

Women of Modern France By Hugo P. Thieme Characters: 57217

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Woman in Society and Literature

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, after the death of Henry IV., there were three classes in France,-the nobility, clergy, and third estate,-each with a distinct field of action: the nobility dominated customs, morality, and the government; the clergy supervised instruction and education; the third estate furnished the funds, that is, its work made possible the operations of the other classes.

At court, various dialects and diverse pronunciations were in use by the representatives of the different provinces; the written language, though understood generally, was not used. Warriors were largely in evidence among the members of the nobility and court; entirely indifferent to decency of expression, purity of morals, and refinement of manners, and even boasting of their scorn of all restrictions, they took their boisterous rudeness into the drawing room where their influence was unlimited. The king, being of the same class, knew no better, or, if he did, had not the moral courage to compel a change; thus, the institution of a reformatory movement fell to the lot of woman.

Then, however, woman was but little better than man; to gain his esteem, she would first have to make radical changes in her own behavior and become self-respecting. The customs of the time placed many disadvantages in the way of her social and moral reform. As a rule, the young girl was confined to a convent until she reached marriageable age; when that came and with it an undesired husband, she was ready for almost any prank that would relieve the monotony of her uncongenial marital relations. The convents themselves were so corrupt or so easily corruptible, that, very frequently, young girls did not leave them with unstained purity. To certain of these institutions, women and men of standing often bought the privilege of access at any time, to drink, dine, sleep, or attend sacred exercises with other persons; thus, libertinage was not uncommon within the walls of those so-called religious establishments.

Mme. de Rambouillet felt most keenly the degradation of woman and resolved to act against it by combating everything that could offend taste or delicacy. As in the beginning of every great age, all things tended to greatness. A period of discipline and co?rdination set in, and elegance, grace, and refinement became the most pronounced characteristics of the time; rough, crude, robust, vigorous, and energetic characteristics, combined with coarseness and brutality, were eliminated during the seventeenth century. The women who caused this general purification of morals and language were given the name of précieuses and the movement that of préciosité.

The extent to which the précieuses went in inventing locutions by which they were to be recognized as elegant, is generally exaggerated; Livet says that out of six hundred women hardly thirty could be accused of such fatuity. The wiser and more conservative women did adopt a large number of expressions which were necessary for refinement of language and these classicisms were exaggerated by some of the provincial classes who received their expressions from books and the theatre; such authors as Corneille, etc., were studied and their poetic licenses introduced into spoken language. These follies, pictured by Molière, naturally afforded much amusement in cultured circles where every event of the day was discussed, from the vital affairs of the government to the ?sthetic interests of art and literature.

The tremendous vogue of the seventeenth century salons or drawing rooms naturally gave a stimulus to literature; but, as they were so numerous and as each one claimed its large coterie of literary men, they proved to be disastrous to some while helpful to others. Two distinct classes of writers arose: the one, serious, elevated, thoughtful, classical, and independent of the salon, is well represented by Molière, Pascal, Boileau; the other, light, affected, gallant, superficial, was composed of the innumerable unimportant writers of the day.

The salon movement must not be confounded with two other social movements or forces-those of court and society; while at the former all was formality, the latter was still gross and brutish. The Marquis de Caze, at a supper seized a leg of mutton and struck his neighbor in the face with it, sprinkling her with gravy, whereupon she laughed heartily; the Count of Brégis, slapped by the lady with whom he was dancing, tore off her headdress before the whole company; Louis XIII., noticing in the crowd admitted to see him dine a lady dressed too décolleté, filled his mouth with wine and squirted the liquid into the bosom of the unfortunate girl; the Prince of Condé, indulging in customary brutishness, ate dung and had the ladies follow his example; these are fair illustrations of social elegances.

As will be seen, nothing of this nature occurred in the salon of Mme. de Rambouillet, whose object was to charm her leisure hours, distract and amuse the husband whom she adored, and be agreeable to her friends. Her amusements were most original-concerts, mythological representations, suppers, fireworks, comedies, readings, always something new, often in the form of a surprise or a joke. Of the latter, the best known is the one played on the Count of Guise whose fondness for mushrooms had become proverbial; on one occasion when he had consumed an immense number of them at table, his valet, who had been bribed, took in all his doublets; on trying to put them on again, he found them too narrow by fully four inches. "What in the world is the matter-am I all swollen-could it be due to having eaten too many mushrooms?" "That is quite possible," said Chaudebonne; "yesterday you ate enough of them to split." All the accomplices joined in ridiculing him, and he began to squirm and show a somewhat livid color. Mass was rung, and he was compelled to attend in his chamber robe. Laughing, he said: "That would be a fine end-to die at the age of twenty-one from having eaten too many mushrooms." In the meantime, Chaudebonne advised the use of an antidote which he wrote and handed to the count, who read: "Take a good pair of scissors and cut your doublet." Only then did the victim comprehend the joke.

One day, Voiture, having met a bear trainer, took him with his animals to the room of the Marquise de Rambouillet; she, turning at the noise, saw four large paws resting upon her screen. She readily forgave the author of the surprise. Du Bled relates many more of these innocent jokes.

Among the congenial people of the salons, the relations were always of the most cordial, friendly, free, and intimate nature; they were like the members of a large family. By them, love was not considered a weakness but a mark of the elevation of the soul, and every man had to be sensitive to beauty. When the Duchesse d'Aiguillon presented to society her nephew, who later became the Duke of Richelieu, she advised and encouraged him to complete his education and make of himself an honnête homme by association with the elder Mlle. du Vigean and other women; the object of this procedure was to polish his manners, elevate his instincts, and develop ease in deportment toward the ladies. There was no hint of the vulgar or licentious pleasures which became the characteristics of love in the eighteenth century.

The woman who inaugurated the movement toward purity of morals, decency of language, polish of manners, and courtesy to woman, was Mme. de Rambouillet. Cathérine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet, whose mother was a great Roman lady and whose father had been ambassador to Rome, inherited that pride of race and independence of spirit for which she was so well known. In 1600, she was married, at the age of twelve, to the Marquis de Rambouillet who was her senior by eleven years, but who treated her with deference and respect rare at that time. Husband and wife were perfectly congenial, and their happy and peaceful life was a great contrast to that led by the majority of the married couples of the day. Absolutely irreproachable in conduct, she set a worthy example for all women who knew her.

Her high ideals, independence of character, family duties, and the general debauchery, which was incompatible with her rigid chastity and "precocious wisdom," caused her to withdraw from the court in 1608; two years later, she decided to open her salon to such aristocratic and cultured persons as appreciated womanly grace, wit, and taste. Her familiarity with Italian and Spanish history and art placed her at the head of intellectual as well as moral movements. She surrounded herself with the distinguished men and women of the day, and her salon, which in every detail was decorated and arranged for pleasure, immediately became, through the exquisite charm with which she presided, the one goal of the cultured; her blue room was the sanctuary of polite society and she was its high priestess.

The highest ambition of the habitué of the salon was to sing, dance, and converse artistically and with refinement. A reaction against the general social state immediately set in, even the brusque warriors acquiring a refinement of speech and manners; and as conversation developed and became a power, the great lords began to respect men of letters and to cultivate their society. Anyone who possessed good manners, vivacity, and wit was admitted to the salon, where a new and more elevating sociability was the aspiration.

Mme. de Rambouillet was very particular in the choice of friends, and they were always sincere and devoted, knowing her to be undesirous of political favors and incapable of stooping to intrigue. Even Richelieu could not, as compensation to him for a favor to her husband, induce her to act as spy on some of the frequenters of her salon.

While not a woman of remarkable beauty, she was the personification of reason and virtue; her unassuming frankness, exquisite tact, and exceptional reserve discouraged all advances on the part of those gallants who frequented every mansion and were always prepared to lay siege to the heart of any fair woman. Her wide culture, versatility, modesty, goodness, fidelity, and disinterestedness caused her to be universally sought. Mlle. de Scudéry, in her novel Cyrus, leaves a fine portrait of her:

"The spirit and soul of this marvellous person surpass by far her beauty: the first has no limits in its extent and the other has no equal in its generosity, goodness, justice, and purity. The intellect of Cléomire (Mme. de Rambouillet) is not like that of those whose minds have no brilliancy except that which nature has given them, for she has cultivated it carefully, and I think I can say that there are no belles connaissances that she has not acquired. She knows various languages, and is ignorant of hardly anything that is worth knowing; but she knows it all without making a display of knowing it; and one would say, in hearing her talk, 'she is so modest that she speaks admirably of things, through simple common sense only'; on the contrary, she is versed in all things; the most advanced sciences are not beyond her, and she is perfectly acquainted with the most difficult arts. Never has any person possessed such a delicate knowledge as hers of fine works of prose and poetry; she judges them, however, with wonderful moderation, never abandoning la bienséance (the seemliness) of her sex, though she is far above it. In the whole court, there is not a person with any spirit and virtue that does not go to her house. Nothing is considered beautiful if it does not have her approval; no stranger ever comes who does not desire to see Cléomire and do her homage, and there are no excellent artisans who do not wish to have the glory of her approbation of their works. All people who write in Phénicie have sung her praises; and she possesses the esteem of everyone to such a marvellous degree that there is no one who has ever seen her who has not said thousands of favorable things about her-who has not been charmed likewise by her beauty, esprit, sweetness, and generosity."

Mlle. de Scudéry describes the salon of Mme. de Rambouillet in the following:

"Cléomire (Mme. de Rambouillet) had built, according to her own design, a place which is one of the finest in the world; she has found the art of constructing a palace of vast extent in a situation of mediocre grandeur. Order, harmony, and elegance are in all the apartments, and in the furniture also; everything is magnificent, even unique; the lamps are different from those of other palaces, her cabinets are full of objects which show the judgment of her who chose them. In her palace, the air is always scented; many baskets full of magnificent flowers make a continual spring in her room, and the place which she frequents ordinarily is so agreeable and so imaginative as to make one feel as if she were in some enchanted place."

The very names of the frequenters of the salon of Mme. de Rambouillet testify to the prominence of her position in the world of culture: Mlle. de Scudéry, Mlle. du Vigean; Mmes. de Longueville, de la Vergne, de La Fayette, de Sablé, de Hautefort, de Sévigné, de la Suze, Marie de Gonzague, Duchesse d'Aiguillon, Mmes. des Houlières, Cornuel, Aubry, and their respective husbands; the great literary men: Rotrou, Scarron, Saint-Evremond, Malherbe, Racan, Chapelain, Voiture, Conrart, Benserade, Pellisson, Segrais, Vaugelas, Ménage, Tallemant des Réaux, Balzac, Mairet, Corneille, Bossuet, etc. In the entire period of the French salon, no other such brilliant gathering of men and women of social standing, princely blood, genuine intelligence, and literary ability ever assembled from motives other than those of politics or intrigue; here was a gathering purely social and for purposes of mutual refinement. The nobility went through a process of polishing, and the men of letters sharpened their intelligence and modified their manners and customs.

Julie, Duchess of Montausier, and Angélique, daughters of Mme. de Rambouillet, were popular, but the former lost much of her charm after she sacrificed her independence of thought and action by becoming governess of the children of the queen. Julie was the centre of attraction for all perfumed rhymesters, all sighers in prose and verse, who thronged about her. The stern and unbending Duke of Montausier was so under her influence that in 1641 he arranged and laid before her shrine the famous guirlande which was illustrated by Robert and to which nineteen authors contributed. After her marriage to the duke, the H?tel de Rambouillet may be said to have ceased to exist, as madame, who was seventy years of age, had for a number of years kept herself in the background, and Julie had become the acknowledged leader.

With the outbreak of the Fronde, friends were separated by their individual interests and the reunions at the salon were interrupted from about 1650 to 1652. After the death of her husband, Mme. de Rambouillet retired, to reside with her daughter, Mme. de Montausier; after that, she seldom appeared in public. She hardly lived to see the spirit of the salon changed to the real préciosité-the direction and aim she gave to it being gradually abandoned.

In her salon, for nearly fifty years, no pedantry, no loose manners, no questionable characters, no social or political intrigues, no discourtesies of any kind, were recorded; hers was a reign of dignity and grace, of purity of language, manners, and morals. She died in 1665, at the advanced age of seventy-seven, esteemed and mourned by the entire social and intellectual world of France. Her influence was incalculable; it was the first time in the history of France that refined taste, intellectuality, and virtue had won importance, influence, and power.

It must be remembered that in the first period of the salon there were no blue-stockings, no pedants: these were later developments. It was, primarily, a gathering which found pleasure in parties, excursions, concerts, balls, fireworks, dramatic performances, living tableaux; the last form of amusement very strongly influenced the development of the art, for in the galleries there appeared a surprisingly large number of portraits of the women of the day in character-sometimes as a nymph, sometimes as a goddess.

The salon, in its first phase, showed and developed tolerance in religion as well as in art and literature. It also encouraged progress and displayed acute discrimination, keeping pace with the time in all that was new and meritorious. It developed individual liberty, public interest, criticism, good taste, and the elegant, clear, and precise conversational language in which France has excelled up to the present day.

When about to build the H?tel Pisani, Mme. de Rambouillet, having no love for architects, planned its construction without their assistance. She revolutionized the architecture of the time by introducing large and high doors and windows and putting the stairway to one side in order to secure a large suite of rooms. She was also the first to decorate a room in other colors than red or tan. The construction of her h?tel completely changed domestic architecture; and it may be noted that when the Luxembourg was to be built, the designers were instructed to examine, for ideas, the H?tel de Rambouillet.

Legouvé gives as the object and mission of Mme. de Rambouillet: "to combat the sensualism of Rabelais, Villon, and Marot, to reform society through love by reforming love through chastity; to place women at the head of civilization, by beginning a crusade against vice in the disguise of sentiment. The word 'fame' must, in the seventeenth century, apply to both man and woman, meaning honor for the one and purity for the other. Her ideal falls with the accession of Louis XIV.; the dazzling luxury of royalty hardly conceals, under its exterior elegance, the profound and deep-seated grossness of Versailles and Marly."

To Mme. de Rambouillet, then, belongs the distinction of having been the first to bring together men of letters and great lords on a footing of social equality and for mutual benefit. Her salon and friends continued in the seventeenth century what Marguerite d'Angoulême had begun in the first part of the sixteenth-an intellectual, social, and moral reform.

Many salons which were all more or less patterned after that of Rambouillet sprang into existence. Among these the Academy of the Vicomtesse d'Auchy, with Malherbe as president and tyrant, was of little influence as far as women were concerned. The members were all of second-rate importance, and Malherbe tolerated only the discussion of his verses, while Mme. d'Auchy was better known for her splendid neck than for any intellectuality. Every salon had a master of ceremonies, who performed the rite of presentation; these men were frequently abbés, and some of them, such as Du Buisson and Testu, became famous.

Among the most noted of these salons was that of the celebrated beauty, Ninon de Lenclos, she who called the précieuses the "Jansenists of love," an expression which became very popular. Her salon was situated on the Rue des Tournelles. Ninon de Lenclos was a woman of the most brilliant mind and exquisite taste, and it was at her h?tel that Molière first read his Tartuffe before Condé, La Fontaine, Boileau, Lulli, Racine, and Chapelle, and it was there that he received the principal ideas for his drama.

Ninon became famous for making staunch friends of her former lovers, in which connection some interesting tales are told. She was the mother of two children; upon the arrival of the first, a heated discussion arose between Count d'Estrées and Abbé d'Effiat, both claiming the honor of paternity. When the mother was consulted, she made no attempt to conceal her amusement; finally, the rivals threw dice for "father or not father."

The other child, whose father was the Marquis de Gersay, was the victim of an unnatural passion for his mother with whom, when a young man, he fell desperately in love, being ignorant of their relation. While pleading his cause, he learned from her lips the secret, and, in despair, blew out his brains, a tragedy which apparently had no effect upon the mother. At one time, at the request of the clergy Ninon was sent, for impiety, to the convent of the Benedictines at Lagny.

Among her friends she counted the greatest men and women of the day and her salon was the foyer of savoir-vivre, of letters and art. At the age of sixty she met the Great Condé, who dismounted to greet her, something that he very seldom did, as he was not in the habit of paying compliments to women. The saying: Elle eut l'estime de Lenclos [she had the esteem of Lenclos] became a popular manner of expressing the fact that a certain woman was especially esteemed. Even to the last (she died at the age of eighty-five), Ninon preserved her grace, beauty, and intelligence. Colombey calls her La mère spirituelle de Voltaire [the spiritual mother of Voltaire].

The generality of women had their lovers; even the famous Mlle. de Scudéry, in spite of her homeliness-she was a dark, large-boned, and lean sort of old maid-had admirers galore; among the latter was Pellisson who was said to be so ugly "that he really abused the privilege-which man enjoys-of being homely."

The h?tel of the famous poet Scarron-H?tel de l'Impécuniosité-received almost all the frequenters of Ninon's salon. At the former place there were no restrictions as to the manner of enjoyment; after elevating and edifying conversation at the salon of Ninon, the members would repair to that of Scarron for a feast of broutilles rabelaisiennes [Rabelaisian tidbits].

The salon of Mme. de Montbazon had its frequenters who, however, were attracted mainly by her beauty; she was, to use the words of one of her friends, "One of those beauties that delight the eye and provoke a vigorous appetite." Her salon was one of suitors rather than of intellectuality or harmless sociability.

The most famous of the men's salons was the Temple, constructed in 1667 by Jacques de Souvré and conducted from 1681 to 1720 by Phillipe de Vend?me and his intendant, Abbé de Chaulieu. These reunions, especially under the latter, were veritable midnight convivia; he himself boasted of never having gone to bed one night in thirty years without having been carried there dead drunk, a custom to which he remained "faithful unto death." His boon companion was La Duchesse de Bouillon. Most of his frequenters were jolly good persons, utterly destitute of the sense of sufficiency in matters of carousing; the better people declined his invitations.

After that of Mme. de Rambouillet, there were, in the seventeenth century, but two great salons that exerted a lasting influence and that were not saturated with the decadent préciosité. Of these the salon of Mlle. de Scudéry has been called the salon of the bourgeoisie, because the majority of its frequenters belonged to the third estate, which was rapidly acquiring power and influence.

Mlle. de Scudéry, who was born in 1608 and lived through the whole century, saw society develop, and therefore knew it better than did any of her contemporaries. Having lost her parents early in life, her uncle reared her and she received advantages such as fell to the lot of few women of her condition; she was given an excellent education in literature, art, and the languages.

Until the marriage of her brother, she was his constant and devoted companion, exiling herself to Marseilles when he was appointed governor of Notre Dame de La Garde, and returning to Paris with him in 1647. She first collaborated with him in a literary production of about eighty volumes. In their works, the brother furnished the rough draft, the dramatic episodes, adventures, and the Romanesque part, while she added the literary finish through charming character sketches, conversation, sentimental analyses, and letters. With a strong inclination toward society, and constantly fulfilling its obligations, she would from day to day write up her conversations of the evening before.

An interesting anecdote is told in connection with the travels and co?peration of Mlle. de Scudéry and her brother; once, on the way to Paris, while stopping over night at Lyons, they were discussing the fate of one of their heroes, one proposing death and the other rescue, one poison and the other a more cruel death; a gentleman from Auvergne happened to overhear them and immediately notified the people of the inn, thinking it was a question of assassinating the king; the brother and sister were thrown into prison and only with great difficulty were they able to explain matters the next morning. From this incident Scribe drew the material for his drama, L'Auberge ou les Brigands sans le Savoir.

At the H?tel de Rambouillet where Mlle. de Scudéry was received early, she won everyone by her modesty, simplicity, esprit, and lovable disposition, and, in spite of her homeliness and poor figure, she attracted many platonic lovers. She was one of the few brilliant and famous women of the seventeenth century whose popularity was due solely to admirable qualities of mind and soul. With her, friendship became a cult, and it was in time of trouble that her friends received the strongest proof of her affection. She preferred to incur disgrace and the disfavor of Mazarin rather than forsake Condé and Madame de Longueville; to them she dedicated the ten volumes, successively, of her novel, Cyrus; the last volume was published after Mme. de Longueville's retirement and partial disgrace.

After the brilliant society of the H?tel de Rambouillet had been broken up by the marriage of Julie and the operations of the Fronde, and after her brother's marriage in 1654, Mlle. de Scudéry became independent and established the custom of receiving her friends on Saturday; these receptions became famous under the name of Samedi, and besides the regular rather bourgeois gathering, the most brilliant talent and highest nobility flocked to them, regardless of rank or station, wealth or influence. Pellisson, the great master, the prince, the Apollo of her Saturdays, was a man of wonderfully inventive genius, and possessed in a higher degree than any of his contemporaries the art of inventing surprises for the society that lived on novelty. When, on account of his devotion to Fouquet, he was imprisoned in the Bastille, Mlle. de Scudéry managed to persuade Colbert to brighten his confinement by permitting him to see friends and relatives. Part of every day she spent in his prison, conversing and reading; and this is but one instance of her fidelity and friendship.

Mlle. de Scudéry, considering all men as aspirants for authority who, when husbands, degenerate into tyrants, preferred to retain her independence. Her ideas on love were very peculiar and were innovations at the time: she wished to be loved, but her love must be friendship-a pure, platonic love, in which her lover must be her all, her confidant, the participator in her sorrows and her conversation; and his happiness must be in her alone; he must, without feeling passion, love her for herself, and she must have the same feeling toward him. These sentiments are expressed in her novels, from which the following extracts are taken:

"When friendship becomes love in the heart of a lover or when this love is mingled with friendship without destroying it, there is nothing so sweet as this kind of love; for as violent as it is, it is always held somewhat more in check than is ordinary love; it is more durable, more tender, more respectful, and even more ardent, although it is not subject to so many tumultuous caprices as is that love which arises without friendship. It can be said that love and friendship flow together like two streams, the more celebrated of which obscures the name of the other." ... "They agreed on even the conditions of their love; for Phaon solemnly promised Sapho (Mlle. de Scudéry)-who desired it thus-not to ask of her anything more than the possession of her heart, and she, also, promised him to receive only him in hers. They told each other all their thoughts, they understood them even without confessing them. Peace, however, was not so completely established that their affection could not become languishing or cool; for, although they loved each other as much as one can love, they at times complained

of not being loved enough, and they had sufficient little difficulties to always leave something new to wish for; but they never had any troubles that were serious enough to essentially disturb their repose."

Mlle. de Scudéry was mistress of the art of conversation, speaking without affectation and equally well on all affairs, serious, light, or gallant; she objected, however, to being called a savante, and she was far from resembling the false précieuses to whom she was likened by her enemies. The occupations of her salon were somewhat different from those of the salon of Mme. de Rambouillet. M. du Bled describes them as follows:

"What they did in the salon of Mlle. de Scudéry you can guess readily: they amused themselves as at Mme. de Rambouillet's, they joked quite cheerfully, smiled and laughed, wrote farces in prose and poetry. There were readings, loteries d'esprit, sonnet-enigmas, bouts-rimés (rhymes given to be formed into verse), vers-échos, fine literary joustings, discussions between the casuists. This salon had its talkers and speakers, those who tyrannized over the audience and those who charmed it, those who shot off fireworks and those who prepared them, those who had made a symphony of conversation and those who made of it a monologue and had no flashes of silence. They did not follow fashion there-they rather made it; in art and literature as in toilets, smallness follows the fashion, pretension exaggerates it, taste makes a compact with it."

A specimen of the énigme-sonnets may be of interest, to show in what intellectual playfulness and trivialities these wits indulged:

"Souvent, quoique léger, je lasse qui me porte.

Un mot de ma fa?on vaut un ample discours.

J'ai sous Louis le Grand commencé d'avoir cours,

Mince, long, plat, étroit, d'une étoffe peu forte.

"Les doigts les moins savants me taillent de la sorte;

Sous mille noms divers je parais tous les jours;

Aux valets étourdis je suis d'un grand secours.

Le Louvre ne voit point ma figure à sa porte.

"Une grossière main vient la plupart du temps

Me prendre de la main des plus honnêtes gens.

Civil, officieux, je suis né pour la ville.

"Dans le plus rude hiver j'ai le dos toujours nu:

Et, quoique fort commode, à peine m'a-t-on vu,

Qu'ausit?t négligé, je deviens inutile."

[Often, although light, I weary the person who carries me. A word in my manner is worth a whole discourse. I began under Louis the Great to be in vogue,-slight, long, flat, narrow, of a very slight material.

The most unskilled fingers cut me in their way; under a thousand different forms I appear every day; I am a great aid to the astonished valets. The Louvre does not see my face at its door.

A coarse hand most of the time receives me from the hand of the nicest people. Civil, officious, I am born for the city.

In the coldest weather, my back is always bare; and, although quite convenient, scarcely have they seen me, when I am neglected and useless.-Visiting card.]

A more interesting one and one that caused no little amusement is the following:

"Je suis niais et fin, honnête et malhonnête,

Moins sincère à la cour qu'en un simple taudis.

Je fais d'un air plaisant trembler les plus hardis,

Le fort me laisse aller, le sage m'arrête.

"A personne sans moi l'on ne fait jamais fête:

J'embellis quelquefois, quelquefois, j'enlaidis.

Je dédaigne tant?t, tant?t j'applaudis;

Pour m'avoir en partage, il faut n'être pas bête.

"Plus mon tr?ne est petit, plus il a de beauté.

Je l'agrandis pourtant d'un et d'autre c?té,

Faisant voir bien souvent des défauts dont on jase.

"Je quitte mon éclat quand je suis sans témoins,

Et je me puis vanter enfin d'être la chose

Qui contente le plus et qui co?te le moins."

[I am both stupid and bright, honest and dishonest; less sincere at court than in a simple hovel; with a pleasant air, I make the boldest tremble, the strong let me pass, the wise stop me.

There is no joy to anyone without me; I embellish at times, at times I distort; I disdain and I applaud; to share me, one must not be stupid.

The smaller my throne, the greater my beauty; I enlarge it, however, on both sides, often showing defects which are made sport of.

I leave my brilliancy when I am without witness, and I can boast of being the thing which contents the most and costs the least.-A smile.]

Critics often reproach Mlle. de Scudéry for having portrayed herself-as Sapho-in a flattering light in her novel Cyrus; but it must be remembered that at that time this was a common custom, women of the highest quality indulging in such pastimes, there even being a prominent salon where verbal portraiture was the sole occupation. No one has written more or better on the condition of woman, for she, above all, had the experience upon which to base her writings. The idea of woman's education and aim, which was generally entertained by the intelligent and modest women of the seventeenth century, is well expressed by Mlle. de Scudéry in the following:

"The difficulty of knowing something with seemliness does not come to a woman so much from what she knows as from what others do not know; and it is, without doubt, singularity that makes it difficult to be as others are not, without being exposed to blame. Seriously, is not the ordinary idea of the education of women a peculiar one? They are not to be coquettes nor gallants, and yet they are carefully taught all that is peculiar to gallantry without being permitted to know anything that can strengthen their virtue or occupy their minds. Don't imagine, however, that I do not wish woman to be elegant, to dance or to sing; but I should like to see as much care devoted to her mind as to her body, and between being ignorant and savante I should like to see a road taken which would prevent annoyance from an impertinent sufficiency or from a tiresome stupidity. I should like very much to be able to say of anyone of my sex that she knows a hundred things of which she does not boast, that she has a well-balanced mind, that she speaks well, writes correctly, and knows the world; but I do not wish it to be said of her that she is a femme savante. The best women of the world when they are together in a large number rarely say anything that is worth anything and are more ennuyé than if they were alone; on the contrary, there is something that I cannot express, which makes it possible for men to enliven and divert a company of ladies more than the most amiable woman on earth could do."

Mlle. de Scudéry considered marriage a long slavery and preferred virtuous celibacy enlivened by platonic gallantry. When youth and adorers had passed away, she found consolation in interchanges of wit, congenial conversation, and the cultivation of the mind by study. Making of love a doctrine, a manual of morals or savoir-vivre, has had a refining effect upon civilization; but the process has rendered the emotion itself too subtle, select, narrow, enervating, and exhausting; it has resulted in the production of splendid books with heroes and heroines of the higher type, and has purified the atmosphere of social life; this phase of its influence, however, is felt by only a set of the élite, and its adherents are scattered through every age and every country. Mlle. de Scudéry was a perfect representative of that type, but healthy and normal rather than morbidly ?sthetic.

An opposition party soon arose, formed by those, especially, who entertained different ideas of the sphere and duties of woman. Just as the type of the salon of Mme. de Rambouillet degenerated among the aristocracy into those of the H?tel de Condé, Mme. de Sablé, and Mlle. de Luxembourg, so the type of the salon of Mlle. de Scudéry gave rise to a number of literary salons among the bourgeoisie. The aim of the latter institutions was to imitate her example in endeavoring to spread the taste for courtesy, elegant manners and the higher forms of learning; all these aspirations, however, drifted into mere affectation, while the requisites of welcome at the original salon were simplicity, freedom from affectation, delicacy, amiability, and dignity.

As a writer, Mlle. de Scudéry occupies no mean position in the history of French literature of the seventeenth century. Her descriptions and anecdotes possess a wonderful charm and display unusual power of analysis; in them, Victor Cousin recognizes a truly virile spirit. In the history of the French novel, she forms a transition period, her productions having both a psychological interest and a historical value of a very high degree. Through her finesse and marvellous feminine penetration, her truthful, delicate and fine portraitures, which were widely imitated later, she has exerted an extensive influence.

With Mlle. de Scudéry "we have substance, real character painting, true psychological penetration, and realism in observation," while previously the novel, under such men as Gomberville and La Calprenède, was imaginative and full of fancy. Her talent, then, in that field, lay in the analysis and development of sentiments, in delineation of character, in the creation and reproduction of refined and ingenious conversations, and in her reflections on subjects pertaining to morality and literature-in all of which she displayed justness and entire liberty and independence of thought. Her poetry, delicate compliment or innocent gallantries, was a mere bagatelle of the salon.

Charming as well as accomplished, Mlle. de Scudéry was as intelligent, witty, and intellectual a woman as could be found in the seventeenth century; and in the history of that period she retains an undisputed position as one of its great leaders of thought and progress. Her salon, inasmuch as the salon of Mme. de Lambert was not opened until 1710, and therefore the discussion of it belongs properly to the beginning of the eighteenth century, really closes the literary progress of the seventeenth century.

The influence of the seventeenth century salon was of a threefold nature-literary, moral, and social. According to the salon conception, artistic, literary, or musical pleasure being derived from form and mode of expression, it possessed a special and unique interest in proportion to the efforts made and the difficulties surmounted in attaining that form and expression: thus, woman introduced a new standard of excellence.

Préciosité treated language not as a work of art, but as a medium for the display of individual linguistic dexterity; giving no thing its proper name, it delighted in paraphrase, allusion, word play, unexpected comparisons and abundance of metaphors, and revelled in the elusive, delicate, subtle, and complex. Hence conversation turned constantly to love and gallantry; thus woman developed to a wonderful degree, unattainable to but few, the art of conversation, politeness and courtesy of manners, and social relations, at the same time purifying language and enriching it.

French women of the seventeenth century are condemned for having treated serious things too lightly; and it is said that "in confining the French mind to the observation of society and its attractions, she has restricted and retarded a more realistic and larger activity." In answer to this it may be asserted that the French mind was not prepared for a broader field until it had passed through the process of expurgating, refining, drilling, and disciplining. If préciosité influenced politics, it was by developing diplomacy, for, from the time that this spirit began to spread, French diplomacy became world-renowned.

The social influence of the movement may be better appreciated by considering the condition of woman in earlier periods. Having practically no position except that of housewife or mother, she was merely a source of pleasure for man, for whom she had little or no respect. The précieuses, on the contrary, exacted respect, honor, and a place beside man, as rights that belonged to them.

As the outcome of their desire to think, feel, and act with greater delicacy, women introduced propriety in expression, finesse in analysis, keenness of esprit, psychological subtleness: qualities that surely tended to higher standards of morality, purer social relations, finer and more subtle diplomacy, more elegance and precision in literature. Therefore, préciosité in France had a wholesome influence, which was possible because woman had won for herself her rightful position, and her aspirations were toward social and moral elevation.

In general, the women of France have always been conscious of their duty, their importance, and their limitations, appreciating their power and cultivating the characteristics that attract man and retain his respect and attention: sociability, morality, esprit, artistic appreciation, sensitiveness, tact. These qualities became manifest to a remarkable degree in French women of the seventeenth century, and created in every writer, great or unimportant, the desire to win their favor. Thus, Corneille strove to write dramas with which he might establish the reign of decency on a stage the liberties of which had previously made the theatre inaccessible to woman; hence, his characters of humanity (Cid) and politeness (Menteur).

The purpose of the French Academy itself was not different from that of the précieuses. Richelieu, realizing that every great talent accepted the discipline of these women, sought to use this power for his own ends by interesting the world of letters in the accomplishment of his plans for a general political unity. Thus, when the first period of préciosité had reached its highest point and was beginning to decline, and other smaller and envious social groups were forming about Paris and causing a conflict of ideas, Richelieu conceived the scheme of joining all in a union, with strong ideals and with a language as dignified as the Latin and the Greek. The result was the formation of the French Academy. From this time begins the decline of the authority of woman; for while she still exerted a powerful influence, it was no longer absolute. After the decline of the H?tel de Rambouillet, feminine influence became more general, expending itself in petty rivalries, gossip, intrigues, and partaking of the nature of that court life which was filled by the young king with parties, feasts, collations, walks, carousals, boating, concerts, ballets, and masquerades-a mode of living that gave rise to a new standard of politeness, which was freer and looser than that of préciosité.

As the power of the young king became stronger, his favor became the goal of all men of letters. Although woman still to some extent controlled the destinies of those who were struggling for recognition and reputation, her influence was of a secondary nature, that of the king being supreme. Woman seemed to be overcoming the influence of woman-Mme. de Montespan replaced Mlle. de La Vallière, and she was in turn replaced by Mme. de Maintenon.

The degeneration of the king was accompanied by that of literature, society, and morals. The characteristic inclination of the day was eagerly to seek and grasp that which was new, and the noble, forceful, and dignified style of language of the previous period was replaced by one of much lighter description; many female writers directed their efforts entirely toward amusing, pleasing, and gaining applause.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century, with Mme. de Lambert as its leader, there was a renascence of the préciosité of the H?tel de Rambouillet, women protesting against the prevalent grossness and indecency of manners. The salon of Mme. de Lambert was the great antechamber to the Academy, election to which was generally gained through her. A new aristocracy was forming, a new society arose; from about 1720 to 1750, libertinism and atheism, licentiousness and intrigue, crept into the salons.

The new aristocracy was of doubtful and impure source, cynical in manner, unbridled in habits, over-fastidious in taste, and politically powerful. In this society woman began to be felt as a political force. M. Brunetière said: "Mme. de Lambert made Academicians; the Marquise de Prie made a queen of France; Mme. de Tencin made cardinals and ambassadors." Montesquieu wrote: "There is not a person who has any employment at the court in Paris or in the provinces, who has not the influence (and sometimes the injustices which she can cause) of a woman through whom all favors pass;" and M. Brunetière added: "This woman is not his wife." The popular spirit in literature was one of subtleness, irony, superficial observations on manners and customs. From the beginning of the eighteenth century up to the eve of the Revolution, woman's influence continued to increase, but that influence was mainly in the direction of politics. Thus, in every period in French history, a group of women effectively moulds French thought and language, and directs intellectual activity in general.

After the death of Louis XIV., society passed under the rule of the regent, the Duke of Orléans-the personification of gallantry and affability, of depravity which was a mania, and of licentiousness which was a disease. From this atmosphere the salon of Mme. de Lambert became a refuge to those who still cherished the ideals of the good old times of Mme. de Rambouillet; it was distinguished by its refined sentiment and polished manners, which were like those of the seventeenth century at its best.

Mme. de Lambert believed that the demands of the time were just the opposite of those of the seventeenth century: "What a multitude of tastes nowadays-the table, play, theatre! When money and luxury are supreme, true honor loses its power. Persons seek only those houses where shameful luxury reigns." In her own salon, none might enter who were not of the small number of the elect.

Very little is known of the life of Mme. de Lambert. She was born in 1647, and, in spite of the unfavorable surroundings of her youth and of a dissolute, extravagant, and unrefined mother, the observance of decorum and honor became the actuating principle of her life. Until her marriage (in 1666) to Henri de Lambert, Marquis de Bris en Auxerrois, she was in the midst of the grossest licentiousness and freedom of manners; when married, she entered a family the very opposite of her own.

She was a woman who believed in the power of ambitious energy. To her son she once said: "Nothing is less becoming to a young man than a certain modesty that makes him believe that he is not capable of great things. This modesty is a languor of the soul, which prevents it from soaring and rapidly carrying itself to glory."

At first she lived in the H?tel de Lambert (in the Ile Saint-Louis), renowned for its splendidly sculptured decorations, painted ceilings, panels, and staircases. Her famous Salon des Muses and Cabinet d'Amours were filled with the finest works of art and the most exquisite paintings. There the élite of all classes were entertained until the death of her husband (1686), when the h?tel was closed; it was not reopened until 1710.

Though left with immense wealth, her affairs were in a very complicated state. While actively employed in untangling her difficulties, she at the same time superintended the education of her son and daughter. After long and trying lawsuits, she managed to put her fortune in order and established herself at Paris, where the Duc de Nevers ceded to her, for life, a large portion of the magnificently furnished Palais Mazarin, now the National Library. On the completion of her work in remodelling this palace and furnishing it with the most costly and beautiful panel paintings by Watteau and other artists, she inaugurated her Tuesday and Wednesday dinner parties.

One remarkable characteristic of her company was the age of her intimate associates-the Marquis de Saint-Aulaire, Fontenelle, Mme. Dacier, and her husband, Louis de Sacy, all of whom, as well as Mme. de Lambert herself, had passed threescore and more; but they still kept alive the cherished memories of the brilliant society of their youth. Mme. de Lambert did not personally know Mme. de Rambouillet, but she visited the latter's daughter, Julie d'Angennes, from whom she learned the customs and etiquette in vogue at the H?tel de Rambouillet.

The Wednesday dinners of Mme. de Lambert were to her intimate friends, while every Tuesday afternoon she received a general circle which indulged in general conversation and read and discussed books which were about to be published; gambling, which seemed to be the principal means of entertaining in those days, had no place there. Fontenelle says: "It was, with very few exceptions, the only house which had been preserved from the epidemic of gambling-the only house where persons congregated simply for the sake of talking sensibly and with esprit. Those who had their reasons for considering it bad taste that conversation was still carried on in any place, cast mean reflections, whenever they could, against the house of Mme. de Lambert." In the evening, she received only a few select friends with whom she talked seriously. Her salon soon became the envy of those who were not admitted (and they were numerous), and was the object of many calumnies and attacks.

During this time she found leisure to write two treatises of practical morality, Avis d'une mère à son fils, and Avis d'une mère à sa fille, which appeared without her permission. The manuscripts, lent to friends, fell into the hands of a publisher; and although the authoress endeavored to prevent the distribution of the works by buying up the entire editions, they were published outside of France. The two works written to her children form an important contribution to the educational literature of the time; in them the religion of the eighteenth century is first defined.

"Above all these duties-civil and human (says the mother to her son)-is the duty you owe to the Supreme Being. Religion is a commerce established between God and man through the grace of God to man and through the duty of man to God. Elevated souls have for their God sentiments and a cult apart, which do not resemble at all those of the people; everything issues from the heart and goes to God."

In these works, she attacked also the fad of free-thinking in vogue among the young men of the time. She was one of the few women of that age who could not separate themselves from reason and thought, even in religion; the latter was a matter for the reason and the intellect to decide, and was thus an elevated product of the mind rather than an instinct coming from the heart, or a positive revelation as it was in the seventeenth century. In this view, Madame de Lambert indicated the beginning of the later eighteenth-century spirit.

Mme. de Lambert taught her children to be satisfied with nothing but the highest attainable object. She advised her son to choose his friends from among men above him, in order to accustom himself to respectful and polite demeanor; "with his equals he might cultivate negligence and his mind might become dull." She desired her children to think differently from the people-"Those who think lowly and commonly, and the court is filled with such." To their servants they were to be good and kind, for humanity and Christianity make all equal. She was the first to use those words, "humanity" and "equality," which later became the bywords of everyone, and the first to teach that conscience is the best guide. "Conscience is defined as that interior sentiment of a delicate honor which assures you that you have nothing with which to reproach yourself."

Possibly the most important and lasting effect of Mme. de Lambert's influence resulted from the expression of her ideas on the education of young women who "are destined to please, and are given lessons only in methods of delighting and pleasing." She was convinced that in order to resist temptation and be normal, women must be educated, must learn to think. Her counsels to her daughter are remarkable for an unusual insight into the temperament of her sex and for an extreme fear that makes her call to her aid all precautions and resources. She thus advises her daughter:

"Try to find resources within yourself-this is a revenue of certain pleasures. Do not believe that your only virtue is modesty; there are many women who know no other virtue, and who imagine that it relieves them of all duties toward society; they believe they are right in lacking all others and think themselves privileged to be proud and slanderous with impunity. You must have a gentle modesty; a good woman may have the advantages of a man's friendship without abandoning honesty and faithfulness to her duties. Nothing is so difficult as to please without the use of what seems like coquettishness. It is more often by their defects than by their good qualities that women please men; men seek to profit by the weaknesses of good and kind women, for whose virtues they care nothing, and they prefer to be amused by persons not very estimable than to be forced merely to admire virtuous persons."

This is a most faithful description of the society of her time, and it was because her treatises struck home that they were severely criticised; but, nothing daunted, she carried out her plans in her own way, resorting neither to intrigue nor artifice. Many of her sayings became household maxims, such as-"It is not always faults that undo us; it is the manner of conducting ourselves after having committed them."

Her reflections on women might be called the great plea, at the end of the seventeenth century, for woman's right to use her reason. After the severe and cruel satire of Molière, attacking women for their innocent amusements, they gave themselves up entirely to pleasure. "Mme. de Lambert now wrote to avenge her sex and demand for it the honest and strong use of the mind; and this was done in the midst of the wild orgies of the Regency."

Mme. de Lambert was not a rare beauty, but she possessed recompensing charms. M. Colombey asserts that she became convinced of two things, about which she became highly enthusiastic: first, that woman was more reasonable than man; secondly, that M. Fontenelle, who presided over or filled the functions of president of her salon, was always in the right. He was indeed in harmony with the tone of the salon, being considered the most polished, brilliant, and distinguished member of the intellectual society of Paris, as well as one of the most talented drawing room philosophers. He made the salon of Mme. de Lambert the most sought for and celebrated, the most intellectual and moral of the period.

Mme. de Lambert has, possibly, exercised more influence upon men-and especially upon the Forty Immortals of her time-than did any woman before or after her. The Marquis d'Argenson states that "a person was seldom received at the Academy unless first presented at her salon. It is certain that she made at least half of our actual Academicians."

Her salon was called a bureau d'esprit, which was due to the fact that it was about the only social gathering point where culture and morality were the primary requisites. As she advanced in years, she became even more influential. After her death in 1733, her salon ceased to exist, but others, patterned after hers, soon sprang up; to those, her friends attached themselves-Fontenelle frequented several, Hénault became the leader of that of Mme. du Deffand.

The finest résumé that can be given of Mme. de Lambert, is found in the letters of the Marquis d'Argenson: "Her works contain a complete course in the most perfect morals for the use of the world and the present time. Some affectation of the préciosité is found; but, what beautiful thoughts, what delicate sentiments! How well she speaks of the duties of women, of friendship, of old age, of the difference between actual character and reputation!"

The salon of Mme. de Lambert forms a period of transition from the seventeenth century type in which elegance, politeness, courtesy, and morality were the first requisites, to the eighteenth century salon in which esprit and wit were the essentials demanded. It retained the dignity, discipline, refinement, and sentiments of morality of the H?tel de Rambouillet; it showed, also, the first signs of pure intellectuality. The salons to follow, will exhibit decidedly different characteristics.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares