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French Salons

Elizabeth Goldsmith on the women of the French Salons:


Sociability and politeness were cultivated in the seventeenth-century salons of Madeleine de Scudéry, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, comtesse de Lafayette, Marguerite de la Sablière, and others.  Salon society constituted a community apart from the ceremony of  court and its rigid hierarchies.  Conversation as it was practiced there was focused on maintaining a free-flowing, democratic exchange, without regard to social distinction.  Salon conversation was also the means by which many writers, philosophers, and scientists introduced their works to a new worldly public centered around prominent women.


Madeleine de Scudéry presided over her salon gatherings in the 1650s, during the same period in which she was writing her novels.  The many conversations that are incorporated into her narratives were drawn from the discussions that were held at her samedis. Much later, at the end of her long career as a writer, Scudéry republished many of these in a series of volumes of printed conversations that were received as models of ideal social interaction and worldly philosophizing. For a time, her collections of conversations were used as textbooks for the instruction of young women at the newly founded school of St. Cyr. Although she had published all of her novels anonymously or under the name of her brother Georges de Scudéry, her conversations were published under her own name. 


In the last decades of Louis XIV’s reign, as salon society grew more scattered due to new opportunities for travel as well as the increasingly common experience of exile, letter writing became a means of sustaining the social networks that salon gatherings had created. Letters were viewed as written conversations, and women were thought to be the best at both of these arts. Marie de Rabutin Chantal, marquise de Sévigné was a famous writer during her own lifetime without ever having published.  Her letters were circulated, copied by hand, and highly valued for their engaging and informed reporting of events in Paris and at court.  They enabled her correspondents to continue their participation in salon conversations via letters that were read aloud and exchanged.  In her lively and passionate letters to her daughter, who had been posted to the south of France along with her husband who was Governor of Provence, Sévigné discovered her vocation as a writer.




Elizabeth C. Goldsmith is a professor of French at Boston University.  She has written books on literature and culture in the age of Louis XIV, focusing on conversation, letter correspondences, and women’s writing.  Her latest book is The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna,and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin (New York: Public Affairs, 2012).



Case 11 -- Katherine Philips >>>

Abraham Bosse. Les vierges sages. Print, ca. 1640

Madeleine de Scudéry. Conversations. La Haye, 1685.

Madame de La Fayette. The Princess of Cleve. London, 1688


Elizabeth Goldsmith on French Salons

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