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Case 9 - Women of the French Salons

In seventeenth-century France, upper class, educated women opened their homes to male and female intellectuals for elevated conversation and the exchange of ideas. Often the hostess set the agenda for these gatherings, which rose to prominence during the reign of Louis XIV and became important sites for trying out new literary pieces and setting literary standards. Though all of the women represented in this case participated in the salons, Madame de La Fayette and Mademoiselle de Scudéry were particularly outspoken in their literary judgments. Many of their works were soon translated into English for a new and devoted audience.

Abraham Bosse. Les femmes à table en l’absense de leurs maris. Paris, ca. 1636

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal. Letters of Madame de Rabutin Chantal to the Countess de Grignan. London, 1745

Madeleine de Scudéry. Artamenes; or, The grand Cyrus. London, 1691

Madame de La Fayette. La princesse de Monpensier. Paris, ca. 1678

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

Madeleine de Scudéry. Conversations. La Haye, 1685.

Abraham Bosse's print depicts a group of women who meet together over good conversation and food while their husbands are away. The elaborate chamber with richly curtained bed and patterned wall covering, as well as the ladies’ fine clothes, suggest a household of some wealth, and brings to mind salon culture, which later in the century welcomed both women and men into the conversation. The women discussed in Case 9 ran and participated in salons in France.


Widowed at the age of twenty-five, Madame de Sévigné relished her freedom, and established herself in Parisian society. She attended salons, and became good friends with Madame de La Fayette. The latter contributed Sévigné’s written portrait to Mademoiselle Montpensier’s Gallery of Portraits, writing of Sévigné, “your presence enhances every occasion …joy is the true state of your soul.” Over her lifetime, Sévigné wrote over a thousand letters, which first circulated in manuscript among her friends. In 1725, an unofficial edition of a few of her letters was published, and the first official editions appeared in 1734.


Madeleine de Scudéry’s ten-volume novel Cyrus was set in ancient classical worlds, but many of the novel’s characters are drawn from courtiers whom Scudéry knew, including members of the salon held by Madame de Rambouillet, which Scudéry attended. The novel explores issues debated in the salons, such as knowledge, writing, and marriage. The character Sapho in volume 10 is a self-portrait, described as a woman “learned without showing off her learning.”


Better known Madame de La Fayette, Marie Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne was an intellectual, a letter-writer, and one of the first great European novelists. Her Princesse de Montpensier, first published in 1662, tells of court life in the previous century, and was the first historical novel in France. Lafayette had her own salon and was a close friend of Madame de Sévigné and the philosopher François de La Rochefoucauld. Her most famous and popular novel, The Princess of Cleve, was read throughout Europe and, by 1689 even adapted to the English stage. The engraved title page to this English edition shows the Princess walking with the Duc de Nemours. Both are dressed in the height of seventeenth-century fashion, in spite of the story’s setting in the sixteenth-century court of Henry II. The novel explores some of the questions about love and the relationship between the sexes that were debated in the salons.


Madame de Scudéry was a well-educated writer who brought her talents to her weekly salons, called “samedis” or “Saturdays.” Her popular volumes of Conversations published in 1680, 1684, and 1685, reproduce the kinds of topics discussed in the salons: politeness, glory, lying, and magnificence versus magnanimity. One essay, “On the Manner of Writing Letters,” argues that women write more artful love letters than men because women have learned to disguise their feelings.


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