The Salon: Blogging for the Posh


I was rereading Benedetta Craveri‘s  biography,  Madame du Deffand and her World, and when I hit the chapter about her St. Joseph’s convent salon, the parallels between the eighteenth century French salons and the evolving blogosphere gave me this mental image of one of those rooms where mirrors on opposite walls stretch out into a kind of curved infinity.

Look at this:

When the Grande Conde’s grand-daughter asked to be admitted to the Tuesday suppers given in Paris by the Marquise de Lambert, it was with an exaggerated humility which amounted to no more than a sovereign’s coquetry. It indicated that she recognized the strength of a new reality: the literary salon.

Substitute ‘invited to blog’ for ‘invitation to Tuesday suppers,’ read ‘Gosh, you really want little me?’ for the bit about royal coquetry, and see if it sounds familiar.


Hindsight makes it clear that salons were inevitable, given the human desire to gather in groups, whether around the communal fire, or at the local tea shop, pub, bath house, or wherever else people foregather. Just like it takes three ingredients to light a fire, there were three ingredients here: the rise of literacy, a boring king, and a remarkable woman.


French women who had the luxury of leisure time, and who could afford tutors and book and paper with which to write to other women, proliferated as print made books more accessible. In the early 1600s, Louis XIII became king.

As always, court centered around the king, but a teenage bride, Madame Rambouillet, sought to fill in the time between duty visits to a monarch whose social skills are best described as dorky, by inviting like-minded friends to discuss literature and the affairs of the day in the gorgeous Paris home her doting husband gave her. Oh! The chance to talk about something other than the king and his one or two interests!

The salon was such a success that Madame couldn’t resist formulating rules to make it more select and elegant, often to an extreme that was soon lampooned by the rival salons that sprang up, such as the rule against ‘common’ language. One could not arrive, shake out one’s umbrella, and remark on how it was raining; one must express oneself in poetic metaphor (“The celestial tears embrace the blossoms, drenching them with renew’d hue”) with extra points for classical reference, the more obscure the better.

young louis xiv

Young Louis, the Sun King

A generation later, Louix XIV wrested attention right back to the royal person when he built Versailles, the ultimate in salons, and presided with all his wit, good looks, and charisma, augmented by a succession of bright, elegant mistresses.

But after his death, the salons began proliferating again, the earliest and most brilliant centered around his nephew, the Duke of Orleans, at his estate called Sceaux.

There, led by the duke, who liked his pleasures, excess became more popular than wit, until, as Craveri notes:

An entirely new social code replaced the etiquette which ruled Sceaux and other princely palaces and which subordinated the crowd of guests to the whim and glory of their royal hosts. The salon was devoted not to worldly power, but to communication.


In other words, gone for good were the days when court centered exclusively on standing around in your best clothes to watch the king eat, in hopes of being tossed the metaphorical scraps of royal favors, or being distinguished before the eyes of your rival courtiers by being invited to sit on a stool.

Sceaux, the ultimate party house

Sceaux, the ultimate party house

As Regent for the young king, the Duke of Orleans did not have the charisma to pull off being a central figure of focus.

His draw was providing the means to indulge the senses at his generous expense; when Louis XV grew up, court dutifully returned to Versailles, especially during the years of his most popular mistresses, Pompadour and du Barry, but none of them were charismatic enough to keep the more intellectual courtiers from driving back to Paris to attend the salons, and his son was even less so: by then most courtiers had begun to live in Paris, and drove to Versailles when they had to.

What were the favorite subject of salons? Just like the blogosphere—literature and philosophy, government and music, poetry and world travel, food and fashion, but above all . . .

One another.

madame de sevigne

In the 1600s, this daring, endlessly fascinating subject was called portraits. Not painted portraits, though of course everyone who was anyone must pose for those to be handed down to posterity.

Madame Sevigny, justly famed for her letters, was an expert at written and verbal portraits, and her cousin, le comte de Bussy-Rabutin, ended up clapped in the Bastille for a year and exiled to his exquisite chateau for decades as a result of practicing his rapier wit on the royal penchant for ladies other than the unprepossessing queen.

The most popular portraits were of the in-crowd, displaying that delicious tension between the evolving sense of privacy and the dangers of exposure: in other words, the subTweet, or blog post with the name scrambled to fool a direct search, but those in the know recognize the target.

Bussy-Rabutin: his wit landed him in the Bastille

Bussy-Rabutin: his wit landed him in the Bastille

As Louis XIV and Bussy-Rabutin demonstrated, no one was too high to be swatted down, but that made the oblique wit just that much more irresistible, especially in portraits that revealed secrets. Everyone wanted to be portrayed—to be thought interesting, to be “in”—though no one wanted the humiliation of exposure.

Just like in the blogosphere, while everyone loves discovering a post has become popular, there is no guarantee whatever that one’s fame won’t become overnight become infamy.

So people would try to build alliances, and fame, by praise of one another. “She is as beautiful as an angel, and her taste is exquisite.” “I am known for my discernment, so you may be certain I will give my exact opinion . . .” All that mutual squee (usually in well-worn phrases) was recognized at the time as efforts to please, or win attention by praising one another in a public place.

Some went to the salons merely to be seen hobnobbing with the pretty people. Some went to be heard. Some thought their words were valued when they were secretly mocked at other salons (usually the fellow who might have one or two witty observations, but couldn’t resist burying them in twenty minutes of self-serving rodomontade, or who insists on repeating them at every gathering)—others’ words were adopted and used in lesser salons, to great applause, sometimes delivered as original material . . . though to be caught at plagiarizing was to be mocked.

a second salon

The earnest literary discussion going on in one room spun off into an intense exchange between three or four dueling wits in the alcove, heard by half a dozen, but then endlessly talked about over the next month, so that a hundred, five hundred, people knew enough of what had been said and by whom to try to intimate to their auditors out in the country that they had been in the alcove that night.

Meanwhile, the original subject spun out in threads of their own, sometimes gaining so much notice that the original subject was forgotten.

The hostess did not always know who was there on any given evening, or how long they stayed. Nor did she know what was reported later—and to whom. But one thing for certain: if it was interesting enough, more people came to her rooms—to listen, to talk, to be seen.

And so the women who hosted these salons had no governmental power whatsoever, but they wielded mighty cultural and social power.

salons 3

The intellectuals used the salons to communicate their ideas; for society they provided conversation. In a country where the press is controlled but where freedom of speech is more or less absolute, the intellectuals need society to disseminate their ideas, to support their writings, to mediate with the authorities, to sound and guide public opinion . . .

The hotlink, Twitter, and the Google Alert, have replaced the flunkeys that powerful people (whether governmental, social, or both) of the eighteenth century could afford to send to various minor salons basically to listen for mentions of their names, or of other words indicative of sensitive affairs being aired.

In the blogosphere, there is a parallel with the danger of discussing governmental secrets in a social setting: the tension between what one can talk about in one’s blog, when, and the workplace seems to be escalating: more bosses appear to be noticing what’s said, who’s saying it, and how much of company time is being used to do it?

salons 4

Salons were the mainstay of cultural life in the eighteenth century but it is hard to make a coherent plan of them. The result would produce some sort of peculiar family tree whereby different autonomous groups came together and dissolved at different moments . . .

Between each of these groups or families there might be sympathy, hatred, rivalry or collaboration, or one might be the heir to another, but none could count on the exclusivity of their members who, for the most part, circulated freely between them.

Wow. No matter how high tech we get, there are some things that just don’t seem to change.







The Salon: Blogging for the Posh — 13 Comments

  1. With online interaction, there’s a kind of nearsightedness that magnifies the importance of things in one’s own sphere and hides the importance of other things. So, if you move in certain circles, you get the feeling that this or that blogger or incident is important, but you may miss entirely things that are going on in other circles, or not even know those circles exist. To take an extreme example, I barely even knew Reddit existed until last year, and yet I read somewhere that it was the most-used social-media (not sure if this was excluding Facebook or not). But is was a whole sphere I knew nothing about!

    Then again, sometimes things that I assume are limited to my online sphere break into the mainstream news, like the whole business with the Hugo Awards, and that’s surprising, too.

  2. The political salons of Louis XVI partisanship for the revolting North American colonies hugely influenced the King’s decision to provide assistance to the insurrection, with money, men, matériel, and the final significance, French naval support starting in 1780. Which is why, when the Citizen Genêt, the Girondist’s ambassador to the new United States, finally bothered to present his credentials to President Washington in 1793, Washington received him, stiffly, before a full-length portrait of the recently executed King XVI, and met with him barely 5 minutes. It was a communication that Genêt did not read: the President Washington remained loyal in his respect to the one who was instrumental to the success of the War of Independence, which he’d fought for 8 years.

    Needless to say, Jefferson — who never came close to the battlefield of the Independence War, did all within his partisanship to foster what became known in history as the Genêt Affair, to humiliate his President and provoke revolt against the presidency. Jefferson did all this behind the President’s back. In public, as VP he was ordered to inform Genêt that the U.S. would not withdraw its articles of neutrality between France and England. In private he even funded a newspaper to libel, belittle and contradict the president. When Washington finally learned of the many treacheries of TJ, TJ resigned, and Washington never received him again. After Washington’s death, Martha called TJ the most despicable man to have ever lived. By then TJ was pretending to not campaign for the presidency and to bolster his popularity came to call on the widow of the Father of the nation. Martha, knowing her political duty, learned over many years as Washington’s wife, received him, but felt sick to her stomach the entire time, and retired very quickly to her own chamber, claiming illness, which was more-or-less true.

    • Jefferson certainly did his level best in his writings to undervalue and otherwise smear Washington’s contributions to the early republic. We see the shadow of that smear campaign lingering today.

      • This came up in Anna Deavere Smith’s new play, Notes From the Field: Doing time in Education, which I saw yesterday. I know that I have always had a high regard for Jefferson and less of one for Washington, and I wonder how much of that was due to Jefferson.

        With all the talk about the dreadful history books Texas is adopting — ones that don’t talk about the KKK and Jim Crow (and believe me, Jim Crow was very alive and well in Texas when I was a tot) — we may have overlooked the fact that our history textbooks have never been all that good. I think my take on various presidents was colored by the way I was taught history. John Adams looks much better in retrospect; Andrew Jackson much worse, to toss out a couple of obvious examples.

        • Yep. Very true about textbooks. When I began teaching history, I was so appalled that for fifteen years I didn’t use a textbook. When I finally chose one, I still brought in tons of supplemental material.

  3. P.S. If one finds it difficult to believe that TJ was such a perfidious, mendacious sob, the best current source for all the documentary sources about this particular duplicity, as well as others, is Ron Chernow’s Pulitizer prize winner for biography, Washington: A Life (2011).

    One notices that this behavior as well as his very many other lies, deceits, betrayals, backstabbings and hypocrisies are left out of the wiki accounts, particularly left out of the Genêt Affair — which again underlines why wiki cannot be a source for anything, at least anything serious demanding serious research. It does tend to be fairly good on pop culture.

    • O, and yes, TJ did spend a great deal of time himself in the Parisian salons, which doubtless helped hone his natural deceitful and backstabbing skills.

        • Witness also how fast he hightailed out of France when the Terror began.

          He always made sure others bore the risks and took the consequences.

  4. Psst. Typo alert. I think you meant Louis XVI not Louis XIII–he was just famous for dying in bed after marrying a young wife. Poor old Louis XVI loved talking about and repairing clocks.
    I agree with everything else you say. The shift to Paris began during the minority of Louis XV and culture never fully shifted back to court despite the efforts of La Pompadour.

    • Gotta confess to my own historical gaffe. Louis XII died in bed. Poor old Louis XIII was terrified of women and the fact he managed to have two sons was widely regarded as a miracle.