The Women of the French Salons

Author: Amelia Ruth Gere Mason

Chapter II. The Hotel De Rambouillet

Mme. de Rambouillet—The Salon Bleu—Its Habitues—Its Diversions—Corneille—Balzac—Richelieu—Romance of the Grand Conde—The Young Bossuet—Voiture—The Duchesse de Longueville—Angelique Paulet—Julie d’Angennes—Les Precieuses Ridicules—Decline of the Salon—Influence upon Literature and Manners

The Hotel de Rambouillet has been called the "cradle of polished society," but the personality of its hostess is less familiar than that of many who followed in her train. This may be partly due to the fact that she left no record of herself on paper. She aptly embodied the kind advice of Le Brun. It was her special talent to inspire others and to combine the various elements of a brilliant and complex social life. The rare tact which enabled her to do this lay largely in a certain self-effacement and the peculiar harmony of a nature which presented few salient points. She is best represented by the salon of which she was the architect and the animating spirit; but even this is better known today through its faults than its virtues. It is a pleasant task to clear off a little dust from its memorials, and to paint in fresh colors one who played so important a role in the history of literature and manners.

Catherine de Vivonne was born at Rome in 1588. Her father, the Marquis de Pisani, was French ambassador, and she belonged through her mother to the old Roman families of Strozzi and Savelli. Married at sixteen to the Count d’Angennes, afterwards Marquis de Rambouillet, she was introduced to the world at the gay court of Henry IV. But the coarse and depraved manners which ruled there were altogether distasteful to her delicate and fastidious nature. At twenty she retired from these brilliant scenes of gilded vice, and began to gather round her the coterie of choice spirits which later became so famous.

Filled with the poetic ideals and artistic tastes which had been nourished in a thoughtful and elegant seclusion, it seems to have been the aim of her life to give them outward expression. Her mind, which inherited the subtle refinement of the land of her birth, had taken its color from the best Italian and Spanish literature, but she was in no sense a learned woman. She was once going to study Latin, in order to read Virgil, but was prevented by ill health. It is clear, however, that she had a great diversity of gifts, with a basis of rare good sense and moral elevation. "She was revered, adored," writes Mme. de Motteville; "a model of courtesy, wisdom, knowledge, and sweetness." She is always spoken of in the chronicles of her time as a loyal wife, a devoted mother, the benefactor of the suffering, and the sympathetic adviser of authors and artists. The poet Segrais says: "She was amiable and gracious, of a sound and just mind; it is she who has corrected the bad customs which prevailed before her. She taught politeness to all those of her time who frequented her house. She was also a good friend, and kind to every one." We are told that she was beautiful, but we know only that her face was fair and delicate, her figure tall and graceful, and her manner stately and dignified. Her Greek love of beauty expressed itself in all her appointments. The unique and original architecture of her hotel,—which was modeled after her own designs,—the arrangement of her salon, the pursuits she chose, and the amusements she planned, were all a part of her own artistic nature. This was shown also in her code of etiquette, which imposed a fine courtesy upon the members of her coterie, and infused into life the spirit of politeness, which one of her countrymen has called the "flower of humanity." But this esthetic quality was tempered with a clear judgment, and a keen appreciation of merit and talent, which led her to gather into her society many not "to the manner born." Sometimes she delicately aided a needy man of letters to present a respectable appearance—a kindness much less humiliating in those days of patronage that it would be today. As may readily be imagined, these new elements often jarred upon the tastes and prejudices of her noble guests, but in spite of this it was considered an honor to be received by her, and, though not even a duchess, she was visited by princesses.

Adding to this spirit of noble independence the prestige of rank, beauty, and fortune; a temper of mingled sweetness and strength; versatile gifts controlled by an admirable reason; a serene and tranquil character; a playful humor, free from the caprices of a too exacting sensibility; a perfect savoir-faire, and we have the unusual combination which enabled her to hold her sway for so many years, without a word of censure from even the most scandalloving of chroniclers.

"We have sought in vain," writes Cousin, "for that which is rarely lacking in any life of equal or even less brilliancy, some calumny or scandal, an equivocal word, or the lightest epigram. We have found only a concert of warm eulogies which have run through many generations. . . . She has disarmed Tallemant himself. This caricaturist of the seventeenth century has been pitiless towards the habitues of her illustrious house, but he praises her with a warmth which is very impressive from such a source."

The modern spirit of change has long since swept away all vestiges of the old Rue Saint-Thomas-du-Lourvre and the timehonored dwellings that ornamented it. Conspicuous among these, and not far from the Palais Royal, was the famous Hotel de Rambouillet. The Salon Bleu has become historic. This "sanctuary of the Temple of Athene," as it was called in the stilted language of the day, has been illuminated for us by the rank, beauty, and talent of the Augustan age of France. We are more or less familiar with even the minute details of the spacious room, whose long windows, looking across the little garden towards the Tuileries, let in a flood of golden sunlight. We picture to ourselves its draperies of blue and gold, its curious cabinets, its choice works of art, its Venetian lamps, and its crystal vases always filled with flowers that scatter the perfume of spring.

It was here that Mme. de Rambouillet held her court for nearly thirty years, her salon reaching the height of its power under Richelieu, and practically closing with the Fronde. 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. But it was by no means purely literary. The exclusive spirit of the old aristocracy, with its hauteur and its lofty patronage, found itself face to face with fresh ideals. The position of the hostess enabled her to break the traditional barriers, and form a society upon a new basis, but in spite of the mingling of classes hitherto separated, the dominant life was that of the noblesse. Woman of rank gave the tone and made the laws. Their code of etiquette was severe. They aimed to combine the graces of Italy with the chivalry of Spain. The model man must have a keen sense of honor, and wit without pedantry; he must be brave, heroic, generous, gallant, but he must also possess good breeding and gentle courtesy. The coarse passions which had disgraced the court were refined into subtle sentiments, and women were raised upon a pedestal, to be respectfully and platonically adored. In this reaction from extreme license, familiarity was forbidden, and language was subjected to a critical censorship. It was here that the word PRECIEUSE was first used to signify a woman of personal distinction, accomplished in the highest sense, with a perfect accord of intelligence, good taste, and good manners. Later, when pretension crept into the inferior circles which took this one for a model, the term came to mean a sort of intellectual parvenue, half prude and half pedant, who affected learning, and paraded it like fine clothes, for effect.

"Do you remember," said Flechier, many years later, in his funeral oration on the death of the Duchesse de Montausier, "the salons which are still regarded with so much veneration, where the spirit was purified, where virtue was revered under the name of the incomparable Arthenice; where people of merit and quality assembled, who composed a select court, numerous without confusion, modest without constraint, learned without pride, polished without affectation?"

Whatever allowance we may be disposed to make for the friendship of the eminent abbe, he spoke with the authority of personal knowledge, and at a time when the memories of the Hotel de Rambouillet were still fresh. It is true that those who belonged to this professed school of morals were not all patterns of decorum. But we cannot judge by the Anglo-Saxon standards of the nineteenth century the faults of an age in which a Ninon de L’Enclos lives on terms of veiled intimacy with a strait-laced Mme. de Maintenon, and, when age has given her a certain title to respectability, receives in her salon women of as spotless reputation as Mme. de La Fayette. Measured from the level of their time, the lives of the Rambouillet coterie stand out white and shining. The pure character of the Marquise and her daughters was above reproach, and they were quoted as "models whom all the world cited, all the world admired, and every one tried to imitate." To be a precieuse was in itself an evidence of good conduct.

"This salon was a resort not only for all the fine wits, but for every one who frequented the court," writes Mme. de Motteville. "It was a sort of academy of beaux esprits, of gallantry, of virtue, and of science," says St. Simon; "for these things accorded marvelously. It was a rendevous of all that was most distinguished in condition and in merit; a tribunal with which it was necessary to count, and whose decisions upon the conduct and reputation of people of the court and the world, had great weight."

Corneille read most of his dramas here, and, if report be true, read them very badly. He says of himself:

Et l’on peut rarement m’ecouter sans ennui, Que quand je me produis par la bouche d’autrui.

He was shy, awkward, ill at ease, not clear in speech, and rather heavy in conversation, but the chivalric and heroic character of his genius was quite in accord with the lofty and rather romantic standards affected by this circle, and made him one of its central literary figures. Another was Balzac, whose fine critical taste did so much for the elegance and purity of the French language, and who was as noted in his day as was his namesake, the brilliant author of the "Comedie Humaine," two centuries later. His long letters to the Marquise, on the Romans, were read and discussed in his absence, and it was through his influence, added to her own classic ideals, that Roman dignity and urbanity were accepted as models in the new code of manners; indeed, it was he who introduced the word URBANITE into the language. Armand du Plessis, who aimed to be poet as well as statesman, read here in his youth a thesis on love. When did a Frenchman ever fail to write with facility upon this fertile theme? After he became Cardinal de Richelieu he feared the influence of the Hotel de Rambouillet, and sent a request to its hostess to report what was said of him there. She replied with consummate tact, that her guests were so strongly persuaded of her friendship for his Eminence, that no one would have the temerity to speak ill of him in her presence.

Even the Grand Conde courted the muses, and wrote verses which were bad for a poet, though fairly good for a warrior. If it be true that every man is a poet once in his life, we may infer that this was about the time of his sad little romance with the pretty and charming Mlle. du Vigean, who was one of the youthful attractions of this coterie. Family ambition stood in the way of their marriage, and the prince yielded to the wishes of his friends. The Grande Mademoiselle tells us that this was the only veritable passion of the brave young hero of many battles, and that he fainted at the final separation. United to a wife he did not love, and whom he did not scruple to treat very ill, he gave himself to glory and, it must be added, to unworthy intrigues. The pure-hearted young girl buried her beauty and her sorrows in the convent of the Carmelites, and was no more heard of in the gay world.

It is evident that the great soldier sometimes forgot the urbanity which was so strongly insisted upon in this society. He is said to have carried the impetuosity of his character into his conversation. When he had a good cause, he sustained it with grace and amiability. If it was a bad one, however, his eyes flashed, and he became so violent that it was thought prudent not to contradict him. It is related that Boileau, after yielding one day in a dispute, remarked in a low voice to a friend: "Hereafter I shall always be of the opinion of the Prince when he is wrong."

Bossuet, when a boy of seventeen, improvised here one evening a sermon on a given theme, which was so eloquent that it held the company until near midnight. "I have never heard any one preach so early and so late," remarked the witty Voiture, as he congratulated the youthful orator at the close.

This famous bel esprit played a very prominent part here. His role was to amuse, and his talents gave him great vogue, but at this distance his small vanities strike one much more vividly than the wit which flashed out with the moment, or the vers de societe on which his fame rests. He owed his social success to a rather high-flown love letter which he evidently thought too good to be lost to the world. He sent it to a friend, who had it printed and circulated. What the lady thought does not appear, but it made the fortune of the poet. Though the son of a wine merchant, and without rank, he had little more of the spirit of a courtier than Voltaire, and his biting epigrams were no less feared. "If he were one of us, he would be insupportable," said Conde. But his caprices were tolerated for the sake of his inexhaustible wit, and he was petted and spoiled to the end.

A list of the men of letters who appeared from time to time at the Hotel de Rambouillet would include the most noted names of the century, besides many which were famous in their day, but at present are little more than historical shadows. The conversations were often learned, doubtless sometimes pretentious. One is inclined to wonder if these noble cavaliers and high-born woman did not yawn occasionally over the scholarly discourse of Corneille and Balzac upon the Romans, the endless disputes about rival sonnets, and the long discussions on the value of a word. "Doubtless it is a very beautiful poem, but also very tiresome," said Mme. de Longueville, after Chapelain had finished reading his "Pucelle"—a work which aimed to be the Iliad of France, but succeeded only in being very long and rather heavy.

This lovely young Princess, who at sixteen had the exaltation of a religieuse, and was with difficulty won from her dreams of renunciation and a cloister, had become the wife of a man many years her senior, whom she did not love, and the idol of the brilliant world in which she lived. La Rochefoucauld had not yet disturbed the serenity of her heart, nor political intrigues her peace of mind. It was before the Fronde, in which she was destined to play so conspicuous a part, and she was still content with the role of a reigning beauty; but she was not at all averse to the literary entertainments of this salon, in which her own fascinations were so delightfully sung. She found the flattering verses of Voiture more to her taste than the stately epic of Chapelain, took his side warmly against Benserade in the famous dispute as to the merits of their two sonnets, "Job" and "Urania," and won him a doubtful victory. The poems of Voiture lose much of their flavor in translation, but I venture to give a verse in the original, which was addressed to the charming princesse, and which could hardly fail to win the favor of a young and beautiful woman.

De perles, d’astres, et de fleurs, Bourbon, le ciel fit tes couleurs, Et mit dedans tout ce melange L’esprit d’une ange.

But the diversions were by no means always grave or literary. Life was represented on many sides, one secret, doubtless, of the wide influence of this society. The daughters of Mme. de Rambouillet, and her son, the popular young Marquis de Pisani, formed a nucleus of youth and gaiety. To these we may add the beautiful Angelique Paulet, who at seventeen had turned the head of Henri IV, and escaped the fatal influence of that imperious sovereign’s infatuation by his timely, or untimely, death. Fair and brilliant, the best singer of her time, skilled also in playing the lute, and gifted with a special dramatic talent, she was always a favorite, much loved by her friends and much sung by the poets. Her proud and impetuous character, her frank and original manners, together with her luxuriance of blonde hair, gained her the sobriquet of La Belle Lionne. Nor must we forget Mlle. de Scudery, one of the most constant literary lights of this salon, and in some sense its chronicler; nor the fastidious Mme. de Sable.

The brightest ornament of the Hotel de Rambouillet, however, was Julie d’Angennes, the petted daughter of the house, the devoted companion and clever assistant of her mother. Her gaiety of heart, amiable temper, ready wit, and gracious manners surrounded her with an atmosphere of perpetual sunshine. Fertile in resources, of fine intelligence, winning the love alike of men and women, she was the soul of the serious conversations, as well as of the amusements which relieved them. These amusements were varied and often original. They played little comedies. They had mythological fetes, draping themselves as antique gods and goddesses. Sometimes they indulged in practical jokes and surprises, which were more laughable than dignified. Malherbe and Racan, the latter sighing hopelessly over the attractions of the dignified Marquise, gave her the romantic name of Arthenice, and forthwith the other members of the coterie took some nom de parnasse, by which they were familiarly known. They read the "Astree" of d’Urfe, that platonic dream of a disillusioned lover; discussed the romances of Calprenede and the sentimental Bergeries of Racan. Such Arcadian pictures seemed to have a singular fascination for these courtly dames and plumed cavaliers. They tried to reproduce them. Assuming the characters of the rather insipid Strephons and florimels, they made love in pastoral fashion, with pipe and lute—these rustic diversions serving especially to while away the long summer days in the country at Rambouillet, at Chantilly, or at Ruel. They improvised sonnets and madrigals; they praised each other in verse; they wrote long letters on the slightest pretext. As a specimen of the badinage so much in vogue, I quote from a letter written by Voiture to one of the daughters of Mme. de Rambouillet, who was an abbess, and had sent him a present of a cat.

"Madame, I was already so devoted to you that I supposed you knew there was no need of winning me by presents, or trying to take me like a rat, with a cat. Nevertheless, if there was anything in my thought that was not wholly yours, the cat which you have sent me has captured it." After a eulogy upon the cat, he adds: "I can only say that it is very difficult to keep, and for a cat religiously brought up it is very little inclined to seclusion. It never sees a window without wishing to jump out, it would have leaped over the wall twenty times if it had not been prevented, and no secular cat could be more lawless or more self-willed."

The wit here is certainly rather attenuated, but the subject is an ungrateful one. Mme. de Sevigne finds Voiture "libre, badin, charmant," and disposes of his critics by saying, "So much the worse for those who do not understand him." One is often puzzled to detect this rare spirituelle quality; but it is fair to presume that it was of the volatile sort that evaporates with time.

All this sentimental masquerading and exaggerated gallantry suggests the vulnerable side of the Hotel de Rambouillet, and the side which its enemies have been disposed to make very prominent. Among those who tried to imitate this salon, Spanish chivalry doubtless degenerated into a thousand absurdities, and it must be admitted that the salon itself was not free from reproach on this point. It became the fashion to write and talk in the language of hyperbole. Sighing lovers were consumed with artificial fires, and ready to die with affected languors. Like the old poets of Provence, whose spirit they caught and whose phrases they repeated, they were dying of love they did not feel. The eyes of Phyllis extinguished the sun. The very nightingales expired of jealousy, after hearing the voice of Angelique.

It would be difficult, perhaps, to find anywhere a company of clever people bent upon amusing themselves and passing every day more or less together, whose sayings and doings would bear to be exactly chronicled. The literary diversions and poetic ideals of this circle, too, gave a certain color to the charge of affectation, among people of less refined instincts, who found its esprit incomprehensible, its manners prudish, and its virtue a tacit reproach; but the dignified and serious character of many of its constant habitues should be a sufficient guarantee that it did not greatly pass the limits of good taste and good sense. The only point upon which Mme. de Rambouillet seems to have been open to criticism was a certain formal reserve and an overfastidious delicacy; but in an age when the standards of both refinement and morals were so low, this implies a virtue rather than a defect. Nor does her character appear to have been at all tinged with pretension. "I should fear from your example to write in a style too elevated," says Voiture, in a letter to her. But traditions are strong, and people do not readily adapt themselves to new models. Character and manners are a growth. That which is put on, and not ingrained, is apt to lack true balance and proportion. Hence it is not strange that this new order of things resulted in many crudities and exaggerations.

It is not worth while to criticize too severely the plumed knights who took the heroes of Corneille as models, played the harmless lover, and paid the tribute of chivalric deference to women. The strained politeness may have been artificial, and the forms of chivalry very likely outran the feeling, but they served at least to keep it alive, while the false platonism and ultrarefined sentiment were simply moral protests against the coarse vices of the time. The prudery which reached a satirical climax in "Les Precieuses Ridicules" was a natural reaction from the sensuality of a Marguerite and a Gabrielle. Mme. de Rambouillet saw and enjoyed the first performance of this celebrated play, nor does it appear that she was at all disturbed by the keen satire which was generally supposed to have been directed toward her salon. Moliere himself disclaims all intention of attacking the true precieuse; but the world is not given to fine discrimination, and the true suffers from the blow aimed at the false. This brilliant comedian, whose manners were not of the choicest, was more at home in the lax and epicurean world of Ninon and Mme. de la Sabliere—a world which naturally did not find the decorum of the precieuses at all to its taste; the witticism of Ninon, who defined them as the "Jansenists of love," is well known. It is not unlikely that Moliere shared her dislike of the powerful and fastidious coterie whose very virtues might easily have furnished salient points for his scathing wit.

But whatever affectations may have grown out of the new code of manners, it had a more lasting result in the fine and stately courtesy which pervaded the later social life of the century. We owe, too, a profound gratitude to these women who exacted and were able to command a consideration which with many shades of variation has been left as a permanent heritage to their sex. We may smile at some of their follies; have we not our own which some nineteenth century Moliere may serve up for the delight and possible misleading of future generations?

There is a warm human side to this daily intercourse, with its sweet and gracious courtesies. The women who discuss grave questions and make or unmake literary reputations in the salon, are capable of rare sacrifices and friendships that seem quixotic in their devotion. Cousin, who has studied them so carefully and so sympathetically, has saved from oblivion many private letters which give us pleasant glimpses of their everyday life. As we listen to their quiet exchange of confidences, we catch the smile that plays over the light badinage, or the tear that lurks in the tender words.

A little son of Mme. de Rambouillet has the small pox, and his sister Julie shares the care of him with her mother, when every one else has fled. At his death, she devotes herself to her friend Mme. de Longueville, who soon after her marriage is attacked with the same dreaded malady. Mme. de Sable is afraid of contagion, and refuses to see Mlle. de Rambouillet, who writes her a characteristic letter. As it gives us a vivid idea of her esprit as well as of her literary style, I copy it in full, though it has been made already familiar to the English reader by George Eliot, in her admirable review of Cousin’s "Life of Mme. De Sable."

Mlle de Chalais (Dame de compagnie to the Marquise) will please read this letter to Mme. la Marquise, out of the wind.

Madame, I cannot begin my treaty with you too early, for I am sure that between the first proposition made for me to see you, and the conclusion, you will have so many reflections to make, so many physicians to consult, and so many fears to overcome, that I shall have full leisure to air myself. The conditions which I offer are, not to visit you until I have been three days absent from the Hotel de Conde, to change all my clothing, to choose a day when it has frozen, not to approach you within four paces, not to sit down upon more than one seat. You might also have a great fire in your room, burn juniper in the four corners, surround yourself with imperial vinegar, rue, and wormwood. If you can feel safe under these conditions, without my cutting off my hair, I swear to you to execute them religiously; and if you need examples to fortify you, I will tell you that the Queen saw M. de Chaudebonne when he came from Mlle. de Bourbon’s room, and that Mme. d’Aiguillon, who has good taste and is beyond criticism on such points, has just sent me word that if I did not go to see her, she should come after me.

Mme. de Sable retorts in a satirical vein, that her friend is too well instructed in the needed precautions, to be quite free from the charge of timidity, adding the hope that since she understands the danger, she will take better care of herself in the future.

This calls forth another letter, in which Mlle. de Rambouillet says, "One never fears to see those whom one loves. I would have given much, for your sake, if this had not occurred." She closes this spicy correspondence, however, with a very affectionate letter which calms the ruffled temper of her sensitive companion.

Mme. de Sable has another friend, Mlle. d’Attichy, who figures quite prominently in the social life of a later period, as the Comtesse de Maure. "This lady was just leaving Paris to visit her in the country, when she learned that Mme. de Sable had written to Mme. de Rambouillet that she could conceive of no greater happiness than to pass her life alone with Julie d’Angennes. This touches her sensibilities so keenly that she changes her plans, and refuses to visit one who could find her pleasure away from her. Mme. de Sable tries in vain to appease her exacting friend, who replies to her explanations by a long letter in which she recalls their tender and inviolable friendship, and closes with these words:

Malheurteuse est l’ignorance, Et plus malheureux le savoir.

Having thus lost a confidence which alone rendered life supportable to me, I cannot dream of taking the journey so much talked of; for there would be no propriety in traveling sixty leagues at this season, in order to burden you with a person so uninteresting to you, that after years of a passion without parallel you cannot help thinking that the greatest pleasure would consist in passing life without her. I return then into my solitude, to examine the faults which cause me so much unhappiness, and unless I can correct them, I should have less joy than confusion in seeing you. I kiss your hands very humbly.

How this affair was adjusted does not appear, but as they remained devoted friends through life, unable to live apart, or pass a day happily without seeing each other, it evidently did not end in a serious alienation. It suggests, however, a delicacy and an exaltation of feeling which we are apt to accord only to love, and which go far toward disproving the verdict of Mongaigne, that "the soul of a woman is not firm enough for so durable a tie as friendship."

We like to dwell upon these inner phases of a famous and powerful coterie, not only because they bring before us so vividly the living, moving, thinking, loving women who composed it, letting us into their intimate life with its quiet shadings, its fantastic humors, and its wayward caprices, but because they lead us to the fountain head of a new form of literary expression. We have seen that the formal letters of Balzac were among the early entertainments of the Hotel de Rambouillet, and that Voiture had a witty or sentimental note for every occasion. Mlle. de Scudery held a ready pen, and was in the habit of noting down in her letters to absent friends the conversation, which ran over a great variety of topics, from the gossip of the moment to the gravest questions. There was no morning journal with its columns of daily news, no magazine with its sketches of contemporary life, and these private letters were passed from one to another to be read and discussed. The craze for clever letters spread. Conversations literally overflowed upon paper. A romantic adventure, a bit of scandal, a drawing room incident, or a personal pique, was a fruitful theme. Everybody aimed to excel in an art which brought a certain prestige. These letters, most of which had their brief day, were often gathered into little volumes. Many have long since disappeared, or found burial in the dust of old libraries from which they are occasionally exhumed to throw fresh light upon some forgotten nook and by way of an age whose habits and manners, virtues and follies, they so faithfully record. A few, charged with the vitality of genius, retain their freshness and live among the enduring monuments of the society that gave them birth. The finest outcome of this prevailing taste was Mme. de Sevigne, who still reigns as the queen of graceful letter writers. Although her maturity belongs to a later period, she was familiar with the Rambouillet circle in her youth, and inherited its best spirit.

The charm of this literature is its spontaneity. It has no ulterior aim, but delights in simple expression. These people write because they like to write. They are original because they sketch from life. There is something naive and fresh in their vivid pictures. They give us all the accessories. They tell us how they lived, how they dressed, how they thought, how they acted. They talk of their plans, their loves, and their private piques, with the same ingenuous frankness. They condense for us their worldly philosophy, their sentiments, and their experience. The style of these letters is sometimes heavy and stilted, the wit is often strained and far-fetched, but many of them are written with an easy grace and a lightness of touch as fascinating as inimitable.

The marriage of Julie d’Angennes, in 1645, deprived the Hotel de Rambouillet of one of its chief attractions. It was only through the earnest wish of her family that, after a delay of thirteen years, she yielded at last to the persevering suit of the Marquis, afterwards the Duc de Montausier, and became his wife. She was then thirty-eight, and he three years younger. The famous "Guirlande de Julie," which he dedicated and presented to her, still exists, as the unique memorial of his patient and enduring love. This beautiful volume, richly bound, decorated with a flower exquisitely painted on each of the twenty-nine leaves and accompanied by a madrigal written by the Marquis himself or by some of the poets who frequented her house, was a remarkable tribute to the graces of the woman whose praises were so delicately sung. The faithful lover, who was a Protestant, gave a crowning proof of his devotion, in changing his religion. So much adoration could hardly fail to touch the most capricious and obdurate of hearts.

We cannot dismiss this woman, whom Cousin regards as the most accomplished type of the society she adorned, without a word more. Though her ambition was gratified by the honors that fell upon her husband, who after holding many high positions was finally entrusted with the education of the Dauphin; and though her own appointment of dame d’honneur to the Queen gave her an envied place at court, we trace with regret the close of her brilliant career. As has been already indicated, she added to much esprit a character of great sweetness, and manners facile, gracious, even caressing. With less elevation, less independence, and less firmness than her mother, she had more of the sympathetic quality, the frank unreserve, that wins the heart. No one had so many adorers; no one scattered so many hopeless passions; no one so gently tempered these into friendships. She knew always how to say the fitting word, to charm away the clouds of ill humor, to conciliate opposing interests. But this spirit of complaisance which, however charming it may be, is never many degrees removed from the spirit of the courtier, proved to be the misfortune of her later life. Too amiable, perhaps too diplomatic, to frown openly upon the King’s irregularities, she was accused, whether justly or otherwise, of tacitly favoring his relations with Mme. De Montespan. The husband of this lady took his wife’s infidelity very much to heart, and, failing to find any redress, forced himself one day into the presence of Madam de Montausier, and made a violent scene which so affected her that she fell into a profound melancholy and an illness from which she never rallied. There is always an air of mystery thrown about this affair, and it is difficult to fathom the exact truth; but the results were sufficiently tragical to the woman who was quoted by her age as a model of virtue and decorum.

In 1648, the troubles of the Fronde, which divided friends and added fuel to petty social rivalries, scattered the most noted guests of the Hotel de Rambouillet. Voiture was dead; Angelique Paulet died two years later. The young Marquis de Pisani, the only son and the hope of his family, had fallen with many brave comrades on the field of Nordlingen. Of the five daughters, three were abbesses of convents. The health of the Marquise, which had always been delicate, was still further enfeebled by the successive griefs which darkened her closing years. Her husband, of whom we know little save that he was sent on various foreign missions, and "loved his wife always as a lover," died in 1652. She survived him thirteen years, living to see the death of her youngest daughter, Angelique, wife of the Comte de Grignan who was afterwards the son-in-law of Mme. de Sevigne. She witnessed the elevation of her favorite Julie, but was spared the grief of her death which occurred five or six years after her own. The aged Marquise, true to her early tastes, continued to receive her friends in her ruelle, and her salon had a brief revival when the Duchesse de Montausier returned from the provinces, after the second Fronde; but its freshness had faded with its draperies of blue and gold. The brilliant company that made it so famous was dispersed, and the glory of the Salon Bleu was gone.

There is something infinitely pathetic in the epitaph this muchloved and successful woman wrote for herself when she felt that the end was near:

Ici git Arthenice, exempte des rigueurs Don’t la rigueur du sort l’a touours poursuivie. Et si tu veux, passant, compter tous ses malheurs, Tu n’aura qu’a, compter les moments de sa vie.

The spirit of unrest is there beneath the calm exterior. It may be some hidden wound; it may be only the old, old weariness, the inevitable burden of the race. "Mon Dieu!" wrote Mme. de Maintenon, in the height of her worldly success, "how sad life is! I pass my days without other consolation than the thought that death will end it all."

Mme. de Rambouillet had worked unconsciously toward a very important end. She found a language crude and inelegant, manners coarse and licentious, morals dissolute and vicious. Her influence was at its height in the age of Corneille and Descartes, and she lived almost to the culmination of the era of Racine and Moliere, of Boileau and La Bruyere, of Bossuet and Fenelon, the era of simple and purified language, of refined and stately manners, and of at least outward respect for morality. To these results she largely contributed. Her salon was the social and literary power of the first half of the century. In an age of political espionage, it maintained its position and its dignity. It sustained Corneille against the persecutions of Richelieu, and numbered among its habitues the founders of the Academie Francaise, who continued the critical reforms begun there.

As a school of politeness, it has left permanent traces. This woman of fine ideals and exalted standards exacted of others the purity of character, delicacy of thought, and urbanity of manner, which she possessed in so eminent a degree herself. Her code was founded upon the best instincts of humanity, and whatever modifications of form time has wrought its essential spirit remains unchanged. "Politeness does not always inspire goodness, equity, complaisance, gratitude," says La Bruyere, "but it gives at least the appearance of these qualities, and makes man seem externally what he ought to be internally."

It was in this salon, too, that the modern art of conversation, which has played so conspicuous a part in French life, may be said to have had its birth. Men and women met on a footing of equality, with similar tastes and similar interests. Different ranks and conditions were represented, giving a certain cosmopolitan character to a society which had hitherto been narrow in its scope and limited in its aims. Naturally conversation assumed a new importance, and was subject to new laws. To quote again from LaBruyere, who has so profoundly penetrated the secrets of human nature: "The esprit of conversation consists much less in displaying itself than in drawing out the wit of others . . . Men do not like to admire you, they wish to please; they seek less to be instructed or even to be entertained, than to be appreciated and applauded, and the most delicate pleasure is to make that of others." "To please others," says La Rochefoucauld, "one must speak of the things they love and which concern them, avoid disputes upon indifferent maters, ask questions rarely, and never let them think that one is more in the right than themselves."

Many among the great writers of the age touch in the same tone upon the philosophy underlying the various rules of manners and conversation which were first discussed at the Hotel de Rambouillet, and which have passed into permanent though unwritten laws—unfortunately a little out of fashion in the present generation.

It is difficult to estimate the impulse given to intelligence and literary taste by this breaking up of old social crystallizations. What the savant had learned in his closet passed more or less into current coin. Conversation gave point to thought, clearness to expression, simplicity to language. Women of rank and recognized ability imposed the laws of good taste, and their vivid imaginations changed lifeless abstractions into something concrete and artistic. Men of letters, who had held an inferior and dependent position, were penetrated with the spirit of a refined society, while men of the world, in a circle where wit and literary skill were distinctions, began to aspire to the role of a bel esprit, to pride themselves upon some intellectual gift and the power to write without labor and without pedantry, as became their rank. Many of them lacked seriousness, dealing mainly with delicate fancies and trivial incidents, but pleasures of the intellect and taste became the fashion. Burlesques and chansons disputed the palm with madrigals and sonnets. A neatly turned epigram or a clever letter made a social success.

Perhaps it was not a school for genius of the first order. Society favors graces of form and expression rather than profound and serious thought. No Homer, nor Aeschylus, nor Milton, nor Dante is the outgrowth of such a soil. The prophet or seer shines by the light of his own soul. He deals with problems and emotions that lie deep in the pulsing heart of humanity, but he does not best interpret his generation. It is the man living upon the level of his time, and finding his inspiration in the world of events, who reflects its life, marks its currents, and registers its changes. Matthew Arnold has aptly said that "the qualities of genius are less transferable than the qualities of intelligence, less can be immediately learned and appropriated from their product; they are less direct and stringent intellectual agencies, though they may be more beautiful and divine." It was this quality of intelligence that eminently characterized the literature of the seventeenth century. It was a mirror of social conditions, or their natural outcome. The spirit of its social life penetrated its thought, colored its language, and molded its forms. We trace it in the letters and vers de societe which were the pastime of the Hotel de Rambouillet and the Samedis of Mlle. de Scudery, as well as in the romances which reflected their sentiments and pictured their manners. We trace it in the literary portraits which were the diversion of the coterie of Mademoiselle, at the Luxembourg, and in the voluminous memoirs and chronicles which grew out of it. We trace it also in the "Maxims" and "Thoughts" which were polished and perfected in the convent salon of Mme. de Sable, and were the direct fruits of a wide experience and observation of the great world. It would be unfair to say that anything so complex as the growth of a new literature was wholly due to any single influence, but the intellectual drift of the time seems to have found its impulse in the salons. They were the alembics in which thought was fused and crystallized. They were the schools in which the French mind cultivated its extraordinary clearness and flexibility.

As the century advanced, the higher literature was tinged and modified by the same spirit. Society, with its follies and affectations, inspired the mocking laughter of Moliere, but its unwritten laws tempered his language and refined his wit. Its fine urbanity was reflected in the harmony and delicacy of Racine, as well as in the critical decorum of Boileau. The artistic sentiment rules in letters, as in social life. It was not only the thought that counted, but the setting of the thought. The majestic periods of Bossuet, the tender persuasiveness of Fenelon, gave even truth a double force. The moment came when this critical refinement, this devotion to form, passed its limits, and the inevitable reaction followed. The great literary wave of the seventeenth century reached its brilliant climax and broke upon the shores of a new era. But the seeds of thought had been scattered, to spring up in the great literature of humanity that marked the eighteenth century.


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Chicago: Amelia Ruth Gere Mason, "Chapter II. The Hotel De Rambouillet," The Women of the French Salons, trans. Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946 in The Women of the French Salons (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920), Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2024,

MLA: Mason, Amelia Ruth Gere. "Chapter II. The Hotel De Rambouillet." The Women of the French Salons, translted by Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946, in The Women of the French Salons, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Mason, AR, 'Chapter II. The Hotel De Rambouillet' in The Women of the French Salons, trans. . cited in 1920, The Women of the French Salons, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2024, from