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THE DECLINE OF THE SALON
In 1765, at a period famous for the wit and brilliancy of its society in the most brilliant capital of Europe, we find Horace Walpole writing from Paris : 'Laughing is as much out of fashion as pantins or bilboquets. Good folks, they have not time to laugh. There is God and the King to be pulled down first, and men and women, one and all, are devoutly employed in the demolition.'
And again : ‘Gaiety,' he says, 'whatever it was formerly, is no longer the growth of this country.' Horace Walpole had, as we know, the entrée to the most famous salons of that famous day-to the innermost sanctuary of the most exclusive aristocracy of birth and brains alike which has perhaps ever existed. He was the constant guest of those talented ladies who, to quote Sydney Smith, 'violated all the common duties of life and gave very pleasant little suppers.' And that he soon began to enjoy himself exceedingly, in spite of the lack of gaiety, of which he continues somewhat curiously to complain, there is no room to doubt. In spite of those pleasant little suppers his attacks of gout became less frequent, and the British lion, that faithful occupant of every true Englishman's breast, began to roar less loudly at the difference in the manners and customs of the French capital from those of his own. Indeed, the lion-in this case a by no means intractable one-soon lay down to be cajoled and caressed by these charming and witty women, the indelicacy and boldness of whose conversation at first jarred very considerably on the nerves of their English guest. Walpole came from a country where the conversation in the eighteenth century was certainly no whit less coarse, but where the most of it was to be heard in the clubs, from which the feminine element was naturally excluded. In Paris he found no clubs of any social importance; but he found the intellectual life of the country centred in those quiet salons, dimly lighted, innocent of all ostentatious hospitality, where friends met friends evening after evening in closest intercourse and completest comprehension, and where the Salonière, from whom emanated a prevailing atmosphere of urbanity, had made a fine art of pleasing. She led the conversation without dominating it, listened with sympathy and intelligence,
concealed her wittiest epigram in subtle flattery, and her keenest criticism in warm encouragement.
Madame Sophie Gay, writing at a later period, maintains, what we can well believe, that to hold a salon successfully was no easy matter. The hostess must have a mind of a high order combined with considerable tact and a power of self-effacement, and she must have a decided taste for superiority in every form. Added to this she must have complete repose of manner, a gift obviously less rare in those days than in our own. Birth and fortune are not absolutely essential, but they are desirable. The Salonière should have good looks, but she must not be of an age when her intercourse with the other sex would naturally evoke compliments. Her personality, in fact, must dominate her physical charms. To hold a salon involved some selfsacrifice, for the Salonière had to lead as secluded an existence as the goddess in her temple, sitting at home evening after evening to await her devotees ; for never must the altar be found deserted upon which their tribute of devotion was to be laid. She must never stir abroad at night unless it were to attend a Court function or a family gathering of rare importance. Madame Gay, herself a prominent figure in the society of the Restoration and later, observes that the self-imposed slavery of the grandes dames of the old régime, which consisted in receiving daily and listening to the most brilliant conversationalists in the world, was perhaps less of a supplice than some of the social pleasures of her own day !
In any case Horace Walpole was the constant guest of these same great ladies. He admits that he went his own way in truly English fashion, but he began to find Paris extremely agreeable—so agreeable, indeed, that it was with difficulty that he brought himself to leave it for the fogs of his native land. Later, when he had become the absorbing passion of old Madame du Deffand's declining years, we know with what close and sometimes irksome bonds Parisian society was apt to hold him. Already the influence of this vivacious and tyrannical lady made itself felt in his criticisms of her rival Salonières. He pays but a grudging tribute to the amazing 'common-sense' of that wise and clever woman Madame Geoffrin ; for had she not incurred the lasting enmity of Madame du Deffand by holding out the hand of friendship to the latter's sometime companion and protégée, Mlle. de Lespinasse ? Of Mlle. de Lespinasse herself he naturally has little that is favourable to report, though he probably went occasionally to her little salon in the Rue de Belle Chasse, where he would have exchanged views with the most brilliant intellects of the day. Ten years later, indeed, he refers to her in a letter written to his friend H. S. Conway, then in Paris, as a 'pretended bel esprit !' a judgment which reads curiously in the light of those other letters which have revealed to us the history of a truly remarkable intelligence, combined with perhaps the most passionate and undisciplined heart that ever beat. Madame du Deffand was very old and stoneblind when Walpole first became a guest at her little suppers, and he was no doubt attracted by her extraordinary wit and memory, her unerring judgment, and her spirited interest in the thought and literature of the day. And to his hostess this young Englishman of no mean parts represented something new—a fresh escape from that ennui which was her consuming terror, and which was probably responsible for the many less creditable episodes in her long and varied
Meanwhile Walpole admits that he finds a douceur in the society of the women of fashion that captivates him. His admiration of the Duchesse d'Aiguillon, the Duchesse de Choiseul, and other great ladies is freely expressed; but, pleasant and hospitable as they all are, he does not apparently find them gay. First impressions, if not always the best, are often instructive, and Walpole's impressions of the tone of Parisian society on his first introduction to it are certainly significant, and are probably not due entirely to the gout or to insular prejudice. Several of the women are agreeable,' he writes, and some of the men ; but the latter are in general vain and ignorant.' In fact he detested the savants, the philosophers, the Encyclopædists. * Every woman,' he complains, ‘has one or two planted in her house, and God only knows how they water them !' No doubt the adulation lavished by his old friend upon President Hénault and by all that select côterie upon such men as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and many others, was infinitely tedious to the Englishman, who found their conversation unmitigatedly dull and arid, and was disgusted with their open profession of Atheism. Horace Walpole had to learn that a Frenchman talks his best when the feminine element is not excluded, and perhaps he also had to learn that in congenial company a Frenchman can talk for an almost indefinite number of hours.
* They may be growing wise,' he says, referring to members of a society which, in spite of his criticisms, held him by its charm,“ but the intermediate stage is dulness !' In the light of after events we cannot help wondering how far Walpole realised the cruel wisdom to which all France was growing, due in great measure to that pedantic artificial talk of the Encyclopædists which bored him so consumably. How far did he foresee the terrible harvest which would have to be reaped from the seed so lightly sown amongst the loves and the epigrams of the salons ? Was he half unconsciously oppressed by the decadence of a country in which the feminine influence was so paramount ? At any rate, we know he was dazzled by the brilliant light of that same feminine influence, the glamour of which we still feel across the horrors of the Revolution and the busy restlessness of the nineteenth century. The moral standard of those wonderful ladies, if they possessed one at all, was not high, but their loves, though undisciplined, were not often light. The objects of their adoration were in some sort officially
recognised. They loved and they hated with equal sincerity and conviction. The intellectual atmosphere of the day, which breathed a spirit of tolerance and liberty, tempted them to throw themselves recklessly along strange paths of which they could not see the end. The philosophy which was talked in so impressive a manner by their encyclopædist lovers taught them to transfer their worship, since worship is the need of every female heart, to these men at whose bidding they had cast off their God and their religion. Alas! at what a price and with what high courage were some of these frail and charming people to pay for their loves and their theories ! Meantime for all their wit and elegance they did not laugh-not at least as Horace Walpole understood laughter.
It was just at this date that another salon came into being in which, had he ever frequented it, Walpole would have heard even less of laughter. Madame Necker's salon is one of the most famous in French history, yet it was here that the first death-knell of the salon was sounded. It was not unnatural that the former girl president of the Académie des Eaux at Lausanne should, when opportunity was given her, seek out the lights and leaders of literary thought in Paris. Very soon after her marriage to the great financier a distinguished little circle began to gather round her in the Rue Cléry. M. Necker himself counted for something in the formation of his wife's salon. A rich man's patronage and protection had already been found to be useful to gens de lettres and philosophers. Moreover M. Necker in those early days was just what the husband of a Salonière should be. He was present, but he was unobtrusive; a kind and generous host, but not too actively interested in the talk which went on about him. It was the part of the hostess to lead the conversation, to draw out her guests. This, we understand, Madame Necker did with rather too much zeal. Her reception of her friends was, if anything, a little too cordial. It was hardly to be expected that the strenuous daughter of the Swiss pastor who a few months previously had been struggling to earn her bread, should have the repose of manner and the wellbred assurance of the grandes dames of Paris, who, even while they criticised, approved and helped to make her salon famous. Madame Necker throughout her life was nervous, excitable, morbidly anxious to do the right thing, and too often said the wrong one. Diderot complained that she persecuted him into attending her salon, and was fatuous enough to mistake the homage which she offered so lavishly to every living writer for tribute to his personal charms. He was not long, however, in finding out his mistake, and was one of the first to bear witness to the extraordinary purity of soul, the chill morality which so offended Grimm, of their mutual hostess. In an age of moral corruption Madame Necker was a faithful and devoted wife and mother, The strength of her religious sentiments was at complete variance with the tone of the society in which she moved, and it speaks much Vol. LI-No. 334
for the catholicity and width of her intelligence that she felt in no way compelled to exclude the greatest freethinkers of the day from her entourage. Buffon and Thomas remained her most intimate friends, and Diderot, in spite of his early protests, continued to represent the encyclopædists in the Rue Cléry in winter, and at the Château of St. Ouen in summer, where even Madame du Deffand came out to sup once a week.
Tactless Madame Necker undoubtedly was, but a kinder and warmer-hearted woman has probably never held a place in the long roll of the Salonières of France. Had matters continued in peaceable and orderly fashion, the fame of her salon might have been left to rank with that of Madame Geoffrin, to whom she has been sometimes compared. But this was not to be. The fields were already whitening to the harvest, and those abstract themes, the annihilation of a God and the downfall of a king, which had provided such enjoyable topics of conversation for the encyclopædists, were turning into hard ungraceful facts; and the wife of M. Necker, the popular Controller-General, was the last woman in Paris who could avoid facing them.
Madame Necker's tastes were purely literary: she had no more liking for politics than had old Madame du Deffand herself, who was clever enough to know that politics and society, as society was understood in the salons, could not exist together. When politics step in at the door, mutual confidence, mutual interests, good fellowship, and urbanity are apt to fly out of the window, more especially when the days are evil. Madame Necker's devotion to her husband and her daughter was of a morbidly sensitive and conscientious kind, which gave little enough happiness to herself, and it may be a somewhat tempered satisfaction to its recipients. Her heart undeniably dominated her head, but it was through her intellect that she derived, if unconsciously, her purest pleasures. Of these she was to be in future denied. She shared her husband's power as she shared his banishment, and she was by his side when at the fall of the Bastille he was brought back and conducted in triumph by the mob through the streets of Paris. On his return to power her salon reopened in the Rue Bergère, but the true spirit of the salon, as she and her contemporaries, now mostly dead, had understood it, had gone beyond recall. Madame Necker sighed for the peace and quiet of Coppet, but, it must be added, she was thoroughly dissatisfied when circumstances obliged her to retire thither. Meantime in the Rue Bergère she presided at a political gathering, where M. Necker entirely ceased to hold those admirable qualifications of the husband of a Salonière. He became a person of importance in his own house : his plans for the good of his country were discussed and criticised, and distinguished foreigners sought him out. He justly felt that this was no time for the cant of the philosophers, who had already done enough mischief with their talk of freedom and their denial of a God. Literary and