French women adorned the decline of feudalism not only with the charms of their persons and their dress, but also with their unrivaled ability to make French society no mere gathering of gossips but a vital part of the nation’s intellectual life. Gibbon, after renewing in 1777 his acquaintance with the salons of Paris, wrote:
If Julian could now revisit the capital of France [where he had been born in A.D. 331], he might converse with men of science and genius capable of understanding and instructing a disciple of the Greeks; he might excuse the graceful follies of a nation whose martial spirit has never been enervated by the indulgence of luxury; and he must applaud the perfection of that inestimable art which softens and refines and embellishes the intercourse of social life.41
And in a letter he added: “It has always seemed to me that in Lausanne, as well as in Paris, the women are far superior to the men.”42
The older salonnières were reluctantly leaving the scene. Mme. Geoffrin, as we have seen, died in 1777. Mme. du Deffand almost spanned the century by entering history as one of the Regent’s mistresses43 and opening a salon that continued from 1739 to 1780. She had lost most of the literary lions to Julie de Lespinasse and the new salons, and Horace Walpole, coming to her for the first time in 1765, found her assortment of aging aristocrats unexciting. “I sup there twice a week, and bear all her dull company for the sake of the Regent”44—i.e., for her lively memories of that remarkable interregnum which had set the tone of French society and morals for the next sixty years. But (Horace added) she herself “is delicious [at sixty-eight], as eager about what happens every day as I am about the last century.”
He admired her mind so rapturously—having never met such brilliance in the still-suppressed women of England—that he went to her every day, and paid her compliments that seemed to restore her golden days. She gave him a special chair, which was always reserved for him; she had him pampered with every form of womanly solicitude. Herself somewhat masculine, she was not displeased by his almost effeminate delicacy. Unable to see him, she could mold her image of him close to her heart’s desire, and fell in love with that image. Able to see her, he could never forget her age and her physical helplessness. When he went back to England she wrote him letters almost as warm with devotion as those of Julie de Lespinasse to Guibert, and written in as fine a prose as that age could show. His replies tried to check her elation; he shivered at the thought of what the Selwyns of England would do with such a juicy morsel for satire. She suffered his reproofs, reaffirmed her love, agreed to call it friendship, but assured him that in France friendship was often deeper and stronger than love. “I belong to you more than to myself.... I wish I could send you my soul instead of a letter. I would willingly give up years of my life to be sure of being alive when you come back to Paris.” She compared him to Montaigne, “and this is the highest praise I could give you, for I find no mind as just or as clear as his.”45
He went to Paris again in August, 1767. She awaited him with virginal excitement. “At last, at last, no sea divides us. I cannot make myself believe that a man of your importance, with his hands on the wheel of a great government, and therefore of Europe, could … leave everything to come and see an old sibyl in the corner of a convent. It is really too absurd, but I am enchanted. … Come, my tutor! … It is not a dream—I know I am awake—I shall see you today!” She sent her carriage for him; he went to her at once. For six weeks he gladdened her with his presence and saddened her with his cautions. When he had gone back to England she could think only of his returning to Paris. “You will make my sunset far more beautiful and happy than my noon or my dawn. Your pupil, who is as submissive as a child, only wishes to see you.”46
On March 30, 1773, he asked her to write no more.47 Then he relented, and the correspondence was resumed. In February, 1775, he asked her to return all his letters. She complied, with a delicate suggestion that he reciprocate. “You will have enough to light your fires for a long time if you add to yours all those you have received from me. That would be only fair, but I leave it to your prudence.”48 Of his eight hundred letters to her only nineteen have survived; all of hers were preserved, and were published after Walpole’s death. When he heard that her pension had been discontinued he offered to replace it out of his own income; she did not think it necessary.
The collapse of her romance darkened the natural pessimism of a woman who missed the colors of life but knew its shallows and depths. Even in her blindness she could see through all gallant surfaces to the indefatigable selfishness of the self. “My poor tutor,” she asked Walpole, “have you met only monsters, crocodiles, and hyenas? As for me I see only fools, idiots, liars, envious and sometimes perfidious people. … Everyone I see here dries up my soul. I find no virtue, no sincerity, no simplicity, in anyone.”49 Little religious belief survived to comfort her. Yet she continued her suppers, usually twice a week, and often dined out, if only to avoid the boredom of days as dark as the nights.
At last she, who had learned to hate life, stopped clutching at it, and reconciled herself to death. The illnesses that plague old age had mounted and combined, and she felt too weak, at eighty-three, to combat them. She summoned a priest and made, without much faith, her surrender to hope. In August, 1780, she sent her last letter to Walpole:
I am worse today.... I cannot think that this condition means anything but the end. I am not strong enough to be frightened, and as I am not to see you again I have nothing to regret. … Amuse yourself, my friend, as well as you can. Do not distress yourself about my condition. … You will regret me, for one is glad to know that one is loved.50
She died on September 23, having left to Walpole her papers and her dog.
Many other salonnières continued the great tradition: Mesdames d’Houdetot, d’Épinay, Denis, de Genlis, Luxembourg, Condorcet, Boufflers, Choiseul, Gramont, Beauharnais (wife of an uncle to Josephine). Add to all these the last great pre-Revolutionary salon—Mme. Necker’s. About 1770 she began her Friday receptions; later she received also on Tuesdays, when music ruled; there the Gluck-Piccini war divided the diners, and Mile. Clairon united them by reciting passages from her favorite roles. On Fridays one might meet there Diderot, Marmontel, Morellet, d’Alembert (after Julie’s death), Saint-Lambert, Grimm (after Mme. d’Épinay’s death), Gibbon, Raynal, Buffon, Guibert, Galiani, Pigalle, and Suzanne’s special literary friend, Antoine Thomas. It was at one of these gatherings (April, 1770) that the idea was broached of a statue to Voltaire. There Diderot muzzled his heresies, and became almost refined. “It is regrettable to me,” he wrote to Mme. Necker, “that I did not have the good fortune of knowing you sooner. You would certainly have inspired in me a sense of pureness and delicacy that would have passed from my soul into my works.”51 Others did not report so favorably. Marmontel, though he remained her friend for twenty-five years, described Suzanne in hisMemoirs:“Unacquainted with the manners and customs of Paris, she had none of the charms of a young Frenchwoman. … She had no taste in her dress, no ease in her demeanor, no charm in her politeness, and her mind, as well as the expression of her face, was too completely adjusted to possess grace. Her most attractive qualities were those of decorum, sincerity, and kindliness of heart.”52 Aristocratic ladies did not take to her; the Baroness d’Oberkirch, who visited the Neckers with Grand Duke Paul in 1782, put her down as “simply nothing more than a governess”;53 and the Marquise de Créqui tore her to shreds in some charmingly spiteful pages.54 Mme. Necker must have had many good qualities to win the lasting love of Gibbon, but she never quite overcame her Calvinist heritage; she remained prim and puritan amid her wealth, and never acquired the sophisticated gaiety that Frenchmen expected of women.
In 1766 she gave birth to the future Mme. de Staël. Germaine Necker, growing up among philosophers and statesmen, became a pundit at ten. Her precocious intelligence made her the pride of her parents until her willful and excitable temperament proved hard on her mother’s nerves. Suzanne, more conservative every day, subjected Germaine to strict discipline; the daughter rebelled, and discord in the elegant home rivaled the chaos in the finances of the state. Necker’s difficulties in trying to stave off governmental bankruptcy despite the American war, and Mme. Necker’s resentment of every criticism that he received in the press, added to the mother’s unhappiness, and Suzanne began to long for the calm life that she had led in Switzerland.
In 1786 Germaine married, and took over part of the duties of hostess in her mother’s salon. But the French salon was now in decline; literary discussion was giving way to eager and partisan politics. “I have no literary news to give you,” Suzanne wrote to a friend in 1786. “Such conversation is no longer the fashion; the crisis is too great; people do not care to play chess on the edge of a precipice.”55 In 1790 the family moved to Coppet, a château which Necker had bought on the north shores of the Lake of Geneva. There Mme. de Staël reigned, and Mme. Necker suffered for years a painful nervous disease, which put an end to her life in 1794.