The growth of wealth in France between the Edict of Nantes (1598) and its Revocation (1685), the urbanization of life, and the decline of religious belief after the religious wars and the Jansenist disputes, had produced in the nobility a relaxation of morals symbolized by Louis XIV in the youth of his reign. The marriage of the King to Mme. de Maintenon (1685), his conversion to monogamy and morality, and the sobering effect of military disasters, had compelled his court to change at least its external ways; and the self-reforms of the clergy had for a generation checked the weakening of the Church. The freethinkers had censored their own publications, and the epicureans had kept their revels from public view. But when the stern and repentant King was succeeded by the skeptical, licentious, and tolerant Regent, these restraints fell away, and the resentment of suppressed instincts broke out in a wave of irreligion and self-indulgence similar to the sensual riot of English society in Restoration England after a generation of Puritan ascendancy (1642–60). Immorality was now a badge of liberation and sophistication; “debauchery became a kind of etiquette.”54
Christianity was in decline long before the Encyclopédie attacked it, even before Voltaire first aimed at it the darts of his pen. Dupuy in 1717 complained of the large number of materialists in Paris.55 “Today,” said Massillon in 1718, “ungodliness almost lends an air of distinction and glory; it is a merit that gives access to the great,… that procures for obscure men the privilege of familiarity with the people’s prince.”56 That prince’s mother, shortly before her death in 1722, wrote: “I do not believe that there are in Paris, either among ecclesiastics or people of the world, one hundred persons who have a true Christian faith and really believe in our Saviour; and this makes me tremble.”57 Few of the younger generation thought of going from Catholicism to Protestantism; they went to atheism, which was much safer. The Cafés Procope and Gradot, like the Temple, were the rendezvous of unbelieving wits.
If irreligion shared in releasing moral laxity in the upper class, poverty co-operated with the natural lawlessness of men in producing moral chaos among the lower strata of Paris. The learned Lacroix calculated that “the dangerous characters, beggars, vagabonds, thieves, swindlers of every description, formed perhaps a sixth of the people”;58 and we may assume that among the urban poor, as among the rich, adultery tempered toil. Crime of all sorts flourished, from pickpockets in Paris to brigands on the roads. Paris had an organized police, but this could not keep up with crime, and sometimes contented itself with a part of the spoils.59 In 1721 the Ministry of War at last succeeded in arresting Cartouche, the Jack Sheppard of France, and rounded up five hundred members of his band, which had made the highways unsafe even for kings. Only the peasantry and the middle classes sustained the moral stability of French life.
But in the nobility at Paris, in the floating gentry of the town, in the addicts of literature or art, in the financiers and the abbés commendataires, the moral precepts seemed quite forgotten, and Christianity was remembered only for a Sunday social hour. The double standard, which had sought to protect the inheritance of property by making the infidelity of the wife a far graver offense than that of the husband, was left behind when the wife came to Paris or Versailles; there the wife who confined her favors to her husband was considered old-fashioned; there women rivaled the men in tying and untying knots. Marriage was accepted to preserve the family, its possessions, and its name; but beyond that no fidelity was demanded, by the mores of the time and class, from either the husband or the wife.60 In the Middle Ages marriage had been counted on to lead to love; now marriage as seldom led to love as love to marriage; and even in adultery there was little pretense of love. Here and there, however, a faithful couple shone as a brave exception amid the kaleidoscopic crowd: the Duke and Duchess of Saint-Simon, the Count and Countess of Toulouse, M. and Mme. de Luynes, M. and Mme. de Pontchartrain, M. and Mme. de Belle-Isle. Many reckless wives graduated into subdued and exemplary grandmothers. Some, their charms worn out with circulation, retired to comfortable convents, and distributed charity and wisdom.
One of the most enterprising women of the Regency was Claudine Alexandrine de Tencin. She bounced out of a nunnery at the age of thirty-two into a giddy progression of liaisons. She had excuses: her father was a successful philanderer as well as president of the Parlement of Grenoble; her mother was a flighty coquette; and Claudine herself was conscious of a beauty that itched to be sold. Her older sister Mme. de Grolée was only less promiscuous; in her deathbed confession at the age of eighty-seven she explained, “I was young, I was pretty; men told me so and I believed them; guess at the rest.”61 Claudine’s older brother Pierre took holy orders, and made his way through many women to a cardinal’s hat and the archbishopric of Lyons. To save a dowry Claudine’s father entered her into a convent at Montfleury. There she fretted in reluctant piety for sixteen years. In 1713, aged thirty-two, she escaped, and hid in the room of the Chevalier Destouches, an artillery officer, with whose aid she became (1717) the mother of the philosopher d’Alembert. Not foreseeing the Encyclopédie in this infant, she exposed him on the steps of the Church of St.-Jean-le-Rond in Paris. She passed on to Matthew Prior and Lord Bolingbroke and Marc René de Voyer d’Argenson, and then flung herself—allegedly after posing as a nude statue62—into the arms of the Regent himself. Her stay there was brief; she tried to transmute her caresses into a benefice for her beloved brother; Philippe replied that he did not like wenches who talked business between sheets;63 he ordered his doors closed to her. She picked herself up and conquered Dubois. We shall meet her again.
Amid this moral flux some women of Paris carried on the distinctive French virtue of assembling titles, intellect, and beauty in salons. The most polished society in the capital gathered in the architectural splendor of the Hôtel de Sully; there came statesmen, financiers, poets—Fontenelle in his silent sixties, Voltaire in his brash twenties. A more lighthearted group met at the Hôtel de Bouillon, which Lesage immortalized in an angry moment: invited to read there his play Turcaret, and arriving late, he was haughtily reproved by the Duchess, “You have made us lose an hour”; he replied, “I will make you gain twice the time,” and left the house.64 We have noted the salon of Mme. du Maine at Sceaux. Marguerite Jeanne Cordier de Launay, who was to be Baronne de Staal, served the Duchess as lady in waiting, and wrote bright Mémoires (published in 1755) describing the comedies, conceits, fêtes-de-nuit, and masquerades that left scant room for conversation amid les divertissements de Sceaux.
But conversation dominated the salon that Anne Thérèse de Courcelles, Marquise de Lambert, held in the Hôtel de Nevers (now the Bibliothèque Nationale). Rich but austere, she continued into the riotous Regency the staid and stately manners of Louis XIV’s declining years. She discouraged cardplaying, chess, even music; she was all for intellect. Like the Marquise du Châtelet, she was interested in science and philosophy, and sometimes (says Voltaire) she talked above her own head; but the head was pretty and titled, which made any metaphysic effervesce. Every Tuesday she entertained scientists and aristocrats; every Wednesday, writers, artists, and scholars, including Fontenelle, Montesquieu, and Marivaux. At her gatherings savants gave lectures, authors read their forthcoming books, and literary reputations were made; from that bureau d’esprit, or ministry of mind, this generous and ambitious hostess waged a score of successful campaigns to get her protégés into the French Academy. She was one of the hundreds of gracious, cultured, civilized women who make the history of France the most fascinating story in the world.