Paris was the cultural capital of the world rather than of France. “Those who live a hundred leagues from the capital,” said Duclos, “are a hundred years away from it in ways of conduct and thought.”39 Probably never in history had a city so hummed with varied life. Polite society and advanced literature were bound in an intoxicating intimacy. The fear of hell had gone from the educated Parisians, and had left them unprecedentedly gay, careless in their new confidence that there was no omnipotent ogre in the skies eavesdropping on their sins. From that emancipation of the mind no somber aftermath had yet come of a world shorn of divinity and moral goal and shivering in the chill of insignificance. Conversation was brilliant, wit frolicked and crackled, and often lapsed into superficial badinage; thought then stayed on the surface of things, as if in fear of finding nothing beneath; and scandal gossip ran quickly from club to club, from home to home. But often conversation dared to play on dangerous heights of politics, religion, and philosophy where it would seldom venture to move today.

This society was brilliant because women were its life. They were the deities it worshiped, and they set its tone. Somehow, despite custom and hindrances, they caught enough education to talk intelligently with the intellectual lions they loved to entertain. They rivaled the men in attending the lectures of scientists.40 As men lived less in the camp, more in the capital and at the court, they became increasingly sensitive to the intangible charms of woman—grace of movement, melody of voice, vivacity of spirit, brightness of eyes, delicacy of tact, tenderness of solicitude, kindness of soul. These qualities had made women lovable in every civilization; but probably in no other culture had nature, training, dress, jewelry, and cosmetics made them such bewitching contraptions as in eighteenth-century France. All these allurements, however, could not explain the power of women. Intelligence in the handling of men was needed, and the intelligence of women matched and sometimes overreached the intellect of men. Women knew men better than men knew women; men came forward too precipitately for ideas to mature into understanding, while the modest retreat required even of receptive women gave them time to observe, experiment, and plan their campaigns.

As male sensitivity widened and deepened, feminine influence grew. Bravery on the battlefield looked for reward in the salon as well as in the boudoir and the court; poets were thrilled to find pretty and patient ears; philosophers were exalted to win a gracious hearing from women of refinement and rank; even the most learned savant discovered an intellectual stimulus in soft bosoms and rustling silk. So, before their “emancipation,” women exercised a sovereignty that gave its distinctive character to the age. “Women ruled then,” Mme. Vigée-Lebrun later recalled; “the Revolution has dethroned them.”41 They not only taught manners to men, they advanced or demoted them in political, even in academic life. So Mme. de Tencin secured the election of Marivaux, instead of Voltaire, to the Immortals in 1742. Cherchez la femme was the technique of success; find the woman whom the man loves, and you find the way to your man.

Claudine Alexandrine de Tencin was, after Pompadour, the most interesting of these women who swayed the powers of France in the first half of the eighteenth century. We have seen her escaping from a convent and generating d’Alembert. In Paris she took a home in the Rue St.-Honoré, where she entertained a succession of lovers, including Bolingbroke, Richelieu, Fontenelle (silent but virile at seventy), sundry abbés, and the head of the Paris police. Gossip added her brother to the list, but probably she loved Pierre only as a fond sister resolved to make him a cardinal, if not prime minister. Through him and others she proposed to be a power in the life of France.

First, she gathered money. She invested in Law’s System, but sold in good time. She accepted the guardianship of Charles Joseph de La Fresnai’s fortune, then refused to return it to him; he killed himself in her rooms, leaving a will denouncing her as a thief (1726); she was sent to the Bastille, but her friends secured her release; she kept most of the money, and outfaced and outlived all the gossip of the city and the court.

About 1728 she added a salon to her bed as a steppingstone to power. On Tuesday evenings she entertained for dinner a number of distinguished men, whom she called her bêtes, or menagerie: Fontenelle, Montesquieu, Marivaux, Prévost, Helvétius, Astruc, Marmontel, Hénault, Duclos, Mably, Condorcet, and occasionally Chesterfield. The assemblage was usually all male; Tencin brooked no rivals at her table. But she gave her “beasts” free rein, and took no offense at their evident rejection of Christianity. All ranks were leveled there; count and commoner met on one level. Here, tradition would later say, was the most brilliant and searching conversation in all that century of boundless talk.42

Through her guests, her lovers, and her confessors she pulled strings that ran from Versailles to Rome. Her brother was not ambitious; he longed for the quiet simplicity of provincial life; but she saw to it that he was made archbishop, then cardinal, at last a minister in the Council of State. She helped to make Mme. de Châteauroux the King’s mistress, and prodded her to prod him to lead his army in war. She saw in the lethargy of Louis a source and omen of political decay, and perhaps she was right in thinking that if she were prime minister the government would take on more direction and vitality. In her salon men boldly discussed the degeneration of the monarchy and the possibility of revolution.

In her old age she lost memory of her sins, allied herself with the Jesuits, campaigned against the Jansenists, and corresponded intimately with Pope Benedict XIV, who sent her his portrait in recognition of her services to the Church. The kindness that had often graced her faults found many outlets. When Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws (1748) was received at first with public indifference she bought up almost the whole first edition, and distributed it gratis among her many friends. She took young Marmontel in tow and mothered him with advice—above all, to attach himself in friendship to women rather than to men as a means of rising in the world.43 She herself, in these years of her decline, became an author, covering the indiscretion with anonymity; her two romances were compared by friendly critics with Mme. de La Fayette’s Princesse de Clèves.

La Tencin died in 1749, aged sixty-eight. “Where shall I dine on Tuesdays now?” old Fontenelle wondered, and then answered himself cheerfully, “Very well; I shall dine at Madame Geoffrin’s.”44 Perhaps we shall meet him there.

Almost as old as Tencin’s salon, almost as lasting as Geoffrin’s, was Mme. du Deffand’s. Orphaned at six (1703), Marie de Vichy-Chamrond was placed in a convent of some educational repute. She began to reason at an unseemly age, asking questions alarmingly skeptical; the abbess, at a loss, turned her over to the learned preacher Massillon, who, unable to explain the unintelligible, gave her up as beyond salvation. At twenty-one she became Marquise du Deffand through a marriage of convenience; she soon found her husband intolerably prosaic, and separated from him by an agreement that left her well financed. In Paris and Versailles she gambled passionately—“I thought of nothing else”; but after three months and painful losses “I was horrified at myself and cured myself of that folly.” She did a brief stint as mistress to the Regent,45 then passed over to his enemy, the Duchesse du Maine. At Sceaux she met Charles Hénault, president of the Chambre des Enquêtes (Court of Inquiry); he became her lover, and then subsided into her lifelong friend.

After living for some time with her brother she moved into that same house in the Rue de Beaune where Voltaire was to die. Already famous for her beauty, her sparkling eyes, and her merciless wit, she attracted to her table (1739 f.) a group of celebrities who came to constitute a salon almost as notable as Tencin’s: Hénault, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Mme. du Châtelet, Diderot, d’Alembert, Marmontel, Mme. de Staal de Launay … In 1747, now fifty and slightly subdued, she took a handsome apartment in the convent of St.-Joseph in the Rue St.-Dominique. It was the custom for convents to let rooms to spinsters, widows, or women separated from their mates; usually such accommodations were in buildings outside the nunnery proper, but in the case of this wealthy skeptic the suite was within the convent walls; indeed, it was the very apartment that had lodged the sinful founder of that convent, Mme. de Montespan. The Marquise’s salon followed her to her new home, but perhaps the environment frightened the philosophes; Diderot came no more, Marmontel seldom, Grimm now and then; soon d’Alembert would break away. Most of the new company at St.-Joseph’s were scions of the old aristocracy—Marshals Luxembourg and Mirepoix and their wives, the Dukes and Duchesses de Boufflers and de Choiseul, the Duchesses d’Aiguillon, de Gramont, and de Villeroi, and Mme. du Deffand’s childhood and lifelong friend Pont-de-Veyle. They met at six, dined at nine, played cards, gambled, dissected current politics, literature, and art, and departed toward 2 A.M. Distinguished foreigners, coming to Paris, angled for an invitation to this bureau (d’esprit of the nobility. Lord Bath reported in 1751: “I recall an evening when the talk turned on the history of England. How surprised and confused I was to find that the company knew all our history better than we knew it ourselves!”46

Du Deffand had the best mind and the worst character among the salonmières. She was proud, cynical, and more openly selfish than we usually allow ourselves to appear; when Helvétius’ De l’Esprit labored La Rochefoucauld’s point that all human motives are egoistic, she remarked, “Bah! he has only revealed everyone’s secret.”47 She could be spitefully satirical as in describing Mme. du Châtelet. She had seen all but the simple and tender sides of French life, and assumed that the poor shared, as far as their means allowed, all the vices of the rich. She put no more stock in the Utopian aspirations of the philosophers than in the comforting myths of the ancient faith; she shunned conclusions and preferred good manners. She despised Diderot as a boor, liked and then hated d’Alembert, and admired Voltaire because he was a seigneur of manners as well as of the mind. She met him in 1721. When he fled from Paris she began with him in 1736 a correspondence that is one of the classics of French literature. Her letters equaled his in subtlety, penetration, finesse, and art, but fell short of his amiability, ease, and grace.

At fifty-five she began to lose her sight. She consulted every specialist, then every quack. When, after three years of struggle, she became completely blind (1754), she notified her friends that if they continued to attend her soirees they must put up with a blind old woman. They came nevertheless, and Voltaire, from Geneva, assured her that her wit was even brighter than her eyes had been; he encouraged her to go on living if only to enrage those who paid her annuities. She found in Julie de Lespinasse a pretty, vivacious, and charming young woman who helped her to receive and entertain; and now she presided at her dinners like some blind Homer over a round table of sages and bards. She moved with dignity and defiance through another twenty-six years. Her too we hope to meet again.

It was a brilliant age because the women in it were brilliant, combining brains with beauty beyond any precedent. It was because of them that French writers warmed thought with feeling and graced philosophy with wit. How could Voltaire have become Voltaire without them? Even blunt and cloudy Diderot confessed: “Women accustom us to discuss with charm and clearness the dryest and thorniest subjects. We talk to them unceasingly; we wish them to listen; we are afraid of tiring or boring them. Hence we develop a particular method of explaining ourselves easily, and this method passes from conversation into style.”48 Because of women French prose became brighter than poetry, and the French language took on a suave charm, an elegance of phrase, a courtesy of speech, that made it delectable and supreme. And because of women French art passed from the massive bizarreries of baroque to a refinement of form and taste that embellished every aspect of French life.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!