One of the most successful woman playwrights of her time, Virginie Ancelot (1792-1875) staged 21 plays at Paris theaters in the mid-nineteenth century. This exceptional writer and painter also left her mark on literature as one of the most prominent salonnières of her time. Often referred to as the new Hôtel de Rambouillet, Ancelot’s salon attracted the most important authors of the day such as Stendhal, Vigny and Balzac. Her 1842 play L’Hôtel de Rambouillet, while set two centuries prior, bears reflection on Ancelot’s own life as she simultaneously exalts the Marquise de Rambouillet while inserting herself into the same tradition of literary patronage. L’Hôtel de Rambouillet warrants rediscovery not only as an esteemed salonnière’s homage to her predecessor, but also as a criticism of societal constraints imposed upon women. Ancelot staged the plight of women through a seemingly light-hearted play in which wit plays a pivotal role in subverting established patriarchal views of women and marriage.
Ancelot states her intent in writing the play in the preface to her complete theatrical works: “L’Hôtel de Rambouillet représente avec la marquise une femme dans ses rapports avec la société des salons, et montre un esprit distingué, agissant sur la littérature de son siècle” (Dédicace 5). She incorporates writers such as Voiture and Tallament des Réaux among her cast of characters to emphasize the power of the salonnière as a protector and promoter of literary talent. Furthermore, the power of women in literary society takes center stage in Ancelot’s presentation of exceptional women who overshadow the men in this play. L’Hôtel de Rambouillet provides a defense of maligned women associated with salon culture, namely Geneviève d’Urfé, while Ancelot’s use of humor distances the esteemed Marquise de Rambouillet from the frivolous lifestyle associated with the précieuses. Ancelot’s witty and poignant reinterpretation of salon life is an example of a subversive use of the theater to criticize the unequal treatment of women. Moreover, L’Hôtel de Rambouillet’s focus on the importance of the salon in historical context combined with thinly veiled references to self allows Ancelot to laud the femme d’esprit while prompting a reconsideration of women’s power in the salon.