- French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848
French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848 challenges the historiography of salon culture in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Steven Kale frames his exposé against the backdrop of the Republic of Letters and the grande monde and culminates with the decline of French salons in the nineteenth century. From a methodological perspective Kale incorporates the testimony of salon habitués through his prodigious use of memoirs and journals. The value of such fecund material will be familiar to readers of Libraries & Culture. The disparate voices of French salons, including Mme du Deffand and Mme de Staël in the eighteenth century to the duchesse de Dino and the princesse de Lieven in the nineteenth century, offer competing views on the influence of salonnières. Kale reconstructs salon history through an institutional approach, considering its evolution, function, and persistence, rather than a conventional examination of "women in salons per se" (16). He dismisses "literary studies and historical scholarship" that claim a salon-oriented matriarchy politically reigning over le monde as inflated and fantastical discourse (39). He concurs with Adeline Daumard's repudiation of salonnières as political. Daumard states that "women of the highest society and the best circles at court did not have . . . the power either to make the careers of a man they honored or to determine public affairs by friends interposed" (8).
Kale skeptically questions the validity of French salons as idealized spheres of feminine power, seeking instead an accurate representation of salonnières. He departs from Joan Landes in Women in the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Cornell University Press, 1988) and Dena Goodman in The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Cornell University Press, 1994). Landes focuses her argument on aristocratic "women [who] functioned as adjuncts, then, of a system of advancement for merit. Circles at court and salons in the city became centers of female power brokers" (24). Goodman proposes that the goal of Enlightenment salons "was to satisfy the self-determined educational needs of women who started them" (76). Kale is unconvinced by Goodman's premise that salonnières helped to engineer autonomy for the Republic of Letters from le monde (242). Jolanta Pekacz supports this objection, holding that salonnières would not violate their sex through "illegitimate claims" promulgated by social and intellectual desires (Conservative Tradition in Pre-Revolutionary France: Parisian Salon Women [Peter Land, 1999], 12). Kale debunks women's power as "an optical illusion" (40). By the nineteenth century, he argues, "the power of women to harmonize the world was largely a fiction, [and] so was their ability to influence policy and events from behind the scenes" (146). These were women consumed [End Page 566] by unrealistic aims and serving as tools of male power, their own political weight "a rhetorical phantom" (152).
Kale concludes by countering nineteenth-century salonnières such as Mme Ancelot, whose eulogizing tendency clouded the stresses and strains that ultimately strangled salon culture (210). He cites factors contributing to the decline of salons, including universal suffrage that expanded political expression, an obsolescent aristocracy, and fiscal strictures that forced economies on salonnières (214, 215). He scorns the climate of reactionary nostalgia emanating from those celebrating la vie mondaine (220). François Guizot described Mme de Rumford's salon as providing "a lively taste for the progress of civilization" (218). According to Kale, numerous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts such as Guizot's created mythical salon discourse feeding into an erroneous perception of aristocratic feminism that incorrectly equated salons with politically powerful salonnières (219). Kale charges that "the salon was neither a feminist institution nor logically pointed toward the goals of modern feminism," despite the breadth of contemporary scholarship to the contrary (221). Instead, Kale finds that the sea legs of aristocratic feminism...