- Salons, History, and the Creation of 17th-century France: Mastering Memory
Professor Beasley has a distinguished history of publication on the literature written by women in the seventeenth century. Her purpose in the present work is to offer an explanation of why the position of women whom she characterises as influential thinkers and writers with an autonomous identity of their own in the seventeenth century was re-interpreted later and demoted to a minor, dependent and insignificant aspect of French golden age culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and why the role of the salon in the seventeenth century was relegated in later official representations to a subsidiary aspect of upper class, male-dominated society and one that had no influence on the canonical male writers of the 'Grande Siecle'. It needs to be read in conjunction with her Revising Memory: Women's Fiction and Memoirs in Seventeenth Century France. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
While denying any direct concern with the historical 'truth' of the salon (p.15) Beasley argues that the reality of the position of the salon was overwritten by official myths created in the eighteenth century by the French Academy, (established by Richelieu in 1634), and the Court. As a result, although women writers had been active in the salons, and important in their own right, perhaps even a dominant force in certain genres, they were throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries represented as dominated by distinguished male literary figures for whom the women were merely hostesses. Louis XIV's determination to appropriate French culture as a foundation for his creation of his own self-image as the all-powerful ruler of an expanding empire meant that he needed to maintain the hierarchy of the learned against the 'esprit' of the cultured and official panegyric, and public myth against historical novels that personalised and problematised the role of the individual. This successful take-over has provided the basis of the later orthodox French view of the 'Grande Siècle' and its key place in the French [End Page 121] sense of national identity. Only in the last thirty years has scholarship, in seeking to add the woman's voice to history, resurrected the writings of seventeenth-century women.
Beasley uses what she describes as a close reading of certain texts in order to recreate the salon milieu and its real significance. This process enables her to select the texts that best fit her argument. She is not concerned with enumerating the numerous different salons and their main periods of influence or examining how they differed one from another. She mentions in passing that there were over fifty in the period and acknowledges that not all were literary, but she asserts that all had some literary aspect. She concentrates on the most famous, particularly the salon of the Marquise de Rambouillet and her younger friend, successor and perhaps rival, Madeleine de Scudery and uses the ways in which their role was specifically reformulated as the overriding example of the imposition of an historical myth, the creation of a (false) collective memory.
Beasley does not discuss the historical reasons for the rise of the salons, or their relationship with the royal court and the politics of the period, although this might add to our understanding of their function in literary society. Most of the leading Salonists had a formal position at Court and were involved in court intrigues. Madame de Lafayette was one of Anne of Austria's gentlewomen, for example, and Marguerite de Valois and La Grande Mademoiselle both royal figures and centres of intrigue. The salons undoubtedly had their political side. When Madame de Sable reopened her salon after the Fronde, Cardinal Mazarin wrote that the Frondeurs were regrouping at Sable's salon and would need to be watched.
More worrying is Beasley's failure to analyse the values her heroines were promoting. Were these aristocratic ladies not merely helping create an elite...