- Salons, History, and the Creation of 17th-Century France: Mastering Memory.
This book is a critique of critiques, an exploration of how literary critics have shaped the official memory of seventeenth-century French salons. It is also a study on canon formation that presents a twofold argument. Beasley posits that women's writing from this period was systematically marginalized into a separate, inferior place to men's and that the suppression of salonnières' voices was part of an effort to isolate the works of a few acclaimed male authors from the literary milieu of the salons in order to conceptualize them as monolithic works of individual geniuses worthy of representing Le Grand Siècle.
Influenced by Pierre Nora's work on collective memory (Les Lieux de mémoire), Beasley covers a wide selection of criticism on seventeenth-century salons and literature from the past 350 years. In the first half of the book, she explores how "representations of the salons during the seventeenth century overwhelmingly portray this milieu as having power to alter the literary landscape," and she poses the logical question, so "[w]hy was this memory of salon culture ostensibly written out of French literary history?" (14). In the second half, Beasley addresses this question by examining what posterity has done with its received representations of salon culture. The resulting study is in many ways as valuable for its consideration of the shaping of the history of Louis XIV's reign as it is for its critique of memory regarding salon culture and canon formation.
In chapters 1 and 2, Beasley describes the salon milieu and distinguishes between scholarly and worldly critical values, especially focusing on the worldly notions of bon goût, sensibilité, and bon sens — as well as the practice of collaboration — that inform salonnières' approaches to literature. To show the powerful positions women such as Mlle de Montpensier, Mlle de Scudéry, Mme de Lafayette, Mme de Sablé, Mme de Longueville, and the Marquise de Rambouillet held as arbiters of literary taste, Beasley documents their engagement in literary activities. One example particularly pertinent to her argument is that of Pierre Corneille's reliance upon the judgment of his sister, Mme de Fontenelles, regarding the composition of his plays, and another is the literary quarrel over his play Le Cid, in which Scudéry vociferously participated. To underscore the symbiotic [End Page 1225] nature of literary production and salon activities, Beasley notes that in 1633 Jacques Du Bosc writes, "the best authors consult them [salonnières] like oracles . . . and they consider themselves fortunate to have their approval and their praise" (21).
Ostensibly because of anxiety among critics regarding salonnières' power as arbiters of literary taste, such women became the target of efforts beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing through the present to circumscribe their place in official literary history. Beasley gives numerous examples of critics assessing the works and activities of salonnières in ways that seek to "keep women in their place by giving them an area of expertise that does not intersect with 'official literature'" (150). One reconfiguration of salonnières' roles in literary history is the shift from recognizing the influence of such women upon the production of literature to describing them as mere hostesses whose manners were considered responsible for "civilizing a nation" (175).
In chapters 3 and 4, Beasley focuses on this "re-membered" view of salonnières as purveyors of politesse and galanterie, as well as the ways in which it "allows for the vision that grants women little to no influence on the canon of classical France" (177). She contrasts, for example, Evrard du Tillet's Le Parnasse français (1732), in which he places "more than thirty-four women, most of whom would be unrecognizable to today's public" alongside "the canonical masters of France's illustrious 'Grand Siècle'" (185), with Pons-Augustin Alletz's L'Esprit des...