- Raising the Wind: Society Hostesses and Social Networks
“At Rome we had, on the whole, a pleasant winter; tho’ we very much felt the want of some agreeable person, who, like yourself, understands society, and will be at the pains of bringing it together. I mean society, in contradistinction not only to solitude, but to a coterie.”—Lord Dudley to Mary Berry, 10 May 18241
Literary historians have devoted considerable effort to the study of individuals and of groups, but not so much to groups of individuals. This likely reflects the dominance of the novel as a narrative form: the developmental narrative characteristic of classical novels is well suited to stories about the unfolding of genius or the rise of social classes, but is not so suitable for sprawling assemblages where there is no clear protagonist or common motive. Yet the literary study of groups of individuals is becoming more common.
It has been given an impetus from feminist scholarship on coteries— British Literary Salons is an instance of this—and from materialist histories [End Page 89] of art and literature calling into question the idea of individual genius, as for example the idea of the “social text” proposed by Donald F. Mackenzie and developed by Jerome McGann. More recent and more radical are the applications of graphing theory to literature in the writings of Franco Moretti and Matthew L. Jockers. A computer-generated graph is not a narrative form and so better suited for mapping relations among individuals who are parts of large and diverse groups. A literary salon is the kind of social formation where graphing and social network theory have advantages over narrative representation.
While French literary salons have been the object of intense study, such has not been the case with their equivalents in Britain. Susanne Schmid undertakes to rectify this omission by “restoring British salon sociability to the pantheon of culturally relevant sites, which has hitherto displayed coffee-houses, museum spaces, theaters, clubs, associations, and churches” (2). The phrase “literary salon” first began to appear in English in the 1840s, apparently adopted from the French: “a nostalgic term applied in retrospect” to pre-Revolutionary social gatherings (5). Parisian salons, hosted by women, met at regular intervals and entertained intellectuals who opposed a French court attempting to set the program for arts and letters. Retrospectively applying “literary salon” to Georgian social gatherings runs the risk of overlooking Dudley’s distinction between society-hosting and participating in a coterie.
The English word then most commonly in use was generally “assembly,” sometimes “soirée,” and very occasionally “drawing-room.” An assembly gathered a select but heterogeneous group of individuals for purposes of conversation—as opposed to a “coterie,” which implies homogeneity. Assemblies were regulated by inconsistently enforced codes of manners that varied from France to England, and from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth. In his letter to Mary Berry, Lord Dudley offers the use of his library, knowing that his neighbor was researching a book on French and English manners. British Literary Salons would have been a more useful book had it undertaken Mary Berry’s daunting empirical task of comparing and discriminating between how things were done in France and England, before and after the French Revolution—as opposed to starting from the notion of public and private “spheres,” an abstraction with which it quite rightly finds fault.
The closest English political equivalents to the French salons were the assemblies of Foxite Whigs at Devonshire House in the 1780s and 90s, and at Holland House in the early nineteenth century. The politicians, intellectuals, and persons of fashion who gathered around the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Holland had wealth and status enough to challenge the political program of the Hanoverian court, but they did not, as in France, meet in regular salons. There were weekly assemblies hosted by women during the parliamentary season, [End Page 90] but these assemblies, while associated with one party or the other, were mostly social as opposed to political gatherings, often short-lived, and were...