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Salons: a female academy

Monday, April 27, 2020 - 08:00

The concept and legacy of the salon movement deeply unpins several character dynamics in my Alpennia series. Of the central characters, Jeanne de Cherdillac is the only one old enough to have been part of pre-French-revolution society. She was mentored by a prominent Rotenek salonnière and was expected to take up a similar role for herself, except for the intervention of the French occupation and personal tragedy. (But I have a story planned that touches on that part of her life.) This is the culture she hearkens back to when she begins mentoring Anna Monterrez to be an intellectual hostess.

Margerit Sovitre did not partake of salon culture--she had a private education at home, though a stronger one than most girls her age would have received. And her ambitions focused on the more formal realm of the male academy. But the path that leads her to founding her own academy for girls passes through a role that owes much to salon culture, though she expressed it in the form of public lectures rather than private gatherings.

In both France and England, the woman-centered nature of salon culture makes it a very fertile ground for stories that center women and their relationships with each other. The same female networks that populated the salons included many more individual relationships between pairs or groups of women that could be intensely emotional and even romantic. And they had a social context for envisioning the ways that women could support each other in challenging the limitations that men placed on their expectations.

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Bodek, Evelyn Gordon. 1976. "Salonières and Bluestockings: Educated Obsolescence and Germinating Feminism" in Feminist Studies vol 3 no. 3/4 185-199.

Bodek does a compare-and-contrast study of the 18-19th century salon movements in France and England. It becomes apparent in the course of the article that the author has a decided sympathetic preference for the English “bluestockings” as opposed to the French salonières, but this needn’t undermine the usefulness of the article.

Salons emerged out of 18th century French and English reformist ideals of egalitarianism, especially around the question of women’s education. Those ideals failed to create any overall improvement in the situation of education for girls and young women.

Men of the gentry class in England could expect a university education, while their sisters had access only to more informal teaching that typically ended in their early teens. The official position of the patriarchal establishment was that educating women was pointless as their biology was not suited to the rigors of study. Too much education might undermine her health, drive her mad, or simply make her unsuited for marriage. Girls were encouraged to conceal their educational attainments and focus on domestic skills and artistic accomplishments.

Within this context, salons stood out as the one place women could enjoy and display their learning, even though they were often depicted simply as talented hostesses who created a context for learned men to shine. This wasn’t the case. Salons became, in effect, informal universities for women, where they had a chance to study and debate with the leading intellectuals of the day, and in many cases to display their own intellectual accomplishments. But the flavor of salons in France and England were different, due to differences in the social contexts of the day. The first part of this article looks at the historic context of that development.

French salons developed at a time when the official court of France was dealing with violence and turmoil and the rise of absolutist tendencies in the monarchy. Intellectual social life, rather than revolving around the royal court, developed in private spaces, led by hostesses who reigned over their own domains as absolutely as monarchs. The origins are credited to Madame Rambouillet whose frail health motivated her to bring society to her rather than venturing out herself.

Salons were ruled by women who selected the guests, decided on the theme and program, mentored other women (who might go on to found salons of their own), and could make and break careers by dint of careful introductions. The salons served as newspapers, literary journals, and university lecture halls. Invitations were sought after and behavior was strictly dictated. One firm principle was the equality of all within the circle of the salon, in theory including equality of the sexes.

The concept migrated to England in the wake of a general cultural exchange and a fondness of the English for all things French. Starting in the late 16th century, England served as a refuge for all manner of French emigrés, many of whom became schoolmasters and tutors for English children, just as young Englishmen traveled to attend French schools. By the 18th century, the vogue for things French became a passion and social conditions were ripe for the establishment of French-style salons.

In the mid 17th century, the English civil war had disrupted existing social patterns, and with the Restoration, public life and debate had moved out of private homes and into the (functionally exclusively male) coffee houses and clubs.

English women in the 18th century were, on average, better educated, had more social and legal freedom, and participated more in the public economy than French women did, as well has having had the recent example of a reigning queen (Anne). There was a long tradition of independent learned women in England, and upper middle class women looked to a middle class ideal, including the running of businesses, rather than an ideal of aristocratic leisure.

By the mid 18th century, English hostesses began to banish card games from their drawing rooms and to encourage learned conversation, leading to a particularly English style of salon, led by women who self-identified as “Bluestockings”. The term originally implied witty or learned people of both sexes, and ones who were focused on intellectual pursuits rather than fashion. (Blue stockings being considered a plain, unfashionable garment.) The term, however, later came to be used specifically for women and to mean a pedantic educated woman.

While French salons took delight in the enjoyment of pleasures, such as fine dining and artistic beauty, English salons considered such pursuits frivolous and preferred to focus on intellectual pursuits. A great deal of this divide can be ascribed to the social background of the two groups. French salons arose out of aristocratic court circles, while English salons reflected somewhat more puritanical middle-class values.

The educational background of their female participants differed as well. French girls typically had a convent education, famed for its deficiencies and rigid structure.  French salonières often began with a personal goal of improving their own education via their guests. English girls--especially those with intellectual interests--were often provided with personal tutoring, either by family members or hired tutors, and might be encouraged in their pursuits. The Bluestockings, as girls, were often very self-motivated and loved learning for its own sake, reading the classics and studying languages.

In spite of these differences, salon hostesses in both cultures played similar roles. They were hostesses, selected the guests, organized and directed the activities, facilitated discussions, and enforced standards. They were praised (or sometimes critiized) for the way they “played” the gathering like a musical instrument. Conversation and letter writing were considered essential skills and were specifically cultivated.

French salon hostesses were, to some extent, in competition with each other for guests and reputation, though it could be a friendly and supportive rivalry. Each salon had its own tone, and powerful salonières could even exert control over the formal intellectual academies through their male guests. They studied each other’s styles and practices in order to enhance their own. There was a sort of apprenticeship system in the salons, whereby a young woman would be taken on as a protegée and then later create her own salon. French salonières often wrote, but rarely published publicly, as opposed to within her circle of friends and admirers. They led conversations, but rarely put forth controversial opinions.

The English Bluestockings considered their French cousins to have limited horizons. While the French salon might be its hostess’s primary pursuit, the Bluestocking often ran  a business or an estate, might write and publish extensively, and even make a viable living as an author in some cases. The Bluestockings tended to view themselves as a community held together by friendship and mutual interests and beliefs, as contrasted with the French model of separate individual spheres. The English gatherings were less rigidly scheduled while French ones often had fixed schedules.

Bluestocking friendships went beyond sentiment and erased differences of personality, belief, age, and social status. The “economy” of intellectual exchange had room for those of all incomes and levels of influence. And the Bluestocking salons were not simply female-led but were female-centered. Men might be included in their gatherings, but were not treated as the main event in the same way they were in French salons. Eventually, the Bluestocking salons came to regard themselves as a women’s club to which men might be admitted as guests. They had a sense of group solidarity as women that the French salonières typically lacked.

The Bluestockings supported either other in publishing and similar accomplishments. This female self-sufficiency gave them a context for challenging gender roles and traditional roles for women. Their indifference to “pleasure” as a goal resulted in downplaying traditional artistic accomplishments such as drawing, dancing or musical instruments, except in the context of a general pursuit of excellence. They viewed the de facto differences between the sexes as due to differences in education. If girls were educated with the same freedom and rigor as boys, they held there would be no intellectual and moral differences between men and women. This did not lead them to reject marriage universally, but to view the ideal marriage as one between equal friends.

The salon is most often considered in a French context due to its longevity there and because of the way it stood out as the one institution dominated by women. In contrast, the Bluestocking salons are viewed as lacking in grace and refinement. But the majority of criticisms of the Bluestockings can be traced to misogyny and they ways in which they rejected traditional feminine roles.

The French salons evaporated in the wake of the Revolution, and the English ones in the wake of industrialism.

But were the Bluestockings “feminists”? Not particularly, except by contrast. They were as a whole conventional, conservative, and traditional. They did not call for radical reform of the place of women, particularly with regard to the working classes, nor did they demand political rights. They did, however, lay the intellectual foundations for those who would later do so.

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