Conversation Starter

Paris in 1600 was not exactly a city of lights. Only two years earlier, King Henri IV—a swaggerer and philanderer of questionable hygiene—had finally ended the thirty-seven years of brutal sectarian strife known as the Wars of Religion by converting to Catholicism (for the second time) and adopting the Edict of Nantes, giving a circumscribed freedom of worship to the Protestant Huguenots. But Parisians still remembered the bitter sieges they had been subjected to by the man who now ruled them and to whom they had reluctantly submitted only six years before. The country remained a mass of smoldering resentments and grudges, led by a coterie of nobles raised on warfare and sedition whose potential for rekindled conflagration was very real. The entire new generation of leadership was coarse, abysmally under lettered, sanguinary, and addicted to intrigue.

The French Renaissance, too, had been a comparatively retarded phenomenon. The Italians had led the French in all spheres of the arts, letters, manners, and humanism. Although Catherine de Médicis had been the consort of one and the mother of three other Valois kings—exerting a powerful influence on French art and cooking—the Italian presence in Paris had not had the civilizing impact that a mother might have hoped for. By comparison with Italian culture, France’s remained obstinately vulgar and retrograde. Figuratively and literally, the French had not yet learned the use of the fork.

The tone of society set at the Louvre, a mazelike warren under perpetual reconstruction, a sump of disorder, immorality, and conspiracy overrun by underemployed soldiers, was probably not the best for a pious, sensitive Roman princess with a delicate constitution, lofty principles, and a love of Portuguese pottery. But that was precisely the context in which Catherine de Vivonne, grandniece of Pope Leo X and distant cousin of Marie de Médicis, the queen of France—and, in time, the proto-Enlightenment founder of the literary institution known as the salon—found herself. Bride at twelve to twenty-three-yearold Charles d’Angennes, who was already suffering from the failing eyesight, fetid breath, and mediocre military and diplomatic skills that would plague him his entire life, she entered her childbearing years increasingly unable to tolerate the licentiousness and unruliness of the court. At first, she began subtly to neglect her courtly duties. Then, excusing herself on the grounds of delicate health, she started openly to shun the court and its habitués. By 1610, when Henri was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic and succeeded by his dour, unlettered young son Louis XIII, she had stopped attending court altogether.

But Catherine was no retiring invalid; in fact, her real life was only just beginning. Drawing on her Italian sensibilities, she tore down all but the core of the decrepit old Hôtel de Halde and started from scratch, designing the layout and interiors of a new home herself— an altogether novel, airy, unified space of tall windows and wide doors, one bright room opening onto the next in liberating enfilade, a kind of architectural embodiment of democratic ideals, encouraging circulation and conversation. Generations of Baroque architects—including Louis Le Vau, who built Vaux-le-Vicomte for Fouquet and rebuilt Versailles for Louis XIV—were to be directly inspired by her vision. Fittingly, the reborn house was rebaptized in 1612 when Charles came into his inheritance: Thenceforward, the new marquise de Rambouillet entertained at the new Hôtel de Rambouillet.

Antoine Aveline’s eighteenth-century engraving of the Chateau de Rambouillet.
Antoine Aveline’s eighteenth-century engraving of the Chateau de Rambouillet.

The inner sanctum, the penetralia, of the marquise’s hospitality was the Chambre bleue, the Blue Room, on the second floor, into which her most favored guests were ushered to engage in the refined conversation that distinguished them from the members of the court. The room’s wall panels of blue velvet, framed in gold and silver, its blue upholstery, and the cloudless sky painted on its ceiling were bold statements at a time when red-and-tan was considered the only viable interior color scheme. The bed from which Mme de Rambouillet received visitors was set into an alcove; access to its ruelles—the “alleys” at either side and at its foot—was strictly controlled: In one, servants alone were permitted; in another, especially honored guests sat on chairs, cushions, stools, sofas, or their coats, or even directly on the railing that guarded the alcove. The room was bright with the light of a hundred candles in a fifteen-branch crystal chandelier, reflected in a magnificent Venetian mirror. The air was heavily scented. People came and went as they pleased all day long, dressed in the finest silk farthingales, rabbit or beaver hats in the winter, silver buckles gleaming. To encourage circulation, there were just a few small beechwood and ebony tables, carved and partially gilded. Eating does not seem to have been a significant element of Blue Room hospitality, though caterers’ records reveal a taste for pheasant, heron, whale, sturgeon, frog, and snail.

Mme de Rambouillet could tolerate neither the cold of winter nor the heat of summer and therefore received her guests draped in taffeta, watered silk, or floral damask, her legs wrapped in bearskin. The drapes were usually drawn, but her bed was flanked in all seasons by great vases and baskets of flowers from her hothouse. She is said to have smiled on all comers and never to have been in a cross mood, although she maintained a cool distance from her husband, who is the presumed inspiration for her remark that “nothing is so ridiculous as a man in bed” but who nevertheless loved her passionately until his dying day in 1652.

Portrait of Mme de Rambouillet, artist and date unknown.
Portrait of Mme de Rambouillet, artist and date unknown.

It is no accident that the word salon comes from the Italian salone, a hall in which the monarch receives ambassadors. This was precisely the spirit in which Mme de Rambouillet entertained in the Blue Room, in what is now widely considered, right or wrong, to have been the first true literary salon, known even in its early days as “the French Parnassus,” its hostess as Arthénice, “goddess of Athens.” There is no doubt that French society—at least, those few of its members deemed worthy of an invitation—flocked to the Blue Room because of Mme de Rambouillet’s charms. She was “divine,” “revered and adored,” “a model of civility and wisdom, knowledge and gentleness.” But they came, too, because her welcome offered something unavailable anywhere else, something entirely new and unorthodox. It is hard to credit it today, but the hospitality of Mme de Rambouillet represented a revolution of thought and manners that was to affect the entire course of French society.

One immediate innovation of incalculable impact was her insistence on including women and commoners in her salon. At a time when their English and German counterparts were still required to withdraw from the conversation of men, French women flourished at a venue where conversation was everything—indeed, the word conversation became synonymous with company, as in “He read his new poem before the entire conversation.” The appearance on the French scene over the course of the century of great women of letters, including Madeleine de Scudéry and Mme de Sévigné, can be traced directly to the openness with which they were first received at the Hôtel de Rambouillet. The same was no less true for bourgeois writers, especially poets, who had hitherto required a noble patron if they were to make their way in the world and publicize their work in society. Suddenly, in the Blue Room, they found themselves mingling, on a footing of equality strictly enforced by the hostess, with the very people to whom they would otherwise have had to devote a lifetime of groveling to meet. Before the assembled conversation, they were encouraged to rehearse their new verse and exchange witticisms and pleasantries with aristocrats who elsewhere would not have given them the time of day. Hence the emergence of a poet like Vincent Voiture. Although reasonably skilled at light verse, portraits, and letters, Voiture’s main strengths lay in his wit, charm, and debating skills. He also provided a convenient and welcome foil to his solemn friend and competitor on the Rambouillet stage François de Malherbe, the “grammarian in glasses.” Voiture was the prototypical, consummate bourgeois salonnier, ambitious and ruthless, of whom the prince de Condé was probably justified in saying: “If Voiture was of our estate, he would be insufferable.”

But suffered he was. The aristocrats may not have universally welcomed the presence of commoners at Mme de Rambouillet’s, but they tolerated it for novelty’s sake and because they would have tolerated far worse for the cachet of being Blue Room regulars. Indeed, those among them who split their time between the Hôtel de Rambouillet and the Louvre were observed to undergo a marked change of character on the short walk from one to the other. For instance, Condé—a cruel and self-serving career soldier who would later lead the rebellion against his cousin the child king Louis XIV—was often seen to break into tears, accompanied by florid formulas of devotion, on taking his leave of Mme de Vigean. If you wanted to be invited back, you had to walk the walk and talk the talk, no matter who you were. Mme de Rambouillet’s hospitality was sometimes a mallet, sometimes a scalpel; in both guises, it was slowly but surely changing the shape of French manners and letters, making them, among other things, more French.

No matter who you were, in the Blue Room you were honnête—not honest, but civilized, genteel, refined. Catherine de Vivonne was the miracle worker who had made virtue fashionable, and you were expected to keep it that way. At this “school of virtue,” you sought a “noble simplicity and urbane freedom” unavailable at court. You were a member of a superior society, a court more exclusive than the royal one, to which sublime sensitivity and exalted conversation conferred membership and where talking, in the words of one historian, was “an end in itself.” According to Jean Chapelain, another Blue Room regular and a disciple of Malherbe, you had entered “le grand monde purifié”—high society, purified and ennobled. You were, in short, a Précieux.

It is no easy thing to look back through the filter of time to a place where to call someone précieux—that is, precious—was the highest possible compliment, but that’s precisely what it was in the Blue Room, where the term, invariably with a capital P, was coined. Nor is preciosity exactly easy to define. Ever since du Bellay had written his manifesto Deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse(Defense and Illustration of the French Language) in 1549, French intellectuals had struggled to elevate their language to the kind of classical literary expressiveness that was already being achieved in Spain and Italy, but the Wars of Religion had largely emasculated its development. Now, with Mme de Rambouillet and her contemporaries, the movement gathered steam, to burst into full expression with the publication of the first volume of Honoré d’Urfé’s novel L’Astrée in 1607. The very embodiment of preciosity, this five-thousand-page romp of amorous fifth-century Gaulish shepherds and shepherdesses was to enjoy enormous success for the rest of the century and greatly helped the guests of the Blue Room to establish their mission and their vocabulary.

To be precious was, above all, to be a savior of the French language, to attach a price or value to appropriate self-expression. “The Précieuses purified the French language and did honor to respectability,” wrote historian Pierre-Louis Roederer. Preciosity came to require a refinement and delicacy of speech that eschewed all vulgarity, all cliché, all reference to the empirical world of politics, money, rank, and fashion. To be precious was to live in an invented world of harmony, civility, and vaguely hellenized pseudonyms in which talk revolved around the perfect alexandrine, the merits of this anagram over that epigram, and, as in Madeleine de Scudéry’s Conversations, such topics as the natures of pleasure, desire, hope, and envy.

In the early days of the salon, conversation had been relatively unrestrained and spontaneous. Inevitably, however, protocol and conventions evolved, and as conversation grew more sparkling with the influx of some of the best talkers in France, it became oration, self-conscious and, in some cases, rehearsed. At the end of a long day of talk in the Blue Room, salonniers would hurry home to commit their accounts of the memorable moments to paper, a whirlwind of letter writing that quickly made Mme de Rambouillet’s hospitality and guests the most celebrated in the land and ultimately gave birth to the epistolary novel. Aware that their every word was now liable to be quoted in copycat salons from Brest to Avignon, members of the Blue Room polished their conversational skills to a high gloss, spent sleepless nights preparing ad libs, and jousted mercilessly with pun and metrical put-down. Thus, the language and spirit of preciosity were broadcast throughout Europe, pathetically mimed by the poor nobles and aspiring bourgeois who would never be invited to the ball.

Increasingly, too, preciosity came to mean membership in a community of equals that defined itself by speaking a language that excluded all outsiders. As in any tree-house club, proprietary slang, including nicknames, became a membership card and a rallying flag. If you did not belong—if your peers did not dub you Clarinte (Mme de Sévigné) or Sapho (Madeleine de Scudéry) or Callicrate (Voiture), if you had not heard Voiture or Bossuet declaiming at the foot of Mme de Rambouillet’s bed, if your bons mots were not quoted firsthand in le grand monde purifié—you were no one. In other words, within a few brief decades, Mme de Rambouillet’s revolt against the coarseness of society had established itself as the institution of the reigning orthodoxy. Roederer wrote: “We can see all the talking clubs at that time as so many academies or wings of the same academy. The academy was everywhere and everything was the academy: academy in action and creation, producing new words and new formulas by whim, then judging its own works instantaneously, without discussion, without debate, without rules, adopting or rejecting according to taste and distaste.” In fact, the establishment of the Académie française in 1634 followed a literary debate on Corneille’s Le Cid that grew so acrimonious in the Blue Room and other salons that it required Cardinal Richelieu’s personal intervention. In the conversations of the Blue Room, the incorporation of the Académie the following year was debated with far more intensity than the French declaration of war against Spain. The Précieuses are long gone, but the Académie maintains a stranglehold on Francophonia to this day. What had begun as the personal rebellion of a principled iconoclast who had been “more or less compelled to withdraw from the world” had gradually evolved, in the ecosystem of her hospitality, into an exclusive club that identified its mission as patriotic duty and a legacy in service of the very glory of France. Hospitality had become an ideology.

One of its earliest victims was the poet and playwright Théophile de Viau. A protobohemian freethinker, Théophile enjoyed brief early success before being charged with irreligion, sentenced to death, arrested, and eventually banished, dying a broken man shortly thereafter. Most dissenters were silenced long before they had managed to make a name for themselves, although preciosity’s opponents learned subtler forms of dissidence to ensure their social survival, as we shall see.

Needless to say, Mme de Rambouillet and her cohorts were doomed from the moment they began to take themselves too seriously. Other salons arose to eclipse the Blue Room, notably Mme de Sablé’s, whose Pascal and La Rochefoucauld easily outshone Voiture and Malherbe, and the Saturday Club, established by Madeleine de Scudéry following her inevitable defection from the Hôtel de Rambouillet. What really laid preciosity low, however, was its own popularity. The exquisite refinement of the Blue Room was only dimly understood in the provinces, where it was emulated to ridiculous effect that eventually tarred the whole enterprise. The hypersensitivity of the early Précieuses— who were so known for fainting at the utterance of the least vulgarity that Tallement des Réaux hesitated to use the word avoine (oats) in mixed company—was not understood in its historical context and widely mocked as hypocritical, given the love triangles and even lethal duels that regularly emerged from the Blue Room.

The mockery of preciosity reached its crescendo in the spectacular success of Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules in 1659. Following a rave command performance for the court, tickets for opening night at the Théâtre du Petit-Bourbon were so coveted that prices were doubled, bringing in a record box-office take of 533 livres (about $2,400). The play concerns two young, provincial Précieuses, recently arrived in Paris and determined to meet the kind of refined, romantic gentry they have read about in their novels, especially those by Madeleine de Scudéry. They incur the contempt of two gentlemen callers by rejecting them as uncouth; the spurned men take revenge by sending their lackeys to masquerade as precious suitors. The young women are charmed and entirely taken in by the valets’ vulgar simulation of refined manners. They proudly trot out all their precious synonyms: “counsellor of the graces” for mirror, “commodity of conversation” for chair, “the sublime” for brain. The maid mistakes their phrasemaking for Latin and begs them to “speak Christian.” When one impostor assures them that “people of quality know everything without ever having had to learn a thing,” they are perfectly prepared to believe it. And when they receive their eventual comeuppance, this apery of elegant manners is exposed as pure pedantry, snobbery, and pretension.

Preciosity’s reputation never recovered from Molière’s attack, and from that moment precious began its gradual assumption of the meaning it bears today. There is not one positive nuance to calling someone precious in our society; just hearing the word used without irony—as in “Isn’t she precious?”—is enough to make us cringe. And yet, perhaps we are too judgmental. After all, on November 18, 1659, the seventy-one-year-old Mme de Rambouillet paid her double entry fee, attended the opening of Les Précieuses ridicules, took her lumps— and was seen laughing and applauding vigorously at final curtain.

Jesse Browner is the author, most recently, of the novel The Uncertain Hour (Bloomsbury, 2007). He lives in New York City.