Modern History Sourcebook:
Although the leading figures of the Enlightenment were all
men, the social context was the highly-civilized "salon",
usually presided over by a women with some independent wealth.
On Julie de Lespinasse
From Memoir of Baron de Grimm
Her circle met daily from five o'clock until nine in the evening.
There we were sure to find choice men of all orders in the State,
the Church, the Court,-military men, foreigners, and the most
distinguished men of letters. Every one agrees that though the
name of M. d'Alembert may have drawn them thither, it was she
alone who kept them there. Devoted wholly to the care of preserving
that society, of which she was the soul and the charm, she subordinated
to this purpose all her tastes and all her personal intimacies.
She seldom went to the theatre or into the country, and when she
did make an exception to this rule it was an event of which all
Paris was notified in advance.... Politics, religion, philosophy,
anecdotes, news, nothing was excluded from the conversation, and,
thanks to her care, the most trivial little narrative gained,
as naturally as possible, the place and notice it deserved. News
of all kinds was gathered there in its first freshness.
From Memoir of Marmontel
The circle was formed of persons who were not bound together.
She had taken them here and there in society, but so well assorted
were they that once there they fell into harmony like the strings
of an instrument touched by an able hand. Following out that comparison,
I may say that she played the instrument with an art that came
of genius; she seemed to know what tone each string would yield
before she touched it; I mean to say that our minds and our natures
were so well known to her that in order to bring them into play
she had but to say a word. Nowhere was conversation more lively,
more brilliant, or better regulated than at her house. It was
a rare phenomenon indeed, the degree of tempered, equable heat
which she knew so well how to maintain, sometimes by moderating
it, sometimes by quickening it. The continual activity of her
soul was communicated to our souls, but measurably; her imagination
was the mainspring, her reason the regulator. Remark that the
brains she stirred at will were neither feeble nor frivolous:
the Coudillacs and Turgots were among them; d'Alembert was like
a simple, docile child beside her. Her talent for casting out
a thought and giving it for discussion to men of that class, her
own talent in discussing it with precision, sometimes with eloquence,
her talent for bringing forward new ideas and varying the topic-always
with the facility and ease of a fairy, who, with one touch of
her wand, can change the scene of her enchantment-these talents,
I say, were not those of an ordinary woman. It was not with the
follies of fashion and vanity that daily, during four hours of
conversation, without languor and without vacuum, she knew how
to make herself interesting to a wide circle of strong minds.
From Letter of Julie de Lespinasse to the Comte de Guibert.
I love you too well to impose the least restraint upon myself;
I prefer to have to ask your pardon rather than commit no faults.
I have no selflove with you; I do not comprehend those rules
of conduct that make us so content with self and so cold to those
we love. I detest prudence, I even hate (suffer me to say so)
those "duties of friendship" which substitute propriety
for interest, and circumspection for feeling. How shall I say
it? I love the abandonment to impulse, I act from impulse only,
and I love to madness that others do the same by me.
Ah! mon Dieu! how far I am from being equal to you! I have
not your virtues, I know no duties with my friend; I am closer
to the state of nature; savages do not love with more simplicity
and good faith.
The world, misfortunes, evils, nothing has corrupted my heart.
I shall never be on my guard against you; l shall never suspect
you. You say that you have friendship for me; you are virtuous;
what can l fear? I will let you see the trouble, the agitation
of my soul, and I shall not blush to seem to you weak and inconsistent.
I have already told that I do not seek to please you; I do not
wish to usurp your esteem. I prefer to deserve your indulgence-in
short, I want to love you with all my heart and to place in you
a confidence without reserve....
From Letters of Julie de Lespinasse, Katherine P. Wormley,
trans. (Boston: Hardy, Pratt and Co., 1903), p9,. 34-35, 75.
On Madame Geoffrin
Madame Geoffrin was married to a rich man. His money seems
to have been the main benefit she found in the marriage. She used
it to help her philosophe friends.
From Memoir of d'Alembert
Much has been said respecting Madame Geoffrin's goodness, to what
a point it was active, restless, obstinate. But it has notbeen
added, and which reflects the greatest honour upon her, that,
as she advanced in years, this habit constantly increased. For
the misfortune of society, it too often happens that age and experience
produce a directly contrary effect, even in very virtuous characters,
if virtue be not in them a powerful sentiment indeed, and of no
common stamp. The more disposed they have been at first to feel
kindness towards their fellow creatures, the more, finding daily
their ingratitude, do they repent of having served them, and even
consider it almost as a reproach to themselves to have loved them.
Madame Geoffrin had learnt, from a more reflected study of mankind,
from taking a view of them more enlightened by reason and justice,
that they are more weak and vain than wicked; that we ought to
compassionate their weakness, and bear with their vanity, that
they may bear with ours....
The passion of giving, which was an absolute necessity
to her seemed born with her, and tormented her, if l may say so,
even from her earliest years. While yet a child, if she saw from
the window any poor creature asking alms, she would throw whatever
she could lay her hands upon to them; her bread, her linen, and
even her clothes. She was often scolded for this intemperance of charity, sometimes even punished, but nothing could alter
the disposition, she would do the same the very next day....
Always occupied with those whom she loved, always anxious about
them, she even anticipated every thing which might interrupt their
happiness. A young man, [note: yhis young man was d'Alembert himself]
for whom she interested herself very much, who had till that moment
been wholly absorbed in his studies, was suddenly seized with
an unfortunate passion, which rendered study, and even life itself
insupportable to him. She succeeded in curing him. Some time after
she observed that the same young man, mentioned to her, with great
interest, an amiable woman with whom he had recently become acquainted.
Madame Geoffrin, who knew the lady, went to her. "I am come,"
she said, "to intreat a favour of you. Do not evince too
much friendship for * * * * or too much desire to see him, he
will be soon in love with you, he will be unhappy, and I shall
be no less so to see him suffer; nay, you yourself will be a sufferer,
from consciousness, of the sufferings you occasion him."
This woman, who was truly amiable, promised what Madame Geoffrin
desired, and kept her word. As she had always among the circle of her society persons of the
highest rank and birth, as she appeared even to seek an acquaintance
with them, it was supposed that this flattered her vanity. But
here a very erroneous opinion was formed of her; she was in no
respect the dupe of such prejudices, but she thought that by managing
the humours of these people, she could render them useful to her
friends. "You think," said she, to one of the latter,
for whom she had a particular regard, "that it is for my
own sake I frequent ministers and great people. Undeceive yourself,-it
is for the sake of you, and those like you who may have occasion
From Memoir of Baron de Grimm
Whether from malice or inattention, one who was in the habit of
lending books to the husband of Madame Geoffrin, sent him several
times in succession the first volume of the Travels of Father
Labbat. M. Geoffrin with all the composure possible, always
read the book over again without perceiving the mistake.
do you like these Travels, Sir?"
-"They are very interesting,
but the author seems to me somewhat given to repetition."
read Bayle's Dictionary with great attention, following the line
with his finger along the two columns.
"What an excellent
work, he said, if it were only a little less abstruse."
were at the play this evening, M. Geoffrin, said one, pray
what was the performance?"
-"I really cannot say, I was
in a great hurry to get in and had no time to look at the bill."
- However deficient the poor man was, he was permitted to sit
down to dinner, at the end of the table, upon condition that he
never attempted to join in conversation. A foreigner who was very
assiduous in his visits to Madame Geoffrin, one day, not seeing
him as usual at table, enquired after him:
you done, Madam, with the poor man whom | I always used
to see here, and who never spoke a word?"
was my husbandl-he is dead."
From Baron de Grimm, Historical and Literary Memoirs and Anecdotes, (London: Henry Colburn, 1815), Vol. 3, pp. 400-405, 5253.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997