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Revolutions, conversations

January 15, 2010

I like the idea that parties, conversation, wit, and fashion can bring about revolutions. Who you know, who you are friends with, what you talk about, what you look like, how you dress– all this shapes a career, can change a culture and are not trivialities or simply the concerns of women. I have been reading a great book, The Age of Conversation, by Benedetta Craveri. She is interested (and now I am, too) in how a few ambitious, rich, intelligent, and deeply independent French women of the 17th and 18th centuries helped create a more egalitarian world through their salons. By the end of the 18th century, men and women conversed as equals. Princes and philisophes clinked glasses. Here’s what conversation was like at an 18th century ball, according to Talleyrand: “Mme de Blot had an opinion about all the officers in the French navy; Mme de Simiane maintained that no tax should be put on Virginia tobacco. . . . ‘Personally were I in the King’s place, I would do such and such a thing,’ Monsieur de Poix was saying.”
In case you don’t get what’s so remarkable about these conversations, let me remind you that women weren’t supposed to have opinions about politics. A commoner was not supposed to advise a king.
Although most of these privileged people supported the Revolution, they still ended up in prison during the Terror. Hippolyte Taine wrote a famous description of how they behaved there — how deeply they clung to their creed of style and manners.
“Men and women would dress with care, pay each other visits, hold a salon; it would be at the end of a corridor, between four candles; but there they would joke, compose madrigals, sing songs, take pride in being as gallant, as gay, as gracious as before; should you be morose and uncouth because an accident has placed you in a bad inn? Before the judges and on the tumbril, the would retain their dignity and their smiles; women particularly went to the scaffold with the ease and serenity with which they attended a soiree.”

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