The Age of Conversation
by Benedetta Craveri, translated by Teresa Waugh
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, between the reign of Louis XIII and the Revolution, the French nobility of the ancien regime turned their energies to developing the art of sociability, a refined code of manners, and an ideal of gallant, spirited conversation that became a model for social and intellectual life.
Benedetta Craveri's history of this leisured, worldly society begins in the 1620s with the celebrated Blue Room of the Marquise de Rambouillet, one of the first in a long series of women who resided over conversations among nobles, writers, prelates, and diplomats. The women Craveri profiles played a significant part in the development of new literary forms such as the novel and the maxim, the codification of language, taste, and behavior, and debates over religion, philosophy, and science. Some, like Madame de Lafayette and Madame de Stael, were gifted writers themselves. Some were involved in the major events of their time, like the Grande Mademoiselle and the Duchesse de Longueville during the Fronde rebellion. Later, the Marquise de Lambert, Madame de Tencin, and Julie de Lespinasse opened their salons to intellectuals such as Fontenelle, Montesquieu, d'Alembert, and Diderot, thus helping to spread the ideas of the Enlightenment.
In demonstrating the diversity of these women's accomplishments, Benedetta Craveri brings to life this brilliant, vanished culture that perfected the pleasure of living. In her pages, the world of La Rochefoucauld, Louis XIV, and Voltaire, of Jansenism, preciosity, Mlle de Scudery's literary portraits, and Mme de Sevigne's letters, appears in all its fascinating complexity.
In pre-Revolutionary and pre-electrical France, as reported on with tender wit and scholarly scruple by Benedetta Craveri in The Age of Conversation, they were on their way to a grand Enlightenment indeed. But before they got there several generations of remarkable women had to create a brand-new social space, not of the court, not of the church, not of the street, and not even, entirely, of the nobility. This was the salon...
— John Leonard, Harper's
Craveri's account of the French aristocratic circles in which conversation emerged as an art offers a rich blend of personalities, anecdotes, scandal and genuinely amusing letters to flesh out an intellectual argument leading from early 17th century aristocratic entertainment to the Enlightenment salon.
— Publishers Weekly
Craveri focuses her estimable social history on this art's finest and best-known practitioners: Madame de Longueville, the Marquise de Sable, Madame de Sevigne, and their circles. Craveri's summary essay on the seduction, deception, and power of the spoken word shows how this movement among France's noble classes laid groundwork for the coming revolution.
Craveri argues that when, in the sixteen-twenties, the Marquise de Rambouillet offered her home as a place for the French nobility to gather she was unwittingly fermenting a revolution. The next century and a half constituted the golden age of conversation, which allowed the aristocracy to establish a new order, based not on the strictures of church or crown but on manners. Craveri's narrative paints a series of brilliant portraits of those (mostly women) who presided over the new sphere.
— The New Yorker
How refreshing to turn to The Age of Conversation, a book about talk remembered across the centuries, talk that is as fresh now as it was then, though that might be hard to believe in our age of distrusting anything after the instant of its being enunciated. Benedetta Craveri has resurrected in tantalizing, inviting detail the supreme age of talk embodied in the great salons of Paris from the mid-17th to the late 18th centuries and the fascinating women at the center of those salons....This is only the necessary background for the grandes dames who are suddenly alive at the urging of Craveri's fluid prose.
— Thomas McGonigle, Los Angeles Times
Craveri, an Italian professor of French literature, argues that the Marquise de Rambouillet fomented a revolution when she offered her famed salon as a place for the French nobility to gather in the early 17th century. This entertaining book explores a golden age of conversation in France (from 1610 to 1789), in which the aristocracy established a new order, away from the strictures of the royal court.
— The New York Times Book Review
Entertaining...Craveri, an Italian professor of French literature, helpfully highlights the most influential, literate and scandalous of these irrepressible women.
— The New York Times