The problem of the Enlightenment salon : European history or post-Revolutionary politics 1755-1850
In the last twenty-five years, many historians have focused on the salon as a nexus of Enlightenment France, describing the institution as one of the 'origins of the French Revolution' and as 'central' to an understanding of modern French and European societies. In my thesis, I challenge this widely accepted argument and propose that our understanding of this institution must be revised. I demonstrate that the salon story is a nineteenth century phenomenon rather than an eighteenth-century institution. I begin by demonstrating that the category of the salon has been used anachronistically and was not employed by the so-called salonnieres (i. e. Vichy du Deffand, Lespinasse, Geoffrin) or its members (i. e. Morellet, Delille, d'Alembert) in their extensive correspondence, of which thousands of letters are extant. Eighteenth-century individuals would be astonished and confused to learn that they held and participated in a salon institution. Rather, the concept - with its definitions of female led gatherings in formal interiors - emerges in nineteenth-century published sources, particularly post-Revolutionary memoirs, which are narratives largely shaped by nostalgia and contemporary political partisanship. Often written by individuals who sought to revise views of the ancien regime with stories of a glorious past, these narratives buttressed their attempts to affect political change. Historians' overemphasis on these readily accessible sources has led to their reification of the salon and the attendant acceptance of such nineteenth-century conceptualisations of eighteenth-century lives. It is the purpose of this thesis to analyse this historical problem, to study the evolving forms and functions of these eighteenth-century individuals' lives, and to investigate the development of this nineteenth-century mythmaking. At its' conclusion, a clear distinction will emerge between the everyday practices of these eighteenth-century individuals and the salon idealisation created during the nineteenth century.