A Historic Glimpse of the French Literary Salons

What is a literary salon?

Literary salons have their origins in the Renaissance idea of gathering for debate in the courts of Italy and England. However, during the Enlightenment (beginning approximately in 1715) France came to be viewed as a cultural hub, setting the example for the rest of Europe. One of the ways in which they disseminated ideas and news was to evolve the literary salon from a court event to one where people from all different social backgrounds—aristocrats, new nobility, professionals, artists—could attend. This change allowed for more diverse voices to participate in conversations; no longer did lower ranks have to wait to speak or defer to the opinions of those ‘above’ them. At a literary salon your background didn’t matter, only the quickness of your wit and how astute your critique could be.


At the heart of every salon is the idea of conversation. Emphasis was on oral communications as participants critiqued literary works, debated political ideas, and passed along the news of the day. Although, there is a close association with print culture as well: many writers would ‘test’ out their work at a salon to received feedback. Many would hope to be found worthy of a paying sponsor!


Eventually the Enlightenment thoughts and ideas sown in the literary salon began to be disseminated to a wider reading audience, leading to lower attendance at salons because there was now more opportunity for in-depth discussions. Conversations would move to coffee houses, masonic temples, and eating clubs.


Doesn’t ‘salon’ mean living room?

Yes! The association with the parlour or living room placed an emphasis on a more casual meeting space beyond the stuffy environment of court life. ‘Salon’ also became associated with the biennial exhibitions of art sponsored by the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture (Melton). These dual, but complementary, meanings combine to create the ideal atmosphere and goal of a literary salon: to gather in an informal way to critique and discuss art.


How did it work?

Meeting once or twice a week, a host would open their doors to other like-minded individuals to share a good meal and even better conversation. While no formal invitations were sent out, it was likely you needed to know someone who could vouch for your intellect and character. But who was the host?


Women’s Role as ‘Salonnière’

The French literary salon revolved around a female host, or ‘salonnière’, who opened her home for these get togethers. However, it wasn’t simply overseeing the staff and setting a menu, these women guided the discussions, created a flow to the event, made introductions, maintained inclusivity, and enforced rules of civility. One ‘salonnière’ wrote: “Everyone in these [salons] is [now] convinced that women fill the intervals of conversation and of life, like the padding that one inserts in cases of china; they are valued at nothing, and [yet] everything breaks without them” (quoted from Goodman).


In return, these women were given access to philosophies and ideas that had previously only been accessed by men through formal education. They also demonstrated leadership in managing the evening and either making introductions for promising writers or being patrons themselves. From orphans to illegitimate children to affluent Jewish families, these female hosts came from all walks of life and grabbed the education they wanted.