by Felicia Londré
Book Review: "In telling their remarkable story, Professor Backer reveals why these very ladies who sighed over shallow literature, spoke in contrived metaphors, and ultimately became the target of Moliere's satire, were nevertheless the first women anywhere to band together in consciousness of their womanly plight."
Scarcely a generation before Molière, Paris theatre was not at all geared to polite ladies. The plays performed in converted indoor tennis courts were full of rough-and-tumble action, fight scenes, and even indelicate language. Those tragi-comedies might have evolved into something like the barbaric works of Shakespeare if it had not been for a woman whose influence helped change the course of French drama and pave the way for Molière's genius.
Cathérine de Vivonne (1588-1665) was married at age twelve to a man nearly twice her age, Charles d'Angennes (1577-1652), who later acceded to the title of Marquis de Rambouillet. Appalled at the vulgarity of swaggering male aristocrats even at the court of Henri IV, she renounced going out in society. After dutifully bearing a few children, she acquired a convenient illness that kept her bed-ridden and free from becoming further inconvenienced by pregnancy. She remodeled the Rambouillet mansion to feature a suite of rooms leading to her chambre bleue (blue room), where she could recline on her bed to receive friends and literary celebrities who met her standards of polite manners and good conversation.
From the 1610s on, the Marquise de Rambouillet led a quiet revolution in taste. Regulars at her salon often adopted pastoral names; hers was Arthénice, an anagram of her name Cathérine. Admission to Arthénice's chambre bleue Tuesdays became so prestigious that a widening circle actively upgraded the norms of civilized social interaction. The theatrical turning point came in 1636 when Pierre Corneille wrote Le Cid, still inevitably bearing some traces of the old tragi-comic swashbuckle, but ultimately winning the day for the disciplined restraint of neoclassicism.
By the 1650s, under Louis XIV, many women were imitating Arthénice, each woman attracting her own coterie of poets or philosophers or clever pretenders to intellect. Notable among these was Madeleine de Scudéry (1608-1701), whose Saturdays are best remembered for having produced the Carte du Tendre (Map of Tenderness), a map of the human heart with such locations as the Lake of Indifference, the Dangerous Sea, the Town of Lukewarmness, and the Inclination River flowing through the center. This was a great resource for conversation on subjects like the four varieties of love, the twenty kinds of esteem, or the forty types of smiles.
Clearly the second generation of salons was fostering a more preening, self-conscious atmosphere of high-toned artifice. Fashions in dress evolved alongside flowery euphemisms in speech; men and women alike sported ribbons, ruffles, laces, and flounces. Disdaining to pronounce lowly words like "chair" or "teeth," they found substitutes like "apparatus for conversation" or "furniture of the mouth." The women began to be called précieuses and took pride in it. The "preciousness" of the 1650s-60s might be defined as excessive display of virtue and refinement. It was such excess that gave rise to Molière's 1659 one-act Les Précieuses ridicules (The Laughably Precious Young Ladies) and his 1672 five-act comedy Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies).
It is one of the many paradoxes of France's Grand Siècle (Great Century, the 17th), like its accommodation of both the Baroque and the neoclassical, that Molière flourished as a playwright for a theatre scene that had become polite enough for women, yet he went on to find fun in portraying women who practiced too much politesse.
Pictured: Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies) is a comedy by Molière in five acts, written in verse. A satire on academic pretension, female education, and préciosité (French for preciousness), it was one of his most popular comedies. It premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal on 11 March 1672.
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