The Age of Conversation by Benedetta Craveri (Translated by Teresa Waugh) - review by Jonathan Keates

Jonathan Keates

Shimmering Salons

The Age of Conversation


New York Review Books 488pp £17.99

What do the words ancien régime make us think of? Tinkling minuets and enamelled snuffboxes perhaps, Boucher nymphs with dimpled buttocks, mincing courtiers in red-heeled shoes, Marie-Antoinette playing at dairymaids with her ladies-in-waiting in the Petit Trianon or Voltaire flung into the Bastille for ridiculing a duke. The expression is nearly always used pejoratively, implying that the French Revolution, whatever its incidental ghastliness, rescued us for ever from a world of unfathomable artifice and subservience. A basketful of severed heads at the foot of the guillotine was surely a small price to pay for the privilege of not having to grovel to our betters and the right to say what we mean.

There’s a priggishness in this view which blinds us to one of the ancien régime’s greatest contributions to civilisation. The salon, a meeting of like minds in a utopian world where elegance and courtesy kept brute force and baser instincts at bay, expressed an idealism transcending the apparent heartlessness of

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

Follow Literary Review on Twitter