Jonathan Keates

Shimmering Salons

The Age of Conversation

By

New York Review Books 488pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

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.

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