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