The “literary salon,” as we know it today, originated in seventeenth century France, where writers, artists, philosophers, and political figures gathered together in private living rooms (salons), finding creative stimulation in an atmosphere removed from the strict protocols of the French court. In the salons, men and women could mingle more freely, progressive (even radical) ideas could be aired, and rigid lines of class, rank, and wealth could be crossed in the service of art. Intelligence, conversational skills, and creative achievement were all highly prized, elevating the status of writers and artists and allowing them to converse as equals with influential members of the aristocracy. Literary salons played an important part in the flowering of French arts and letters from the seventeenth century onward, just as political salons were instrumental in fomenting the movement that became the French Revolution.
Madame de Rambouillet established the first important salon at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, where she presided over regular gatherings of writers and other intellectuals in her famous chambre bleue. The vast majority of French salons were run by influential women with an unusual degree of social independence. Legendary salonnières include Mademoiselle De Scudéry, Madame de Sévigné, Madame De La Fayette, Madame de Lambert, Madame De Tencin and Madame Geoffrin, all of whom presided over gatherings renown beyond the borders of France. The salons provided receptive audiences for new novels, new poems, new polemics, new ideas, new ways of thinking about art and society, and they allowed promising young writers to interact with older, established figures. Stories and plays-in-progress were read, new musical compositions debuted, and theoretical positions argued with a freedom unthinkable at court -- or even at the French Academy (which still barred women from its ranks).
In the history of fantasy literature the French salons also play a distinctive role, for it was in these same salons at the very end of the seventeenth century that Madame D’Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, and others created a vogue for magical stories rooted in the folk tradition, coining the name we still use for this genre today: fairy tales (contes des fées). These literary fairy tales proved so popular with French writers and readers that the art form flourished well into the middle of the eighteenth century, when the stories were collected in a forty-one volume edition called the Cabinet des fées.
Although the salons of the eighteenth century were often decried as frivolous or lacking in prestige compared to the great salons of the century before (1), nonetheless new salons continued to pop up across western Europe and far beyond, providing a useful forum for artistic camaraderie and the lively exchange of ideas. In the nineteenth century, “Bohemian” salons brought painters, writers, and slumming aristocrats together with a colorful variety of underclass figures (prostitutes, circus performers, gypsies, etc.) to escape the restraints of Victorian society, with the help of absinthe, hashish, and opium. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a group of women intellectuals in Berlin (many of them from the German Romantic movement) created the Kaffeterkreis, a conversation salon modeled after the fairy tale salons of Paris. They met weekly for a number of years until the Revolution forced them to disband. Famous salons of the twentieth century include those of the Dada group in Paris, the Bloomsbury circle in London, the Algonquin Round Table group in Manhattan, A’Lelia Walker’s “Dark Tower” gatherings in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, and gatherings of the Beat writers at Six Gallery in San Francisco.
History will have to judge whether any of the literary circles and salons in existence today will prove to be as lastingly influential as the well-known circles listed above -- but certainly artistic salons of various kinds can still be found the world over, including “virtual salons” created through the new technology of the Internet.
In putting together this anthology of stories, our aim was to evoke the liberating, creative spirit of a literary salon by inviting a number of writers to gather together in these pages: exchanging tales, exchanging ideas in literary form. Together, these stories form a conversation between established writers and emerging writers, between historical and contemporary fiction, between the timelessness of folklore themes and the immediacy of modern politics, between gravity and whimsy, between traditional linear narratives and other means of storytelling.
Welcome to the salon fantastique. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
(1) In the 18th century, Madame de Lambert wrote wistfully about the decreasing number of women-run salons , where both sexes could gather on a somewhat more equal footing: “There were, in an earlier time, houses where women were allowed to talk and think, where muses joined the society of the graces. The Hôtel de Rambouillet, greatly honored in the past century, has become the ridicule of ours.”
Credits & copyrights:
The art above is by Edmund Dulac (1852-1953) . Born and raised in Toulouse, France, he spent most of his professional life in England, becoming one of the most celebrated illustators of his day.
The text above appeared in Salon Fantastique (Thunder Mouth Press, 2006), copyright c 2006 by Terri Windling, and may not be reproduced without the author's permission. For information on obtaining permission, please go here.