Gather in close, friends, because there is a bit of scandal in the story of Madame Tencin, a beloved French salonnière and author born in 1682 in Grenoble, France. While she was known for her charm and grace and admired for her way with words, she also had more than her fair share of escapades. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Claudine-Alexandrine Guérin de Tencin, Baroness of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, was sent at an early age to join a convent, but over time Claudine soon found this cloistered life was not for her. Rumor has it that she escaped to join her sister, Mme de Ferriol, in Paris, where she soon established a salon frequented by wits and roués.
Claudine garnered quite the reputation around town and made tongues wag because of her numerous lovers and benefactors, such as Guillaume Dubois, the first minister, as well as King Louis XV’s best friend, the Maréchal de Richelieu. The story goes that our heroine even had an illegitimate son, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, with her lover Chevalier Louis-Camus Destouches, an officer in the French Army. When he was only a few days old, petit Jean was left on the church steps of Saint-Jean le Rond de Paris.
Then there was poor Charles-Joseph de la Fresnaye who, it is said, committed suicide in Claudine’s own home, which resulted in her doing prison time in the dreary Châtelet and even in the Bastille, where our spirited Marie Antoinette would end up a quarter of a century later. Thankfully, Claudine was eventually proven innocent and liberated.
After her dreadful ordeal, she dusted off her petticoats and founded her own literary salon, which quickly became popular with the likes of Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, Pierre de Marivaux, and Alexis Piron.
Hers was the first of the Parisian literary salons that admitted foreigners—foreigners of distinction, bien sûr, including English guests Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, and Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield.
Claudine went on to write well-received novels, such as Mémoires du comte de Comminge (1735), using the name of her nephews d’Argental and Pont de Veyle, to keep her identity carefully concealed, which was customary for female authors in the 18th century.
Naughty and spirited to the end, Claudine died on December 4, 1749. As with all the great French salonnières, she was a clever woman ahead of her time. Bravo, Madame!
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