Kick off your heels and sit down for a spell to hear the tale of a fabulous salonniere by the name of Madame de Lambert (1647-1733) who reigned in Parisian social circles during the France of Louis XIV. Like any salonniere worth her salt, Madame de Lambert was a smart and savvy trailblazer who knew how to throw parties that influenced the thinking of the day.
Born Anne-Thérèse Marguenat de Courcelles in Paris in 1647, Madame de Lambert was raised by her mother and her mother’s second husband, François Le Coigneux de Bachaumont, an erudite book lover who instilled in her a great love of literature and education. As she later wrote, “Curiosity is knowledge that has already begun; it will make one go faster and further in the path of truth.”
At 19, Anne-Thérèse was thrust into the Paris social scene when she married Henri de Lambert, marquis de Saint-Bris, a distinguished military officer who would eventually go on to become the governor of Luxembourg. Her marriage was a happy one, until Henri died suddenly in 1686.
A reproduction of a French salon of the Louis XIV period
Once the long battle over Henri’s estate was settled, Madame de Lambert, eager for meaningful connection and thoughtful conversation, began hosting twice-weekly salons in the lavish, Baroque-style drawing room of her Paris residence. On Tuesdays, she hosted acclaimed men and women of letters who read aloud from their works and debated the literary issues of the day. Wednesdays were dedicated to hosting social receptions for the aristocracy in Paris. While she would not allow talk of politics or religion at her salons, she did encourage her regular guests, who included the philosophers Fontenelle and Montesquieu, as well as the lords and ladies of Paris, to attend both salons and “cross-pollinate.”
Madame de Lambert’s Tuesday salon attracted the greatest literary thinkers of the day, of which she was one. Among the works she penned were personal essays to her children about gender roles: “Advice from a Mother to her Son” (1726) and “Advice from a Mother to her Daughter” (1728), in which she urged her daughter to “learn that the greatest science is to know how to be alone with yourself. Provide yourself with an interior place of retreat or asylum. There you can always return to yourself and find yourself.”
A collection of Madame de Lambert’s writings
Like the majority of her fellow salonnieres, Madame de Lambert was a feminist who used her salon and the power of her pen to advocate for women. In New Reflections On Women, she defended the dignity of women against the misogynistic stereotypes that were advanced by opponents of gender equality, writing “Can’t women say to men, ‘What right do you have to forbid us to study the sciences and fine arts? Haven’t women who have devoted themselves to these disciplines produced both sublime and useful objects?’”
Montesquieu (1689-1755), a French judge, man of letters, and philosopher
She also criticized the unequal distribution of material goods, and raised awareness for what she considered to be the mistreatment of the elderly. She had a keen mind, and many of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers, including Fontenelle, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, are on record as lauding her philosophical acumen.
However, Madame de Lambert soon found herself embroiled in scandal when pirated copies of her essays appeared in Paris book stalls. The issue was that, in those days, it was not considered proper for an aristocratic woman to be a published author. So Madame de Lambert quickly bought up every edition she could find, but pirated versions continued to be printed and some were even translated into English. And we’re glad they were. Not only did the scandal “out” Madame de Lambert as one of the most important and influential salonnieres of her day, but it also revealed her to be one of the era’s most formidable thinkers. Brava!