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French Salons

High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848

Among the most enduring of French cultural institutions, the salon, is among the most misunderstood. Seen primarily as a venue for apolitical social gatherings, the salon's influence is generally believed to have ended during the French Revolution. In French Salons, Steven Kale challenges conventional thinking about the salon. Drawing on an impressive range of primary sources, he offers a nuanced history of this institution from the eighteenth century through the Revolution of 1848 which emphasizes continuity and evolution over disjuncture and highlights its shifting political character and relevance.

Salons, Kale shows, originally provided opportunities for the exchange of literary and philosophical ideas among the French aristocracy. Central to the maintenance of salon culture were salonnières, aristocratic women such as Madame de Staël who opened their homes to fellow elites and nurtured a sociability that united the members of high society. Salons provided ready-made venues for aristocratic politics during the early years of the French Revolution, when salons were transformed into places where the upper classes could express their political opinions and concerns. Even at the height of the Terror, salons did not dissolve but, rather, were displaced as aristocrats moved their social networks of influence to such cities as Coblenz, Brussels, and London. Napoleon sought to manipulate salon culture for his own ends, but with his fall from power, salons reemerged and proliferated. Although never intended to serve as political clubs, salons became informal sites for the cultivation of political capital and the exchange of political ideas during the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy.

By 1848, the conditions that sustained aristocratic sociability declined, and salons became increasingly marginal to French public life. At the same time, new political institutions—parties, the press, legislative bodies—emerged that more effectively disseminated and shaped political opinion and led to real political change.

Challenging many of the conclusions of recent historiography, including the depiction of salonnières as influential power brokers, French Salons offers an original, penetrating, and engaging analysis of elite culture and society in France before, during, and after the Revolution.

About the Author

Steven Kale is a professor of history at Washington State University. He is the author of Legitimism and the Reconstruction of French Society, 1852–1883.


Kale's analysis emphasizes the fluidity between the public and private spheres for aristocratic women and political men.

- Claire A. Sanders - History: Reviews of New Books

The usual portrait of the salon, its importance in private and public spheres, and the role of the salonniere emerge considerably revised in this clearly written, expertly researched study.

- Choice

Kale's book provides an important corrective to prevailing views of salons, and his argument about the ways in which aristocratic women did and did not involve themselves in politics deserves our attention.

- Denise Z. Davidson - H-France

Kale's most original insights come across in the five chapters at the heart of the book devoted to the period from 1792 to 1848... One of the merits of Kale's work is its judicious evaluation of women's political influence.

- Stephen Miller - Canadian Journal of History


Kale's monograph is a delightfully provocative cultural history of elite sociability in a turbulent period. The everyday life of French aristocrats has changed dramatically since the eighteenth century, but as Kale demonstrates well, I think, many features of the Old Regime's salons survived the French Revolution right into the Restoration Monarchy, the moment of their most significant political influence. This insightful book should appeal to a large readership of scholars and students in modern European history.

- James Smith Allen, Southern Illinois University

In French Salons, Steven Kale expands our knowledge about aristocratic women and salons in the first half of the nineteenth century, providing important new insights into elite women's lives, their sociability, politics, and codes of behavior. In placing the salons at the nexus of politics and gender, Kale brings to light the complexity and functions of the salons in the first half of the nineteenth century. This study is a welcome addition to the literature in women's history.

- Rachel G. Fuchs, Arizona State University

The fact that Kale's prose is elegant and precise allows him to present the glories and wit of le monde with its richness altogether preserved.

- Robert A. Nye - Journal of Social History

Well-organized and informative.

- David Longfellow - Historian

Kale's thesis widens the parameters on salon scholarship.

- Rosamond Hooper-Hamersley - Libraries and Culture

Makes a shrewd contribution to understanding how a sample of French elite women perceived changes in culture and society from the Old Regime to the Second Empire.

- David Higgs - American Historical Review

[Kale] has accomplished the tremendously useful task of writing an important book that will be controversial in many ways and therefore productive of continued research.

- Katharine Hamerton - Journal of Modern History
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