There is a fable about the French past that goes as follows. Sometime in the 17th century, the country's proud noble caste was humbled and tamed by imperious ministers and kings. Where once it had swayed the destinies of Europe, it was now confined to the gilded cage of the royal court, and the elegant salons of Paris. Others might have raged against this fate, but the French nobility adapted to it. Its members developed exquisite manners. They made beauty their grail, and cultivated sophisticated, graceful pleasures. Guided by refined salonnières, they revelled in wit, savoured the joys of idleness, and raised polished conversation to the level of fine art. Sometimes their delights devolved into debauch, but even the debauch retained a certain indefinable elegance. The nobles never forgot who they were. And when the supreme test came, in the French Revolution, they did their duty with a gallantry that shamed their coarse, plebeian tormentors. In the killing fields of the Vendée, noblemen and noblewomen alike rediscovered the heroism of their chivalric ancestors. In the Jacobin prisons, they retained their dignity and savoir-vivre. According to Hippolyte Taine, 'women particularly went to the scaffold with the ease and serenity with which they attended a soirée.'
LRB 11 May 2006 | PDF Download