Literary salons are venues that spark inspiration and intellect
Literary salons have always held a special charm for the cultural elite, serving as spirited and inspirational spaces.
One of the most beautiful salons in history was The Blue Room, which was hosted for more than 50 years by Catherine de Vivonne, the marquise de Rambouillet, in 17th-century Paris. It was an exquisite venue that immediately captivated its guests with its blue, brocaded walls gilded in gold and silver, chairs upholstered in blue, and rich blue curtains. The air always had the scent of freshly cut flowers, crystal chandeliers gave off a warm illumination, and the ceiling was painted to resemble a cloudless sky.
French writer Gedeon Tallemant describes it so vividly: “The Hotel de Rambouillet was, so to speak, the theater of all their entertainments and was the rendezvous for all the most honorable gentlefolk at Court, as well as for the most polished of the century’s wits.”
The marquise’s sense of beauty went beyond the physical realm, for she also aimed to elevate the French art of living and instill a character of “preciosity” — the savoring of refined and delicate speech.
Perhaps the most endearing quality of the salon was its egalitarian treatment of cultured society, which allowed nobles and bourgeois to mingle on equal footing, and to imbue its spirit with wit and playfulness, rather than strict formality. Where writers and poets previously needed a rich patron to support their work, suddenly they found themselves able to directly exchange pleasantries with aristocrats.
Furthermore, guests were encouraged to write about the charming events of the day and, as a result, letter-writing flourished during this period, providing important glimpses into Parisian life.
The salon sparked a wonderful renaissance of creativity among its writers, who credited the influential venue as providing the spark for their works. Among the salon’s most renowned guests were: Madame de La Fayette, author of “The Princess of Cleves,” which is recognized as France’s first historical novel; the Marquise de Sevigne, who is remembered for her vivid and witty letters to her daughter; Madeleine de Scudery, who wrote much-celebrated novels that cast women in empowered roles; and Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, whose letters were influential in the development of Classical French prose.
One of the most memorable stories of the time involves Charles de Sainte-Maure, the marquis de Montausier, whose love for the marquise de Rambouillet’s eldest daughter, Julie, inspired him to publish an anthology titled “Julie’s Garland.” The book, which is now part of the National Library of France’s collection, contains a collection of 61 poems, composed by poets who frequented the salon, in which flowers sing the praises of Julie. The verses are accompanied by beautiful illustrations of the blooms.
The salon also spurred the establishment of many other prominent salons all over the world, from Europe to the US and the Arab world. Its activities enabled the members of artistic and literary circles to find inspiration, exchange avant-garde ideas, engage in intellectual discussions and conversations on a multitude of topics, broaden their horizons and visions, find affinity with similar-minded souls, enjoy recognition for their deepest emotions and thoughts, and inspired them to make improvements in their own lives and the lives of others.
It is particularly interesting to see the role that women played in advancing the intellectual frontiers of society by hosting such salons, often in their own homes.
Salon culture also thrived during the 19th century in the US, formed by groups of middle class and upper middle class women. One of the most prominent salons was based in New York City and named Sorosis, after a type of fruit that forms a collection of flowers. It was founded in 1868 by accomplished women to promote the discussion of history, literature, science and the fine arts.
Similar clubs soon began to appear across the nation, and they placed a high value on promoting education among women by offering university scholarships, opening public libraries, and giving credence to women’s intellectual contributions. Members also regarded reading great literature as an important step toward self-culture, a practice aimed at cultivating one’s own intellectual stance, morals and other characteristics.
In modern times, we find examples of many successful literary salons that continue to deliver on the promise of enlightenment. In 2008, British writer and playwright Damian Barr established the Literary Salon in London, which celebrates the world’s best authors through live readings, sharing personal stories and book signings.
One of the libraries, in particular, has captivated my heart: The gorgeous Library at Ham Yard Hotel, which contains a stunning collection of hand-picked books designed to ‘inspire, entertain and better inform.’
The glittering Lancaster ballroom at the Savoy Hotel has been the salon’s venue since 2016, its baby-blue walls and sparkling chandeliers reminiscent of The Blue Room. In the COVID era, bibliophiles are able to connect with their favorite authors during virtual events. One of the most fascinating organized by the Literary Salon is a monthly “bibliotherapy” session with Ella Berthoud on a wide array of themes, which aims to prescribe the perfect collection of books to help readers cope with any predicament or mood.
Another beautiful example of the literary salon is run by Firmdale Hotels, an exquisite collection of boutique hotels in London and New York City co-owned by interior designer Kit Kemp. She has ensured that her hotels include a cozy library or drawing room reminiscent of British estate homes.
One of the libraries, in particular, has captivated my heart: The gorgeous Library at Ham Yard Hotel, which contains a stunning collection of hand-picked books designed to “inspire, entertain and better inform.” They cover a wide range of topics relating to London — such as its history, literature, culture, arts — in addition to world history, global issues and travel.
The hotels host regular book salons in these elegant spaces, at which authors are invited to read excerpts from their books, followed by a conversation with guests and a book signing. Special children’s salons are held on Saturdays during the school holidays, paired with afternoon tea.
Literary salons could enjoy another bold resurgence by adopting digital technologies to cater to the masses. Their success in charming individuals and enlightening their souls can do much to inspire us to live better.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human-development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted via www.amorelicious.com.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view