Contrary to what I have believed, it seems that Les Grandes Dames des Salons Parisiens were not the first to start that noble tradition during the sixieme et septieme siecles. Others got there first.
The poet and scholar, Al-Khanas, recited her poetry en plein air in Mecca as far back as the pre-Islamic period. Thus began literary salons for Arabic women.
And one hundred years ago, Chinese women in a remote part of Hunan province started their own salons too, although the word salon was never applied to what they did to share their knowledge.
Because girls were forbidden an education, the women developed their own writing system called Nu Shu, which translates literally from the Chinese as women’s writing. It was an orderly system based on characters in long columns in right to left order. Nu Shu was embraced and held closely as a tender secret. It was meant for women only. It provided a way in which they could share their poetry, hold private conversations, tell of their sorrows and speak of their joys. That idea, I’m convinced, is worthy of the designation salon.
The romance of the salon took root in me in my earlier days during a Seventeenth Century French Literature course. The learning style, the friendships, the discovery of new ideas appealed to me. It resurfaced once I was married with three tiny children, when I spent mindless minutes scraping the play dough off the dog’s fur. The time to host a salon was not going to be then. I let that notion ripen for all of these years, until now.
A proper French Salon was finely tuned, a genteel choreography, the ‘dancers’ being chosen for their intellect, their manners (it wasn’t appropriate to be smarter than the star of the show) and a balance of gender.
A couple of summers ago I visited The Mount, that garden-bedecked jewel of a house that Edith Wharton built in Lennox, Massachusetts. I got there before the tourists. I sat on Edith’s sweep of a veranda overlooking the gardens, a distant marsh and big blue sky. And I channelled my inner salon. I knew that it would have been on this very spot where she sat on a summer’s evening with Henry James et al, discussing every possible topic, which I am sure included their current writing projects. Wharton was in her later years also a famous Parisienne hostess who held literary gatherings in her home there. She once commented that the same modicum of care is necessary in preparing both “a soufflé and a salon.”
Last summer a friend had a book of her poetry published by a well-known publisher. My friend Janine and I agreed that Margaret’s flowing pieces of wonderfulness needed to be shared with others.
I told them about my heart’s desire and we did what all smart girls do. We planned ourselves a literary salon.
Janine lives in the country amidst a big shady patch of green. Her garden spills over with wild flowers that brighten a summer’s eve like little pops of fireworks. Every summer she erects a huge tent and fills it with chairs, electric lamps (yes! electric!), carpets and tables. I call it ‘Little Bloomsbury’. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell would have enjoyed it too. Our original plan was to hold the salon outside, but a dripping curtain of July rain put a stop to that. Come on down, Plan B. Our alternate plan was for indoors, in the comfort of the living room.
Margaret Stickney’s poems are lit up from within. They portray a strong spiritual theme. We decided that I should play little bits of soft cello music between each poem. Her words floated through the warm July night. Musical melodies sifted in and out of her syllables, strung her words together like a necklace of fine pearls. We were creating a seamless weave of poetry and music. She read aloud the words that go like this,
“created of me a song
this God has done
tuned me to pitch so fine
scaled every tune to shine
created of me a song
this God has done”
Margaret read a few excerpts too from my own book about a British woman, who, at the century’s turn, went to Congo and changed Belgian politics with her atrocity photographs. I followed her reading with another cello piece, a suitably Victorian hymn with which the woman in my book would have been familiar, “My Song Is Love Unknown.”
Rain was now dashing down with that lovely drumming sound that only summer rain can make. The windows were opened wide. A long table awaited us laden with vases of pink, white, mauve hydrangea, jars of wild flowers, pottery bowls of salad, bread and cheese, scoops of ice cream from the local creamery for ‘afters’. There was green tea in tiny blue crockery cups, and all of this splendour sat upon a huge piece of India-print cloth.
Our host read aloud to us, over tea, an article about C.S. Lewis. We talked about Lewis and about the things we love in this life, of things that makes our hearts turn upside-down and inside-out. We laughed a lot.
All that is needed for this grand recipe is as follows: a few friends, twilight, food, some pickings from your garden, a sprinkle of music, enough worthy readings to keep it interesting and the whole event framed with candlelight. Keep the program short. Eschew sitting in rows; set chairs around the fire for the winter, maybe on the grass in summer, picnic style if you like. Eight to twelve friends is enough. It’s much more fun than reading in a bookshop where the mood is formal with the authour as the trained seal.
Early French salons were often held in the hostess’s boudoir. As she reclined in bed, her friends gathered around on chairs to listen to her hold forth.
Jolly pals together ‘round the bed isn’t my style, but I’d be happy to repeat last summer’s pleasures.
The thrumming of summer rain brings out all kinds of emotion in me, but this…oh this!
- Holdforth, Lucinda, “A Memoir of Women in Paris, True Pleasures” , Greystone Books, 2005
- Wikipedia: “Women’s Literary Salons And Societies In The Arab World”
Judy Pollard Smith writes from Hamilton Ontario. Her book “Don’t Call Me Lady, The Journey of Lady Alice Seeley Harris” is available through order at your favourite bookstore, online at Amazon, or through Abbott Press, either in hard copy or e-reader.