Mary Clarke and the Nineteenth-Century Salon

Pamela Law


Mary Clarke first appeared to me in Cecil Woodham-Smith's life of Florence Nightingale:

Without money, influence, or beauty, Mary Clarke had made herself a major figure in the political and literary world of Paris. In her hands the salon was revived, and every Friday night Cabinet Ministers, Dukes of France, English peers, bishops, scholars, and writers of international reputation crowded the drawing-room of her apartment in the former hotel of the Clermont-Tonnerre family, 120 rue du Bac ... Her personal appearance was odd. She was very small, with the figure and height of a child; her eyes were startlingly large and bright, and at a period when women brushed their hair smoothly she wore hers over her forehead in a tangle of curls. Guizot, who was devoted to her, said that she and his Yorkshire terrier patronized the same coiffeur.

The questions which arose for me were:
1 What were the functions of salons in the nineteenth century; did they still matter in the production of literature and of literary opinion?
2 How did such a person as Mary Clarke, without money, powerful connections, beauty, a famous marriage or liaison, make a life for herself?
3 Would an investigation of the personal material connected with Mary Clarke-letters, journals, conversations in so far as they were recorded-reveal anything of interest about people's perceptions of this highly revolutionary period, from 1800 to 1870, which might differ from received analyses?

Full Text: