Angelica Goodden, 23 February 1995
It is as well to establish at the outset what Madame du Deffand was not. She was not, whatever the publisher of Benedetta Craveri’s book may claim, a woman who ‘approached love and sex with a frankness centuries ahead of her time’: her time was the 18th-century Regency, which took a casual view of fidelity, and the hedonistic age of Louis XV. She died in the reign of Louis XVI, a couple of years ahead of the publication of Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, which may be read as, among other things, an exposé of the immorality of the Ancien Régime. But on any count she was a remarkable woman, perhaps the brightest in a constellation of salonnières which included Madame Geoffrin and Julie de Lespinasse, and she held triumphant court in that pre-Revolutionary age when, as Madame Vigée Le Brun put it, ‘woman reigned supreme.’ Her story and that of her age are marvellously well told by Craveri, who succeeds in bringing a whole world to life.