Literary salons are spellbinding venues that bring together the book-loving community to share their avant-garde ideas, engage in intellectual debates, forge friendships with similar-minded souls, and elevate their human experience.
It is particularly interesting to witness the role of women in advancing society’s intellectual frontiers by hosting such salons, often in their own homes. One of the most beautiful salons in history was hosted by Catherine de Vivonne, the Marquise de Rambouillet, in 17th-Century Paris for over 50 years. Her Blue Room was an exquisite venue that immediately captivated guests with its lavish, blue-themed interiors and an elegant ambience of freshly cut flowers, a crystal chandelier and a ceiling painted to resemble a cloudless sky.
Giovanna Dandolo, the wife of the Venetian doge in the 15th Century, was a renowned arts and literature patron who regularly hosted writers and artists in salons, and sponsored many funded projects, such as book printing. The Lebanese-Palestinian writer, May Elias Ziadeh, also hosted a literary salon at her parents’ home in Cairo, inviting prominent intellectuals, writers and poets of the 20th Century to convene.
Many literary salons sprawled during the 19th Century in the US, formed by groups of middle- and upper-middle-class women. ‘Sorosis’ was a prominent society founded in New York City in 1868 by accomplished women to discuss history, literature, science and the fine arts. Members promoted the notion that reading noteworthy literature was an important step towards ‘self-culture’, which was aimed at cultivating one’s own intellect, values, and persona.
Paris also attracted many prominent writers during the 1920s. One of the most famous literary groups at the time was the Stratford-on- Odeon, which included American writer Ernest Hemingway, American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, Irish novelist James Joyce, and American novelist, art collector and poet Gertrude Stein as members. The group met regularly at the fabled Shakespeare & Company bookshop, which provided them a beautiful backdrop for conversing about and critiquing each other’s works. Collectively, they have made a significant contribution to the literary realm with their seminal works.
In modern times, we find many successful literary salons that still deliver on their promise of enlightenment. One particular library that always tugs at my heart strings whenever I visit London is the gorgeous library at the boutique Ham Yard Hotel. Its collection, designed to “inspire, entertain, and better inform”, covers a wide selection of topics related to London, such as its history, literature, culture and arts, in addition to world history, global topics and travel. The hotel also hosted regular book salons on its elegant premises, welcoming authors to read excerpts from their books, followed by friendly conversations with guests and a book signing.
Nearby, British writer and playwright Damian Barr hosts his Literary Salon at London’s glittering Savoy Hotel, welcoming a remarkable group of writers with fascinating stories to share. One of this salon’s most interesting events are the monthly bibliotherapy sessions with Ella Berthoud on a wide array of topics, with the goal of prescribing to individuals a collection of books that would soothe any mood or alleviate any predicament.
Literary salons should witness a bold resurgence in our world. Their success in illuminating our minds and captivating our imagination can inspire us to live lives as beautifully crafted as the heroes of our books.
Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature from the University of Roehampton. She can be contacted via @amorelicious on Instagram and www.amorelicious.com.
Photography: Aasiya Jagadeesh