_____After yesterday's fisticuffs, a quieter but no less combative scene: the salon of Mme. de Villeparisis. We learn, however, that the Marquise is by no means at the pinnacle of society, that she "was one of those women who, born of an illustrious family and marrying into another no less illustrious, ... apart from a number of duchesses who are their nieces or sisters-in-law, even a crowned head or two, old family connections, entertain in their salons only third-rate guests drawn from the bourgeoisie and from a nobility that is either provincial or tainted." The reasons for her "loss of status" aren't entirely clear to the narrator. One reason may be that she has been having an affair with M. de Norpois, a surprising fact that has been kept from us until now. She also has a reputation for a "sharp tongue" that may have gotten her into trouble. But the narrator chiefly suspects that it's because of "her intelligence, the intelligence of a secondary writer far more than that of a woman of rank." She is a bluestocking. Society, the narrator tells us, is "in the habit of rating a salon by the people its mistress excluded rather than by those she received," so Mme. de Villeparisis's earlier intellectual curiosity ruined her reputation. Unfortunately, "she had begun to attach importance to that status once she had lost it."
Tonight the narrator encounters at Mme. de Villeparisis's only an archivist, M. de Molé, who has been helping her sort through the letters she had received from eminent people for inclusion in her memoirs; a historian, M. Pierre, who had come to see a portrait she possesses because he wants to include it in a book he's writing; and the ubiquitous Bloch, "now an up-and-coming dramatist upon whom she counted to secure free performances from actors and actresses for her future afternoon receptions." Bloch's presence is possible because the Dreyfus case had not yet reached the point when it "hurl[ed] Jews to the lowest rung of the social ladder" and because he was not yet famous, "whereas important Jews representative of their side were already threatened."
Mme. de Villeparisis's salon was looked down upon by the likes of Mme. Leroi, "and Mme de Villeparisis was stung by that opinion. But hardly anyone today knows who Mme Leroi was, her opinions have completely vanished." Thanks to her memoirs, the narrator notes, Mme. de Villeparisis's salon "will be regarded as one of the most brilliant of the nineteenth century by posterity." He gives tongue-in-cheek credit for that to "God, whose will it is that a few well-written books should exist" and therefore "breathes didain into the hearts of the Mmes Leroi, for he knows that, should they invite the Mmes de Villeparisis to dinner, then these would immediately leave their writing desks and order their carriages for eight o'clock."
But Mme. de Villeparisis is not alone on the third tier of society. There are three others, once prominent, who have similarly fallen from the heights for one reason or another. "Mme de Villeparisis saw much of these three ladies, but she did not like them." Nevertheless, one of them, a tall woman with "a monumental pile of white hair, dressed in the style of Marie-Antoinette," arrives to join the company. Mme. de Villeparisis addresses her as "Alix." She maintains an "icy majesty," and has a little squabble with Mme. de Villeparisis over the opinion once expressed by Liszt that the portrait she is showing the historian is a copy. But before she leaves, she invites the narrator to "join her box on the following Friday."
And then, "The door opened, and the Duchesse de Guermantes entered the room."