Part II, Chapter II, from "The Courvoisiers were equally incapable of..." to "...knowing glances on the matter with her husband."
The narrator's analysis of the Duchesse and "the spirit of innovation that [she] introduced into society life" becomes harsher. Mme. de Guermantes could get away with almost anything because of her wit, her "lapidary malice," which was both admired and feared. Part of her method consisted of rejecting the conventional wisdom. He observes "that the Duchesse, by thriving on this worldly life, the idleness and sterility of which are to real social activity what, in art, criticism is to creativity, extended to the members of her circle the instability of viewpoint, the unhealthy thirst, of the quibbler who, in order to slake a mind too desiccated, goes in search of any old paradox that is at all fresh." This attitude of rejecting the prevailing opinion, perhaps abetted by "the inanity of social life,"
led her to conclude that a man of their circle, who was recognized as a good fellow but a fool, was a monster of egotism, shrewder than people thought; that another, who was well known for his generosity, might be taken as the personification of avarice; that a good mother had no time for her children; and that a woman who was thought to be loose was really someone of the noblest sentiments.
"The Duchesse's vagaries of judgment spared no one, except her husband," observes the narrator, whose portrait of the Duc is equally withering. Like the Duchesse, the Duc places the highest value on making an impression: "If, being as tight with money as he was ostentatious, he refused her the pettiest sums for charities or for the servants, he insisted on her having the most sumptuous clothes and the finest equipages to be had." His egalitarian manner is a façade:
For, if he said that nobility was of little account, that he considered his colleagues to be his equals, he actually believed no such thing. He sought, pretended to value, but in fact despised political status, and since in his own eyes he remained M. de Guermantes, it did not cocoon his person in the sort of starchiness of high office that affects others and makes them unapproachable.
As for the Duchesse, one of the ways she keeps society talking about "Oriane's latest" -- meaning her latest witticism or her latest flouting of convention -- is her treatment of her husband's extramarital affairs. Her salons often included "one or two extremely beautiful women who had no other claim to be there but their beauty and the use to which M. de Guermantes had put it."
In fact, some of "these bit-part beauties" became mistresses of the Duc in "the hope of being invited to her salon." And they were useful to her: "it frequently happened that it was Mme de Guermantes who had sought the acquaintance of the mistress, in whom she hoped, and was so very anxious, to find a precious ally against her dreadful husband." For "M. de Guermantes reverted to humane behavior and generosity only when there was a new mistress." Then the Duchesse could "see opportunities opening up for her once more to be generous toward inferiors, charitable toward the poor, and even, later on, to buy herself a fabulous new motorcar." But the mistresses usually paid a price when the Duc's interest in them faded:
during the initial stages of rupture, the woman whom M. de Guermantes was on the point of abandoning would make a fuss, create scenes, become demanding, appear indiscreet and pestering. The Duc would begin to take a sudden dislike to her. At this stage, Mme de Guermantes would have the opportunity to bring to light the real or imagined defects of a person who annoyed her.