Ms. Craveri shows in her thorough and scholarly book how memoirs and personal letters that became highly politicized in the aftermath of the Revolution can be used to reconstruct a portrait of a vanished era. The portrait she provides does not include details of excessive or unusual sexual practice; the Marquis de Sade, surely the most notorious of the last libertines, is not mentioned and does not appear in the index. Nor does Ms. Craveri discuss in detail the philosophical and anti-clerical origins of libertinism. Instead she evokes the insular world of a doomed elite, seducing each other on the brink of the world-changing Revolution. 'Do you want to know what a revolution is?' the Vicomte de Ségur asked after 1789. 'It can be summed up quite neatly with the words: Get out, so that I may install myself in your place.'
A wide-ranging history of a doomed generation of French aristocrats whose world would come to an end with the storming of the Bastille in 1789 ... Craveri’s narrative is long, winding, and leisurely, as the author takes her time getting to the French Revolution and the arrival of the guillotine, which took some—but not all—of the aristocrats off the stage. Indeed, there’s a hint of Balzac to the prose, which has some nice moments, as when she writes of one social climber, 'Julie was too proud to submit to the logic of caste that relegated her to the margins of society.'