"THE FATE of conversation," Madame de Girardin wrote, "depends on three things: the quality of the speakers, the harmony of minds, and the material arrangements of the salon. By material arrangements we mean the complete disarrangement of all the furniture. An entertaining conversation can never begin in a salon where the furniture is symmetrically arranged."

From the salon she established, Madame de Girardin, once hailed as the Tenth Muse, successfully wooed Dumas, Balzac, Hugo and others to write for her husband's newspaper, La Presse, to which she herself contributed a pseudonymous gossip column.

Affairs of the Mind, a collection of essays edited by Peter Quennell, makes clear that all sorts of odd women have sought salvation by salon. Take Lady Holland, for example.

A social nobody, but with a vast Jamaican fortune, at the age of 16 she married Sir Godfrey Webster, old enough to be her grandfather. Having failed to expel his aunt from Battle Abbey, she took Sir Godfrey round the courts of Europe seeking fashion, culture and romance. After a number of lovers, she chose the lame Lord Holland for a second husband. On divorce, she had to give Sir Godfrey her fortune and submit to social ostracism. But she had a devotedly subservient husband, rich enough to finance the Holland House Circle, a demi-monde frequented by Melbourne, Bryon and other brilliant men of her time, happily unaccompanied by their wives.

Her rival, Lady Blessington, started in a smaller way, sold by her father at 15 to a sadistic officer, whose only decent act was to die in a drunken brawl. She was thus able to marry Lord Blessington without a divorce. As she had been 10 years the mistress of Captain Jenkins, Lady Blessington's salons were also avoided by great ladies. But her male guests were as distinguished as Lady Holland's. The scholarly Dr. Samuel Parr prophesied that "with her shrewd and masculine mind, she would be even more impressive in middle age." She needed to be, since Lord Blessington left all his estate (except for an allowance of 2000 pounds a year) to a Count d'Orsay on condition that d'Orsay marry his daughter. The marriage failed, but the young man remained the ambiguously intimate friend of his step-mother-in-law, Friend of Dickens, Walter Landor and the Disraelis, Lady Blessington eked out her widow's jointure with hackwork.

Madame Recamier, by contrast, was exceptional among hostesses, in that her salon centered on her beauty. Dressed always in white, inviting desire and tempering it to adoring friendship, she held court as often from her bed as from the sofa to which she gave her name. It was enough to be herself.

But most hostesses had ulterior motives for holding their Fridays or Saturdays. Lady Cunard (who changed her name from Maud to Emerald, as less "Tennysonian") used her assemblies of the famous to impress the rich and extort contributions for the support of opera, especially after her beloved, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, had spent on music the fortune inherited from liver pills. Her style was to mix incongruities. So was Mabel Dodge's, who mingled indiscriminately everyone "advanced," whether in the arts, politics or sciences. The only lion she failed to capture was Henri Bergson. "Many famous salons have been established by women of wit or beauty," wrote Max Eastman. "Mabel's was the only one ever established by pure willpower. And it was no second-rate salon; everybody in the ferment of ideas could be found there." And significantly, it folded up when Mabel fell in love with John Reed, the romantic communist who wrote Ten Days that Shook the World.

The wit and wisdom of the salons have faded like the flowers that once adorned them. The best of these 13 essays are portraits of women and the uses to which they put their entertainments. The Russian Princess de Lieven, in youth a lover of Prince Metternich, the beloved of Francois Guizot in old age, but always the collector of diplomatic intelligence, is elegantly depicted by Peter Quennell. Victoria Glendinning sympathetically portrays Speranza, the gigantic Lady Wilde, who remained devoted to a "pithecoid" husband "of extraordinary sensuality and cowardice," (She once said of her errant son Oscar, as his trial approached and he was being urged to leave England: "If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son, it will make no difference to my affection, but if you go, I will never speak to you again.")

Unfortunately, the publishers have tried to spread the geographical appeal of Affairs of the Mind by including essays either mediocre or irrelevant. Rahel Varnhagen and Fanny von Arnstein are for Jews in romantic Germany and Austria; Salka Viertel embraces Hollywood, Greta Garbo, the Manns and other anti-Nazi refugees. Strangest of all, Karek Capek's Patecnici or "Friday men" represent "at homes" in Thomas Masaryk's pre-Hitler Czechoslovakia.

As if this hasn't thrown the net wide enough, the publishers also include 18th Century salons in their subtitle, ignoring Peter Quennell's introduction. There he says, "Eighteenth-centry salons and the ladies who kept them, both English and French, form a large and highly complex theme; and in the present volume we have limited ourselves to the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century."