This biography of a lesser Madame de SÃ‰vignÃ‰ proves Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses was not merely a fictional study of sexual politics but an accurate portrait of aristocratic behavior in 18th-century France. Marie de Vichy-Champrond was born to a noble French family in 1696. But despite her high birth and convent education, Madame du Deffand (her married name) was, by Parisian social standards, a fallen woman by the age of 32. A divorcÃ‰e known for her affairs, including a short-lived dalliance with the regent, the Duke of Orleans, that secured her a lifetime annuity, she spent over a decade redeeming her position by serving in the court of the Duchess of Maine and as a lover to the esteemed Charles-Jean-FranÃ‡ois HÃ‰nault, president of the AcadÃ‰mie franÃ‡aise. At 51, she established what was to become Paris's most important literary salon -- frequented by Diderot, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Voltaire -- where aristocrats and intellectuals came to trade influence and knowledge. Her correspondences with those who most engaged her passions -- the Duchess of Maine, HÃ‰nault, d'Alembert, her niece Julie de Lespinasse, Voltaire, and Horace Walpole -- reveal her days to have been consumed with high-stakes social conquests and betrayals. Card games and coquetry aside, as a high priestess of the art of conversation, she exercised important influence on intellectual affairs. AcadÃ‰mie franÃ‡aise elections became arenas for women to one-up their social competition with the seats won by their pet philosophes. Craveri (French Literature/Univ. of Tuscia, Viterbo, Italy) fortifies every supposition, almost every page, with letters to, from, or about her subject. These letters, penned by masters like Walpole and Voltaire during the glory days of literary letter writing, not only substantiate Craveri's points but are minor literary works on their own. This impressive biography and history of French aristocratic intrigue rides more on the vitality of these quoted correspondences than on Craveri's solid, academic writing.