“Truth is stranger than fiction.” This commonplace is abundantly illustrated by the life of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-99), the young Paris watchmaker who is most famous for his plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. From the facts of his extraordinary career, more than one lively novel could be drawn, including a picaresque tale. He was a successful entrepreneur and merchant-ship negotiator, an author and composer, a publisher (the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s collected works), a pioneering champion of authors’ rights, a government agent (and sometime spy), a vigorous supporter of the young American republic—and, yes, a lover. His ventures, adventures, vigor, and inventiveness could, if transposed into fiction, easily strain credence. As it is, readers will be amazed by the enormous range of his undertakings. “If time were measured by the events that fill it,” he wrote, “I have lived two hundred years.”
The present volume is a condensation as well as translation of the three-volume original biography (1999-2004) by Maurice Lever, a biographer and literary historian specializing in 17th- and 18th-century topics. Shortly after Lever’s death in 2006, his widow, Evelyne, began a redaction, intending to make the work suitable for translation and publication in America. It is not clear whether that version was completed; in any case, the translator, Susan Emanuel, notes that she “modified considerably” Evelyne Lever’s selection of material. The book is organized along chronological lines, but, on the pattern of many historical studies, different “theatres” (the word is apt) of the subject’s most momentous decades are treated in separate chapters. This arrangement leads to occasional backtracking but causes no difficulty. The book is basically straightforward and does not play games with readers; it is suitable for leisure hours, one or two chapters at a time.
Among 18th-century French authors, Beaumarchais can be ranked, with Montesquieu, just below Voltaire, Diderot, and the disturbed genius Rousseau. He was extraordinarily talented in various fields and had other advantages: a supportive father and sisters; good looks; a lively personality and enormous charm (to which women were particularly susceptible); tremendous energy; self-confidence; ambition and the willingness to face obstacles—including drawn-out litigation, mostly initiated by him—and to endure hardship in order to advance. Lest he appear an egomaniac, one must stress his concern for others, his deep belief in justice, and his energetic commitment to righting wrongs. He was strikingly generous: He gave liberally to the neighborhood poor, founded a charity for destitute nursing mothers, and sacrificed time and expense to achieve legal protection of intellectual property. In the most complicated negotiation of his career—the affair of the Dutch rifles—he risked great sums, enormous time, and his personal reputation and welfare in the effort to procure, though legal means, weapons for the new French republic. He endured imprisonment and, even worse, repeated crossings, sometimes lasting several days, of the English Channel, during which he experienced violent seasickness. The man’s perseverance was partly self-serving; still, it is astonishing.
His plebeian origins (he was born simply Caron) and the affair of the Dutch rifles notwithstanding, Beaumarchais did not give unqualified support to the French Revolution as it unfolded. A self-proclaimed friend of liberty and champion of self-made men, he recognized nonetheless the legitimacy of hierarchies and had tastes that would now be called elitist. He had begun his career as a purveyor of fine timepieces (incorporating improvements of his devising) to Louis XV, his family, and others at court. He then became a music master, teaching the harp to the monarch’s daughters. Obviously, he had none of the widespread loathing among the lower classes for anything resembling authority or superiority. Aspiring to higher rank, he acquired “de Beaumarchais” through his first wife, who had inherited a property by that name; he later bought a patent as secretary to the king, which conferred the first degree of nobility. With the enormous wealth he eventually acquired, he designed and built a superb Paris residence, with gardens, right across from the Bastille. Even before July 1789, he feared the crowds in his neighborhood. He was an early critic of revolutionary excesses, expressing dismay at the “brigands who burn châteaux” and “call that freedom.” Fundamentally, he was a partisan of order and justice, and admired Louis XVI (who comes off generally well here). “I am the friend of order and good rules,” Beaumarchais wrote. “To criticize and indict some laws is not to overthrow all laws.”
His repeated and prolonged sufferings at the hands of republican authorities show how they viewed him as suspect, probably a royalist sympathizer. He was harassed and imprisoned; he was ultimately proscribed as an émigré and thus placed under death sentence; at one point a mercenary was sent to assure that he would not make it back alive from Holland to France. Funds he had spent on the republic’s behalf were not repaid; his fine house was confiscated after having been repeatedly placed under seals; and, worst of all, his wife, daughter, and sister were persecuted. Through all this, Beaumarchais remained an optimist, never abandoning his belief that some men, at least, were honest, that justice would ultimately prevail, and that, the die having been cast and the monarchy overthrown, an enduring republic could be properly established in France as in America. And he retained his belief, expressed by Figaro, in what is now called meritocracy.>
Various aspects of the historical period receive considerable attention—the courts of Louis XV and Louis XVI, the stage and actors, opera, political and economic matters, the American uprising and war against England, British-French rivalry, the inside workings of European diplomacy, and, of course, the Revolution of 1789 and subsequent events. Mozart, Benjamin Franklin, Danton, Diderot, Lafayette, Napoleon, and others of note make their appearance.
It must be emphasized that this study in its condensed form is not a probing, critical biography comparable to Arthur M. Wilson’s massive study of Diderot. Nor does it have all the scholarly apparatus furnished in Lever’s original, which most readers will not miss. There are a few scanty discursive footnotes, occasionally repetitious, but others would have been useful for an English-language readership; for instance, many Americans are unlikely to identify “the Soubise” (a Paris residence) or to know that Savoyards (identified tardily) were itinerant entertainers. If, however, one approaches the book as a grand adventure story, puzzling details can simply be passed over.
It is somewhat harder to overlook the shortcomings in the translation. There are errors in grammar of the sort made by play-by-play and “color” men on NFL broadcasts: “If it was . . . ” (in a contrary-to-fact statement), “whom some people believe was . . . ,” “to whomever wants to hear it,” “stronger than me . . . ” Some errors may be misprints (wondered for wandered); but the verb form hung is used twice for hanged (by the neck). There are numerous gallicisms, which may puzzle readers; ignore for be unaware of is a classic student’s mistake. Apparently, the translator did not reflect that in English, unlike French, the redundant pronoun me is not used with I, and that an indefinite article is required with an unmodified noun in apposition, as in “Lheureux, a member of . . . ” and a definite article with a modified apposed noun: “Lheureux, the minister of justice . . . ” Occasional British terms attract attention (for instance, stalls as applied to theatre seating). The strangest mistake may be the phrase “The poor family is wandering and thorn . . . ” (for forlorn?). Like ants and termites, errors do have a way of getting in, to be sure; but combing and recombing the text should eliminate most. The Index has numerous errors, such as “Comédiens-Française.” An observation is in order concerning the elder Crébillon (Prosper Jolyot) and his son, Claude: Prosper was the tragedian; Claude the author of libertine tales. It is probably the latter, not the man identified as a tragedian, whom the biographer had in mind in linking him with Choderlos de Laclos (Les Liaisons dangereuses).
Evelyne Lever calls Emanuel “a magnificent translator.” Perhaps she had in mind the liveliness of the text. This liveliness is likely owing to the French original and, ultimately, to the subject’s character; it would be a dull biographer who could make the life of Beaumarchais boring. In any case, Madame Lever is not an American reader and probably did not observe the errors noted above. From Emanuel, a professional translator, I hope for better work in the future. Ultimately, the publisher is responsible for its product; I have written before in these pages, and shall state again, that expert copyeditors should be assigned to all such works before they hit the bookstores. I do not mean to be unkind. But how can publishers, editors, and others know what we want if we do not tell them?
That being said, it is fitting to add a recommendation. The volume provides hours of interesting reading and much information; yet the details do not overwhelm the narrative. The complex dealings between Beaumarchais and the United States are of particular interest. That his large loans were inspired in part by his hope of establishing commercial enterprises in America does not detract from the tremendous, indeed essential, benefit those enterprises provided. The wilful refusal of Congress, for decades, to compensate his heirs in entirety is deplorable.
A warning: In letters quoted in extenso, there is considerable explicit language. Beaumarchais was, after all, French, in the century in which many raised eroticism to an art, and to be a libertine was a gentleman’s badge.
[Beaumarchais: A Biography, by Maurice Lever; translated from the French by Susan Emanuel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 432 pp., $35.00]
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