Beaumarchais, the author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, did not think of himself primarily as a writer, but rather as an entrepreneur and a man of action—if possible a man of destiny. Moreover, why these two plays of his are familiar to us is because of Rossini and Mozart. By this I do not mean that they, and especially the Marriage, are not brilliant works in themselves. For what comes home to one is how essentially faithful Mozart and Da Ponte were to Beaumarchais’s text. It is often said that the original stage version of the Marriage was harsher, more potentially revolutionary, than Mozart’s opera, and people like to quote Danton’s assertion “Figaro killed off the nobility” and Napoleon’s “It was the Revolution already in action.”
But I think there is some delusion here. Admittedly, in the opera Figaro does not have his great Act V soliloquy, in which he tells the Count, “You have given yourself the trouble of being born, but nothing more. Otherwise, a very ordinary man.” But then, after all, it is only a soliloquy; and the end of the play leaves the Count, despite all his humiliations, in very good humor, highly delighted that the cheek which received his violent slap in the dark turned out to be Figaro’s, not Cherubino’s. Part of the play’s appeal for Beaumarchais’s original audience lay in thinking that by enjoying it, they were acting politically, but this was an illusion. To make people, the enlightened nobility included, laugh indulgently at the mad injustices of the ancien régime was not a revolutionary act.
In the case of Beaumarchais’s only other really considerable literary achievement there was no Mozart to spread its fame and influence, and it remains unfamiliar to Anglophone readers. I am speaking of the four Mémoires that he wrote in his own defense in 1773 and early 1774 when accused of trying to corrupt a judge (the “Goëzman affair”). These were hugely and deservedly successful in the France of his day (some, at a loss how to praise them, likened them to Pascal’s Provincial Letters), and they have an important bearing on the present book, though this will require a little patience to explain.
Beaumarchais (or rather, Pierre-Augustin Caron, for “Beaumarchais” was an assumed name) was born in Paris in 1732, the youngest child of a highly successful clock- and watch-maker. He was the idol and fun-maker of his five sisters and came equally to be idolized by his father, whom he early on supplanted as paterfamilias. This is significant, for one of his leading traits would always be an imperious demand for admiration. However much he might labor for the public good, personal praise had to be a large part of the bargain.
He was apprenticed to his father’s trade and in 1753 developed an improved “escapement” for watches, defeating—by an astute publicity campaign—an attempt by the royal clockmaker Lepaute to claim the invention as his own. As a consequence he began to receive commissions from the royal court, making such a good personal impression on his visits to Versailles (for he was good-looking, charming, and amusing) that he was taken up by “Mesdames,” the King’s four middle-aged unmarried daughters. He became their music master and the organizer of their private entertainments. If they decided they needed a flute or a tambourine, he would go straight out and buy them one, whether they remembered to pay him or not.
It was an amazingly successful first step on the path to worldly advancement, which was his overriding ambition; and in imitation of his hero Voltaire he decided to devote the next ten years to making his fortune. One possible avenue to this was, of course, marriage. Early in 1755 he began an affair with the estranged wife of the elderly Pierre-Augustin Franquet, holder of a minor office in the royal household. To be more precise, she began it, but he quickly appointed himself her financial adviser, a role he discovered a great aptitude for; and on the death of her husband early the following year the two got married. It was arranged that he should succeed Franquet in his post, which entailed escorting dishes for the King’s dinner on their way to the table. It seemed the moment to adopt a less plebeian-sounding name, and he rebaptized himself as “de Beaumarchais,” after a small property belonging to Franquet. This marked the end of his career as clockmaker.
He was meanwhile doing some deliberate self-creation. He wished to be considered as a man of “inexhaustible good-humour,” never put down by difficulties, never rancorous or petty. He determined, despite or because of his plebeian origins, to have what was essential in dealing with a royal court, a capacity for impudence. As regards women, he was happy to regard himself as a libertine and liked to be thought to have a genial weakness for the “fair sex,” making him tolerant of their follies or crimes.
His ambitions as regards money received extraordinary encouragement in 1760 when he got to know the financier Joseph Pâris-Duverney, one of the four Pâris brothers who had made a vast fortune as suppliers to the French army and had helped to establish their protégée Mme de Pompadour in the role of Louis XV’s mistress. Pâris-Duverney was now in his seventies, and for some years his favorite project, as it was of Mme de Pompadour, had been the founding of a military school at Saint-Cyr. Everything depended on interesting the King in it, and this was what Beaumarchais, in virtue of his friendship with Mesdames, was able to contrive, to Pâris-Duverney’s lasting gratitude. But in any case Pâris-Duverney was immensely struck with Beaumarchais. As Maurice Lever writes in his recent biography of Beaumarchais,1 he was dazzled by the intelligence of the young man, seduced by his wit, and bowled over by his aplomb. Pâris-Duverney seems to have adopted him as a proxy son and took over his financial education, as well as opening his purse to him on the most lavish scale, beginning by settling an annuity of 6,000 livres on him.
If Beaumarchais were to make any mark in the world he needed—so at least he told himself—to enter the nobility, and in 1762 Pâris-Duverney provided the funds for him to buy an office as secrétaire du roi. It was an almost total sinecure, but nevertheless it would secure him noble status—the only obstacle being that his father was in “trade,” but he managed to persuade the affectionate old gentleman to retire. Before long this office opened the way for him to purchase a grander and more lucrative one, as “lieutenant-general of the game preserves of the Louvre,” for which Pâris-Duverney made him a huge loan. The post required him to preside twice a month at a tribunal which punished poachers on the royal hunting grounds, and he would perform this duty with zeal and solemnity for the next twenty or more years.
We have reached the date (1764) of an episode in Beaumarchais’s career of which Hugh Thomas wishes to tell us the story. I say the “date,” because (significantly) we only know about the episode from a narrative written by Beaumarchais nearly ten years later. He was at this later time at the crisis of the much-publicized lawsuit (the “Goëzman affair” already mentioned). It had turned into a pamphlet war; and one of his enemies, a certain François Marin, had circulated copies of a letter, by an unknown hand, accusing Beaumarchais of monstrous behavior when in Spain ten years before. Beaumarchais had a sister in Madrid, the letter said, who had been the mistress of a man of letters named Joseph Clavijo, from the Canary Isles, but who had alienated her lover by her immoral conduct, and Beaumarchais had come to Spain to defend his sister’s interests.
He had appeared at Clavijo’s lodgings at six in the morning, had invaded Clavijo’s bedroom, and, holding a pistol to his head, had forced him to agree to marry his sister. He had gone on to extract jewels and money from Clavijo as wedding presents for her, and when ordered by the police to return them had falsely claimed that his lackey had stolen them from him. Furthermore, when playing cards at the Russian embassy in Madrid, he had cheated the ambassador of nearly 100,000 livres in one evening. As a result, according to Marin, his own ambassador had commanded him to leave Spain on the instant, if he did not want to spend the rest of his life in prison.
These were quite substantial crimes, it must be agreed! But there was nothing that Beaumarchais enjoyed better than defending himself in print, and to rebut Marin’s accusations was a heaven-sent polemical opportunity. Thus he concluded the fourth and last of his pamphlets (February 1774) with what he called a “Fragment of My Journey to Spain”—a story that, as he tells it, redounds wonderfully to his credit.
When Beaumarchais was only fifteen, so he relates there, two of his sisters, Marie-Josèphe, the wife of an architect named Guilbert, and the unmarried Lisette, had left Paris for Madrid, at the invitation of an elderly and rich client of their father’s. He hoped that they would “make my old age happy” and promised that they would inherit his fortune. Two years later, this unsatisfactory old foster father had died, leaving them nothing in his will; however, they had stayed on in Madrid, running a successful shop in one of its most fashionable streets. But in February 1764, so relates Beaumarchais, their father received a disturbing letter from Mme Guilbert in Madrid, informing him, in very bitter terms, that a young man of letters had been trifling with Lisette’s affections. He had twice promised to marry her and twice cruelly backed out, reducing poor Lisette, so the indignant sister wrote, to such speechless prostration that they feared for her life.2 Hearing this distressing news, Beaumarchais had set off for Madrid without a moment’s delay, to rescue his sister. Arriving on May 18 at the sisters’ house he was given a full account of the wrongs suffered by Lisette and, that very day, went to seek out her treacherous lover, finding him away from home but being given an appointment for the next day.
The appointment was for 9 AM but Beaumarchais arrived, with a companion, at 8:30 AM—a time still very early by Spanish standards—and opened the conversation by explaining to Clavijo, who beamed with pleasure at the news, that some writers in France wished him to do them the honor of joining their association. Clavijo asked him what else brought him to Spain, and Beaumarchais embarked on the story of two French sisters who, left penniless some years ago at the death of their foster parent, had bravely supported themselves by running a “novelty” shop. A young man from the Canary Isles, at the beginning of a promising literary career, had made their acquaintance (here Clavijo’s face falls) and had made the younger of them a proposal of marriage, to which the elder’s response had been that when, and if, he could achieve honorable and well-paid employment, she would not stand in his way. (Clavijo shifts uneasily in his chair.) His “intended” encouraged him to launch a periodical called, like the one that Clavijo edited, El Pensador (“The Thinker”). (Clavijo looks as if about to be taken ill.)
Maurice Lever, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, two volumes (Paris: Fayard, 1999–2003), Vol. 1.↩
No such letter has survived.↩