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Finding a Lost Prince of Bohemia

A first version of this essay was given as a lecture in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague on August 31, 2006. The University of Pennsylvania Press is planning to publish Les Bohémiens in an English translation by Vivian Folkenflik.

Bohemianism belongs to the Belle Époque. Puccini set it to music and fixed it firmly in late-nineteenth-century Paris. But La Bohème, first performed in 1896, looked back to an earlier era, the pre-Haussmann Paris of Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, first published in 1848. Murger drew on themes that echoed from the Paris of Balzac’s Illusions perdues (first part published in 1837), and Balzac’s imagination stretched back to the ancien régime, where it all began. But how did it begin? The earliest Bohemians inhabited a rich cultural landscape, which has never been explored.

In the eighteenth century, the term Bohémiens generally referred to the inhabitants of Bohemia or, by extension, to Gypsies (Romany), but it had begun to acquire a figurative meaning, which denoted drifters who lived by their wits.1 Many pretended to be men of letters.2 In fact, by 1789, France had developed an enormous population of indigent authors—672 poets alone, according to one contemporary estimate.3 Most of them lived down and out in Paris, surviving as best they could by hackwork and scraps of patronage. Although they crossed paths with grisettes like Manon Lescaut, there was nothing romantic or operatic about their lives. They lived like Rameau’s nephew, not Rameau. Their world was bounded by Grub Street.

Of course, Grub Street, both as an expression and as a milieu, refers to London. The street itself, which ran through the miserable, crime-infested ward of Cripplegate, had attracted hack writers since Elizabethan times. By the eighteenth century, the hacks had moved to other addresses, but Grub Street had become an important milieu in the literary imagination, and it was celebrated in many works of literature—not merely the Grub-Street Journal but masterpieces like The Dunciad by Alexander Pope and The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay.

Did something comparable exist in Paris? Certainly: Paris had an even larger population of scribblers, but they were scattered in garrets throughout the city, not in any distinct neighborhood, and they never dramatized or satirized their lot in works that captured the imagination of posterity.4 True, Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau, Voltaire’s Pauvre Diable, and parts of Rousseau’s Confessions evoked the life of Grub Street, Paris, and Paris’s Scriblerian culture permeates less-known works such as Mercier’s Tableau de Paris.5 Yet not before Balzac and Murger did any writer bring La Bohème to life—no one, that is, except the forgotten author of a lost masterpiece.

I must admit, however, that I may be succumbing here to hyperbole. Having found the book, Les Bohémiens, a two-volume novel published in 1790, I want to believe it is a masterpiece. A sounder assessment would rank it as an extraordinary novel, written with wit and brio, but more important for its picture of literary life under the ancien régime than for its excellence as a work of art.

I also must confess to a case of biographical enthusiasm. Having pieced together the life of its author, I find him one of the most interesting characters I have ever encountered in the archives. Anne Gédéon Lafitte, marquis de Pelleport, was, according to everyone who met him, a scoundrel, a reprobate, a rogue, a thoroughly bad hat. He charmed and seduced wherever he went, and left a trail of misery behind him. He lived miserably himself, because he was disowned by his family and relied on his wits and his pen to escape from destitution. He was an adventurer who spent most of his life on the road. His itinerary led along the routes that connected Grub Street, Paris, with Grub Street, London, and his novel provides a picaresque account of them. So whether or not it qualifies as great literature, it deserves to be studied as a guidebook to a world that lies off the beaten track of sociocultural history.

Grub Street, Paris, had many exits. They led to Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and other cities with Grub Street cultures of their own. When Parisian writers found their careers blocked, they took to the road and sought their fortune wherever they could exploit the fascination with all things French. The largest colony of expatriates existed in London. It included an extraordinary collection of rogues—priests who had run off with girls from their parish, clerks who had escaped with the cash box of their employers, officers who had deserted their regiments after running up gambling debts that they could not pay. Secret agents from the Paris police investigated this milieu in London and produced reports on thirty-nine expatriates—an extraordinary rogues’ gallery, which probably underrepresents their total population. The French refugees picked up tricks from the British press, but they also perfected a genre of their own: the libelle, or libel, a scandalous account of private life among the great figures of the court and capital.

Libels no longer occupy an important place on the literary scene. We don’t need them, because we have tabloid newspapers. But before 1789, the French had virtually no newspapers at all—that is, no papers with news in them, news as we know it now: uncensored stories about politics and public figures. To learn about current events they had to pick up gossip in cafés, consult clandestine manuscript newsletters, or read libels. Libels came in many varieties, everything from pamphlets and chroniques scandaleuses to histories and biographies composed of scandalous anecdotes. In some earlier research, I did a statistical study of literary demand, based on orders for books by booksellers scattered everywhere in France. After reading 50,000 letters, I calculated the number of copies ordered for 720 books that circulated in the highly developed underground trade—that is, outside the censorship and the control of the monopolistic booksellers’ guild. They included many works by Voltaire and Rousseau—in fact, the entire Enlightenment. But of the top fifteen best sellers, five were libels, and more libels appeared everywhere else throughout the retrospective best-seller list. I concluded that a huge literature of libel had permeated French society on the eve of the Revolution, yet virtually all of those books and their authors have now been forgotten. A vast sector of literary history remained to be explored, and the best place to begin seemed to be London.

Most of the French libelers in London had received their basic training as hack writers in the literary underground of Paris and crossed the Channel in order to escape the Bastille. After their arrival, they cobbled together a living by teaching, translating, and providing copy for the English presses that tried to satisfy the demand for illegal literature in France. Thanks to information supplied by contacts in Paris and Versailles, they churned out books and pamphlets that slandered everyone at the top of French society, including the king and his mistresses and ministers. Their works circulated throughout the clandestine book trade in France and sold openly in London, above all in a bookshop in St. James Street operated by a Genevan expatriate named Boissière.6

Of course, libels had existed since antiquity. They proliferated during the Renaissance, thanks to sharp-witted writers like Pietro Aretino. But they looked unusually threatening to the authorities in France during the two decades before the Revolution. By destroying the power of the parlements in 1771, the Maupeou ministry touched off the greatest political crisis since the Fronde of 1648. Calm returned with the accession of Louis XVI in May 1774, but ministerial intrigues and scandals climaxed by the Diamond Necklace Affair of 1785 brought public opinion back to a boil on the eve of the Revolution. Throughout this period, government officials learned to be wary of the power of public opinion—not because they expected anyone to storm the Bastille but because well-placed slander could damage relations within the delicate system of protection and clientage at the heart of politics in Versailles.

A great deal of the slander came from London. One of the first and most notorious libelles, Le Gazetier cuirassé (The Iron-Plated Gazetteer, 1771), was written by the leading libeler in the colony of expatriates, Charles Théveneau de Morande. It took Chancellor Maupeou as its main target and sullied reputations throughout the court and capital with such effect that when Morande announced a sequel, an attack on Mme du Barry entitled Mémoires secrets d’une femme publique (Secret Memoirs of a Call Girl), the government resorted to extreme measures. At first it attempted to kidnap or assassinate him. When that plot failed, it decided to buy him off. It sent France’s greatest expert in intrigues, Beaumarchais, to negotiate; and after a series of baroque subplots worthy of Figaro, Morande agreed to suppress the entire edition for the princely sum of 32,000 livres and an annuity of 4,800 livres. The other libelers soon followed his example. Instead of merely writing to satisfy the demand in France for scandalous literature, the expatriates transformed the manufacture of libels into a blackmail industry. Morande retired from the field, taking up an even more lucrative career as a spy for the French government, which gave him an opportunity to denounce his former colleagues.

Morande’s main successor was Pelleport, an equally unscrupulous but far more talented writer. Using the bookseller Boissière as a middleman, he invited the French government to bid on a series of libels, which he promised to destroy if the price were right. They included Les Passe-temps d’Antoinette, an account of the Queen’s sex life; Les Amours du visir de Vergennes, a similar attack on the foreign minister; and Les Petits Soupers et les nuits de l’Hôtel Bouillon, revelations about orgies conducted by the princesse de Bouillon and her servants with her sometime partner, the marquis de Castries, France’s naval minister during the American war.

The French authorities negotiated through a secret agent from the Paris police named Receveur, who disguised himself, not very convincingly, as an Alsatian baron. The bidding got up to 3,600 livres, the equivalent of ten years’ wages for an unskilled laborer. But Pelleport held out for 4,200 livres. Receveur was not authorized to go that high; so he finally returned to Paris, confounded by his inability to cope with the tricks of the libelers (they led him on a merry chase through pubs and bookshops) and the customs of the English (they spoke an impossible language and had strange notions such as habeas corpus, trial by jury, and freedom of the press).

Pelleport then proceeded to market Les Petits Soupers and followed it up with a far more damaging work, Le Diable dans un bénitier (The Devil in the Holy Water), a libel about the mission to suppress libels. While avoiding names and compromising information, Pelleport celebrated the expatriate writers as champions of liberty and mocked Receveur and his superiors as agents of despotism who had attempted to establish a secret branch of the Parisian police in London. The cast of villains included the lieutenant general of police in Paris, the most powerful ministers in Versailles, and their main undercover agent in London: Morande.

  1. 1

    The 1762 edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française gave the following definition:

    BOHÈME, ou BOHÉMIEN, BOHÉMIENNE. On les nomme aussi Égyptiens. Ces mots ne sont point mis ici pour signaler les peuples de cette partie de l’Allemagne qu’on appelle Bohème; mais seulement pour désigner une sorte de vagabonds qui courent le pays, disant la bonne aventure et dérobant avec adresse. “Une troupe de Bohémiens.” On dit familièrement d’une maison où il n’y a ni ordre ni règle, que “C’est une maison de Bohème.” On dit proverbialement “Qu’un homme vit comme un Bohème” pour dire qu’il vit comme un homme qui n’a ni feu ni lieu.

    Of the many studies of nineteenth-century bohemianism, see especially Jerrold Seigel, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830–1930 (Viking, 1986) and César Graña, Bohemian vs. Bourgeois: French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century (Basic Books, 1964).

  2. 2

    In one of the earliest references to literary bohemians, Le Chroniqueur désoeuvré, ou l’espion du boulevard du Temple (London, 1783), Vol. 2, p. 22, caustically described a boulevard theater, Les Variétés amusantes, as “cet espèce d’antre de Bohémiens.”

  3. 3

    Antoine de Rivarol, Le Petit Almanach de nos grands hommes (1788).

  4. 4

    I have tried to develop this argument and to provide statistics about French writers during the eighteenth century in “The Facts of Literary Life in Eighteenth-Century France,” in The Political Culture of the Old Regime, edited by Keith Baker (Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 261–291.

  5. 5

    Louis Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, reprint edited by Jean-Claude Bonnet (Paris, 1994); see especially the chapters entitled “Auteurs,” “Des demi-auteurs, quarts d’auteur, enfin métis, quarterons, etc.,” “Auteurs nés à Paris,” “Apologie des gens de lettres,” “Trente écrivains en France, pas davantage,” “Les cent hommes de lettres de l’Encyclopédie,” “La littérature du Faubourg Saint-Germain, et celle du faubourg Saint-Honoré,” “Misère des auteurs,” “Le Musée de Paris,” and “Les grands comédiens contre les petits.”

  6. 6

    The richest source of information about the French expatriates in London is the archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Quai d’Orsay: Correspondance politique: Angleterre, especially mss 540–550. The following account is also based on the interrogations of Brissot in the Bastille, which reveal a great deal about Pelleport’s activities: Archives Nationales, Fonds Brissot, 446 AP 2. The most important printed sources include the anonymous and tendentious but very revealing libelle by Anne Gédéon Lafitte, marquis de Pelleport, Le Diable dans un bénitier et la métamorphose du Gazetier cuirassé en mouche… (London, 1784); the police reports published by Louis-Pierre Manuel, La Police de Paris dévoilée (Paris, 1790), two vols.; Manuel’s edited and paraphrased versions of papers from the Bastille, La Bastille dévoilée, ou recueil de pièces authentiques pour servir à son histoire (Paris, 1789–1890), nine livraisons or vols., depending on how they are bound; and the superb collection of documents edited by Gunnar and Mavis von Proschwitz, Beaumarchais et le Courier de l’Europe (Oxford University Press, 1990), two vols. The most important secondary work is still the thin and inaccurate biography of Charles Théveneau de Morande by Paul Robiquet, Théveneau de Morande. Étude sur le XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1882). It can be supplemented by Simon Burrows, Blackmail, Scandal, and Revolution: London’s French Libellistes, 1758–92 (Manchester University Press, distributed in the US by Palgrave, 2006). The following account is based on these sources supplemented by material concerning Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville: J.-P. Brissot: Mémoires (Paris, 1910), two vols., edited by Claude Perroud; J.-P. Brissot: Correspondance et papiers, edited by Claude Perroud (Paris, 1912); and Robert Darnton, J.-P. Brissot: His Career and Correspondence 1779–1787 (Oxford, 2001), which can be consulted on-line at the Web site of the Voltaire Foundation: www.voltaire.ox.ac.uk.

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