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.)

This work, continued Beaumarchais in icy tones, was a great success, and after six years the employment (a court appointment as archivist) appeared, and the lover disappeared! The anger of the young woman’s supporters proved so formidable, however, that the lover begged her to accept him after all, and wedding preparations were made. He went to court to ask permission of his superior, and on his return (says Beaumarchais, raising his voice) told his intended that he had changed his mind again—warning the sisters not to make trouble for him, or, as unprotected foreigners, they would have reason to regret it. This brutal announcement threw the younger sister into convulsions, indeed put her very life in danger. When the news reached the ears of her brother in France, he hurled himself on the instant to Madrid. “And this brother,” thunders Beaumarchais, “who left everything behind, fatherland, duties, family, career, pleasures, to come to Spain to avenge an innocent and unfortunate sister, is myself! come armed with right and determination, to unmask a traitor and write his soul in blood on his face. And that traitor is you.3

One could not ask for a better acting script, stage directions and all, but one is hardly tempted to believe things actually proceeded so very smoothly—it would have required long rehearsal. Likewise with the rest of this richly fantastic story. Does Clavijo have any complaints to make of his sister, asks Beaumarchais? None whatever, he answers. At this, Beaumarchais turns to his companion: “You have heard my sister’s justification; go and publish it. The rest of what I have to say to this gentleman requires no witnesses.”

“It suits us both,” he says to Clavijo, changing his tone now that the two are alone, “that you should not marry my sister.” All that he (Beaumarchais) wishes for, he says, is vengeance. Clavijo must, here and now, make a written admission that he has deceived and mistreated Mlle Caron; and as her brother he intends to make whatever cruel use of it that he can. “Monsieur,” replies Clavijo, “I believe I am speaking to the worst offended and most generous of men.” Had he foreseen that the lady had such a brother, says Clavijo, he would have expected the greatest advantages from marriage to her and would not have allowed ambition to deflect him. (Beaumarchais’s tales about himself often take such a gratifying turn.) But before Beaumarchais executes his threats, asks Clavijo, may he be allowed to try to win back Mlle Caron’s affections? Beaumarchais reluctantly agrees; and in a few days he and Clavijo, who are seeing each other every day, have become soul mates. Clavijo is made ill by a defamatory letter circulated about him, and Beaumarchais takes tender care of him, promising, or so Beaumarchais writes, that when he is better they shall go about Madrid together like brothers.

The marriage is on again. The marriage is off again, for a new reason: a chambermaid (duenna) is demanding satisfaction for unkept promises of marriage made by Clavijo years before (though Beaumarchais suspects that Clavijo himself has engineered this complication). Meanwhile Beaumarchais discovers that already during the honeymoon of his friendship with Clavijo, the latter has secretly taken legal steps against him, for the very crimes (pistol and all) later attributed to him in the letter of François Marin, and the French ambassador urges him to flee Spain without the slightest delay. But Beamarchais does not obey; and eventually he wins opinion to his side and succeeds in getting Clavijo dismissed from his court post—though then generously begging a pardon for the poor man. As for Marin’s accusations regarding the wedding presents and the card game at the Russian embassy, they were—Beaumarchais is eager to show—a malignant travesty of facts actually much to his credit.

If it is thought that I am unduly skeptical regarding Beaumarchais’s story, it may help to mention a further fact or two. He did not shoot like an arrow from a bow to Madrid to rescue his near-to-dying sister: it was two months before he finally set off, and he lingered over several assignations along the way. Nor was Lisette, as his tone rather suggests, a young and inexperienced victim: she was by now thirty-three—“on the shelf,” as Hugh Thomas puts it. More to the point, whatever the pain caused her by Clavijo’s tergiversations, she had for some months been courted by another lover, a French businessman named Jean Durand, Indeed Durand had written to Caron the elder to ask his blessing. Beaumarchais, however, persuaded her not to marry Durand, and indeed it has to be said that he did not do much for Lisette at all.

But the story, as a story (I have not been able to do justice to it here), is most appealing, and has been felt to be so by many of Hugh Thomas’s predecessors. It was the inspiration of Goethe’s first play, Clavigo, where it is given a tragic turn. There was a stage adaptation by Marsollier des Vivetières, first performed in 1774, at which Beaumarchais himself was present and was most gratifyingly lionized, and several more in the earlier nineteenth century.

We are led to reflect, though, on the curious form of Hugh Thomas’s book. It is, as you might say, a sort of historical novel. There, on the one hand, is the story of Beaumarchais in Spain I have iterated, bold in outline and colorful in its details; and on the other hand the physical background, constructed on the principle of supplying what must, or very likely would have been, the case. Beaumarchais and his traveling companion “would have entered [Madrid] through the old Puerta de Alcalá,…consisting of a large central gate and a smaller one on each side,” etc. Beaumarchais “would have” been greatly struck by the signs of Mariolatry in old Castile. He “might have” caught sight of the dandies (petimetres) in the Puerta del Sol. He “might have” gone to Clavijo’s lodgings in a sedan chair, but more likely he walked.

Now, even if we fully believe in Beaumarchais’s story, our being in the hands of such a voluble and vastly well-informed guide as Hugh Thomas—drawing attention to what Beaumarchais himself, not a man much interested in the passing scene or the beauties of ancient architecture, would not have thought significant—creates a slightly comic effect. But if what we are being given is the background to something that did not actually happen, at least in the form Beaumarchais would like us to believe, the logic of the account grows very strange.

Why Beaumarchais persuaded Lisette not to marry Durand is a question of some interest, and Maurice Lever, in general very sympathetic toward Beaumarchais, thinks that he did so because Durand was too useful to himself. This brings us to the real reasons for Beaumarchais’s stay in Spain. He had been commissioned by Pâris-Duverney, on behalf of a French financial consortium, to try to interest the Spanish government in four separate and grandiose projects: that the consortium should receive the monopoly of provisioning the Spanish army; that it should have the handling of Spanish trade to Louisiana; that it should be granted the Assiento, i.e., the right to supply slaves to Spain; and that Beaumarchais should be invited to form a company to colonize the rugged lands of the Sierra Morena.

We need not think that these plans were a mere fantasy on Beaumarchais’s part, for they are implicit in a Mémoire sur l’Espagne, which he wrote soon after his return home for the eyes of the Duc de Choiseul, France’s chief minister. None of them bore fruit, however, and Hugh Thomas does a very good job of explaining the reasons why. The two responsible senior ministers in Spain were implacable rivals, the one invariably opposing the other’s ideas; there was a rival Spanish candidate for the Assiento; the Prince of Asturias—the future Charles IV—eschewed a French deal, “because of having been educated by two German Jesuits”; Beaumarchais himself was ill-suited to negotiations in Spain, which required, as Thomas writes, “dealing effectively with minor officials.” But it really came down to a deep-seated Spanish dislike and suspicion of everything French.4

The Mémoire sur l’Espagne is, nonetheless, a most arresting document. It opens with an unblushing statement of realpolitik. The duty of any representative of France in Spain, in the situation recently created by the “family pact” between the two countries, is, it says, to give French ideas the greatest possible ascendancy over Spanish ones. The King of Spain is a pious, timidly dictatorial, and altogether very “limited” man, and if some way could be found for a French statesman to gain the King’s confidence, it would render him absolute master of Spanish affairs. Now—and from here on the Mémoire is addressed not to Choiseul the minister but to Choiseul the man—Beaumarchais believes he may be able to suggest a way. The only person to whom the King unbosoms himself is his valet-de-chambre, an Italian named Amerigo Pini, and Beaumarchais has gained Pini’s confidence (we may guess, by a large bribe).

Pini has the theory that if he could direct the widowed King’s attention onto an intelligent woman it would double his own influence over him; and Beaumarchais can propose a perfect candidate for the post. No less than his own friend and mistress, the Marquise de la Croix (French wife of a distinguished governor-general in the Spanish service). She has all the talents and all the patriotism necessary, not only to seduce the King but to guide him in paths to France’s advantage. In fact, he tells Choiseul, Pini and he have gone some considerable way toward achieving this seduction. (Hugh Thomas, perhaps in an anti–New Labour spirit, vilifies “us of the twenty-first century” for disapproving of this. But is sexual license, as distinct from a mischievous laying of snares for a monarch, really the point at issue?)

One finds in all of Beaumarchais’s amazing schemes (there were to be many more) a fatal streak of naiveté, and so it was here. Choiseul, when Beaumarchais read him this explosive Mémoire, was—rather naturally—quite appalled, and he let it be known that its author must never again, on any account, be allowed to meddle in Spanish affairs.

Hugh Thomas has written an entertaining book, and I wish I could be warmer about it. It is true that he makes one excellent point: that Beaumarchais arrived in Spain in the heyday of the sainete—a satirical playlet, usually in verse, performed in the interval of other plays—and caught some of its spirit in his own comedies. The hero of El Barbero (The Barber) by Ramón de la Cruz, which was put on during his stay, is a distinctly Figaro-like character, an omnicompetent arranger of other people’s lives. But Thomas’s other literary comments seem thin. We are mainly given profitless speculations on whom Beaumarchais’s characters were based on and how they came by their names. “Rosine” in The Barber of Seville was perhaps a mixture of “Rosalia,” name of the heroine of Diderot’s Le Fils naturel, and “Pauline,” after Beaumarchais’s friend Pauline le Breton. Count Almaviva’s property, “three leagues outside Seville”—a town Beaumarchais never visited, as Thomas notes—was called Aguas Frescas (clear waters), which might be thought to have echoed the title of the Marqués de Aguas Claras, were it not that this title, as Thomas points out, was not created till 1833.

Further, Hugh Thomas is fearfully accident-prone as a translator. The French of a letter from Clavijo to Beaumarchais runs:

Je sais qu’un galant homme s’honore en s’humiliant devant une femme qu’il a offensée; et tel qui croit s’avilir en demandant excuse à un homme, a bonne grâce de reconnaître ses torts aux yeux d’une personne de l’autre sexe.5

The meaning of the italicized part of the passage is surely: “…and a man who believes it degrades him to excuse himself to another man, may gracefully acknowledge his faults to a person of the other sex.” Thomas’s version, however, runs, obscurely: “and that perhaps also a man abases himself if he makes excuses before another man in respect of his mistakes in the eyes of someone of another sex.” In a letter to Clavijo, Beaumarchais writes, “loin de m’opposer pour ma soeur à la prétention de votre dueña, je demande pour unique vengeance qu’on vous la fasse épouser sur-le-champ,”6 which we may render as “far from opposing, on my sister’s behalf, the claim of your duenna [that Clavijo proposed to marry her], I shall demand as my sole vengeance that you are made to marry her immediately.” But Thomas’s version runs, oddly: “far from opposing the marriage of my sister as if I were a duenna, I shall demand as my unique vengeance that you marry her on the spot.” Anyone of us may easily make a slip and miss the meaning now and then, but Hugh Thomas does it too often.7

This Issue

April 26, 2007