“Beaumarchais et son temps” (by Louis de Loménie, 1856).
Part 1: February 9, 1856.
M. De Loménie has conferred a great benefit on his readers by the republication, in a permanent form, of the papers on Beaumarchais which first appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes. The French carry out literary undertakings not only more artistically, but more methodically, and in a more workmanlike manner than we do; and M. de Loménie's book possesses these merits in the highest degree. It is impossible to speak too strongly of the modesty, the spirit, and the diligence with which his book is composed. It is not only a most interesting story, but is also a valuable contribution to the history of French society before the French Revolution. The best criticism upon such a book is a sketch of its contents.
Some time since, M. de Loménie was conducted by the grandson of Beaumarchais into an old garret in which his ancestor's papers had been lying undisturbed for many years. As he looked over the piles of papers which had once recorded so vividly the hopes, and fears, and loves of a bygone generation. Il me semblait, he says, que je procédais à une exhumation. Under a mass of papers referring to the innumerable projects by which Beaumarchais' later life were occupied, there lay, side by side, the miniature of a young and beautiful woman-wrapped up in a paper on which was written, Je te rends mon portrait -- and a model of the escapement of a clock inscribed, Caron filius aetatis 21 annorum regulatorem inventit et fecit 1753. Elsewhere were piles of correspondence, which their author had once intended to serve as materials for his life, but which bore the memorandum written shortly before its close -- inutiles aujourd'hui. Useless as such records were for many years, they have at last come to the hands of a true vates sacer. M. de Loménie has signally succeeded in drawing his hero from the dust and confusion in which his fame had slumbered through the tumult of three revolutions; and in placing him before us in all the vigour of life, he has brought out into strange distinctness many of the features of the society which was intriguing, and litigating, and love-making, and play-going, when the flood of the Revolution came and swallowed them up.
Pierre Augustin Caron, who afterwards took the name of Beaumarchais, was born at Paris, January 24, 1732. His father was born a Protestant, but changed his religion in 1721, shortly after obtaining his discharge from the army. He afterwards adopted the business of watchmaking, to which he brought up his son. The young Caron was a lively clever lad, so much so that his father found it advisable to turn him out of his house when he was eighteen years old, for the sake of imposing conditions upon him before allowing him to return. M. de Loménie publishes the treaty which was concluded between them. It consists of six articles, the first of which begins thus,—“You shall not make or sell, or cause to be made or sold, directly or indirectly, any articles except on my account," and it is concluded by Beaumarchais' acceptation, beginning, “I sign all your conditions in the firm hope of executing them by the Lord's help,” and ending, “In testimony whereof, I sign a I that is contained in this letter." Beaumarchais was always a most affectionate son. To the end of his life, when his father was entirely dependent on his liberality, and when he was himself one of the most conspicuous persons in France, he always began his letters, -- Monsieur et très-cher père, and ended, J’ai l'honneur d'être avec le plus respectueux attachment, monsieur et très-cher père, votre très-humble et tres obéissant serviteur et fils. Indeed the old man was worthy of ever kind of respect. Of the many interesting pictures drawn by M. de Loménie, none is more remarkable than his description of the society in which young Beaumarchais passed the first years of his lite. Deep as the lines were by which the noblesse were divided from the bourgeoisie of that are, the intrinsic difference between the two classes was perhaps less than it is now. Society was smaller, life was more public, and the splendours of Versailles were neither inaccessible to the bourgeoisie nor without a perceptible influence over them. Old Caron had seen much of the world. He had been employed in various scientific operations by the King of Spain; and many of his letters show a very considerable measure both of literary taste and of native wit. His daughters also were women of great talent. One of them, who lived with her brother during nearly the whole of her life, was a person of extreme vivacity and by no means inconsiderable accomplishments. Indeed, one of the most brilliant points in one of her brother’s best productions was due originally to her. The picture of the old watchmaker, his daughters, and his son-in-law (who was in the same business) criticising their relative's writings, and indeed assisting him in their production, and corresponding with him upon terms of perfect equality upon all sorts of subjects, literary and political, strikingly suggests the iniquitous absurdity of the exclusive privileges at that time accorded to the noblesse.
It is no wonder that amidst such influences young Caron should have risen in the world. In compliance with his father's remark, that l‘amour d'une si belle profession doit vous pénétrer le coeur et occuper uniquement votre esprit, he betook himself so assiduously to watchmaking that, before he was twenty-one, he had not only invented the escapement which 101 years after Mr. de Loménie discovered lying beside an equally-forgotten love-token, but had vindicated the originality of his invention by triumphing, in the first of his long list of law-suits, over a. certain Sieur Lepaute, who had pirated it. His success in this affair procured him the honour of becoming watchmaker to the king; and it might not unnaturally been supposed that, for a young man of twenty-three, such prospects in his business would have been success enough. But Beaumarchais had a higher notion of his destiny. The nature of his ambition, the means by which it was gratified, and the consequences to which it led, form a story which, taken together, justifies M. de Loménie in calling his book Etudes sur la société en France. One of the ways and means of the French exchequer was the sale of offices, utterly useless, and very ill-paid. One set of these functionaries were called the Controleurs Clercs d'Office. They formed an important part of the procession which attended the king’s food to '21 table. On that solemn occasion two guards marched first; then the huissier de salle; next, the maitre-d'hôtel, with his baton; after him, the gentleman of the pantry, then the controller-general; and finally, just in front of the meat, the controleur clerc d’office, with his sword b his side, 18L per annum of salary, and perquisites to the value of about 60L more. Mr. Dent or Mr. Bennett would probably not feel particularly flattered at the offer of one of these brilliant situations. Caron fils thought otherwise. When, therefore, one of his female customers, whose husband had grown old and infirm in his post, proposed to the handsome watchmaker to replace him, he eagerly accepted the proposal, and soon after succeeded his predecessor in his conjugal as well as in his official duties. To do honour to his wife, he assumed the name by which he became so famous, and at a later period prefixed to it a “de"; to which, as he said, no one could dispute his right, as he had not only paid for the patent, but had the receipt. He lost his wife about a year after his marriage, and as her income died with her, his loss reduced him to entire dependence on his office. Such a prospect was not so dreary as it would have been in any moderately well governed body. The Court of Louis XV. was the paradise of jobbers and adventurers of all kinds; and Beaumarchais probably found himself in a much less honest, and not much more accomplished, society than he had been used to in his father's house. He contrived by his skill in music to ingratiate himself with the king’s three daughters, whom the royal tenderness had adorned with the names of Loque. Graille, and Cochon -- his success with them excited jealousy and insult -- he killed one of his antagonists in a duel, and was very nearly obliged to do as much for another, with whom he had a quarrel about money lent at cards.
Notwithstanding his social successes—for such they seem to have been-Beaumarchais's position was far from secure. Out of 18L a-year ready money, he had not only to keep up appearances, but to buy musical instruments and to pay for binding music-books in morocco, not to speak of coach hire and copying expenses for the concerts given by the princesses. There is something touching in the manner in which he hands in to their secretary his little account of 2000 livres, and begs special attention to it on the ground of the large amount which he has to make up, the payment of which will leave him absolument sans la sol. Better days, however, were in store for him. He contrived to do a service to Paris Du Verney, the third of the famous brothers Paris, and the old financier methodically undertook the charge of his fortune. He gave him shares in various undertakings, and helped him with money and advice in a great variety of speculations. One element of his success in this new line was the title of sécrétaire du roi, a dignity which was at that time known by the expressive title of savonette à villain. He wished to make this unprofitable honour a stepping-stone to the lucrative situation of a grand maître des eaux et furets, for the purchase of which Du Verney was ready to advance him
500,000f., but the other grand maitres -- of whom one was the son of a barber, another of a woolcarder, a third of a jewel-broker, and a fourth of a button-maker—successfully opposed the introduction into their society of a man who had followed in his youth the ignoble business of watch-making. This defeat was consoled by a still more powerful application of the savonette à vilain. Beaumarchais purchased the sonorous title of lieutenant-général des chasses aux bailliages et capitainerie de la varenne du Louvre, which gave him the right of presiding over one of the most vexatious of the tribunals which then infested France. His business was to prevent the various landowners round Paris from making any alterations in their property which might affect the comfort of the game without having obtained his authorization to do so.
From these avocations, Beaumarchais was called to Madrid by the family troubles which suggested to Goethe the plot of Clavigo. His letters from Spain to his father are strangely characteristic. They detail all sorts of projects—schemes for colonizing the Sierra Morena—for a company to trade with Louisiana --for equipping the Spanish troops, and encouraging Spanish agriculture. They are full of balls and concerts, verses and music, and long stories of how he won 14,500 livres at cards from various counts and ambassadors-all related with the most curious mixture of vanity, shrewdness, and feverish thirst after excitement. His own and his father‘s head seem to have been turned alike by his successes. The old man calls him mon honneur, ma gloire, la joie de men coeur, and by way of climax, draws an elaborate comparison between his son and "Grandison."
Shortly utter Beaumarchais returned to Paris, Du Verney died. His as how, the Comte de la Blache, mortally hated his uncle's protégé, and commenced against him (on the subject of a disputed settlement of accounts) the first of that series of law-suits which made him for a time one of the most popular persons in France. After a great deal of shuffling and insinuation, it appeared that the real question in issue was, whether or not Beaumarchais had forged the signature of Du Verney. In the first instance, Beaumarchais obtained judgment in his favour; but De la Blache appealed to a superior tribunal. Whilst the appeal was pending, he was freed from his antagonist by an incident which throws a curious light on the manners of the times. A certain Mdlle. Ménard had preferred Beaumarchais to another of her admirers, the Due de Chaulnes. Thereupon the duke, after insulting his rival in the execution of his judicial functions, forced him into his own carriage, and announced his intention of putting him to death. Beaumarchais asked his assailant to dine with him first, and the duke agreed; but he no sooner reached his enemy's house than he threw himself upon him, tore his hair, scratched his face, and when his victim ventured to return the compliment by a blow on the nose, fell back in astonishment and indignation, crying out, Miserable, tu oses frapper un duc et pair. The Duke was sent to Vincennes for beating Beaumarchais, and Beaumarchais to the For L'Evéque for having been beaten. His imprisonment was most inconvenient, for his law-suit with De la Blache was coming to a crisis. Perhaps the most curious feature of M. de Loménie’s book is the correspondence in which Beaumarchais begs to be allowed to come into Paris during the day, to “solicit" his judges. A Government must have been oddly constituted which first sent a man to prison for nothing, and then let him out expressly in order to prejudice his judges in another cause. His “solicitations" were of no use, thong , in the case of Madame Goezman, the wife of one of his judges, the word meant 115 louis and a watch worth 100 more. The Court of Appeal decided against him. Madame Goezman returned the watch and I00 louis— the other 15 she said she had given to her husband's secretary. Beaumarchais found, upon inquiry, that she had kept them herself. He accused her of corruption, and, as might have been expected, was prosecuted for the libel.
In order to lay before his readers the full importance of this prosecution, M. de Loménie has referred to a curious, and till lately, obscure part of French history. We had supposed that the Parliament of Paris had stood alone in that resistance to the royal authority which caused the coup d'état under the authority of which Maupeou superseded it by judges of his own appointment. It seems that this was not the case. The eleven other parliaments were all so many provincial stumbling blocks, constantly bringing the administration of justice to a stand in their respective jurisdictions by refusing to register edicts, and constantly being made the victims of local coups d’état. It was by the habit of perpetually witnessing the conflict of military and judicial authority that the people came to despise both. Throughout the whole of the 18th century, the condition of France would seem to have been little better than a sort of organized anarchy. The Parliaments, however, enjoyed a certain popularity in virtue of their character of a standing Opposition, so that any charge involving the reputation of the body which had supplanted the most prominent of their number, was sure of favourable attention. This state of feeling gave Beaumarchais a great advantage, and he availed himself of it with characteristic dexterity. In defiance of the rules which at that time secured the secrecy of criminal proceedings, he published factum after factum, pleaing his cause to all the world. Goezman, his wife, and a variety of partisans more or less connected with him, replied. Beaumarchais rejoined with extraordinary vehemence. Amongst other specimens of his eloquence, M. de Loménie quotes one of almost incredible audacity, in which he introduces the Deity telling him that, as he has had a life of great prosperity, he is now to undergo adversity; upon this Beaumarchais prays that judgment may be tempered with mercy, and that he may have enemies over whom a brave man might triumph; and after describing the person whom he wished to have assigned to him in that capacity, with every expression of hatred and contempt, concludes, in allusion to one of his assailants, with the words “donne-moi Marin." It is no wonder that a trial so conducted should have become matter of national importance. It was said that, as the parlement Maupeou had been created by Louis XV., it would go destroyed by XV louis; and when at last Goezman, his wife, and Beaumarchais were condemned to the “blame," or civil death, all Paris testified its sympathy with the popular champion, and the Princes of the blood fêted him.
It is a curious instance of the power of the law, however much it may be despised, that Beaumarchais was altogether miserable under this sentence. He had resolved to have committed suicide if he had been sentenced to the pillory. As it was, he had recourse to an expedient more effectual and less romantic. He became the secret agent of Louis XV. in the somewhat hopeless task of protecting Madame du Barry's reputation. The chapters in which M. de Loménie details the secret services of his hero are extremely curious. He bought up and burnt a life of Madame du Barry, and afterwards performed a similar service at the instance of Louis XVI. for Marie Antoinette. On this occasion the libeller retained a copy of the libel, and made off from Amsterdam to Nuremberg to publish it. Beaumarchais pursued, overtook, and plundered him, was himself attacked by robbers, rushed off without credentials to Vienna, and making his way to Maria Theresa, begged her to have the libeller seized at Nuremberg and sent into France. The Empress Queen not unnaturally supposed that her visitor was mad, and sent him to prison for a month, “in illustration," says M. de Loménie, “of Talleyrand's advice to diplomatists, Surtout point de zèle.” A mission, if possible, still more wonderful brought Beaumarchais into contact with the Chevalier D'Eon. How the cunning old dragoon of fifty persuaded him that he had to do with a woman who had fallen in love with him-how Beaumarchais repressed the supposed lady's advances with an unfamiliar austerity—how each tried to overreach the other in respect of certain papers which Beaumarchais wanted-how he paid off the soi-disant lady by buying up her bills, and kept a hold upon her by getting the bills endorsed to himself — how he finally forced a man of fifty, who "swore and smoked like a German postillion," to assume a female dress and to retain it for upwards of thirty years, together with much other interesting matter, is written in the latter part of M. de Loménie's first volume. By these services Beaumarchais contrived to obtain from the Court the reversal of his sentence. The crowd carried him home in triumph, and he celebrated his rehabilitation by bringing upon the stage the Bar-bier de Seville, which, in the midst of all his tribulations and speculations, he had found time to compose. The piece was represented for the first time on a Friday, and failed. Between that time and the following Sunday it was so far remodelled that it succeeded brilliantly. Here we leave Beaumarchais for the present, in the full blaze of his literary, legal, commercial and political triumphs. We hope on a future occasion to sketch the latter half of one of the strangest careers on record.
Part 2: February 23, 1856.
At the close of our former notice, we left Beaumarchais in the enjoyment of the credit gained by his secret services to Louis XV. and Louis XVI. He had displayed in those transactions a degree of ability which was fit for better things. He had, moreover, observed, with characteristic acuteness, the political prospects of the country in which he had been employed. The years 1774-5, were amongst the most critical in our history. The American war had just broken out, but the national sentiment had not as yet been roused by the interference of foreign Powers, and the conciliation of the insurgents was still, in the general opinion, far from improbable. It was under these circumstances that Beaumarchais urged upon Louis XVI. the adoption of the policy which, in giving birth to the New World, shook society to its foundations in the Old. The memoirs which he wrote upon this subject, and which M. de Loménie reprints from his papers, are most curious illustrations of his versatility and shrewdness. So early as September 1775, he urged upon the king's attention the certainty of the ultimate triumph of the colonies; but the degree in which he misunderstood English politics, and the feelings which the excited in him, are exceedingly curious. He was entirely misled by the vehement display of party spirit which he witnessed. He thought that we were on the eve of a revolution -- that the nation ardently desired the defeat of the royal forces by the insurgents -- and that on such an event the Opposition would be carried into power by force, and the whole policy of the nation, especially as regarded France, be changed. Like so many other foreigners who have seen only the discontented, querulous side of the English character, he did not know that no people in the world has national feelings of such passionate strength, and that no party in England would have the slightest chance of success if it once became evident that its objects were in any way connected with the humiliation of English honour, or the defeat of English troops. Perhaps by way of flattering his own monarch, perhaps in virtue of that radical dissimilarity of national character which so often warps the views which Englishmen and Frenchmen take of each other, he expresses opinions about England which sound strange in the mouth of the author of the Mariage de Figaro:
“Ce malheureux people Anglais, avec sa frénétique liberté, peut inspirer une véritable compassion à l’homme qui réfléchit. Jamais il n’a gouté la douceur de vivre paisiblement sous un roi bon et vertueux.”Inspired by these feelings, and by the humiliation which, in common with the rest of his nation, he felt at the recollection of the Peace of 1763, Beaumarchais continued to res upon the King the necessity of war. He contended that, however the struggle between England and America might end, it would be followed by an attack upon the French West Indian colonies. He pointed out the delicacy of the questions which were sure to arise between England and France on the exercise of the English belligerent maritime rights, and on the whole concluded that, as peace could not be maintained, it was better to have the American colonies as allies than as enemies or as neutrals. How far this advice may have contributed to the policy ultimately adopted by the French Government, it is of course impossible to say; but it is certain that they determined to give secret assistance to the insurgents, and that, at his own Beaumarchais was chosen as the channel through which it was to be given. M. de Loménie is, we believe, the first person who has given a full account of this hitherto mysterious transaction.
“Jamais cette rage licencieuse que les Anglais appellant liberté n’a laissé un instant de Bonheur et de vrais repos à ce people indomptable. Rois et sujets, tous y sont également malheureux.”
The scheme devised by Beaumarchais, in concert with de Vergennes and the Spanish Court, for the assistance of the insurgents, was that he should establish a private commercial house on capital furnished by the French and Spanish Governments, which should supply the Americans with warlike stores, smuggled through the French ports by the connivance of the authorities, notwithstanding their engagements with the English Government to prohibit such a commerce. Beaumarchais accordingly entered upon his fourth or fifth profession, and added to the trades of watchmaker, game-law judge, contractor, author, advocate, and secret agent, that of merchant, under the firm of Roderigue Hortalez et Cie. His capital consisted of three millions of livres, aid to him at different times by the French Treasury, one million of which was advanced by the Spanish Court. He had, moreover, the privilege of buying warlike stores from the French arsenals. This arrangement was more or less known to the American agents, Silas Deane and Franklin, then resident in France. Their coadjutor, Arthur Lee, whom M. de Loménie represents in very unfavourable colours, seems to have told Congress that Roderigue Hortalez et Cie, was only the nom de guerre of the French Government— that the cargoes to be shipped by that house were, in fact, presents -- so that whatever correspondence might pass between Beaumarchais and the Congress was a mere blind, not intended to result in payment. This, however, according to M. de Loménie, had never entered into the head of the person principally concerned. In his view of the case (supported by very strong evidence), Beaumarchais always intended to be paid, and had actually given receipts to M. de Vergennes, acknowledging his own responsibilities for the sums he had received. This misunderstanding, however, did not appear at first. By dint of almost miraculous ingenuity, Beaumarchais contrived to overcome the scruples of the King, and the occasional fits of timidity of the Ministry—to elude the vigilance of the English Ambassador, Lord Stormont -- and to ship, in one we or another, 200 pieces of cannon, mortars, shells, cannon balls, 25,000 muskets, 200,000lbs. of powder, and tents and equipments for 25,000 men. All these supplies arrived safely, and were followed by a second and a third cargo, and by letters full of enthusiasm about liberty and indepndence, with occasional suggestions that a certain amount of tobacco, salt-fish, and indigo, by way of return, would not be amiss. The joint effect of the cargoes and the correspondence upon the “sérieux Yankees," as M. de Loménie calls them, was to confirm the opinions which Arthur Lee had suggested. Though Silas Deane had expressly promised that returns should be made in the usual course for all munitions of war shipped to America, his countrymen found plenty of justification, in the romantic language of their correspondent, for omitting a task which it was not altogether convenient to undertake. Indeed, nothing can be more curious than the extracts which M. de Loménie prints from the commercial correspondence of his hero. It reads like the translation of a novel of A. Dumas into real life. A great commercial house rising out of nothing, shipping off immense cargoes—sending to sea, as soon as war was declared
between France and England, a whole fleet of privateers, one of which took a prominent part in the indecisive action between D’Estang an Byron off Grenada--this is certainly the most curious phenomenon in the life of Beaumarchais. Like all his other transactions, it ended in a cause célèbre, which this time descended to his and children. M. de Loménie tells all the ins and outs of the dispute between the romantic creditor and the matter-of-fact debtors, in a manner which leads one to suppose that, even at that early period of its existence, the great Republic had considerable pretensions to that “smartness” which has since presented so many surprising developments. Notwithstanding irrefragrable arguments and the most touching eloquence--including a threat on the part of their creditor to be borne in a litter to the gate of Congress, and there to cry to the representatives of “Conn. Mass. Va." and the other component parts of “U. S." date obolum Belilsario--the serious but ‘cute republicans did not resolve to pay their debts till 1835, and then settled a claim of something like 120,000L. at the small charge of 32,000L.
“To complete the picture of Beaumarchais’ life at this period," says M. de Loménie, “some account ought to be given of "three other great commercial undertakings in which he was engaged during his American transactions; and something, too, should be said of his famous quarrel with the Théâtre Français, with which he had a litigation upon the subject of copyright, as famous in its day as his other lawsuits. But if a biographer so patient and so ample as M. de Loménie feels that cela nous entrainerait trop loin, we need not be ashamed to say the same.
His next change of profession is too characteristic to be passed over in so summary a manner. After affording materials for books to be written by others, after writing books himself, after fighting the battle of copyright, it appeared to Beaumarchais that he was just the man to become at once printer, publisher, and editor. As the greater part of Voltaire's works were contraband, and as the Government had a way of occasionally burning the books and imprisoning the publishers, it was considered advisable to take an opportunity of printing two complete and splendid editions, one in seven volumes octavo, and the other in ninety-two volumes 12mo. The undertaking was just suited to Beaumarchais’ taste. He bought Voltaire's unpublished MSS. for 160,000 livres, invested 150,000 more in buying type of Baskerville, sent an agent into Holland to stud paper-making, and bought three paper-mills in the Vosges. The most serious difficulty in his way was to find a place in which he could set up his establishment; for though the government would not allow the book to be printed in France, they had no objection to give orders to the officers of the custom to allow the prohibited commodity to pass the frontiers. He was at last permitted by the Margrave of Baden to carry on the undertaking at Kehl. It is really hardly satire on the conduct of the French ministry to apply to it Thackeray's well-known lines:
‘They thought he meant to break the laws,A government must be in a very rotten condition when it can neither enforce a law nor treat it as obsolete, but is forced to concert with its subjects the means of evading it. Notwithstanding a most lavish expenditure of time and money, and the distribution of 200,000 francs by way of lottery amongst the subscribers, the edition was a complete failure. Indeed, the publication was not finished until the year 1790, when Voltaire’s works, instead of being read, were being rapidly translated into action. Of 15,000 copies, he only sold 2000.
And so they broke him them for him.”
The reprint of Voltaire occupied the Seven years between 1783 and 1790. Some notion may be formed of Beaumarchais' energy from the fact, that during the early part of this period he was occupied in the intrigues by means of which he obtained permission to represent the Mariage de Figaro. M. de Loménie tells as little upon this subject which was not known before. Eve one has read the story of the intense curiosity which pervaded French society, the means by which the author of the lay contrived to excite it, the unsuccessful opposition of Louis XVI., and the marvellous success of the piece when it was represented. There is a never failing interest in everything which throws light on the French Revolution-it seems as if we could never learn too much of the great event of modern times. To us the importance attached to the Mariage de Figaro appears the strongest confirmation of the old remark as to the littleness of the generation which brought about so great an event. They must have been very petits hommes who were so much moved by such a petit écrit. I we look at it in another light, and consider the Mariage de Figaro as the verbal expression of the feelings of a large proportion of the French on the existing state of society, it gives additional weight to the same reflection. That a man, on seeing the world out of joint, all old institutions into mere corruptions and engines of tyranny, all orders of society drifted from their proper places, power lodged in the weakest hands, wealth, rank, and talent all opposed to each other—in fact, to use the phrase of old Mirabeau, a government by blind man’s buff, ending in a universal topsy turvey -- should be moved by the spectacle, first to reflect that it was hard upon such a clever fellow as himself to be born into such a confused state of things, and secondly that the confusion was extremely droll— goes a long way towards explaining how the confusion arose. Figaro’s celebrated autobiography is truly one of the basest self-revelations that the human brain ever conceived. It is impossible to read it without seeing that the person represented by it had no notion of any duties connecting him with the rest of the world. The whole amount of it is, that whereas he was a much cleverer man than his neighbours, he ought to be much richer. It never seems to cross his mind that his talents were given him for the good of anybody but himself.
The glories of the Marriage de Figaro were the last of Beaumarchais' successes. For some years he lived a life of comparative quiet, varied by a quarrel with Mirabeau, who denounced —according to Beaumarchais' Boswell, Gudin, for refusing to lend him 12,000 francs—as one who spoke evil of dignities, and brought the established order of things into contempt. His leisure was also enlivened by a certain procès Kornman, in which he was reviled with incredible ferocity by the advocate Bergasse, simply because he used his influence to get a lady released from the prison of St. Lazare (a kind of French Magdalen institution), in which her husband had had her confined, by a lettre de cachet professedly on account of her unfaithfulness to him, but really because he had exhausted her lover's credit with the Ministry of the day, and she had attempted to extricate her jointure from his bankruptcy. Bergasse’s taste may be judged of by his address to his antagonist, Malheureux, tu sues le crime. It is curious enough, that whilst Beaumarchais completely triumphed over his enemies, who were declared libellers and heavily fined, his reputation was cruelly injured by Bergasse's attacks. But for them he would probably have played a more conspicuous part in the early stages of the Revolution. He could not have played a more characteristic one. Unwarned by the issue of his American speculations, untamed by the misfortunes which had resulted from his edition of Voltaire--rich, deaf, sixty years of age, prosperously established in a house which was one of the shows of Paris-- Beaumarchais had the incredible foolhardiness to enter into a contract with the expiring monarchy, in 1792 to furnish the Government with 60,000 muskets, which he had bought of a Belgian, to whom they had been sold by Austria under an engagement to export them from Europe. The muskets were placed under an embargo by the Dutch Government, for fear of irritating the Austrians. Beaumarchais, failing to obtain them, was suspected of complicity with Louis XVI., his house was searched by the mob on the 11th of August, and he himself sent to the Abbaye on the 23rd. By extraordinary good fortune he was released at the instance of Manuel (who too this noble method of revenging himself for some rather severe criticisms), just two days before the massacre of the 2nd of September. Most men, after such an escape, would not have put themselves in the way of public notice again for all the contents of all the armouries in Europe; but nothing frightened Beaumarchais. He continued to press upon the Government his right to be furnished with the means of fulfilling his contract, which, according to M. de Loménie, was so arranged that he had given security to the extent of 745,000 francs in consideration of an advance of 300,000 francs, with every prospect of being guillotined if he failed in extricating the muskets from the embargo of the Dutch government. In order to solve the difficulty, he contrived to find an English purchaser for the guns, under whose name he hoped to get possession of them. Whilst in Holland, carrying on this negotiation, he was accused before the Convention of fraud and conspiracy. He resolved to return and justify himself; but whilst passing through London for that purpose, his friend, the purchaser of the guns, thought he had better settle his accounts before being guillotined, and judiciously --and, as it turned out, kindly -- entrusted him to the guardianship of the King's Bench Prison. The incidents of this, the last of his procès, become at last quite bewildering. What with English, French, and Dutch jurisprudence, trover and conversion, embargoes and seizures by English frigates, the whole story, patiently elaborated as it is by M. de Loménie, leaves on the mind an impression like dreaming of a Chancery suit. We cannot sum it up better than by translating the heading of Chapter XXX., Vol. II.:—“Beaumarchais, foreign agent of the Committee of Public Salvation, and at the same time placed on the list of emigrants--Difficulties of his Mission—Confiscation of his property--imprisonment of his family.”
After a period of altogether contradictory and unintelligible adventures, we find Beaumarchais, at the conclusion of the reign of terror, settled quietly in Paris, like a cork which has gone through the sluice of a mill, and floats peaceably in the still waters below. He died suddenly, on the 18th of May, 1799, at the age of 67, and was buried in a shrubbery in his garden, which he had himself selected. Even here he found no rest. A street passes over the site of his grave, and his coffin has been removed, unhonoured and unrecorded, to some one “de ces grands cimetières qui deviendront aussi un jour des rues et des places publiques." The name of the Boulevard Beaumarchais is the only epitaph of his house and of his grave.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature in the life of Beaumarchais is the degree in which he connected himself with every class of society. Many parts of his correspondence, incidentally related by M. de Loménie, throw the most curious light on its singular condition in the times in which he lived. In the very midst of his relations with America, he received a long letter from a young lady at Aix (whom he had never heard of) telling him with an amount of detail which his biographer cannot venture to print, how she had gone through the experiences of Julie with a Provençal St. Preux. The letters are a ghastly caricature of the Nouvelle Héloise. What are we to think of a society in which a girl of seventeen writes letters to a man known to her only by report, in which she se complait dans les confidences les plus scabreuses, tout en protestant sans cesse que, si elle s'est ecartee du sentier de la vertu, elle n’en a que mieux senti le prix d’une âme pure et vertueuse? What are we to think of a man who, when asked by a lady to send her son-—a captain in the army -- a copy of a song he had written in his youth, replies that, as he does not think it fit for a young man's perusal, he can only enclose it to his mother, in order that if she approves of it, she may forward it herself? But however much there is to condemn in Beaumarchais, there is much to praise. He was one of the most charitable of men. He was always ready to give, not only money, but time, trouble, and advice to almost any extent all who needed it. M. de Loménie computes that he lent—with almost no prospect of payment--no less than 900,000 francs to different persons in distress. The schedule of one of his debtors, which contains memoranda of advances to the extent of 8400 francs, bears this endorsement – Dorat -- mort insolvable, No. 23. The last person whose account closed with these words, was numbered upwards of 100. The whole of the proceeds of the Mariage de Figaro was devoted to the foundation of a charitable establishment at Lyons.
We are reluctant to leave this fascinating book. We feel conscious that we have laid before our readers a most imperfect sketch of its contents, and that we have only given them a hint of the great amount of delightful and curious information which it contains. The story is in the main gay, sometimes even grotesque, but it is impossible to close the book without sympathizing with the grave and almost solemn tone which it constantly suggests to M. de Loménie. We could hardly mention any book which contains weightier lessons upon the characteristics of those periods of history in which great revolutions are preparing themselves. Paris was a gay place, and the eighteenth century a most lively time, but it is impossible in these days to read its history without feelings which the wits and beauties of those times little thought their affairs would ever suggest to any human being. The feeling that, for all these things, the whole French nation was bringing itself to judgment, hangs like a cloud over the history of the light generation who intrigued so keenly at Versailles, and thronged so eagerly to hear the Mariage de Figaro.
Saturday Review, February 9-23, 1856.