The 18th century was the great age of the European parvenu. Social hierarchies were rigid enough to make a sudden leap up the ladder not just unusual but shocking. Yet even before the French Revolution these hierarchies were coming under unprecedented pressure as a result of a surging commercial economy, Enlightenment philosophy and absolute rulers who sought to twist traditional elites into new forms. Thus more people than ever before – women as well as men – had the chance to bound upwards in a variety of colourful ways.
The single most impressive of these was probably Martha Skavronska, an illiterate Latvian of peasant background. For years she’d worked as a common servant, but her unusual beauty and even more unusual luck brought her to the attention of Peter the Great, who made her first his mistress, then his wife, and finally his successor. She became Tsarina Catherine I, and from 1725 to 1727 she reigned as absolute monarch over an empire that already stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific. Peter was responsible for several other cases of extraordinary social mobility, including that of a Sephardic cabin boy from Amsterdam called António de Vieira, whom he plucked from the crew of a Dutch merchant ship in 1697, brought back to Russia as a page, and eventually made a count and adjutant-general of police for his new capital of St Petersburg.
Among parvenus from other parts of Europe, few did better, at least for a time, than John Law, son of an Edinburgh banker, who gained an early reputation as a reckless gambler, but also as a brilliant thinker on economic matters. A companion from the gaming tables, the French regent Philippe d’Orléans, brought him to Paris in 1715 to reform France’s perennially disastrous finances. Law quickly became the second most important man in the country, and cobbled together a reform scheme that had all the solidity and common sense of an Icelandic hedge fund prospectus; it ambitiously tethered government finances to a new stock market, along with a national bank and joint stock company that would help pay for it all by exploiting the supposedly fabulous wealth of France’s new colony, Louisiana. But Louisiana was then rich in little but yellow fever and the scheme quickly collapsed, forcing Law to flee the country. Italy produced the extraordinary Lorenzo da Ponte. The son of a Jewish tanner from an Italian ghetto, he converted to Catholicism, became a priest, was defrocked, then rose to become Poet of the Theatres in Vienna and wrote the librettos for Mozart’s great Italian operas. He later emigrated to America, where he spent some time working as a greengrocer before ending up as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia University.
But it was France that came up with the word parvenu (first recorded in a dictionary in 1694), and bred the most impressive collection of the species, even before the Revolution abolished the nobility and brought a host of ‘obscure provincial advocates’, as Burke called them, to the highest positions of power. Consider the case of Denis Diderot, born the son of a cutler in the small Burgundian town of Langres, who ended his days hobnobbing with some of France’s greatest aristocrats, not to mention his patron Catherine the Great (not to be confused with her Latvian predecessor). Or consider Claudine de Tencin, daughter of a provincial judge who sent her to a nunnery. After his death she sued to gain release from her vows, moved to Paris, and in a startlingly short time became one of the grand literary hostesses of Paris, as well as mistress to the prime minister and several other leading figures. She used her political influence to promote her brother’s career in the Church, and did it so well he ended up a cardinal. Along the way she gave birth to and abandoned an illegitimate son, who grew up to become Diderot’s coeditor on the Encyclopédie and a great thinker in his own right: Jean le Rond d’Alembert.
The purest example of the species, however, was undoubtedly Pierre-Augustin Caron, better known as Beaumarchais. Born the son of a bourgeois watchmaker in 1732, he became a familiar figure at the French court while still in his early twenties, after which his life comprised an almost entirely uninterrupted series of scandals and lawsuits. He served as a secret French agent across Europe, notably helping to arrange clandestine shipments of weapons to the American revolutionaries before France had formally taken their side. He is best known for two witty plays that have long formed part of the French canon: The Barber of Seville and its sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, featuring the classic Spanish trickster of the titles. Beaumarchais has inspired scores of biographies, including Maurice Lever’s exhaustive and exhausting three-volume work, which his widow, along with the translator Susan Emanuel, has now boiled down to a much more manageable size.
Beaumarchais was a manic character, of the sort who would now be diagnosed at a young age with Attention Deficit Disorder or something similar, and placed on medication designed to ensure a long life of obscure mediocrity. When the first performance of The Barber of Seville unexpectedly bombed in 1775, he rewrote the play in less than 48 hours and audiences hailed the second performance as a triumph. On one particular ‘mad day’ in 1773 (Figaro’s full title is, fittingly, La Folle Journée, ou le mariage de Figaro), he was chased across Paris by a sword-wielding duke whose mistress he had seduced. The same evening, despite having just barely avoided an aristocratic skewering, his face badly scratched and with a large chunk of hair torn out, he nonetheless gave a reading of The Barber of Seville. Handsome, charming and sexually ravenous, he accumulated an impressive number of mistresses (as well as three wives) in what was also the great century of the rake, but he often made a very bad impression on men. Benjamin Franklin called him an ‘ostentatious pimp’, while Louis XVI simply thought him insane.
Indeed, he didn’t just live life on the edge, but frequently hurtled over it. After his fight with the duke, the royal authorities sent him to the prison of For-l’Evêque. He spent time in jail in Vienna and London as well, and during the Revolution had a stay in the sinister Prison de l’Abbaye, where only a fortunately timed release saved him from the September Massacres of 1792. When not in prison, he was generally in court, defending himself against charges that included fraud, forgery and stealing government money, or suing others for money he claimed he was owed. A suit against the American government concerning business transacted in 1776 lasted, Bleak House fashion, until 1835, some 36 years after his death. Goethe found enough drama in Beaumarchais’s life for not one but two minor plays.
Even before his death, Beaumarchais had gained a reputation for helping to bring down the Ancien Régime. It rests not on his frequent trouble with the law, but rather on a passage from The Marriage of Figaro in which Figaro addresses his haughty employer, the Count of Almaviva:
Just because you’re a great lord, you think you’re a great genius! Nobility, wealth, rank, office – it all makes a man so proud! And what did you do to deserve all this good fortune? You took the trouble to be born, and nothing else; otherwise you’re just a rather ordinary man. But me? Damn it all. Lost in the crowd, I’ve needed more skill and ingenuity just to stay alive than they’ve shown in a hundred years of governing all of Spain!
On this basis, Napoleon called Figaro the first cannon shot of the Revolution, while Danton claimed the play ‘killed the aristocracy’. History textbooks long repeated the charge, casting the watchmaker’s son as the herald of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Lever, too, repeats it: ‘In the 18th century a bourgeois was no longer a person whose faults Molière could freely mock and ridicule; he belonged to a class moving upwards socially, a class of which Beaumarchais himself was the pure product.’
Unfortunately, not only is this thesis wrong, it also deprives Beaumarchais of a great deal of his true historical interest. It has been decades since serious historians tried to write the history of 18th-century France as a tale of class conflict between a rising bourgeoisie and a declining aristocracy. It is now generally recognised that the boundary between nobles and wealthy commoners was hugely porous, and that the commoners were not in any real sense ‘capitalist’. Both they and the nobles mostly placed their fortunes in the same safe forms of non-commercial investment (land, government office and government annuities), and nothing was easier or more common for a wealthy man than to buy a title. While the nobility existed as a legal category of person, very few people had any sense of the ‘bourgeoisie’ as a distinct social class, let alone one at odds with other classes.
Beaumarchais, far from challenging the nobility, wanted nothing more than to be accepted by it. He eagerly took up his posh-sounding name, although he had no legal right to it (it came from a small piece of property inherited by his first wife from her previous husband). He successfully sought out a series of positions at court, including Horologist to the King, Harp Master to the King’s Daughters and, best sounding of all, Lieutenant-General of the Hunt in the Bailiwick and Captaincy of the Preserves of the Louvre. If he taunted the aristocracy on occasion, he did so in fulfilment of a very traditional sort of role. The historian Sarah Maza has described him as ‘court jester to the high and mighty’. The Marriage of Figaro, supposedly so seditious, won approval from a royal censor, reached the stage thanks to the support of the king’s youngest brother and played to rapt, high-ranking audiences at the Comédie-Française. This was not exactly the profile of a piece of proto-Jacobin propaganda. For all Lever’s confident pronouncements, Figaro’s premiere was in no sense ‘a decisive turning point in the visible decomposition of the old order and in the constitution, at first subterranean, of the new’.
This mistaken perspective aside, Lever tells the story well for the most part, with copious detail and clear explanations of Beaumarchais’s invariably convoluted quarrels and scandals. The book provides striking glimpses of the French court, the Comédie-Française and the world of 18th-century espionage. It does so, however, in an affected style, all too common to French biographies, and often reads like a pastiche of 18th-century French picaresque novels. The reader must put up with endless remarks of the kind ‘this devil of a man always surprises us,’ or ‘but he was not yet at the end of his woes!’ Susan Emanuel doesn’t help matters by sticking as closely as possible to the original French (e.g. ‘What would become of him if he was deprived of all that made life spicy?’). And her evident lack of familiarity with 18th-century France results in such mistakes as ‘provost of merchandise’ for prévôt des marchands (‘chief alderman’, or ‘mayor’), ‘Santo Domingo’ for ‘Saint-Domingue’ (modern-day Haiti), and ‘memorandum’ for mémoire judiciaire (a printed legal brief).
Those who want to read about Beaumarchais just to be entertained will do very well with Lever. But this remarkable parvenu deserves a different sort of biography as well, one that focuses less on his constant quarrels, and more on what they signify in 18th-century culture as a whole. For despite his desperate desire to be accepted by traditional aristocrats as one of their own, Beaumarchais also relied on something else in aid of his advancement: modern celebrity. It took time for this novelty to develop. In the early days of his career, Beaumarchais looked to prominent patrons to help him climb the ladder, and succeeded in gaining the favour of the wealthy financier Joseph Pâris-Duverney, himself a parvenu of no mean accomplishment. But the relationship ended with Pâris-Duverney’s death in 1770, and a legal challenge from the man’s family thwarted Beaumarchais’s expectation of a large legacy. With no other powerful patron in sight, he found a brilliant way to exploit his situation. During the trial over Pâris-Duverney’s estate in the Parlement (sovereign court) of Paris, he accused the lead magistrate in the case, Louis Goëzman, of extorting more than his fair share of the customary ‘presents’ that all litigants traditionally gave to judges. With the help of sympathetic lawyers, he composed a series of mémoires judiciaires that, with tremendous wit, savaged Goëzman and his wife as crude, venal, grasping hypocrites. The mémoires capitalised both on the deep public hostility to the Parlement (in 1770, Louis XV had forcibly replaced its popular and independent predecessor with a new panel directly responsible to the crown), and on the fact that trial documents could circulate freely, without pre-publication censorship. They became bestsellers, humiliated the Goëzmans (who sued Beaumarchais for defamation), and overshadowed the case itself (which ended, after the usual twists and turns, largely in Beaumarchais’s favour). They made Beaumarchais himself not simply a national figure, but one whose fame came from deliberately making a spectacle of his own life and character.
He was certainly not the first celebrity of this sort. Both Voltaire and Rousseau, in different ways, had preceded him. But ultimately they both put their celebrity in the service of an ideal of authorial independence encapsulated in the title of philosophe (even if both wrestled, in very different ways, with what independence truly meant in an aristocratic society). Beaumarchais, by contrast, did not belong among the philosophes, and had notably frosty relations with them. His briefs against Goëzman revelled in precisely the sort of precious wit and poise that characterised courtly conversation – and that the true radical writers of the late 18th century thoroughly detested. Fittingly, the king’s mistress, Madame du Barry, staged a scene from the mémoires in her apartments at Versailles, and the king laughed so hard he had to leave the room.
The two Figaro plays, which confirmed Beaumarchais’s reputation, exhibit the same sort of writing, along with the persistent, playful eroticism typical of courtly culture. They appealed to the audiences that had delighted in Rococo painting and the playful novels of Marivaux, while displeasing those who preferred the neoclassicism of David, and the stern Roman cadences of Rousseau’s Discourses. The paradox of Beaumarchais was that he sought to insert himself into the most exclusive circles of French society even as he crafted his public image before a largely middle-class reading public. For a time, the strategy worked surprisingly well. Despite the incessant quarrels and court cases, his writing gave him acceptance and made him rich, allowing him to build a vast mansion in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.
The strategy couldn’t, however, survive the replacement of the culture of publicity by revolutionary politics. Despite late claims to the contrary (‘No man on this continent has contributed more than me to making America free’), Beaumarchais actually cared very little for politics. His efforts to funnel money and weapons to the American revolutionaries had almost nothing to do with their cause, and everything to do with making himself indispensable to the French crown. During the Revolution, he again tried to procure weapons on a large scale, getting once more into a series of convoluted quarrels which, this time, almost cost him his life (although by good luck he survived the Terror, and died of a heart attack in 1799). But he showed his true feelings for the Revolution in a letter he wrote to a Russian prince: ‘You hear “liberty” shouted where you once heard sighs. “Live free or die” instead of “I adore you.” These are our games and amusements.’
Beaumarchais himself, of course, much preferred the sighs and adoration, especially when directed at himself (and preferably from a member of the royal family). He did not like trading the delicate games and amusements of the Ancien Régime for the new ones, which involved angry calls for social justice, and the guillotine. And the last thing he wanted was the destruction of all social hierarchies. Such a change, after all, would have made his life’s work of social ascension – a work he transmuted into art – entirely meaningless.