- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009



By Maurice Lever

Translated from the French by Susan Emanuel

Farrar Straus Giroux, $35, 411 pages

Reviewed by Priscilla S. Taylor

Couldn’t get away to Paris this summer? Not to worry. Spend some time with this biography of that consummate Frenchman, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, by the late French scholar Maurice Lever (it’s been trimmed to one volume from its original three) and you will feel as though you’ve been in Paris. It doesn’t matter much where you start: Our hero will have just fallen hard for a new mistress, traveled to England or Germany or Holland just ahead of the authorities, been thrown into any of several prisons, written a long memorandum protesting his innocence of all charges, petitioned America for repayment of its just debts to him, petitioned the censor to remove the interdiction against his latest play, and so on.

The author acknowledges that sometime-playwright Beaumarchais (he adopted the name from the former owner of some property associated with his first wife, and his fellow countrymen thereafter assumed he was a member of the aristocracy) is “a nightmare for a biographer, who is condemned by his profession to follow chronology.” As his friend and first biographer, Gudin de La Brenellerie, noted, “the most disparate occupations were equally suitable to this wide-ranging genius - firm, energetic, and untiring.” Adds Mr. Lever, “Thus while he was working on his rehabilitation, he was also sending arms to the insurgents in America, opening a business establishment, defending authors against the rapacity of actors, and preparing his return to the Comedie-Francaise.”

In fact, Mr. Lever does not attempt to keep to a strict chronology but instead handles his material episodically. Beaumarchais was born in 1732, the sole surviving son in a household with five sisters, and he learned his father’s trade, watchmaking, and was so good at it that he invented an escapement that greatly improved the accuracy of watches, only to have the king’s watchmaker claim the invention as his own. When the Academy of Sciences ruled in favor of Beaumarchais, the young man was on his way as a fighter for intellectual property rights. With that reputation and his musical skill, he was invited to teach harp to the king’s four daughters at Versailles. There, Beaumarchais met Joseph Paris-Duverney, a noted financier, who took a shine to him and thenceforth treated him as his son and heir. (Alas, he never got his inheritance.)

But Beaumarchais did make a great deal of money in a variety of enterprises, and he had a gift for learning from his misadventures — and for recounting them drolly as drama. By 1770, he had married twice and buried both wives as well as an infant daughter (his young son would die two years later). In 1773, his play “The Barber of Seville” was accepted for performance by the Comedie-Francaise, only to be held up by the authorities when Beaumarchais found himself in prison for having seduced a duke’s mistress. He responded by writing a series of satiric memorandums exposing scandal on the part of his case’s court assessor, and his essays were published to the great delight of the general public and King Louis XV.

But the magistrates’ judgment reprimanded all the parties involved, and Beaumarchais left for England before he could be arrested again. The king offered him a chance to rehabilitate himself in England by unmasking the authors of libels and catching blackmailers. Then the king died and Louis XVI decided to shut down France’s sub rosa activities in England. But Beaumarchais’ arrival in London had coincided with the first shots of the American Revolution, and the Frenchman became a fervent supporter of the Americans.

As Mr. Lever puts it, “The nation not yet called the United States of America symbolized to Beaumarchais all the values that were venerated by the ‘men of talent’ who would guide the France of tomorrow. American society essentially belonged to the bourgeois or laboring classes, and its elite was composed of the self-made men with whom Beaumarchais felt natural solidarity.”

The author then tells the amazing story of how Beaumarchais founded a company — secretly subsidized first by France and Spain and later by private investors — that purchased the materiel the Colonists desperately needed for waging war (muskets, cannons, mortars, bombs, uniforms, camp equipment, etc.) and arranged for 40 ships to carry everything to the New World between 1775 and February 1778, when France finally became an overt ally of the Americans. The story, like most of those in this book, goes on and on; it was not until 1835 that Beaumarchais’ only daughter and heir finally wrung from the United States a settlement of the debt owed to Beaumarchais — and then she received only one-third of what had been owed to her father.

Much of the rest of the book concerns France’s descent into its own revolution. In 1786, Beaumarchais married his third wife, who had been his “housekeeper” for a dozen years, to legitimize their 9-year-old daughter, and he began to build a mansion for the family opposite the Bastille. In an exquisite example of bad timing, the mansion was completed and lavishly furnished just in time for the revolutionaries to trash it.

Thereafter, the family fled hither and yon; the wife and daughter took refuge for a time in Le Havre, Beaumarchais in Germany, until his name was removed from the list of proscribed loyalists. They returned to Paris in 1796 and Beaumarchais died in 1799. If you can go with the flow rather than trying to keep all the tributaries straight, this is an entertaining read about the man who created Figaro; preserved and published (in Germany) 70 volumes of Voltaire’s works, which were banned in France; supplied the American revolutionaries; and only a year before his death wrote letters to a mistress that cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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