Handsome, Charming …

David A. Bell

  • Beaumarchais: A Biography by Maurice Lever, translated by Susan Emanuel
    Farrar, Straus, 411 pp, $26.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 374 11328 5

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.

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