Joseph Forster.

Some French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon online

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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 8 of 19)
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But what did the gay, frivolous, gilded flies of
fashion care, except to be amused, about the caustic


irony and bitter wit of the dialogue? It was a
new sensation to people who had given up all hope
of obtaining another. The same people ran after
Rousseau's Julie, in spite of its scorn and contempt
for them and their doings. Beaumarchais stabbed
and tickled them ; they only laughed. They seemed
to agree with the doctor in Figaro : ' My faith !
sir, men having only to choose between stupidity
and folly, where I do not see profit I would have
pleasure ; so live, pleasure ! Who knows if the
world will last three weeks longer ? '

The old order of things in France might have
lasted many years longer if its members had not
listened that night, and a hundred more nights,
with transport to that gay, brilliant, insolent
mockery of itself if it had not taken a great part
in its own undoing. Society was rotten. Beaumar-
chais, in the wittiest way, told it such was the case ;
and the audience agreed with him, and admired his
penetration in finding it out and his wit in display-
ing it so amusingly.

Let me introduce a few of Beaumarchais' sallies
from the Barber.

The first is at that charmingly-managed meeting
of Figaro and Almaviva under the windows of
Rosina's abode. Figaro has formerly been employed
by the Count Almaviva. In the course of conversa-
tion Figaro says :

1 1 thought myself too happy in being forgotten, per-
suaded as I am that a great man does one enough good
when he does not do one any harm.


'ALMAVFVA. You were a wild fellow when in my

' FIGARO. Eh, mon Dieu, my lord, would you wish a
poor man to be without faults ?

'ALMAVIVA. You were idle, dissipated.

' FIGARO. From the virtues people exact from a
servant, does your excellency know many masters who
are worthy to be valets ? '

Then Figaro tries his fortune as a dramatic author.
He thus describes his failure :

' In truth I know not how it was I did not succeed,
because I filled the pit with excellent workers ; hands to
clap (I had forbidden gloves, canes, all which would
deaden the applause) ; and on my honour, before the
performance the cafe had shown the best disposition

towards me. But the efforts of the cabal

' ALMAVIVA. Ah ! the cabal. The author fell 1
' FIGARO. Just like another. Why not ? They
hissed me. But my good angel has caused me to find my
old master. I left Madrid because I saw that the republic
of letters was made up of wolves, always armed one
against the other and given up to the contempt to which
this ridiculous ferocity conducts them all the insects,
the mosquitoes, the envious, the penny-a-liners, the
critics, the publishers, the censors, and all other parasites
which attach themselves to the skin of the unhappy
literary man, and finish by dissecting him and devouring
the little substance which remains : tired of writing, tired
of myself, disgusted with others, buried in debt and with-
out cash ; at last convinced that the useful revenue of
the razor is preferable to the vain honours of the pen, I


quitted Madrid, and, my baggage on my back, travelled
philosophically over the two Castiles, La Mancha, La
Estremadura, the Sierra Morena, the Andalusias. Wel-
comed in one town, imprisoned in another, and everywhere
superior to events ; praised by these, blamed by those ;
enjoying good times, supporting the bad; laughing at
fools, defying the wicked ; you find me at last established
at Seville, and ready to serve your excellency in all that
it may please you to order.

' ALMAVIVA. Who has given you so gay a philosophy 1
c FIGARO. The custom of misfortune. I am eager to
laugh at all for fear of being obliged to weep.'

I think even in the brightest touches of Figaro's
wit you will find a vein of sadness, as in the last
quotation. But the grand soliloquy of Figaro in the
Marriage when the poor fellow thinks the count
has an appointment with his intended wife, the only
being he has ever had to love and the only being he
thought loved him I don't think I can omit a word
of it. The gay Count Almaviva has married Rosina,
and tired of her in the usual aristocratic way. I
came across a story the other day to this effect : A
servant was complaining of some one who would
insist on shooting over his master's land. The
servant said he was a gentlemen. 'How do you
know that ? ' ' Because, sir, he keeps twenty horses
and another man's wife.'

This is Figaro's soliloquy :

1 woman ! woman ! Creature feeble and deceitful !
No animal can be untrue to its instinct : is it thine to


deceive 1 No, my noble master, you shall not succeed ; I
will prevent it. Because you are a great lord you think
yourself a great genius ! Nobility, fortune, places, all
that creates so much pride : what have you done to
deserve so much ? You gave yourself the trouble of
being born, nothing more. Beyond that a very ordinary
man ; while as to myself good heavens ! lost in the
obscure crowd, it has been necessary to display more
science and calculation to subsist only, than your class
has shown to govern Spain and its colonies, and you
would play . . . Some one comes ... it is she . . .
it is no one. The night is as black as the devil, and here
am I playing the foolish part of husband, though I am
only half married ! Could anything be more extraordinary
than my destiny? Son of I know not who, stolen by
robbers, educated by them in all that was bad, I became
disgusted and would try an honest career. I was
repulsed everywhere ! I learnt chemistry, surgery ; and
all the credit of a great lord could hardly put into my
hand a veterinary lancet ! Tired of adding to the
suffering of sick beasts, and to do something quite
different, I rushed to the theatre and composed a comedy
in which I described the life of a seraglio. Being a
Spanish author, I thought I could snap my fingers at
Mahomet without fear. Immediately an nvoy from I
know not where complained that I offended in my verses
the Sublime Porte, Persia, the whole of Egypt, the
realms of Barca, of Tripoli, of Tunis, of Algeria, and
of Morocco : and behold my comedy damned, to please
Mahometan princes, of whom not one, I believe, knew
how to read, and who politely call us dogs of Christians.
Not being able to debase genius, fools revenge themselves
by ill-treating it. My cheeks became hollow, my means


were exhausted. A question then arising on the nature
of riches, and as it is not necessary to possess things
in order to reason on them, not possessing a farthing, I
wrote on the value and use of money. Very soon I
saw from a hackney-coach, the drawbridge of a strong
prison lowered for me, on entering which I left outside
hope and liberty.

' How I should like to hold one of these powerful titled
mushrooms, so light-hearted about the evil they command,
after some signal disgrace has cut down his pride ! I
would say to him . . . that printed impertinences have
no importance except in places where people stop their
course ; that, without the liberty of blaming there can be
no praise ; and that only little men fear little writings.

' Tired of nourishing an obscure prisoner, they dropped
me one day in the street ; and as it is necessary to dine,
though one be no more in prison, I cut my pen, and
asking every one I met what was the most burning
question of the day, they told me that during my
economical retreat there had been established in Madrid
a system of free trade in all productions, that it extended
even to those of the press; and that, provided I did
not speak in my writings of the Government, nor of
religion, nor of political matters, nor of questions of
morality, nor of people in place, nor of any powerful
corporation, nor of the opera, nor of any other spectacles,
nor of anybody who was anything, I could print all I liked
freely, under the inspection of two or three censors. In
order to profit by this delightful liberty, I announced a
newspaper, and believing that I was not imitating any
other name, I called it The Useless Journal. But in a
moment I see raised against me a thousand poor penny-
a-liuers. I am suppressed, and behold me again without


employment ! Despair is about to seize me. They
thought they had a place for me, but by my misfortune I
was just the right man for it : a good arithmetician was
required, therefore, the post was given to a dancer.
Nothing was left for me to do than to steal. I made
myself the head of a gambling-house ; then I supped in
town, and the most polite people opened their houses to
me, retaining for themselves three-fourths of the profits.
I commenced to recoup ; I began even to understand that,
for getting on, knowledge of the world was better than
knowledge of everything else. But as every one stole
around me, in exacting that I alone should be honest,
I nearly starved again. I quitted the world, and twenty
feet of water were about to divide us for ever, when
some beneficent God recalled me to my first trade. I
returned to my lather and strop ; then leaving the smoke
of fame for the fools who are nourished by it, and false
shame in the middle of the road, as too heavy for a poor
tramp, I went on shaving from town to town, and at last
lived without care. A great lord staying at Seville re-
cognised me ; I arranged his marriage, and for the price
of having gained by my cares his wife, he would now
intercept mine ! I have just escaped falling into an
abyss. I was about to marry my own mother, when the
secret of my birth is discovered, and I find both my
parents at once. They dispute. It is you, it is he, it is
she, it is thee ; no, it is not I ; who are we all then ?
maddening confusion ! Why do such things happen to
me? Why these things, and not others? Who has
fixed them on my head ? Forced to pursue a path on
which I entered without knowing, as I shall leave it
without wishing, I have scattered as many flowers as my
gaiety would allow me; yet I say my gaiety without


knowing if it is mine more than the rest, nor even what
is that me about which I occupy myself ; an unformed
assemblage of unknown parts ; then a wretched imbecile
life ; a gay little animal ; a young man ardent for
pleasure, having all the tastes for enjoyment, adopting
all conditions in order to live ; master here, valet there,
just as it pleases fortune ; ambitious through vanity,
laborious by necessity, but idle .... with delight !
Orator, if necessary; poet, for amusement; musician
occasionally ; amorous by temperament, I have seen all,
done all, and am tired of all. All illusions are now
destroyed, and thoroughly disabused. . . . disabused !
.... Susan, Susan, Susan ! what torments you give
me ! . . .1 hear steps .... they come. The crisis
has arrived.'

Can one imagine anything more true and scathing
than this soliloquy ? But of all the instances of
crass folly on record, I think that of the gilded
butterflies who laughed and fought for places for
one hundred nights to listen to what held them
up to ridicule and contempt is really the most

Beaumarchais was the pioneer of destruction of
the old order of things in France. He did not use
a pike or a torch ; he used what was infinitely more
dangerous, the brightest and wittiest pen ; a pen
that shot sparks into barrels of gunpowder which
were all nicely arranged for him. If there is any-
thing that is more dangerous and deadly to unjust
privileges than another, it is genius. As Dr.
Johnson once said, ' Dukes and peers don't like men



of genius, because they don't like their mouths shut,
sir. 5 The same thought must have struck you at
meetings. Some great man I mean great through
money and title will rise to address the audience,
which will, after a few seconds, begin to droop on
all sides. After some time the gentleman will
subside, on which the audience will give a sigh of
relief, as if a dentist had finished tugging at a
tooth ; then some poor devil of a genius will get on
his legs, and after a few words, uttered with a
beautiful rythmic ring, the audience will become
magnetic, and will cheer, laugh, and have what our
American friends call a good time. But our exalted
friends suffer so from ennui, that feeling as they do
such contempt for writing-fellows, they laugh at the
sharp epigrammatic sayings I mean at those they
are able to understand, which are usually the poorest
and weakest of the poor genius, and don't realise
that he is throwing stones at their glass houses ; in
fact, they very likely have not realised the fact that
their houses are glass.

A man of real genius patronised and petted by
the aristocracy always reminds me of a tiger cub
brought up on the domestic hearthrug and treated
like a purring pussy. They think he is a purring
pussy. He thinks so, too, very likely, but he is
nothing of the kind; the terrible claws are there
and the terrible strength to use them.

We will now turn to a less-known episode in the
adventurous life of our shady hero. I refer to the
subject of the relations between Beaumarchais*


sister and Clavico, of which Goethe made a play.
Beaumarchais had two sisters settled in Madrid.
The elder was married, and the younger was engaged
to be married to a young man of promise, the keeper
of the royal archives.

One day Beaumarchais' father came to him in
great distress and agitation, with a letter from his
elder daughter, stating that Clavico had basely de-
serted her sister and disgraced her in the eyes of her
friends and acquaintances, and that in consequence
of the shock her life was in great danger.

The letter finished with these words : ' If my
brother has sufficient credit to gain us the support of
the French ambassador, his Excellency might avert
the evil that this perfidious man has done us, both
by his conduct and his threats. Everybody in
Madrid knows that my sister is blameless.'

Now I will let Beaumarchais speak for himself.

'My father came to find me at Versailles, and
gave me my sister's letter. " See, my son," said he,
" what you can do for these two unfortunate girls ;
they are not less your sisters than the others." ;

His father also showed him other letters from
the French ambassador to the elder sister, in which
he expressed the greatest esteem and consideration
for them both.

* I read all the letters,' says Beaumarchais ;
' they reassured me as to the conduct of my sister,
and the words of my father, " they are not less
your sisters than the others," penetrated to the
bottom of my heart. " Take courage," I said to my


father ; "I will take a course which may surprise
you, but which appears to me the most certain and
the wisest."

In short, Beaumarchais, with characteristic im-
petuosity, packed his portmanteau, got a few letters
of introduction and a great deal of cash, and started
like a rocket for Madrid.

He arrives, sees his sister, assures himself that
her conduct has been perfect, that she has been the
victim of an ambitious schemer, takes a friend with
him, and meets Clavico at an assembly. He in-
troduces himself as a stranger who had heard of
his literary reputation, and is invited by Clavico to
take chocolate with him the next morning at nine

Beaumarchais goes with his friend the next
morning. The rest shall be told in the sparkling,
vivid words of Beaumarchais.

'The next morning, at half-past eight, I was with
him. I found him in a splendid mansion, which he told
me belonged to a friend in the Ministry, and that while
he was away he used it as his own.

1 " I am sent, sir," said I, "by a literary society, to
establish in all towns through which I pass a literary
correspondence with the most learned men in them. As
no Spaniard writes better than the author of the articles
in TJie Thinkei*, to whom I have the honour of speaking,
whose literary merit is so great that the king has confided
to him the care of the royal archives, I did not think
that I could better serve my friends than in connecting
them with a gentleman of your merit."


' I saw that he was delighted and flattered by my
proposition. He talked freely on the subject of litera-
ture. He caressed me with his eye ; his tone became
affectionate ; he talked like an angel, and became radiant
with pride and pleasure.

' In the midst of his joy he asked me what my
business was in Spain. He would be most happy to be of
service. " I accept with gratitude your flattering offers,
and will not have, sir, any secrets from you."

' Then I presented my friend to him, saying that he
was not a stranger to the subject of this conversation.

' I told my story thus : "A French merchant of
limited means had several correspondents in Spain. One
of the richest, in passing through Paris nine or ten years
ago, made him this proposition ' Give me two of your
five daughters ; I will take them with me to Madrid ; they
shall live with me, a solitary old bachelor, make the
happiness of my last years, and shall succeed to my

' " The eldest, who was already married, and one of
her sisters were confided to his care. Two years after
this gentleman died and left them nothing, except the
embarrassment of keeping up the business. In spite of
difficulties, by the assistance of kind friends, they suc-

' " At this time a young man presented himself at
their house. Notwithstanding his poverty, the ladies,
seeing his great eagerness for study, assisted him as
much as possible.

' " Full of ambition, he formed the project of pub-
lishing in Madrid a periodical resembling the English
Spectator. He received from his friends encouragement
and help of every kind. This paper was a great success.


Then, animated by the hope of making himself a career,
he proposed to marry the young French lady.

' " The elder sister told him that he must first
succeed ; and when some employment, court favour,
or some other means of subsistence had given him the
right to think of her sister, if she preferred him to other
admirers she would give her assent." (Clavico at this
moved uneasily in his seat ; and I, without appearing to
notice him, continued.)

' " The young lady, touched by the merits of the man
who pursued her, refused several advantageous offers,
and preferring to wait until he who had loved her for four
years had made the success his friends dared to hope for
him, encouraged him to give to his paper the imposing
title of The Thinker" (Here my man almost dropped oft
his seat.)

* " The paper," I continued with an icy coolness, " had
a prodigious success. The king himself, amused by its
ability, gave the author public testimony of his bene-
volence. He was promised the first available place.
Then he drove away all other admirers by his constant
and public attentions. The marriage was only delayed
by the expectation of a post promised to the author. At
last the appointment arrived, after six years' delay, and
the lover fled." (Here my man heaved an involuntary
sigh, and when conscious of it, blushed with confusion.
I took notice of all without stopping.)

' "The affair had made too much noise for people to
see the end with indifference. The sisters had taken a
house large enough for two families ; the banns were
published. This outrage enraged the common friends
of each, who employed themselves eagerly to revenue
the insult. The French ambassador took part in the


matter ; but when this man learnt that the lady had
such a strong support, fearing a power which might over-
turn in a moment his rising fortune, he came and cast
himself at the feet of his irritated mistress. In his turn
he employed all his friends to appease her, and as the
anger of a betrayed woman is usually disguised love, all
was arranged ; the preparations for the marriage were
recommenced, the banns republished, and they were to
be married in three days. The reconciliation had created
as much excitement as the rupture. He had to demand
the consent of his chief. Before starting, he said : ' My
friends, preserve me the heart of my mistress until I
return from Situ-real, and arrange all things so that
immediately on my return we can go to the altar
together.' "

'At this point I deepened my voice, and fixing him
with my eye, continued :

'"He returned the day after next; but instead of
leading his victim to the altar, he told the unfortunate
girl that he had changed his intention a second time, and
would not marry her. Her indignant friends rushed to
him immediately. The insolent man threw away all
regard to decency, and defied them to injure him, telling
them that if the French ladies tried to punish him, they
must be careful that he did not ruin them in a country
where they were without support.

' " At this news the poor girl fell into convulsions,
which made her friends fear for her life. At the height
of their desolation the elder sister wrote to her family
a description of the public outrage they had sustained.
This account moved the heart of her brother to such a
degree that he determined to come to clear up this en-
tangled affair, and he made but one bound from Paris to


Madrid. I am that brother ! I have quitted country,
duty, family, business, pleasures, to come to avenge in
Spain an innocent and unhappy sister. I am here, armed
with right and firmness, to unmask a traitor, to write in
letters of blood his soul on his face ; that traitor is your-

"Try to form a picture of this astonished man,
stupefied by my harangue, his mouth open by surprise,
which appeared to have frozen his power of speech ; the
same face which a short time ago was radiant with
pleasure, darkening by degrees; the eyes losing their
brightness, every feature lengthening and assuming a
leaden hue. He tried to stammer some excuses. " Do
not interrupt me, sir ; you have nothing to say to me
and much to listen to. To commence, have the goodness
to declare before this gentleman, who has come expressly
with me from France, if by any want of faith, lightness,
weakness, bad temper, or any other vice whatever, my
sister has deserved the double outrage that you have had
the cruelty of publicly inflicting on her." " No, sir ; I
acknowledge Dona Maria, your sister, to be a lady full of
talent, graces, and virtue." " Has she given you any
subject of complaint since you have known her ?" "Never,
never !" " Why, then, monster/' said I, rising, " had you
the barbarity to treat her as you have done, only because
her heart preferred you to ten other better men ?" " Ah !
sir, there have been instigations, counsels ; if you only
knew " "That is enough."

' Then turning towards my friend : " You have heard
the justification of my sister go and publish it. What
I have now to say to this gentleman does not require
a witness." My friend went. Clavico, more than as-
tonished, rose in his turn. I made him sit. " Now, sir,


that we are alone, this is my project, and I hope you will
approve it.

' " It will suit your arrangements and mine that you
should not marry my sister ; and you feel that I do not
come here to play the absurd part of a brother in a play
who insists on marrying his sister ; but you have out-
raged most impudently a lady of honour, because you
believed she was without support in a foreign country ;
that proceeding is characteristic of a vulgar and cowardly
man. You must therefore commence by admitting, in
your own handwriting, of your own free will, all your
doors open and your servants in the room, who will not
understand you, because we will speak French, that you
are an abominable man who has deceived, betrayed, out-
raged my sister, without any cause ; and your declaration
in my hands, I shall go to my ambassador at Aranju6z,
I will show him your writing, I will then have it printed
at once. After to-morrow the town and the Court shall
be inundated with it. I have powerful friends here, time,
and money ; all shall be employed to ruin you, to pursue
you in every way without pause, until the resentment of
my sister is appeased and she commands me to cease."

' " I will not make such a declaration," said Clavico in
an altered voice. " I believe it, because, perhaps, in your
place I would not do it myself. But this is the only
alternative, write or do not write : from this moment I
remain with you ; I leave you no more ; wherever you
go I will follow you, until, impatient of my company, you
deliver yourself to me behind Buenretiro. If I am more

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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 8 of 19)