A Gentleman’s Badges

“Truth is stranger than fiction.”  This commonplace is abundantly illustrated by the life of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-99), the young Paris watchmaker who is most famous for his plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.  From the facts of his extraordinary career, more than one lively novel could be drawn, including a picaresque tale.  He was a successful entrepreneur and merchant-ship negotiator, an author and composer, a publisher (the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s collected works), a pioneering champion of authors’ rights, a government agent (and sometime spy), a vigorous supporter of the young American republic—and, yes, a lover.  His ventures, adventures, vigor, and inventiveness could, if transposed into fiction, easily strain credence.  As it is, readers will be amazed by the enormous range of his undertakings.  “If time were measured by the events that fill it,” he wrote, “I have lived two hundred years.”

The present volume is a condensation as well as translation of the three-volume original biography (1999-2004) by Maurice Lever, a biographer and literary historian specializing in 17th- and 18th-century topics.  Shortly after Lever’s death in 2006, his widow, Evelyne, began a redaction, intending to make the work suitable for translation and publication in America.  It is not clear whether that version...

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