One of them was a noble elected by the commonalty of both Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles. Distinguished by this anomalous and double dignity, Honoré-Gabriel-Victor Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, ugly and fascinating, became a dominant figure in the Revolution from his arrival in Paris (April, 1789) till his premature death (1791).
We have celebrated his father—Victor Riqueti, Marquis de Mirabeau—as physiocrat and “Friend of Man,” i.e., of everybody except his wife and children. Vauvenargues described this “Ami de l’homme” as “of an ardent, melancholy temper, prouder and more restless … than the sea, with a sovereign insatiability for pleasure, knowledge, and glory.”38 The Marquis admitted all this, and added that “immorality was for him a second nature.” At twenty-eight he resolved to discover if one woman could be enough; he asked for the hand of Marie de Vessan, whom he had never seen, but who was heiress apparent to a sizable fortune. After marrying her he found that she was a slovenly and incompetent termagant; but she gave him in eleven years eleven children, of whom five survived infancy. In 1760 the Marquis was imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes for seditious writings, but was released after a week. In 1762 his wife left him and returned to her mother.
Honoré-Gabriel, the eldest son, grew up amid this domestic drama. One of his grandmothers died insane, one, of his sisters and one of his brothers were subject to occasional insanity; it is a marvel that Gabriel himself, buffeting one calamity after another, did not go mad. He had two teeth at birth, as a warning to the world. At three he suffered an attack of smallpox, which left his face scarred and pitted like a battlefield. He was an exuberant, quarrelsome, and willful boy; his father, who was exuberant, quarrelsome, and willful, beat him frequently, generating filial hate. The Marquis was glad to get rid of him by sending him, aged fifteen (1764), to a military academy in Paris. There Gabriel acquired mathematics, German, and English, and read eagerly, being consumed with a passion for achievement. He read Voltaire and lost religion; he read Rousseau and learned to feel for the commonalty. In the army he stole the mistress of his commanding officer, fought a duel, took part in the French invasion of Corsica, and won such commendation for courage that his father momentarily loved him.
At twenty-three he married, frankly for money, Émilie de Marignac, who expected to inherit 500,000 francs. She bore a son to Gabriel, and took a lover; he discovered her infidelity, concealed his own, and forgave her. He quarreled with a M. de Villeneuve, broke an umbrella over his back, and was accused of intent to kill. To have him escape arrest his father secured a lettre de cachet by which Gabriel was forcibly confined in the Château d’If, on an island off Marseilles. He asked his wife to join him; she refused; they exchanged letters of rising wrath, until he bade her, “Farewell forever” (December 14, 1774). Meanwhile he kept warm by sleeping occasionally with the wife of the chateau’s commandant.
In May, 1775, his father had him transferred to laxer custody at the Château de Joux, near Pontarlier and the Swiss border. His jailer, M. de Saint-Mauris, invited him to a party, where he met Sophie de Ruffey, the nineteen-year-old wife of the seventy-year-old Marquis de Monnier. She found Mirabeau more satisfying than her husband; his face was deterring, his hair was woolly, his nose was massive, but his eyes were on fire, his disposition was “sulfurous,” and he could seduce any woman with his speech. Sophie gave herself to him completely. He escaped from Pontarlier, fled to Thonon in Savoy, and seduced a cousin there. In August, 1776, Sophie joined him at Verrières in Switzerland, for, she said, to live apart from him was “to die a thousand times a day.”39 Now she vowed, “Gabriel or death!” She proposed to go to work, for Gabriel was penniless.
He went with her to Amsterdam, where Rousseau’s publisher, Marc Rey, hired him as a translator. Sophie served as his amanuensis, and taught Italian. He wrote several minor works, in one of which he spoke of his father: “He preaches virtue, beneficence, and frugality, while he is the worst of husbands, and the hardest and most spendthrift of fathers.”40 Mirabeau père thought this a breach of etiquette. He united with Sophie’s parents in arranging the extradition of the couple from Holland. They were arrested (May 14, 1777) and brought to Paris. Sophie, having failed in an attempt at suicide, was sent to a house of correction; Gabriel, raging, was imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes, following in the footsteps of his father and Diderot. There he languished for forty-two months. After two years he was allowed to have books, paper, pen, and ink. To Sophie he sent letters of passionate devotion. On January 7, 1778, she gave birth to a daughter, presumably his. In June mother and child were transferred to a convent at Gien, near Orléans.
Mirabeau appealed to his father to forgive him and have him freed. “Let me see the sun,” he begged; “let me breathe a freer air; let me see the face of my kind! I see nothing but dark walls. My father, I shall die from the tortures of nephritis!”41 To alleviate his misery, to make some money for Sophie, and to keep from going mad, he wrote several books, some erotic. Most important was the Lettres de cachet, which described the injustices of arrest without warrant and detention without trial, and demanded reform of prisons and the law. Published in 1782, the little volume so moved Louis XVI that in 1784 he ordered the release of all the prisoners held at Vincennes.42
Mirabeau’s jailers took pity on him, and after November, 1779, he was allowed to walk in the gardens of the château and to meet visitors; in some of these he found outlets for his overflowing sexual energy.43 His father agreed to have him liberated if he would apologize to his wife and resume cohabitation with her, for the old Marquis was anxious to have a grandson to carry on the family. Gabriel wrote to his wife asking forgiveness. On December 13, 1780, he was released under custody of his father, who invited him to the paternal mansion at Le Bignon. He had some liaisons in Paris, and visited Sophie in her convent; apparently he told her that he intended to rejoin his wife. Then he went to Le Bignon, and charmed his father. Sophie received money from her husband, moved to a house near the convent, engaged in works of charity, and agreed to marry an ex-captain of cavalry. He died before the marriage could take place, and on the next day (September 9, 1789) Sophie killed herself.44
Mirabeau’s wife refused to see him; he sued her for desertion; he lost his case, but astonished friends and foes with the eloquence of his five-hour speech pleading his own impossible cause. His father disowned him; he sued his father, and obtained from him an allowance of three thousand francs a year. He borrowed money and lived sumptuously. In 1784 he took a new mistress, Henriette de Nehra. With her he went to England and Germany (1785-87). En route he had tangential liaisons, which Henriette forgave, for, she said, “If a woman made him the least advances he took fire at once.”45 He met Frederick twice, and learned enough about Prussia to compose (from material supplied him by a Prussian major) the book De la Monarchie prussienne (1788); this he dedicated to his father, who described it as “the enormous compilation of a frenzied workman.” Calonne commissioned him to send some secret dispatches about German affairs; he sent seventy, which amazed the minister by their keen perception and forceful style.
Back in Paris, he perceived that public discontent was nearing revolutionary ardor. In a letter to the minister Montmorin he warned that unless a States-General met by 1789, revolution would come. “I ask if you have reckoned with the convulsive energy of hunger acting on the genius of despair. I ask who will dare make himself responsible for the safety of all who surround the throne, nay, of the King himself?”46 He was caught up in the agitation, and rushed into the current. He achieved a tenuous reconciliation with his father (who died in 1789), and offered himself at Aix-en-Provence as a candidate for the States-General. He invited the nobles of the district to choose him; they refused; he turned to the Third Estate, which welcomed him. Now he left his conservative cocoon and took wings as a democrat. “The right of sovereignty rests solely … with the people; the sovereign … can be no more than the first magistrate of the people.”47 He wished to keep the monarchy, but only as a protection of the people against the aristocracy; meanwhile he urged that all male adults should have the vote.48 In a discourse to the Estates of Provence he threatened the privileged classes with a general strike: “Take care; do not disdain this people, which produces everything; this people, which, to be formidable, need only be immobile.”49
A bread riot arose in Marseilles (March, 1789); the authorities sent for Mirabeau to come and calm the people, for they knew his popularity. The populace gathered in a crowd of 120,000 to acclaim him.50 He organized a patrol to prevent violence. In an Avis au peuple marseillais he advised the commonalty to be patient till the States-General should have time to find a balance between producers wanting high prices and consumers wanting low. The rioters obeyed him. By the same persuasiveness he pacified an uprising at Aix. Both Aix and Marseilles chose him as their deputy; he thanked the electors, and decided to represent Aix. In April, 1789, he left for Paris and the States-General.