Modern history


Over and above the earnest anxieties of ministers and royal treasury officials, above even the jubilation occasioned by the victorious American peace, hovered the buoyantly ambiguous figure of Figaro. It was known that Pierre-Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais had swiftly followed up his spectacularly successful 1775 play, The Barber of Seville, with a sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, which related the fortunes of the eponymous manservant-cum-factotum. The new play was, however, believed to be too politically explosive to perform. The light-hearted satire of human frailties in the first play had become, it was rumoured, something altogether more mordant, including an attack on lettres de cachet and the state prison, the Bastille, which was fast coming to have almost totemic value in debates over political despotism. Figaresque Beaumarchais knew, moreover, whereof he spoke: quite as multi-talented as his creation, in a career as inventor, businessman, speculator, adventurer, government spy, pamphleteer, publisher, aide to the American rebels and much besides, he had experienced the insides of a state prison. His new play’s plot was peopled by characters ruled by a panoply of moral defects: hypocritical Basilio, lustful Bartholo, fickle Cherubino, venal judges, mindless or drunken peasants and, at its core, a noble seigneur, count Almaviva, who was a cynical libertine. Vengeful, grasping, pathologically unfaithful to his loving wife (he attempts to impose a feudal ius primae noctis (‘right of the first night’) on his valet’s fiancee) and – unkindest cut – very stupid, the noble count was a figure to whom, as Beaumarchais put it, ‘the author has had the generous respect to lend … none of the vices of the people’.55 The play’s resolution sees love, which the count initally disparages as ‘a fairy-tale of the heart’, conquering all, even the vices of a grand seigneur. Not, however, before Figaro, deliciously engineering his master’s return, out of the arms of his own fiancee, into the bed of his loving Countess, has apostrophized him in his absence:

Because you’ve been born a grand seigneur, you think yourself a great genius! … Nobility, wealth, rank, position – all that makes you proud! What have you done to deserve so many advantages? You have given yourself the trouble of being born, nothing more!56

The play’s cocktail of the satirical and the melodramatic, the sulphurous and the sublime, spiced with wicked humour, made it dangerous – too dangerous, it seemed, to be made public. Completed in 1778, it was not until 1781 that the Comédie-Française agreed to put it on. However, the verdict of no less a detractor than Louis XVI seemed to stop it in its tracks. The king had the play read to him by the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Madame Campan. When she reached Figaro’s famous monologue, the king rose in disgust:

[D]etestable! We would have to destroy the Bastille for the performance of this play not to be dangerously feckless. This man is making fun of everything that must be respected in a government … No, certainly, you can be sure [that it will never be performed]!57

The king’s brother, the comte de Provence, Keeper of the Seals Miromesnil and the dévot clan at court joined the royal chorus of disgust, and the archbishop of Paris prohibited his flock from seeing the play.

Louis was to prove quite as ineffectual over artistic censorship as he was over public policy. The queen’s party, including the comte d’Artois, liked the play, and there was also a massive demand among the Parisian cognoscenti to have it read in the capital’s literary salons. Soon Empress Catherine the Great of Russia was clamouring for a copy. In 1783, the Minister of the Maison du Roi, Breteuil, agreed to the Comédie-Française giving a semi-private performance in the Salle des Menus-Plaisirs at Versailles – only to have the king forbid it at the last moment. But the cause was gaining ground, and Artois had the play performed to the court in a private session. Changes to the text were made – the action was shifted from France to Spain, mention of the Bastille was removed, sundry anti-clerical taunts were withdrawn – and, following the eventual recruitment of a sympathetic censor (the sixth), the play opened at the Comédie-Française in Paris on 27 April 1784.

An unprecedented twelve curtain-calls signalled Figaro’s triumph. ‘One laughs and laughs,’ reported the Correspondence secrète.58 The king’s brothers were present at the opening, while the princesse de Lamballe led the Versailles female contingent, rattling their diamonds. Duchesses squatted on humble stools in the parterre rather than miss the event, and three unfortunate bystanders were killed in the crush outside the theatre to get tickets. Beaumarchais’s tribulations were, however, not at an end. Unseemly rows with his critics in the newspapers led the king – casually breaking off a game of cards to sign a detention order on the back of a seven of spades – to have him briefly confined in the state reformatory at the Saint-Lazare monastery. Following a paradox which the entrepreneur in Beaumarchais was quick to exploit, and which highlighted the changed temper of cultural life, Louis’s detestation was the play’s best advertisement. By 1787, the play had run to an unheard-of 100 performances in Paris; amassed its author some 60,000 livres in royalties; enjoyed countless provincial stagings; and been translated into every major European language. By then too Mozart’s opera, from Da Ponte’s libretto, had made Figaro a stock character in the European cultural imaginary and set the whole of the Continent whistling Mozartian airs and chuckling at Figaresque humour.

Yet what, exactly, was the joke? Religious bigots had never found difficulty in laughing at Molière’s Tartuffe, and noblemen and women were now among the most enthusiastic patrons of Beaumarchais’s scandalous, but somehow charming, assault on their ilk. Contemporaries recorded how at the early performances, court aristocrats were seen playfully smacking their own cheeks to signal their thrilling mock-acceptance of the play’s satire. Much of the niceness which audiences discovered in the play was, indeed, its naughtiness. The personal outrage of the king made each performance a micro-site of popular transgression. King, church, critics, censors, lettres de cachet and state prison had failed to silence either Figaro or his irrepressible author in what became a Frondeur (andphilosophe) parable celebrating the triumph of wit and the vindication of public opinion. The play’s fortunes literally dramatized the cause of freedom of speech, the issue of legal redress against arbitrary arrest and the character of state power which were playing out in more serious venues throughout the 1780s.

‘There is no longer clergy, nobility or third estate in France,’ Foreign Minister Vergennes had expostulated in 1781. ‘The distinction is a fiction, a pure façade without any real meaning.’ This was wishful thinking by a crown servant who signally overestimated the powers of the monarchy to reduce age-old divisions. At his next sentence – ‘The monarch speaks, all are subjects and all obey’59 – both Beaumarchais and Figaro could have been excused for convulsing with laughter. The Marriage of Figaro imbroglio semed to indicate that the monarch could not rule his own theatre troupe, his court or his family, let alone his kingdom. Besides its role as indicator of political repression, the play also contributed to a public questioning taking place more broadly within society about the social utility and state service of the nobility and the values of deference in a world increasingly inhabited by citizens rather than subjects.

Neither Beaumarchais nor his creation was against nobility as such. Figaro’s aim in life is bourgeois respectability, which he hopes to achieve through his merits rather than by way of the barricades. Nor was Beaumarchais himself an obvious proponent of rank anti-nobilism: for he himself was a noble. A watch-maker by early vocation, his early forays on to the stage had been very much in the tradition of the bourgeois drama pioneered and theorized by Diderot: his 1770 play, Les Deux Amis, ou le Négotiant de Lyon(‘The Two Friends, or The Lyon Businessman’), was, he said, ‘composed for businessmen and … to honour the Third Estate’.60 Yet even prior to this he had utilized connections at court, where he had been appointed Royal Watch-maker, to build up a considerable personal fortune which allowed him to purchase ennobling office: in 1761, he paid ready cash for the post of secrétaire du Roi (King’s Secretary), a straightforward means of achieving noble status, and he followed this up with a venal position as minor magistrate in the royal domains.

Beaumarchais (or Caron to give him his true patronymic: ‘de Beaumarchais’ had been added early in his career as a swanky piece of social climbing) was not alone in seeking the perquisites of noble status. There were maybe 4,000 offices – municipal, legal, administrative, military – which ennobled the owner, and though many of these were held by individuals who already enjoyed noble status, this constituted an important channel of bourgeois permeation of the noble order. The price of magistracies in the sovereign courts declined conspicuously over the century – partly no doubt as a result of uncertainty over their fate, and also because of a long-term reduction in the amount of legal business (and therefore potential fees and perquisites) they handled. Yet in general the market for ennobling office was highly buoyant, aided by speedier circulation of information in the country at large which encouraged the formation of national markets: ennobling offices were (like seigneurial and feudal titles) advertised alongside toothpowders, carriages, umbrellas and domestic pets in the national network of advertisers known as Affiches. The post of secretaire du Roi which Beaumarchais had purchased (like Voltaire before him) was the most unproblematic means of social ascent, since the position entailed no duties whatever. Its price skyrocketed to 120,000 or more livres, yet there was no shortage of purchasers. The latter normally came from the ranks of rich merchants, manufacturers and financiers (along with the occasional successful author or eccentric like Sanson, the notorious public executioner). Around 6,000 commoners joined the nobility through purchase of ennobling office of some sort over the course of the century – not far off half of them in the short reign of Louis XVI alone. They composed between one-sixth and one-seventh of the total strength of the noble order of about 40,000 families.

Beaumarchais’s acceptance of nobility was exemplary in another way too. The nobility enjoyed so much wealth, fortune, social esteem and cultural capital in the eighteenth century that it required the most self-denying of political principles or the moral fibre of a Rousseau to resist ennoblement if it was on offer and affordable. Those who enjoyed noble status comprised less than 1 per cent of the population, yet monopolized ministerial place (individuals like Necker being the rulemaking exception), high administrative, financial and legal office, Royal Household positions, army high command and episcopal status. They owned between a fifth and a third of the country’s cultivable land, and were in commanding positions in many sectors of the commercial and financial life of the nation. At each level of society – village, bourg, town, city, capital, court – nobles were invariably appreciably richer than co-resident commoners. They were also the most important patrons of the arts and the most conspicuous of cultural consumers.

‘Instead of one nobility,’ Talleyrand, aristocratic bishop (and, later, Revolutionary politician and arch-survivor), subsequently claimed, ‘there were seven or eight’,61 before going on to consider some of the divisions – Robe and Sword, court and provincial, old and new, and so on. The noble order was certainly highly heterogeneous in terms of wealth. Leaving to one side the fifty or sixty hyper-rich court-based aristocratic dynasties, it numbered by the 1780s between 200,000 and 250,000 individuals, and could be divided into three rough groupings: two-fifths were extremely wealthy, a further two-fifths were comfortable, while a final one-fifth hovered on the edge of demotion into the Third Estate. Broadly speaking, the nobles who already had most in 1715 were in the strongest position to gain even more over the course of the century – in terms of wealth as well as in terms of their social, political and cultural position. Their extensive landholding allowed them to benefit disproportionately from the long-term rise in the prices of agricultural produce, and the concomitant increase in ground-rents. A fair number of middling and wealthy nobles made a disproportionate contribution to the growth of the economy as a whole. Noble estate-owners in the pays de grande culture of northern France, for example, were in the van of the move to import the new intensive farming technologies developed by the English and the Dutch. Mining – which, like glass manufacture, was viewed as part of estate management – was also noble-dominated, as was iron production. Numerous owners of textile and chemical factories were members of the second order, while in port cities like Nantes, Rouen and Bordeaux nobles and wealthy bourgeois formed a kind of mercantile oligarchy tapping into some of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, notably colonial trade.

If the nobility was engaging more and more in the economic life of the nation this was partly at least because the principle of derogation no longer ruled it out. While the animated market for the purchase of office risked ‘feudalizing’ the bourgeoisie, the relaxation of the laws of dérogeance was working to bring nobles more into touch with market forces. A noble stood more chance of losing his status through not being able to pay the capitation tax than through engaging in ‘demeaning’ economic activity. Richelieu and Colbert had endlessly tried to get nobles involved in trading ventures, and by 1701 nobles were free to engage in wholesale and maritime trade, ship-chartering and construction and maritime insurance without losing their noble status, their sense of honour and their privileges. In 1767, manufacturing and banking were added to the list. Purchase of the post of secretaire du Roi did not oblige the individual to renounce any form of economic activity. In Brittany, noble status could ‘sleep’, that is, a nobleman might engage in mercantile activity to recover his fortune, and resume his erstwhile status once he had done so. The father of the writer Chateaubriand, for example, had turned his hand to chartering shipping and dabbling in the slave trade to buttress his ancestral seat at Combourg. To demonstrate its commitment to the reconcilability of noble status and economic activity, the government also took to ennobling successful businessmen by royal letters patent, stressing the social utility and personal virtue which such individuals incarnated. From 1767, this was done on the basis of two ennoblements per year to successful traders and manufacturers – a modest rate, it is true, which even Turgot did not choose to accelerate.

The community of interest between business-oriented nobles and the upper sectors of the commercial bourgeoisie sometimes embarrassed the older nobility, who in theory prized blood and honour over the cash nexus. The intellectual heirs of aristocratic apologists like Boulainvilliers who stressed the primeval ‘blood and soil’ derivation of the noble order ended up claiming that noble businessmen and anoblis (‘the ennobled’) like Beaumarchais were simply not noble at all. In fact, there was a wide range of stratagems on offer (front-men, sleeping partnerships, etc.) to camouflage noble business involvement. Such coyness was, however, going out of style. Venal office acted as a lubricant for mergers of honour and money. And business partnerships were increasingly sealed by cross-class inter-marriage: the lovely daughter of an impoverished noble line counted for less in the noble marriage market than the ugly offshoot of a family loaded down with mercantile or financial wealth – as many a blue-blooded heir must have rued. The shared culture of the Enlightenment also smoothed the path to growing elite community: as we have seen, the bourgeois public sphere was full of nobles.62

There were still, however, zones of mutual distrust and non-cooperation between the status elite and the business classes, and it would be misleading to exaggerate the extent of nobles’ involvement in economic expansion and their integration with the Third Estate. Despite the noble dominance in mining and metallurgy, in global terms noble involvement in industry was far outweighed by commoner activity. It also remained the case that the government invariably proved keener to establish a business nobility than the noble order itself. Dérogeance was more a cast of mind than legislative fiat. Around a quarter of the nobility upheld the order’s claim to constitute the medieval category of bellatores by following a career in the armed forces, while between maybe 6 and 8 per cent had worthy legal careers. Many poorer nobles simply did not have the resources to invest in trade, industry or agricultural improvement. And countless generations of inbred snootiness insulated a considerable part of the order from engaging in forms of enrichment which it had traditionally shunned. Moreover, for every noble turning his back on economic activity, there was a bourgeois wishing to convert to a life of leisured idleness – a state generally known, significantly and perhaps (given the changes occurring within the second order) anachronistically enough, as ‘living nobly’ (vivant noblement).

Down to the time of Colbert it had been an implicit privilege of the bourgeoisie to engage in mercantile activity without competition from those in society with more capital, cash and connection than themselves. A century later, this had changed totally. Nobles at court and in government in particular were well-placed to benefit – by influence, connection and sheer propinquity – from the state’s role in economic strategy. The government was the French economy’s biggest client for manufactured goods: it maintained one of the largest armies in Europe; it developed what became, by the 1780s, a navy as big as the British; and it played the role of cultural Maecenas. The state was effectively a clearing-house for business contracts and economic regulations which could make or break firms, dynasties, nay, regions. The prosperity of parts of the Languedocian wool industry in the eighteenth century was based on the contracts for army uniforms which regional financial dynasties had carved out early in the century thanks to the influence of local boy-made-good, Cardinal Fleury. Similarly, when he was Navy Minister in the 1780s, the marquis de Castries proved able to secure important mining concessions from the crown to develop the industry in the Cévennes, which set him in rivalry with the industrious but less well-connected Tubeuf family (who ended up emigrating in disgust). The hyper-elitist duc de Croÿ, assiduous courtier and dependable general, developed the highly profitable coal mines of Anzin thanks to a string of state privileges (including a government ban on the import of competitive Belgian coal).

As its merchant critics often pointed out, the royal court was thus trading not simply in service and status rewards but in economic advantage. Greed seemed to be taking over from honour as the mechanism of court favour, as status perquisites became tradable commodities. The imposing presence of financiers in Paris and Versailles was also a factor stimulating noble business involvement. Court-based nobles tended not to compete against merchants in the form of family businesses, instead drawing on the capital available in the Parisian money market to invest in major capitalistic ventures: mining and metallurgy, but also new, dynamic areas like the chemical industry, colonial ventures, steam-driven manufactures, calicoes and the like. In a good many cases, moreover, noble ‘involvement’ amounted to little more than speculative gestures cognate to their beloved gambling.

Court favour produced resentment amongst the commoner business community. This was particularly evident in those parts of the industrial and service sectors where the state had established monopolies. Try as its merchants might, for example, the port of Sète never broke the exclusive rights to Levantine trading which Louis XIV had granted rival Marseille. The importance of the state in licensing access to lucrative markets was evident in the venality sector too. The non-ennobling venal offices which rose most sharply in value over the eighteenth century were in those fields which involved access to a market which could only be accessed through office. Whereas the price of offices which were not plugged into booming markets for services could be sluggish, that of offices which allowed one to work as a notary, attorney, usher, auctioneer, surgeon, wig-maker or hairdresser rose sharply. Major financial offices, which gave room for lucrative contacts in the money markets, were also among the most dynamic in the venal sector. Privilege gained at court and/or endorsed by government had thus become a means of sharing a corporate monopoly of access to markets, improving market share or providing an advantageous trading position.

On the issue of elites, the government was – as was typical of the vacillating Louis XVI – in two minds. On the one hand, it consistently championed the idea of a business nobility which would enrich itself as well as the nation, and itself played a key strategic role encouraging market dynamism wherever it found it. On the other hand, however, it never totally detached itself from a more traditionalist association with the values of its old nobility. Both Louis XV and Louis XVI prided themselves on being ‘the first gentleman’ of their kingdom, and wallowed luxuriantly in the archaic values of the old nobility where true, antique virtue and honour were to be found. The aristocratization of high office and restrictions on court presentations from mid-century was to the taste of both monarchs. This sometimes led to a depreciation of the value of the Robe nobility. The clash between Sword and Robe was still occurring in the court and ministries as we have seen, though outside Paris the division was less pronounced than under Louis XIV. Intermarriage between these wings of the noble order was important here, as was the influence of that generalized elite culture of the Enlightenment in which Sword and Robe both partook and which tended to blur social boundaries. In many provinces, high Robe and Sword had long become virtually indistinguishable. The magistrates of the Rennes Parlement, for example, were the oldest and most distinguished gentlemen in Brittany. Much the same was true in Provence: 61 per cent of Aix parlementaireswere Sword nobles by the 1780s (as against 42 per cent in 1715).

The most significant bones of contention within the nobility focused on the country gentry on one hand and the newly ennobled – the anoblis – on the other. The division between rich and poor nobles was highlighted, especially from mid-century onwards, in impassioned public debates. The Parisian chronicler Barbier characterized the country gentry as individuals who educated their offspring alongside the children of rustics and who ‘truly differ from peasants only because they wear a sword and call themselves gentlemen’.63 We should beware of taking as concrete reality what became a literary topos: for even the most down-on-their-luck petty noble hobereaux (‘little hawks’) managed a servant or two. Nevertheless, it is true that this group tended to miss out on economic opportunities, depended critically on their tax exemptions for survival, lacked the wherewithal to engage in enlightened sociability, and risked going to the wall in the more commercial world of the eighteenth century. Many regions saw a sharp fall in the number of villages containing a nobleman, with some of the latter falling into the ranks of the peasantry, while others shifted to towns to seek their fortune (occasionally ending up on tax rolls as sedan-chair-carriers, muleteers, ditch-diggers … ). A black sheep of the lofty ducal Saulx-Tavannes family – ‘gentilhomme vagabond’, ‘dressed in a tattered riding coat accompanied by a white hunting dog’ – received police attention in Burgundy in the 1750s. Those nobles who clung on to residency often did so in desperate circumstances: Chateaubriand evoked Breton chevaliers hauts et puissants lording it over a dove-cote, a frog-marsh and a rabbit-warren.64

The country gentry had been the main focus of attention in a famous intellectual squabble of the 1750s which had pitted the abbé Coyer against the chevalier d’Arc.65 Characteristically, the government had heeded both men. It responded to Coyer’s proposal to remove all obstacles preventing the nobility from engaging in trade by further loosening, as we have seen, its stipulations regarding dérogeance. On the other hand, it also took very seriously Arc’s call for greater efforts to channel the energies of the country gentry into the military careers which formed their historic vocation. The creation of the École militaire in Paris in 1751 had been targeted precisely at this group, and numerous related initiatives followed. Twelve ancillary provincial military schools were set up by War Minister Saint-Germain in 1776, for example, and analogous institutions were developed to provide young naval cadets with specialized training. The culmination of the trend was the 1781 Ségur ordinance, by which the War Minister prohibited access to the highest army grades to those who could not show four generations of nobility – a clear attempt to palliate the anger of the court nobility deprived by Saint-Germain of the right of purchasing army commissions. By that time, a copious literature had developed in the wake of the chevalier d’Arc, highlighting the role of dynasties of country gentlemen in fostering a professional service ethic which would make the army both more loyal to its monarch and more effective on the field of battle. Honour and virtue could only be maintained, it seemed, by renouncing commercial interest.

The state found itself facing two ways on the issue of noble virtue, locating it both in the archaic values of a warrior elite and then again in the rewardable merit of outstanding figures, noble or non-noble, who contributed to society’s prosperity. The state was unwilling to stand back from the social order and allow its elite to be refashioned by market forces and changing mentalités. This would have identified it with the anoblis rather than the noblesse de race, a step which monarchs found difficult to take. This was evident in fiscal policy, for example, which tended to favour the older at the expense of the newer venal nobility. Since 1695, all nobles paid direct tax in the form of the capitation, and to this impost were added, over the course of the eighteenth century, sundryvingtièmes. The parlements had done a fairly effective job of blocking the state’s efforts to introduce fairer and more proportionate means of assessing these direct taxes and to add the replacement of the corvée to the nobility’s tax obligations. At the point of taxation, moreover, where local knowledge and connection mattered, anoblis were often less well placed to defend their position than the more solidly entrenched nobility. A Prince of the Blood or member of an ancient Sword dynasty could use patronage – and the threat of its withdrawal – as a means of remaining virtually tax-exempt. The personal fortunes of the Princes of the Blood were such that in theory they ought to have paid some 2.4 million livres in vingtièmes; they paid less than 0.2 million. ‘I pay more or less what I like,’ was the duc d’Orleans’s airy comment.66

The grandees were among the greatest beneficiaries of state largesse too: Louis XVI not only winked at tax avoidance by his brothers, Artois and Provence, for example, he also cleared their gambling and other debts to the tune of 37 and 29 million livres respectively. Since Louis XIV had created Versailles, the court had imposed on its denizens a prodigal style of life which could only be maintained, in most cases, by dependence on state pensions: three-quarters of Choiseul’s income came from this source, while Marie-Antoinette’s favourites, the Polignacs, lived like princes on account of the princely gift of 700,000 livres of annual income which the queen made them in 1780. Casualties might result: Choiseul died out of favour in 1785 with debts of 6 million livres; and the prince de Guémenée went bankrupt in 1781, owing his creditors some 32 million. Aggrieved country gentry joined in the generalized wailing over the way in which the court bailed out the profligacy of such ‘vultures’ and ‘predators’, yet in fact the state was merely observing a principle from which they too benefited, namely, that charity should be proportional to the place of an individual within the social hierarchy. Though it was the big pensions which were to attract the ire of the Revolutionary assemblies, three-quarters of the 25,000 royal pensions inherited from the Ancien Régime were worth less than 2,000 livres a year, and two-thirds of them went to soldiers, especially noble officers in fact, for ‘services’ or even ‘the services of [their] ancestors’.67 This skewing of royal bounty in terms of the needs of status tended not to favour newer, and especially venal, nobles. Indeed, the latter even had the indignity of having to pay levies specially created with them in mind: in 1771, for example, Controller-General Terray had enforced a confirmation fee of 10,000 livres on all nobles who had received their status since 1715 – a measure which raised 6 million livres.

Given the mixed messages which the government sent out concerning the desirability of either maintaining its existing social hierarchy or allowing it to be refashioned in the likeness of the emergent commercial society, it is unsurprising that there were tensions within the nobility as well as between the nobility and the commercial sector of the Third Estate. Whereas most provincial nobles could join in the broad general attack on the corrupt court nobility, all old nobles, rich and poor, vented their spleen on theanobli.Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme would have understood much of the latter debate, which focused on the comic tendency of the upwardly mobile Third Estate to ape the lifestyles of their social betters. Anoblis, it was claimed, tried desperately to wash themselves in the waters of Lethe to remove the stain of commoner origins or else gauchely rubbed shoulders with old nobles ‘like iron seeking the influence of a magnet’, in publicist Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s words.68 The quasi-egalitarian social mixing of the salon or the academy might soften relations between the groupings, but established traditions of social comedy proved more intractable outside these polite groupings. The archaic honorific symbols of social promotion – wearing a sword, having a coat of arms, erecting turrets on one’s home, having one’s tenants behave like deferential feudal vassals, maintaining a flotilla of lackeys, establishing one’s correct place in the pecking order of processional precedence, or putting the particule before one’s name (thus ‘de’ Beaumarchais) – were still taken seriously by the rising bourgeoisie. And they were still equally mocked by their social betters (and indeed by their plebeian inferiors too) for taking them seriously. The cultural frontier which set apart the ‘true’ noble from the pathetic bourgeois mimic (or the aspiring anobli) was still very much in place in 1789.

The dictum of Louis XIV’s courtier-chronicler, Saint-Simon, to the effect that ‘the king makes a noble, but not a gentleman’69 was thus almost as true in 1789 as when it was uttered: the easiest thing about acceptance into the nobility was the juridical (and usually purely financial) step of acquiring noble status; the hardest was to gain the unaffected acceptance of the noble order as a whole. Upwardly mobile bourgeois invariably discovered that noble identity – as opposed to mere noble status – was a receding horizon. The symbols associated with nobility were therefore charged with heavy cultural freight, and the mildest sign of aristocratic exclusivity might be interpreted with rancour. Moves in many provincial parlements from the 1770s onwards to restrict access to magistracies to individuals with an acceptably ancient genealogy were largely ineffectual, while the 1781 Ségur ordinance was less successful at excluding commoners and anoblis than the country gentry hoped. But such signs of exclusivity, endorsed by the state, had a psychological impact on those seeking social promotion which should not be underestimated. By 1789, relations between nobility and bourgeoisie had become as much about cultural frustration as about social deprivation. Talleyrand, who was physically disabled himself (his crippled leg had ruled out any aristocratic career save the church) understood only too well how such symptoms of cultural impairment like the Ségur ordinance now worked: they were ‘less a favour for the nobles than an insult [for the people]’.70

The Marriage of Figaro played very precisely into this ongoing cultural debate on the value and virtues of nobility. A good part of the noble order, as we have suggested, had changed drastically over the course of the century and seemed more than willing to embrace the commercial values of the century. Many nobles could therefore shrug off Beaumarchais’s satire as playing upon discarded stereotypes. Beaumarchais, however, was inviting his audiences to believe that the noble leopard would never totally lose its spots. His play portrayed the trappings of noble power as a masquerade of vices: the law was an instrument of class power; feudal dues (notably the ius primae noctis) covered rape and raw sexual gratification; and distinguished aristocratic marriage was a sham. So transparent was noble vice that even his manservant could give Count Almaviva the run-around, thereby demonstrating the superiority of talent over birth. Even more subversively, moreover, The Marriage of Figaro had performed its cultural dissection bothcon brio and in the spirit of laughter. The joke was the nobility – for the nobility was a joke.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s subsequent comment that the French Revolution dated not from the fall of the Bastille but from the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro was wrong. It underestimated the extent to which aristocratic culture could absorb and contain such humorous barbs, and overestimated the play’s political impact. Equally, some commoners thought it shared the moral failings it mocked. All the same, one can understand what Bonaparte was getting at. By showing the nobility not as the repository of national honour and primeval virtues but as morally bankrupt and pathetic, the comedy played subtly into a more general process taking place in the 1780s of demonization of an aristocracy on whom the monarch continued to shower favours and privileges. And despite its good humoured conviction that in such affairs tout finit par des chansons, much of its largely middle-class audience took the anti-aristocratic political message home with them after the doors of the theatre shut.

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