When the world spoke French

A new book explores the world of 18th century Europe when the romance language defined culture

Michael Dirda
September 7, 2011 4:15AM (UTC)

Throughout the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, Latin was the language of learning and international communication. But in the early modern period it was gradually displaced by French. By the 18th century, all the world -- or at least all of Europe -- aspired to be Parisian.

And with good reason: France's capital was the center of culture, wit, and fashion, the very source of savoir-faire and savoir-vivre, the dream palace where every Cunégonde could glitter and be gay and where every young man from the provinces -- or from some minor duchy of the Holy Roman Empire -- could make his fame and fortune. In the salons of Madame Geoffrin and Madame du Deffand, intrigues might be hatched, understandings reached, empires toppled.


If you were Frederick II of Prussia or the learned Abbé Galiani of Naples, an English aristocrat like Lord Chesterfield or even Catherine the Great of Russia, you might be compelled to live most of your life far from the galanterie of Paris, yet still you read French novels, French newspapers, French philosophers. When you wrote letters to friends, or scribbled in your journal, or chattered over dinner with a visiting dignitary or prelate, the words that flowed from your pen and the witticisms that accompanied the wine were all in the elegant tongue of Madame de Sévigné and Voltaire. French was no mere language, it was a state of mind.

When I set off to college in the mid-1960s, la belle langue was still viewed as the language of high culture. To an Ohio boy it represented world-weary Gallic shrugs and Gauloises cigarettes, existentialist thinkers in berets and Catherine Deneuve in nothing at all; French was the language of intellectual power and effortless sex appeal. By contrast, Spanish seemed utterly plebeian, German mainly for scientists, Italian for voice majors. Much has changed since then, yet to this day French possesses one outstanding attraction that no other foreign language can match: its literature.

Marc Fumaroli tells us that "When the World Spoke French" began as just a little anthology of Enlightenment prose, written by those "kings and queens, military leaders, ambassadors, great ladies, adventurers" whose Francophilia led them to express themselves with ease, grace, and precision in their adopted language. To introduce the various samplings (mainly from letters), Fumaroli needed to say a little about the lives and careers of such romantic figures as gothic-obsessed William Beckford, the urbane Prince de Ligne, and Stanislaw Poniatowski, king of Poland. As happens, though, the brief biographies often digressed into short essays on aspects of what Fumaroli calls "French Europe."


If nothing more, "When the World Spoke French" gives substance to those glamorous names that recur throughout memoirs and letters of this period: the Comte de Caylus, the Maréchal de Saxe, the Countess of Albany, Eugène, Prince of Savoy-Carignan. For instance, I somehow own an (unread) copy of Anthony Hamilton's "Mémoires du Comte de Gramont," which Fumaroli informs me the aphorist Chamfort dubbed the "breviary of the young nobility." In this account of his brother-in-law's life, Hamilton describes Gramont's overall joie de vivre, especially "his disdain for economy, his passion for gambling, his sumptuous expenditures, his appetite for galant intrigues, his charm and his gifts as a lover, his wit, his valor, and even his impalpable touch of cynicism." Anthony Hamilton may have been a Scot by birth, yet his French was impeccable, even "quasi-Mozartian" in its charm, and won the praise of Voltaire: "Of all the books of this age, this is the one in which the slenderest matter is embellished with the gayest, the liveliest, and the most agreeable style."

Intimately familiar with the literature and history of the 18th century, Fumaroli regularly pauses to reflect on various aspects of French esprit. For instance, in discussing theater, he notes how much Marivaux learned about comic drama from Italian commedia dell'arte, which emphasized irony, fantasy, physical action, quick repartee, singing and dancing. "Each actor was a complete artist who invented for herself or himself the ever-growing text of the role she or he interpreted, in intimate cooperation with all the others during rehearsal as well as onstage all'improviso." From these Italians Marivaux discovered "the coincidence of contraries," of "lyricism and irony, life and dream, the magic sweetness of love and the harshness of reality as calculated by vanity." The lasting result would be such vivacious plays as "Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard" (The Game of Love and Chance).

While Frederick II of Prussia never consented to speak any language but French, his courtly prose probably seems a bit too calculated and contrived for modern tastes. Not so that of his sister Frederica Sophia Wilhelmina, who displays a sparkle and frankness that her brother's friend Voltaire might have envied. In her memoirs, she writes of a visit of the Russian tsar Peter and his wife:


The tsarina was short and squat, very dark-complexioned, and had neither grace nor bearing. One had only to look at her to perceive her low birth. She might have been taken, in the outfit she was wearing, for some sort of German actress. Her gown appeared to have been purchased at some secondhand emporium; it was in the old style and covered with silver trinkets. The front of her skirt was embroidered with all kinds of semiprecious stones, in a strange design: a two-headed eagle, its feathers embellished with tiny pieces of gold and crystal. She was also wearing some dozen medals and as many portraits of saints and relics attached to the entire length of her cloak, so that, with each step she took, one seemed to be hearing a pack mule: all those medals rattled against one another, making a considerable racket.

An ardent Francophile, Lord Chesterfield addressed a series of didactic letters to his son, emphasizing the boy's need to acquire a Parisian-style urbanity and complete mastery of "the supreme art of pleasing." Samuel Johnson famously dismissed the letters as teaching "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master." Fumaroli addresses this moral issue head on. Courtly conduct, he notes, raises the question of "dissimulation, and more precisely the delicate difference of degree separating this art of secrecy from simulation and lies." In essence,

dissimulation is a political and social necessity that can and must remain invisible; simulation and lying are conspicuous vices of the heart. Dissimulation is the general index of social relations: it is inseparable from propriety, which is a penetrating attention to another person and to his singularities as much as a sort of self-protection. Simulation and lying are violent means, symptoms of a flawed mind and a weakened soul. They break the social pact and render odious those who stoop to them.

For even the ordinary well-read person, the French Enlightenment is largely restricted to the three big-name philosophes: Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire. Fumaroli refers frequently to the author of "Candide," in part because of Voltaire's overwhelming dominance of intellectual Europe and partly because of his close intimacy with Frederick II. But several Francophile foreigners deserve to be known outside the halls of university French departments. The Abbé Galiani was, according to both the philosopher Nietzsche and the literary critic Sainte-Beuve, "one of the most brilliant minds of the eighteenth century and perhaps the most electrifying." At the age of 23 "he published a treatise, "De la Monnaie," which Marx cites in "Das Kapital" as a classic of the theory of commercial value." Following a brief sojourn in Paris during his youth, the abbé was obliged to return to Naples, where he "became for correspondence in French what Casanova was ... for French mémoires: the supreme master in his genre, besides Voltaire." Fumaroli includes several of his delicious letters to his favorite correspondent, Madame d'Épinay.


One particularly delightful chapter of "When the World Spoke French" outlines the work of Christian apologist Louis-Antoine Caraccioli, who printed one of his books in green ink, another in pink, and one, "Le Livre des Quatre Couleurs" (The Book of Four Colors), in a surrealist "green, pink, blue and beige." Of this last volume, a send-up of the trivial and disposable "pocket book" then fashionable, Caraccioli wrote: "I do not offer this book to posterity, for beyond the fact that it would not reach its addressee, it would then be 'the old Gothic Book' and no longer correspond to its title." Instead, he hopes that his little volume will serve as the pastime for a lady's dog, which would result in its being "elegantly dismembered page by page." Alternately, it might provide hair-curling papers for the lady herself. "Such is the most brilliant success to which it might aspire. Would to Heaven that the majority of our writers might form no other ambition!"

America is represented in "When the World Spoke French" by Benjamin Franklin and Gouverneur Morris. Franklin, we are reminded, managed to conquer Paris by careful stage management of his image, presenting himself as "authentic," homespun in his garb, Quaker-like in his appearance. He proposed marriage to two handsome French ladies, and when he was refused answered them in letters with the mock desolation of a practiced courtier. American ambassador Morris was a genuine ladies' man and even stole a mistress away from Talleyrand. He provides one of the best eyewitness accounts of the Reign of Terror, which brought a centuries-old douceur de vivre to a bloody end.

Yet violent death didn't always originate from the mob: Gustav II, of Sweden, who founded the Swedish Academy after the French original he admired, was assassinated at a masked ball, which later provided Verdi with the inspiration for his opera "Un Ballo in Maschera." Fumaroli quotes a charming letter from a Count Scheffer instructing one of Gustav's sons in the art of letter writing:


If your Highness wishes to know just what epistolary style is, you have merely to read the letters of Mme de Sévigné; you will have the sense of hearing a conversation, that of a mother speaking to her daughter as if they were together, face to face. If you find a good deal of wit in these letters, it is because Mme de Sévigné had a great deal of that characteristic, and because one speaks wittily when one has wit. But those letters to which I allude were never praised because they were witty; those of Voiture and Rabutin were quite as much so; rather they have been praised, admired, even adopted as models for letters because they were simple and natural, not because wit was artfully inserted within them, but as it would be found in the mouth of person to whom it has not even occurred to possess such a thing. From this you may conclude, Monseigneur, that with regard to letters, it is no more difficult to write them than to speak. All that resembles conversation is good, all that has a more prepared and affected quality good taste will infallibly condemn.

Throughout his grab-bag of a book, Fumaroli regularly praises that special quality of French culture, the art of living, "the art of rendering earth and our passage upon it more spiritual, that is to say, less ponderous, more enlightened." In discussing the urbane Prince de Ligne, he describes this friend of Casanova's particular spirit and wit, his exceptionally winning ways:

Esprit is a casual improvisation, free of all the stigmata of effort on which the pedant prides himself. It has everything to do with charm, vivacity, the lovable ease that becomes as irresistible in love affairs as in the great world. Epigram, pun, the quick turn of phrase, the telling characterization, the racy story -- everything that adds salt to dialogue and fire to life in society enters into the felicity of the oral expression of the man or woman of wit.

Notwithstanding the overall excellence of "When the World Spoke French," I should add one warning: at times Fumaroli's prose -- at least as translated by Richard Howard -- sounds slightly overblown, its syntax unnatural. I presume this is an accurate transmission of Fumaroli's highly rhetorical French, since the various extracts from letters and memoirs, also translated by Howard, can be quite different in style. That said, there's so much to enjoy in these pages that this is a minor cavil rather than a major complaint.

Let me end with one of Fumaroli's typical mini-essays, this one in praise of the late-life memoir, which he associates in its style -- "the sinewy art of dialogue and narrative, the talent of portraiture and anecdote" -- with letter writing and salon conversation. French, after all, is the great language of intimacy as well as worldliness:


The superiority of mémoires over the best historiography is that they show instead of trying to explain. And they show in that secondary state of a witness who knows he is going to die, leafing through his still-searing memories of what he has seen, what he has done, what he has heard, what he has felt, illuminated one last time in the gathering darkness by the light of a sun that will not rise again.... One does not forget what has made one tremble with fear or pleasure.

Michael Dirda

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