Proud Destiny

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Lion FeuchtwangerVIKING
IF the Muse of History ever laughs she must have done so many times while contemplating events in Paris between 1776 and 1781, when the commissioners of the American Revolution were seeking aid from France. With the exception of Franklin they played the game of diplomacy about as badly as possible, and everyone else concerned in the negotiations seemed bent on doing the wrong things for the right reasons, or vice versa. Fortunately the French aristocrats, whom the gods must have made blind, not realizing they were sealing their own doom, took up political liberty as a fad and Franklin, Beaumarchais, and Voltaire as heroes, and forced the alliance. Only the King, whom they thought a fool, saw where destiny was driving them.
Vitally serious as the situation was to America, ironical humor was constant in it, the gravest issues being affected by the most trivial causes that ranged all the way from the production of the Marriage of Figaro to the death of Maurepas’s cat. As centers of this whirlpool of intrigue, two men as different as possible remained unmoved: Franklin and Beaumarchais, the rationalist and the comic poet, the apostle of common sense and the gambler, the one acting as the brain and the other as the hand for America in the disheartening campaign.
This is the theme of Proud Destiny. The narrative is not, strictly speaking, fiction, but the “artistic representation of history” that Aristotle, who furnishes a motto, declares to be “a more scientific and serious pursuit than the writing of exact history.” None of the characters is imaginary and few if any of the incidents are entirely so. The author has used all the “sources” but has not let them weigh him down. He is at his best in scenes of life at the Court, its pastimes and intrigues. Neither of the two main portraits quite comes off. Franklin just escapes being tiresome and Beaumarchais certainly escapes being brilliant. It is hard to believe that the creator of Figaro could have been so dull. The best portrait is that of Louis XVI, heavy, homely, befuddled, but shrewd by instinct and oddly likable. Marie Antoinette is not the haughty, heartless queen of popular tradition, but a pretty, capricious girl, badly brought up, whose tragedy is heightened by the fact that her caprices were politically dangerous. The Emperor Joseph, royal philosophe, adds his share of comedy, and a great number of minor figures contribute admirable or sinister elements to a scene intricately composed and yet admirably ordered.
The effect of the entire book is to make us ashamed that we know so little about this part of our history, especially the debt we owe to Beaumarchais, whose Marriage of Figaro Napoleon years afterwards spoke of as “ revolution already in action.” What here fills more than five hundred pages occupies in most textbooks hardly more than a paragraph. The effect is nevertheless cheering because, if liberty could survive such maltreatment as she had then, she must be a very hardy spirit. Her survival is in fact the main idea of the book: she survived because she was destined to do so.
R. M. GAY