Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Time travel with Ben Franklin in France

I spent the night with Ben Franklin during his nine-year mission to France, traveling back and forth from his home in Passy, charming the French ladies and intellos, warding off the jealousies and surviving the tedium of rival American envoys, constantly improvising to seduce a monarchy to support a revolution whose success would inspire its own subjects to rise against it. This is the second night running that my dream self has been with Ben in France, and each night seemed to encompass years of his amazing mission. 

Feelings: Just so, that I traveled in time and was actually there. 
Reality: I read a little about Ben Franklin in France when I was writing my historical novel Fire Along the Sky, which contains a funny scene of Franklin investigating Herr Mesmer and being praised for his "electric wand". And I am now teaching and traveling in Paris. 
Action: read Stacy Schiff's book about Franklin in France, A Great Improvisation, which I bought when it came out but did not read at the time. I have already pulled down from my shelves.
Madame Helvétius

First discoveries: I open Schiff's book at random and find myself reading about Ben Franklin's ardent pursuit of his beautiful and gusting neighbor, Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius, nicknamed Minette. The widow of the wealthy and controversial philosopher Helvétius, she kept one of the most renowned salons in France and counted Voltaire among her regulars. At her country villa in Auteuil, down the road from Ben's house in Passy,  visitors contended for space with 18 very spoiled cats, assorted lapdogs, and canaries. Abigail Adams was appalled by Madame Helvétius; she thought she showed too much ankle and flaunted herself like a tart.
     Come 1780, when Franklin was a mere 74 years old, he pressed his suit for Madame 
Helvétius with even more than his customary ardor, apparently eager to live one of the deceased philosopher's maxims: "It is worth being wise only so long as one can also be foolhardy." Franklin declared to Minette that since he and her dead husband had so much in common, they ought to share her as well. He invited her to become the second Mrs Franklin. Madame Helvétius responded that she intended to remain faithful to her great husband's memories, denying the American envoy more than the customary bisous.   
     Franklin's response was to dash off one of the comic pieces he called his Bagatelles. In this one, titled "The Elysian Fields", he reports to Madame 
Helvétius that

Saddened by your barbarous resolution, stated so positively last night, to remain single the rest of your life, in honor of your dear husband, I went home, fell on my bed, believing myself dead, and found myself in the Elysian Fields.

In the afterworld of his dream, he seeks out Helvétius. The dead philosopher wants an update on how things were going in the mortal world - the war, the French government, whose books were selling - but at no point mentions his widow.    
     Franklin tells Helvétius he was with Minette "not an hour before". Isn't the philosopher interested in news of her? Not a bit. Helvétius explains that he has a new woman, full of spirit, engaged at that moment in gathering the finest nectar and ambrosia for his table. Ben complains that the widow was more faithful than the dead husband, batting away a long line of suitors. The story becomes very French. The dead philosopher suggests a ruse by which Franklin may turn the head of the widow. Then Helvétius' new wife appears, and she is Ben's dead common-law wife Debbie, who makes it plain - when he tries to claim her - that she has had quite enough of him.

I was entertained by this account of Ben Franklin's variable amours among the ladies of France, and the literary romp inspired by his rejection. The passage to which I had opened the book at random had deeper meaning for me.  There was fine foxy synchronicity at play with a man the French called the American Fox. A  book on which I am currently working describes what happens after we die, so I was delighted to have been conducted right after my dream into Ben Franklin's dream of an afterlife encounter. And to be reminded that some themes are too serious to be tackled without humor.

Charles Brothers "The Reception of Benjamin Franklin in France".


William said...

Your next book sounds very interesting, can't wait to read it.

Anonymous said...

Debbie has clearly got the best of both worlds; Minette reminds me of Alma Mahler, whose liaisons with "Gustav and Walter and Franz" Tom Lehrer immortalized in his howlingly funny paean:

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