Thursday, October 16, 2014

New Biography of Lafayette

Frederick Brown reviews a new biography of the Marquis de Lafayette in The Wall Street Journal:

In 1824, at President James Monroe’s invitation, Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, took a triumphal tour of America. In New York, 6,000 guests walked through a Roman arch at Manhattan’s Castle Garden to assemble in his honor under a canopy decorated with the flags of the world and surmounted by a bust of George Washington. More galas awaited him in other cities. Every town paraded for the general; artillery salutes punctuated his journey; musicians composed adulatory songs; eulogists wrote odes. The 67-year-old reveled in his enshrinement, as he had every reason to do.

Lafayette’s reputation at home had been subject to more vicissitudes. During the French Revolution, he had championed constitutional monarchy and in due course found himself obliged to flee the Terror. Despised as an aristocrat by regicides loyal to Robespierre and as a traitor to his class by aristocrats loyal to the Bourbon dynasty, he was more often caricatured in hostile journals than idealized in civic sculpture. Laura Auricchio deals admirably with this trans-Atlantic career in her well-written, well-furnished biography, “The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered.” Her subject straddled not only two continents but two centuries. Born in 1757, at the end of Louis XV ’s reign, he died in 1834, four years after the July Revolution, which brought a constitutional monarch to power in France.

From the excerpt on line at Random House, it appears to be a very well written book:

If pleasure-loving Parisians enjoyed the novelty of these New World republicans, many military men saw the Americans’ cause as an opportunity for revenge. The army had been nursing its wounds since 1763, when the French and Indian War (known in France as the Seven Years’ War) had ended with France ceding its Canadian colonies to Great Britain. By helping to wrest thirteen valuable colonies from British control, a humiliated French officers’ corps hoped to redeem itself. So pervasive was enthusiasm for the American fight that the economist and author André Morellet—an astute social observer who often accompanied Franklin on his rounds—quipped in 1777 that “there is more support for American independence in Paris than in the entire province of New York.”

Yet there was something uncommon about Lafayette’s commitment to America. His devotion was deeper than his countrymen’s, his drive more intense. While other Frenchmen sailed for the New World seeking riches or retribution, Lafayette sought nothing short of a new life. Earnest, enthusiastic—as optimistic as Voltaire’s naïf Candide—Lafayette was out of place in the glittering Parisian world of wit and cynicism that the urbane Franklin so effortlessly mastered.

Lafayette had married into one of the best-connected families of the French court, but he hailed from the Auvergne region of south-central France, and the uncontrived manners of that rural area marked him as a stranger in the refined circles of his in-laws. At Versailles, even Lafayette’s rugged appearance counted against him. The young marquis was large for his time: five feet, nine inches tall and endowed with a broad frame that one contemporary described as “decidedly inclined to embonpoint.” In other words, he tended to be stout. As Lafayette grew older, his bold features would be called distinguished, but as a youth he was not widely perceived as handsome. He had a long, oval face with a prominent aquiline nose, gray-blue eyes that peered out from a pale complexion, and a shock of unfashionably red hair atop a high, sloping forehead. Friends and admirers saw Lafayette’s open and frank expression as a window to his soul, but this transparent credulity placed him at a disadvantage in the dissimulating games of intrigue that passed for sociability at Versailles. 

Having visited Lafayette's grave in Cimitiere Picpus, with the U.S. flag so proudly waving, I think that Auricchio is correct when she speaks of Lafayette as being naive about not only Mesmerism, but about the French Revolution. His wife's family suffered greatly, and when I toured Cimitiere Picpus to see the place where the remains of the Carmelite martyrs of Compiegne were dumped after their executions, I pondered the significance of the site of his grave--right outside the wall that divides the tombs from the mass graves. His mother-in-law and sister-in-law are buried behind the wall, while he and his wife, the great Adrienne de Noailles rest together--she certainly deserves her own updated biography, that brave, faithful Leonore!

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