Beaumarchais letters: editorial history and current research

The recent addition to Electronic Enlightenment (EE) of 417 letters from the Beaumarchais correspondence is a significant event in 18th-century studies. They appeared over thirty years ago in the two-volume edition prepared by Gunnar and Mavis von Proschwitz, Beaumarchais et le Courier de l’Europe, for the Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, volumes 273–274 (1990). Added to the 257 Beaumarchais letters already included in EE, these 674 letters constitute over a sixth of known Beaumarchais letters and approximately one third of Beaumarchais letters published to date. Their online publication, along with other current research projects on the correspondence, offers scholars new reasons to consider this oft-cited, but still little understood, figure of the Enlightenment.

A vast and far-ranging correspondence

If ever fully inventoried and edited, the Beaumarchais papers would no doubt include between 6000 and 20,000 documents. (The minimum estimate is based on the currently known corpus. The maximum is a seat-of-the-pants guess put forth by Brian Morton in 1969, based on his preliminary archival research. The actual number certainly lies somewhere in between, nevertheless making the corpus one of the largest of the period.) Beyond their sheer number, the Beaumarchais papers also stand out for their geographical and sociological breadth. From Vienna to Madrid to the Netherlands to England and North America, Beaumarchais’s correspondence network is far more than a simply ‘French’ or ‘francophone’ one. Moreover, Beaumarchais grants us insights into the 18th century that stand apart from those offered by the correspondences of other major figures. An artisan, a musician, a financier, commercial entrepreneur, printer, investor, politician, judge, diplomat, spy, litigant, criminal (he was imprisoned in at least four capitals), husband, lover, brother, father and, of course, a playwright, his correspondence brought him in touch with a wider swath of 18th-century European and North-American society than almost any other personality whose correspondence has been studied to date, with perhaps only Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson rivalling him in this respect.

Editorial history

The editorial history of the Beaumarchais correspondence traces across more than two centuries of literary and political history. Since his death in 1799, over 1500 letters have been edited, of which only slightly more than half feature a supporting critical apparatus.

Portrait of P. A. Caron de Beaumarchais, 1773, drawn by Charles Nicolas Cochin II, engraved by Augustin de Saint-Aubin. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the 19th century, fewer than 200 Beaumarchais letters were printed, mostly in editions of his works, but also in journals and biographies. The first edition of his complete works, edited by his amanuensis, Paul-Philippe Gudin de La Brenellerie (1809), included 55 letters, which Gudin had transcribed from the personal papers inherited by the writer’s widow upon his death. A second edition, by the journalist, historian and politician Saint-Marc Girardin, published in 1828, included 53 of the same letters, though with some editorial differences. An edition prepared in 1836 by the deputy curator at the Bibliothèque du roi, Jules Ravenel, included 10 letters reproduced from 18th-century periodicals, of which 6 were not published in either of the earlier editions. Also in 1836, the Revue rétrospective published a collection of 29 previously unpublished letters from manuscripts in the Comédie Française archives. The biographer Louis de Loménie, in his two-volume Beaumarchais et son temps (1858), referenced and included partial transcripts of hundreds of letters, but included in the appendix only 35 complete texts of previously unedited letters. A second biographer, Eugène Lintilhac, in his Beaumarchais et ses œuvres (1887), included 12 partially transcribed letters not previously published. (In 1890, Louis Bonneville de Marsangy published Madame de Beaumarchais, a biography of Beaumarchais’s third and final wife and widow, Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz; although Marsangy claimed to have consulted ‘sa correspondance inédite’, no letters are reproduced or directly referenced in the volume.)

In the 1920s, another 200 letters were brought into print from a variety of sources. In the early years of the century, as a young and ambitious man of letters, Louis Thomas undertook to produce a complete edition of the correspondence. However, military service during the Great War put an end to his research. In 1923, he published an edition entitled Lettres de jeunesse, including 167 letters from the first two decades of Beaumarchais’s adult life, of which 120 are attributed to manuscripts in the ‘Archives de Beaumarchais’ and the rest to printed sources. At least 80 of these had not been edited in earlier collections. (Thomas achieved renown as an editor and author in the interwar period before falling into ignominy during the Occupation as an ardent antisemite and collaborator whom the Vichy regime put in charge of the publishing house seized from Gaston Calmann-Lévy.) In 1929, the eminent French literature scholar in the United States Gilbert Chinard edited a collection of Lettres inédites de Beaumarchais consisting of 109 letters, mainly to Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz and their daughter, transcribed from manuscripts acquired by the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

In the past half-century, the pace of publication has accelerated. In the late 1960s, Brian Morton (then a faculty member at the University of Michigan) launched a project to publish a complete Correspondence and began to transcribe letters from both public and private collections as well as reproduce previously published letters. In the 1970s, Donald Spinelli, then of Wayne State University (in Detroit MI), became his collaborator and continued the project. Together they published about 1000 letters, of which at least 300 were previously unpublished. Four published volumes (1969-1978) cover the years up to 1778 and are now available on open access. In 2010, Spinelli added a fifth volume, covering the year 1779, also on his professional website.

In 1990, Gunnar von Proschwitz, a noted philologist, and his wife Mavis published the most extensive critical apparatus associated with any edition of Beaumarchais letters. The notes and a lengthy introduction to this edition lay out the significance of these documents for our understanding of Beaumarchais’s life and of the 18th century. In these letters, we see Beaumarchais not only as a playwright seeking to circumvent censorship to have Le Mariage de Figaro finally staged, but also as an entrepreneur, a printer, an urban property owner, an emissary, and a transatlantic merchant. Through these documents we have a window on an 18th century that is geographically, socially, and culturally much broader and more diverse than what we generally encounter through other published 18th-century correspondences.

Current research
A letter from Beaumarchais to Antoine Dauvergne, director of the Académie royale de musique, dated 7 August 1787, about Salieri’s opera Tarare (with a libretto by Beaumarchais). (Gallica)

At present, the scholarly world can look forward to the benefits of the first new projects on Beaumarchais’s correspondence in over thirty years, including the effort spearheaded by Linda Gil to produce a definitive inventory with a material bibliography. Gil is also the editor of a forthcoming volume, Éditer la correspondence de Beaumarchais (to be published in the Cahiers du Centre d’étude des correspondences et journaux intimes), and one of the organisers of a conference on ‘L’Europe de Beaumarchais’, to be held in Paris and online on 20 and 21 January 2023.

My own contribution to this effort, begun in collaboration with Spinelli in 2019, is to prepare a searchable dataset of the 3500 documents and nearly 5000 references to letters known and unknown, with which to analyse Beaumarchais’s transatlantic network of correspondents. To date, nearly 3780 named identities have been extracted, of which 980 are unique individuals, and another 500 corporate entities have been identified. Working in collaboration with a talented doctoral student, Dakota Ciolkosz, with Voltaire Foundation colleagues who have extensive expertise in scholarly editing of correspondence, with Miranda Lewis and Howard Hotson of Early Modern Letters Online, and with Glenn Roe, whose ‘ObTIC’ laboratory of Sorbonne Université has done extensive work as well on 18th-century correspondences, this project will seek to make available in the coming years, on an open access and non-exclusive basis, the searchable dataset, the metadata drawn from these documents, and a prosopography of participants in the transatlantic correspondence network.

– Gregory Brown, Professor, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Senior Research Fellow, Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford

An earlier version of this post appeared on the EE blog.


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