The addition to Electronic Enlightenment (EE) of nearly 500 letters from the Beaumarchais correspondence is a significant event in eighteenth-century studies. Drawn from the second volume of Gunnar and Mavis von Proschwitz’s edited collection, Beaumarchais and the “Courrier de lÉurope”, first published thirty years ago in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, these letters join with 175 letters from the first volume (previously included in EE). The total of 660 letters in this collection include a combination of letters printed in that periodical and letters from public and private collections. (In 2005, von Proschwitz published a selection of 107 of these in a French edition, entitled Lettres de Combat.)
Collectively the letters being published by EE represent the largest tranche of Beaumarchais letters available for online research; moreover, they constitute approximately one third of Beaumarchais letters published to date and over one sixth of all known Beaumarchais letters in existence.
What makes the Beaumarchais archive significant?
In the context of eighteenth-century correspondences, the Beaumarchais archive stands out for several reasons. The first is the volume of the archive. The known portion of the Beaumarchais papers is over 4,500 documents, constituting one of the largest corpora of eighteenth-century papers known. The full archive, if ever fully inventoried and edited, would run somewhere between 6,000 and 20,000 documents. At the upper range it would become among the largest known archives of personal papers of the period.
The second is geographical breadth—from Vienna to Madrid to the Netherlands to England and North America, the Beaumarchais correspondence is important because it shows how actually we limit our understanding if we focus on solely “French” or “Francophone” correspondence networks.
The third is sociological breadth—Beaumarchais as an historical figure offers us insights into the eighteenth century that stand apart from the major figures whose correspondence has been edited and studied. He was 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, and thus the network of correspondents connected him to a wider swath of eighteenth-century European and North American society than almost all personal correspondences studied to date, rivaling and perhaps exceeding the Franklin and Jefferson papers in this respect.
Editorial history of the Beaumarchais archive
The editorial history of the Beaumarchais correspondence extends over two centuries of literary and political history. Since 1809, when the first edition of Beaumarchais’s Oeuvres was published, over 1,500 letters have been edited—though most of them not with the critical apparatus of the Proschwitz letters published by EE—over the course of more than two centuries.
Nearly 500 letters were printed in partial editions of Beamarchais’ work or correspondence, from 1809 to 1929. The first edition of his complete works edited by his amanuensis, Gudin de la Brenellerie (seven volumes, 1809), included 55 letters that Gudin had transcribed. A second edition, by the journalist, historian and politician Saint-Marc de Girardin in 1837 included 53 additional letters. A collection of 29 letters from the Comedie Francaise archives were published in the Revue Retrospective (1836). In his two-volume biography, Beaumarchais et son temps (1858), Louis de Loménie, 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 Lentilhac, in his Beaumarchais et ses oeuvres (1887), included 12 partially transcribed letters not previously published. In 1890, Louis Bonneville de Marsagny published a biography of Beaumarchais’s third (and longest lasting) wife, Marie Thérèse Willermalauz, and claimed to have consulted “sa correspondance inédite” though no letters are reproduced or directly referenced.
In the early twentieth century, the first effort to produce a complete edition of the correspondence was made by Louis Thomas; however, as he explains in the preface to his edition entitled Lettres de Jeunesse (1923), his military service during the Great War put an end to his research; so in 1923 he published 167 letters from the first two decades of Beaumarchais’ adult life, some of which had been previously published. Several years later, in 1929, the eminent French literature scholar in the United States of the day, Gilbert Chinard, edited a collection of Lettres inédites de Beaumarchais consisting of 109 letters acquired by the Clements Library at the University of Michigan; these consisted of letters to his wife and daughter.
In more recent decades, over 1,000 additional items have been published, between the edition launched by Brian Morton in 1968, continued by Donald Spinelli, which added an additional 300 previously unpublished letters over four volumes of Correspondence, and then in 1990, the Proschwitz edition.
Proschwitz, a noted philologist, added to these letters the most extensive critical apparatus associated with any edition of Beaumarchais letters. He did not seek to produce a critical edition or a material bibliography of these letters, approaches that are difficult to apply to eighteenth-century correspondence in general and to the Beaumarchais archive in particular. Rather, Proschwitz in his notes emphasized the significance of these documents for our understanding of Beaumarcahis’ life and of the eighteenth century. In these letters, we see Beaumarchais not only as a playwright seeking to circumvent censorship to have Marriage de Figaro finally staged, but also as an entrepreneur, a printer, an urban property owner, an emissary, and a transatlantic merchant. Through this window we have a window on the eighteenth century that is geographically, socially, and culturally much broader and more diverse than what we generally encounter through the correspondences previously published in EE.
With the appearance of these letters and the launching of the first new projects on Beaumarchais’s correspondence in 50 years, including the effort spearheaded by Linda Gil to produce a definitive inventory with a material bibliography, and my own work to analyze the network of correspondents from the known correspondence, this publication in EE offers eighteenth-century scholars new reason to consider a longstanding, but still little understood, figure of the age.
A version of this blog post was first published on Electronic Enlightenment.