In 1863, Théophile Gautier published Captain Fracasse, a swashbuckling romance set in the reign of Louis XIII of France. The novel’s hero is an impoverished nobleman who, out of love, joins a troupe of travelling actors for a life of adventure and intrigue. Now as we all know, truth can be stranger than fiction. Or should we say more fabulous, in the case of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799), an individual whose exploits, more than a century after Captain Fracasse, made him a towering figure of the Enlightenment. A man of many talents, he declared that “if time were measured by the events that fill it, I have lived two hundred years.” Dramatist and adventurer, brilliant entrepreneur and shrewd politician in a country on the brink of revolution, he was without contest a man of great wit and infinite elegance, reputedly envied by many.
But who better than Beaumarchais himself to do the honours: “What was I then? I was nothing but myself, and myself I have remained, free in the midst of fetters, calm in the greatest of dangers, making headway against all storms, directing speculations with one hand and war with the other, as lazy as an association, and always working; the object of a thousand calumnies, but happy in my home, having never belonged to any coterie, either literary, or political, or mystical, having never paid court to anyone, and yet repulsed by all.” Such eloquence should come as no surprise from a man remembered as a gifted playwright; the author, among other works, of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro (transposed into opera by Rossini and Mozart). Not that Beaumarchais’ literary verve was confined to the stage. A public person, repeatedly called upon to defend himself in court, he also distinguished himself as a formidable pamphleteer.
Despite being a virulent critic of his country's aristocracy, Beaumarchais was forced to flee France or risk the guillotine.
A young inventor
Beaumarchais could wield a sword just as skilfully as a pen, and this would take him first to Spain, to negotiate a monopoly for the transportation of African slaves to the Spanish colonies, then to England at the behest of Louis XV in an endeavour to save the honour of the king’s mistress, Comtesse du Barry. He continued to offer his services as a secret agent under Louis XVI, first to prevent publication of a lampoon that portrayed the king as impotent, and later to recover compromising documents from a certain Chevalier d’Eon. When the American rebels began their fight for independence, Beaumarchais was charged with raising a fleet that would supply them with weapons, working secretly for the French crown. But America wasn’t the only country on the eve of revolution and Beaumarchais, despite being a virulent critic of his country’s aristocracy, was forced to flee France or risk the guillotine. His grand residence close to the Bastille incensed the population, and later dealings to supply arms to the French revolutionaries ran aground. Briefly imprisoned, he took refuge in London then Hamburg, only returning to Paris in 1796, in the twilight of his life.
Yet Beaumarchais would never have known such an extraordinary existence were it not for the skills he acquired, from age thirteen, in his father’s watchmaking workshop. His aptitude for the family trade was such that in 1753, aged 21, he invented the double virgule escapement, a development of the cylinder escapement which ensured far greater accuracy at a time when watches could easily lose a full half-hour a day. When Jean-André Lepaute, watchmaker to King Louis XV, learned of this new escapement, he claimed credit for its invention himself. Lepaute, however, had underestimated the determination of the young Pierre-Augustin Caron – he took the name de Beaumarchais from the first of his three wives – whose response was a scathing letter in which he accused his rival of copying his invention. Word of their dispute reached the ears of Louis XV who, the Academy of Sciences having ruled in Caron’s favour, made him royal watchmaker. When the young man’s musical talents came to light, he was also appointed as a harp tutor to the king’s daughters. His friendship with Joseph Pâris-Duverney, a rich and influential financier, would do the rest. Accepted into the highest circles, Beaumarchais the watchmaker would find new occupations!