Friday, 13 January 2012

Despising the Bourgeoisie

One of the points I made in this post was that Dickens deliberately exaggerated the rights and wrongs of the European ancien regime, by way of adding dramatic emphasis to the ethical force of Revolution. But I happened recently to read a few things that make me wonder whether Dickens's melodrama is exaggerated at all. Here, for example, is a passage from Nancy Mitford's biography of Frederick the Great:
Frederick William [F. the Great's father] had few intimates. His only advisers were his cousin and greatest greatest friend, the Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, and General Count from Grumbkow ... The Old Dessauer was a violent and wilful man. When very young he had fallen in love with a bourgeoise, the daughter of an apothecary, murdered her fiancé, and committed the unheard-of eccentricity of marrying her. He was perfectly happy with her for more than fifty years. The Emperor legalised the marriage, a most unusual step in such a case, and the children were Princes of Anhalt-Dessau. [4-5]
Charming. Then there's Voltaire. In 1725, Voltaire (the son of a civil servant, and thoroughly middle-class) met the young French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan. The Chevalier mocked Voltaire's name, and V. demurred. Taking offence, the Chevalier had six of his men ambush Voltaire in the street, and beat him badly. Voltaire then challenged Rohan to a duel; but this challenge was considered so outrageous -- not the fact of it so much as the outrageous vector of connection it implied from commoner to aristocrat, that the Rohan family obtained a royal lettre de cachet, a penal decree signed by King Louis XV himself, that caused Voltaire to be imprisoned in the Bastille indefinitely, without a trial and without giving him an opportunity to defend himself. Rather than rot there forever, Voltaire petitioned that he be exiled to England as an alternative punishment, and the French authorities accepted. Hurrah for French justice!

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