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Meet Dr Franklin
“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature , since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do’
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
It was in France after the American Revolution had broken out that Franklin achieved more completely the new identity that was the quest of his later years. There the mellow septuagenarian, diplomat, and peacemaker carried out a game with the ladies of the salon, playing a part, ironic, detached but romantic, enjoying an amitié amoureuse with Mme. Brillon, his impressionable and neurotic neighbor in Passy, flirting in Paris with the romantically minded Comtesse d’Houdetot, and then in the rustic retreat of Auteuil falling in love with the widow of Claude Adrien Helvétius, whom he was prepared to marry had she been so inclined. In the unreal world of the salon Franklin relished the role of “papa.” Still he avoided combat or confrontation even in his flirtation. Where he scented rejection, he turned witty, ironic, and verbally sexual.
He found time, while engaged in the weighty affairs of peacemaking during the summer of 1782, to draw up a treaty of “eternal peace, friendship, and love” between himself and Mme. Brillon. Like a good draftsman, Franklin was careful to preserve his freedom of action, in this case toward other females, while at the same time insisting on his right to behave without inhibitions toward his amiable neighbor. Some months before, he wrote her: I often pass your house. It appears desolate to me. Formerly I broke the Commandment by coveting it along with my neighbour’s wife. Now I do not covet it any more, so I am less a sinner. But as to his wife I always find these Commandments inconvenient and I am sorry that they were ever made. If in your travels you happen to see the Holy Father, ask him to repeal them, as things given only to the Jews and too uncomfortable for good Christians.
Franklin met Mme. Brillon in 1777 and found her a beautiful woman in her early thirties, an accomplished musician, married to a rich and tolerant man twenty-four years her senior. To Mme. Brillon, Franklin was a father figure, while to Franklin she combined the qualities of daughter and mistress. Part tease, part prude, Mme. Brillon once remarked: “Do you know, my dear papa, that people have criticized the sweet habit I have of sitting on your lap, and your habit of soliciting from me what I always refuse?” In turn Franklin reminded her of a game of chess he had played in her bathroom while she soaked in the tub.
If Franklin was perhaps most passionately fond of Brillon, other ladies of the salon set managed to catch his eye, among them the pockmarked, cross-eyed Comtesse d’Houdetot, who made up in sex appeal what she lacked in looks. Unlike Rousseau, who cherished for the Comtesse an unrequited passion that was publicized in the posthumously printed Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloise , Franklin had a relationship with her that never seemed to border on intimacy. Contrariwise, Franklin carried on a long flirtation with the widowed Madame Helvétius. Abigail Adams, John’s strait-laced wife, was shocked at the open intimacies between the pair. Franklin complained that since he had given Madame “so many of his days,” she appeared “very ungrateful in not giving him one of her nights.” Whether in desperation or because he really felt the need to rebuild some kind of family life, he proposed to her. When she turned him down, he wrote a bagatelle recounting a conversation with Madame’s husband in the Elysian Fields as well as his own encounter with his deceased wife Deborah. He then dashed into print with the piece, an odd thing to do if he were deadly serious about the proposal. As Sainte-Beuve remarked of this episode, Franklin never allowed himself to be carried away by feeling, whether in his youth or in old age, whether in love or in religion. His romantic posture was almost ritualistic. He almost seemed relieved at the chance to convert an emotional rebuff into a literary exercise.