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“We Shall Eat Apples Of Paradise…"
When Benjamin Franklin came home from France in diplomatic triumph, he left behind a lovely, highborn lady mourning the miles between them.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
You combine with the best heart, when you wish, the soundest moral teaching, a lively imagination, and that droll roguishness which shows that the wisest of men allows his wisdom to be perpetually broken against the rocks of femininity.” It is not Ben Franklin the essayist or philomath or pamphleteer that Madame d’Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy is here praising, though in these areas his accomplishment had been substantial, but Franklin the letter writer. He in turn always found her letters a delightful contrast to the written requests that endlessly beset him at the American Embassy in Paris. Between 1777 and 1789 they exchanged over 150 letters and several bagatelles and poems, all of them in French except his final letter, in which (one hastens to add) he demonstrated a wit, tact, and sympathy that equaled hers. This correspondence, more than half of it still unpublished, is now among the Franklin Papers at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
Chauncey Tinker wisely observes that “a letter is, by its very nature, not addressed to an audience, but to an individual; and as certainly as it becomes general in its appeal, it loses that intimacy of tone which is its peculiar charm.” The vitality of this correspondence between the sage American who was more than seventy and the beautiful French woman not yet forty lies in just such intimacy; its charm seems at times too fragile, as if gazing too long would dispel it altogether. An eavesdropper is persuaded that these two human beings, for all their difference in age, background, and temperament, were so nearly attuned that there sometimes occurred that almost unconscious transference of mind to mind which Dr. Johnson calls the supreme skill in letter writing.
At the end of 1776, Franklin sailed from Philadelphia, commissioned by the Congress to help negotiate a treaty of alliance with France: successful in this, he continued at Paris, serving as minister plenipotentiary even beyond the war’s end. So relentless were the demands of his post that not once in the nine years he was there did he leave the capital and its suburbs; as a consequence, he probably “saw little of France except the best of her”—his biographer James Parton is speaking—“her most enlightened men, her most pleasing women, her most pleasant places.” Throughout these years he lived at suburban Passy, “in a fine airy House upon a Hill, which has a large Garden with fine Walks in it,” where “ I have abundance of acquaintance, dine abroad six days in seven.”
Settling down in the midst of an ever-widening circle of friends, he soon felt rejuvenated; so much so that in 1780 he tells an old friend, “Being arrived at seventy [his age when he came to France], and considering that by travelling further in the same road I should probably be led to the grave, I stopped short, turned about, and walked back again: which having done these four years, you may now call me sixty-six.” In particular he was disposed, despite his uncertain French, to find stimulating the atmosphere of salons like that held by Madame Helvétius at nearby Auteuil. Rousseau has characterized salon conversation as flowing easily and naturally,
neither dull nor frivolous, full of knowledge without being pedantic, gay but not noisy, polished without affectation, gallant and not merely insipid, playful but not ambiguous. Everything is discussed in order that every one may be able to say something, but no subject is plumbed to its depth for fear of becoming tedious. It is brought up quite by the way and rapidly disposed of, but precision gives an elegance to conversation in that every one gives his opinion in as few words as possible. No one attacks another’s point of View with warmth, and the latter docs not defend it with any obstinacy. People indulge in discussion in order to enlighten themselves, but stop before it can degenerate into a dispute.
If one allows for the more clearly self-conscious posture of the French salon, this characterization goes far toward defining the special charm of the letters which passed between Franklin and Madame Brillon.
She was 36 when Franklin met her in 1777. Her marriage to a treasury official 24 years her senior, judging by the tone of her letters, was one of convenience. “I know,” she confides, “that the man to whom my fate has bound me is a worthy person; I respect him as I should and as he deserves; perhaps my capacity for affection is too great for his heart to respond to.” And then, concerned for the happiness of her daughters: “We marry a young girl whose heart overflows with youth and its burning desires, to a man in whom all such feelings are extinct. We demand of this woman a perfect propriety. My friend, that is my story and that of how many others!”
She admitted to an “excessive sensitiveness” that made her “often the victim of a too tender soul and a too lively imagination.” Her physical condition, “which a mere whiff of air upsets,” kept her to her bed for long periods, and because of it she frequently went to the country. One year she wintered at Nice, an “eternal springtime” where her health and spirits revived. But she was most at home amidst the social round at Passy: tea, music, chess, visiting and receiving friends. And now there was Franklin. Having lost her own father early in life, she begs him, “Never call me anything but ‘my daughter.’” He in his lonely widower’s existence 3,000 miles from home and family was very pleased to accept the role.