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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
Whenever, as sometimes happened, he abandoned it to pursue a tactful but aggressive courtship under the not-jealous eye of her husband, she checked him. Once he tells a story to demonstrate the force of his love. “A Beggar asked a rich Bishop for a Louis as Alms—You are mad. One does not give Louis to beggars—A crown then—No, it is too much—Then a farthing—or your blessing—My blessing! Yes, I will give it to you—No, I will not accept it, for if it were worth a farthing you would not give it to me.” “That,” he urges, “is your charity to a poor unfortunate, who formerly enjoyed affluence and who is unhappily reduced to beg Alms of you.” “You adopted me as your daughter,” she chides, “I chose you for my father: what do you expect from me? Friendship! well, I love you as a daughter should love her father … whatever you may think or say, no one in this world loves you more than I.”
Wednesdays and Saturdays, when the weather was mild and health permitted, Franklin visited the Brillon home in the afternoon, where “with her daughters, who sing prettily, and some friends who play, she kindly entertains me and my grandson with little concerts, a cup of tea, and a game of chess.” In “The Ephemera,” one of the bagatelles addressed to her, he declares that two of the solid pleasures remaining to him, an “old grey-headed” fly, are “the pleasant conversation of a few good lady ephemerae, and now and then a sweet smile and a tune from the ever amiable Brillante.”
Their affection was mutual and abiding. She maintains that her loving him tenderly is better than his loving her furiously and too much. Late in their friendship he confesses that since he must one day leave for America with no hope of seeing her again, he has thought of severing with her gradually by seeing her less and less often, but finding that this augments rather than diminishes the desire to be in her company, he would come see her that night. Well she knew, though, that she must share his heart with other women, especially with her “amiable and formidable rival,” Madame Helvétius, widow of the famous philosophe, who claimed his Saturdays the winter Madame Brillon spent at Nice.
In 1781 Franklin, anxious to strengthen the bond of friendship, anxious too for a real home, proposed a marriage between Madame Brillon’s eldest daughter, Cunegonde, and his grandson Temple, the natural son of his natural son William. Both she and her husband realized there were differences in religion and circumstance that could not be overcome, though she adds tactfully, “what it has cost us to refuse it, should assure you forever of our affection.” This rejection did not alter the affection between the two families. Two years later Cunegonde married a Monsieur Paris, and when her first child was born, Franklin shares in Madame Brillon’s happiness: “I remember that I one day met at your house four generations of your family, when your children were very young, and that I then said that I hoped to live to see the fifth. And here my prophetic wish is realized.”
“Your letter, my kind Papa,” she graciously replies, “has given me keen pleasure: but if you would give me a greater, remain in France until you see my sixth generation. I only ask you for fifteen or sixteen years: my granddaughter will be marriageable early; she is fine and strong.”
For more than half a century Franklin had been corresponding extensively, with family, friends, and the officialdom of two continents, but now when he was writing in a foreign tongue, he suddenly felt unsure of his grammar and idiom. At his request Madame Brillon obligingly corrected his mistakes, but did so sparingly: in her eyes what he called “beaucoup de très mauvanis français” only enhanced his style. It angered her to see how another, perhaps his friend Abbé de La Roche, had corrected his “Dialogue with the Gout.” “Believe me,” she advises him, “leave your works as they are, use words that say things, and laugh at grammarians, who, by their purity, weaken all your sentences.”
The wonder is that with the constant official demands on his time he was able to address as many as thirty letters to her, and four bagatelles: “The Ephemera,” “The Morals of Chess,” “The Whistle,” and “Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout.” She, having more time at her disposal, sent him more than 120 letters and three original poems. She sensed the danger of revising her own work too much. “I have corrected some faults in the fable,” she says of one of her poems; “there are many more yet to be corrected. But I fear that I might resemble the sculptor who, finding the nose on a fancied face a little too large, took away so much that no nose remained.” Grammatical roughness, an urbane tone, and frequent wit mark both sides of the correspondence, but his is decidedly the more didactic.