June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
When Benjamin Franklin came home from France in diplomatic triumph, he left behind a lovely, highborn lady mourning the miles between them.
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.
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.
Let us now eavesdrop, first as they exchange thoughts on the gout. Since Franklin and later her husband suffered violent attacks, this was no theoretical subject, like some they chose to discuss. During a severe attack in October, 1780, Franklin received her poem, “Le Sage et la Goutte,” which he eventually had printed on his private press. The poem seems dearly to have helped inspire his famous Dialogue: in both pieces, and hers was probably written earlier, the Gout charges that the Sage eats too much, covets the ladies, no longer walks abroad, and spends his time playing chess. Franklin praises her poem but adds:
One of the personages of your fable, Gout, seems to me to reason pretty well, with the exception of the supposition that mistresses have had a share in producing this painful malady. I believe the contrary, and this is my argument. When I was a young man and enjoyed more of the favors of the sex than I do at present. I had no gout. So if the ladies of Passy had had more of that kind of Christian charity that I have so often in vain recommended to you. I should not have had the gout at all. This seems to me good logic.
She is quick to retaliate that there is no logical connection between a man’s moral condition and natural events: “THEN you could have had the gout without having deserved it, and you could have well deserved it. as I believe, and not have had it.” Several years later she asks him, heretic though he is, to pray for her gout-ridden husband. “I am vexed with Madame Gout for afflicting our friend,” he replies. Then, alluding to his Dialogue: “You know that she formerly gave me some good advice. But, unhappily lacking the energy to profit by it, I can do no more, it seems to me, than send it to our friend, to whom it might perhaps be useful.” Roguishly he concludes, “It God loves you as much as I love you, my prayers will be useless and superfluous. And heretic as I am, I do not doubt that He loves such Catholics as you.”
If she could banter about the gout, it was otherwise when her sensitive nature was hurt. What caused her perhaps the greatest pain was the knowledge that her husband was having an affair with their daughters’ governess, Mademoiselle Jupin. In agitation she writes Franklin: “ My life, my friend, is made of fine and thin stuff, that grief tears cruelly; .… cure me, or pity me, if you can do one and the other.” “To be sensible of our own faults is good,” comes his wise reply, “for it leads us to avoid them in the future: but to be too sensitive to, and afflicted by, the faults of other people is not good.” When in a more prudential mood still he suggests that “we might all draw more good from [this world] than we do and suffer less Evil, if we would but take care not to give too much for our Whistles,” she replies—and the letter exposes her overgenerous nature—that she has paid dearly for bad whistles, with her heart if not with her purse, that (for example) in loving others she has rarely received the value she gave.
In this crisis and in others, Franklin’s wisdom strengthened her in her agonized existence, and his sympathy made life endurable. Nowhere is this wisdom, which she never felt she could achieve, expressed more efficiently than in the following letter.
I think with you, that there are many hardships in life. But it seems to me that there are many more pleasures. That is why I love to live. We must not blame Providence inconsiderately. Reflect how many even of our duties it has ordained to be naturally pleasures: and that it has had the goodness, besides, to give the name of sin to several of them so that we might enjoy them the more. It is a sanguine answer to one who was melancholy by nature.
What highlights the correspondence, though, is the thrust and parry of verbal courtship. When he asks her to undertake his conversion, she finds him guilty of only one capital sin—covetousness; but, knowing his frailties, she will show mercy. “Provided he loves God, America and myself above all else, I absolve him from all his sins, present, past and future, and promise him a heaven whither I will lead him along a pathway strewn with roses.” In rapture at the prospect of being absolved of the future, he pleads guilty to coveting his neighbor’s wife but asks whether his keeping religiously the two additional Commandments he has been taught is not sufficient compensation: “The first was: Increase and multiply and replenish the earth. The twelfth is, … that you love one another.” She dare not decide the question “without consulting the neighbor whose wife you covet, because he is a far better casuist than I am; and then, too, as Bonhomme Richard would say: In weighty matters, two heads are better than one .”
During her absence at Nice his thoughts once again turn to the Commandments, only this time he is for total repeal. “I often pass before your house. It appears desolate to me. Formerly I broke the Commandment by coveting it along with my neighbor’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.”
Marriage in heaven, which she had hinted at, was a prospect so agreeable and theoretical as to call forth all their powers of wit.
In paradise [she writes] we shall be reunited, never to leave each other again! We shall there live on roasted apples only; the music will be composed of Scotch airs; all parties will be given over to chess, so that no one may be disappointed; every one will speak the same language; the English will be neither unjust nor wicked there; the women will not be coquettes, the men will be neither jealous nor too gallant; … Every day we shall love one another, in order that we may love one another still more the day after; in a word, we shall be completely happy. In the meantime let us get all the good we can out of this poor world of ours.
He is charmed with her description of paradise and her plan of living there, and wonders how they should arrange their affairs in that country.
Probably more than forty years will elapse after my arrival there before you follow me. I am a little afraid that in the course of such a long period you may forget me. I have therefore thought of proposing that you give me your word of honor not to renew there your contract with Mr. B—. I shall at the same time give you mine that I shall wait for you. But that gentleman is so good, so generous towards us, he loves you so much and we love him, that I cannot think of this proposal without some scruples of conscience. And yet the idea of an eternity in which I shall be favored with no more than permission to kiss your hands, or sometimes your cheeks, and to pass two or three hours in your sweet society on Wednesdays and Saturdays is frightful. … I shall have time, during those forty years, to practice on the armonica, and perhaps I shall play well enough to accompany you on your pianoforte. From time to time we shall have little concerts. … We shall eat apples of paradise roasted with butter and nutmeg. And we shall pity those who are not dead.
She assures him that if his “French is not very pure, it is at least very clear!” and promises to become his wife in paradise, “on condition, however, that you do not eye too many of the [heavenly] maidens while waiting for me. I want a faithful husband when I take one for eternity.” This celestial conceit was so appealing, in fact, that Franklin employed it the following year in his fruitless wooing of Madame Helvétius.
In the spring of 1782 peace negotiations got under way at the American Embassy in Paris, and Franklin seems not to have written Madame Brillon as often as she wished. From Nice came a formal complaint. She implores Justice to weigh in her “dreaded balance the reciprocal treaties between the Ambassador and the Lady whom he has abused in a cruel manner,” sets forth the facts, and concludes: “The petitioner in this cause requires that the said M. Benjamin Franklin be condemned in her favor for all expense, damage, and interest which you [Justice] shall be pleased to determine upon the stated facts.”
Prompted by this mock-complaint, he replies after the manner of the preliminary peace treaty with England, on which he was even then hard at work. You, who “would engross all my Affection, and permit me none for the other amiable Ladies of your Country,” are unjust “in your Demands, and in the open War you declare against me if I do not comply with them. Indeed it is I that have the most Reason to complain. My poor little Boy [Amor], whom you ought methinks to have cherish’d, instead of being fat and Jolly like those in your elegant Drawings, is meagre and starv’d almost to death for want of the substantial Nourishment which you his Mother inhumanly deny him, and yet would now clip his little Wings to prevent his seeking it elsewhere!”
He therefore proposes a treaty between them. “I fancy we shall neither of us get any thing by this War, and therefore as feeling my self the Weakest, I will do what indeed ought always to be done by the Wisest, be first in making the Propositions for Peace. That a Peace may be lasting, the Articles of the Treaty should be regulated upon the Principles of the most perfect Equity & Reciprocity.” Nine articles follow. “Let me know what you think of these Preliminaries,” he asks her. “To me they seem to express the true Meaning and Intention of each Party more plainly than most Treaties. … I shall insist pretty strongly on the eighth Article [‘That when he is with her, he will do what he pleases’], tho’ without much Hope of your Consent to it; and on the ninth also [‘that he will love any other Woman as far as he finds her amiable’], tho I despair of ever finding any other Woman that I could love with equal Tenderness.”
The real war between nations was over at last, and Franklin was anxious to have done with ministerial duties and go home. Not until 1785 did Congress give its consent. For Madame Brillon, who had invested the larger amount of emotional stock in their friendship, it was a painful leave-taking. “Every day of my existence, memory reminds me that a great man, a sage, once deigned to be my friend. … if it be sweet for you to recall the woman who loved you most dearly, think of me, think of all those members of my family who were and always must be your best friends.” She was happy to learn of his safe arrival at Philadelphia in September but feels keenly the distance which now separates them. “At least recall occasionally the one among your friends who loved you best, and write to her a few lines in what you call your wretched French. For my part, I shall keep you informed concerning a family you once held dear!”
His only letter to her from America, at least the only one that has survived, was prompted in part by the grief she experienced at the death of her husband and oldest grandchild. “I sympathize with you in all your Losses and Afflictions, and hope the rest of your Life will be as tranquil and free from Trouble as it had been for some Years before we parted … being now in my 83d Year, I do not expect to continue much longer a Sojourner in this World, and begin to promise myself much Gratification of my Curiosity in soon visiting some other.”
In the spring of 1789—revolution was just four months distant—she writes him for the last time. “I have given thanks to Providence, which, if it be really endowed with that justice one is accustomed to attribute to it, ought to leave you here on earth as an example to mankind and as a model of wisdom, at least to as ripe an old age as that of the patriarch Matusalem.” She asks him to pray for France at this “critical stage.”
“I revere you, honor you, love you,” she continues; “not a day passes that my heart does not draw nigh you at least in thought; not one wherein I fail to recall your friendship, so precious to me that nothing can ever rob me of it, and the memory of the days during which I enjoyed it more closely, more intimately, makes one of the bright spots of happiness in my life.” After this letter Madame Brillon passes from view; there is no record, apparently, of what happened to her and her daughters from this time on.
Franklin for his part must have been thinking especially of her when he wrote Madame Lavoisier that he could not “forget Paris, and the nine years’ happiness I enjoyed there, in the sweet society of a people whose conversation is instructive, whose manners are highly pleasing, and who, above all the nations of the world, have, in the greatest perfection, the art of making themselves beloved by strangers. And now, even in my sleep, I find, that the scenes of all my pleasant dreams are laid in that city, or in its neighbourhood.”