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A Doomed Elite on the Eve of Revolution

Shorn of their titles, wigs, and silk breeches, the last aristocrats of the Old Regime were thoroughly modern men with recognizably modern problems.

The Last Libertines, by Benedetta Craveri (New York Review Books: 2020), 616 pages.

“What do you think becomes of people when their civilization breaks up?” asks the faltering and impoverished Ashley Wilkes when Scarlett O’Hara comes upon him pathetically splitting wood after the South’s defeat in Gone With The Wind. The Italian historian Benedetta Craveri asks much the same question in her inappositely titled book, The Last Libertines, which appeared in Italy in 2016 and was published in English translation late last year.

Craveri writes about the last generation of French aristocrats who came of age before the Revolution of 1789 irrevocably changed the world they had known. Specifically, she focuses on seven noblemen situated near the summit of power under the Old Regime: the Ducs de Lauzun and Brissac; the Comtes de Narbonne, Ségur, and Vaudreuil; the Vicomte de Ségur (brother of the Comte), and the Chevalier de Boufflers. Each of Craveri’s subjects receives a chapter-length biographical treatment leading up to the revolutionary year, which found them in prime adulthood, ranging in age from their mid-30s to their early 50s. These personal vignettes are followed by a lengthy final chapter that tries to make sense of how they dealt with the furious cauldron of revolutionary events and, for those who survived, the shifting sands of their aftermath.

Casting them as “libertines” captures much of the era’s ethos, but it is certainly not unique to the late ancien régime. Libertinage reappeared in France during the late 19th- and early 20th-century Belle Époque, in the excitement of the 1920s, through the post-World War II liberation, and into the rebellious age of 1968, which calls into question the “last” of the book’s title. For the young men Craveri takes for her subjects, sex was an object as well as a facilitator. Sensual fulfillment was channeled into elaborate courtships that followed complex mores and conventions. The right marriage or liaison could advance an individual and even his entire family, or at least help secure a desirable post or backing for a foreign adventure.

The style poured into appealing to an amour usually mattered more than competence or ability. Three of the seven individuals under study had questionable paternity—Narbonne was almost certainly a natural son of King Louis XV, to take only the most extraordinary case—but no significant scandal followed from it. All of them indulged in tempestuous affairs, often while married, and were tolerated because marriage was rarely a matter of the heart and often arranged for practical reasons and untroubled by jealousy.

Craveri approaches her subjects from a personally sympathetic perspective that she does not readily disclose. Her maternal grandfather was the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, a man of immense gravitas and born to great wealth, whose principles migrated from a youthful neo-Hegelian materialism to a staunch and sometimes risky liberal anti-fascism, which he maintained despite much intimidation from Mussolini’s dictatorship. Craveri’s husband Benoît d’Aboville, a French diplomat who served as his country’s ambassador to NATO, descends from an Old Regime family of some prominence. Its pre-revolutionary exploits included military service in the American War of Independence, which exposed its members to the same ideas that some of Craveri’s libertines encountered while similarly occupied. Like them, the d’Abovilles also had to reconcile themselves to 1789 and Napoleon.

How sympathetic are Craveri’s subjects really? The effect seems unintentional, but her exhaustive depictions reveal them as more ordinary than familial ancestor worship, lionizing portraiture, and impersonal stately biographies would suggest. They were consumed by passions, roiled by insecurities, damaged by traumas, and swept along by events they could not control. Shorn of their illustrious titles, powdered wigs, and silk breeches, they were thoroughly modern men with recognizably modern problems.

The pre-revolutionary lives of these very privileged men followed a pattern so similar that their narratives are practically interchangeable. Born to grand aristocratic families that were prominent if not exactly famous, they all entered a world of tradition and splendor oiled by artifice and hypocrisy. They were well off or well connected enough to be free of material need, yet the concentration of power in the hands of the Bourbon monarchy and its slippery court life frustrated their ambitions. Finding a path to meaningful lives depended on arbitrary factors that none of them mastered without significant setbacks and crushing disappointments. Social and legal conventions confined them to pursuits in the military or civil service, with some egress into arts and letters. By turns, they chased women, devised (usually unsuccessful) military adventures and diplomatic schemes, cultivated their personal surroundings as best they could, and indulged in the pleasures of idleness.

When their world unraveled in 1789, these noblemen’s weaknesses and limitations came to the fore as readily as their strengths and aptitudes. For perhaps the first time in their lives, they had to make decisive moral choices. Some engaged with events stoically, either embracing the revolutionary government to serve what Charles de Gaulle later called a “certain idea of France,” or emigrating to lives of estrangement and uncertainty in which that idea still burned within them. The results were not always positive. The Duc de Lauzun (better known in history by his paternal title Duc de Biron, which he inherited in 1788) commanded revolutionary armies to the best of his professional ability, but still lost his head solely because of who he was. The unreconciled Comte de Vaudreuil, on the other hand, intrigued from abroad for 25 years, only returning—with great honors—after Napoleon fell. Brissac, who stood unreservedly by his king, was by then long dead, torn apart by a mob at the height of the Jacobin Terror. Narbonne, Boufflers, and the Ségurs managed to stay out of harm’s way, devoted themselves to literary or administrative matters, and survived in reduced circumstances until Napoleon decided that he needed Old Regime types to convey legitimacy, knowledge, and skill upon his showy new monarchy.

Craveri’s work is thorough, exploring voluminous texts, memoirs, letters, and other revelatory primary sources that fill 90 pages of notes. Aaron Kerner’s translation renders Craveri’s scholarly prose in a dense but readable English text, but there are some hiccups. The cities of Trèves and Anvers, for example, are invariably known in English as Trier and Antwerp. “Évêque” is French for “Bishop” and not a proper given name. “Charles Quint” sounds like an upstanding bourgeois type, but is in fact the French appellation of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. These distractions aside, one gets a well-drawn view of privileged members of a fractured society at and over the edge. Perhaps it is best read as a warning to those who, as Ashley Wilkes answers his own question, face the alternative of coming through alright or being winnowed out.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University.



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