Saturday, August 31, 2013

Booth Tarkington, Monsieur Beaucaire


Opening Passage:
The Young Frenchman did very well what he had planned to do. His guess that the Duke would cheat proved good. As the unshod half-dozen figures that had been standing noiselessly in the entryway stole softly into the shadows of the chamber, he leaned across the table and smilingly plucked a card out of the big Englishman's sleeve.

Summary: Bath, England, in the eighteenth century! It was the right kind of town in the right kind of place in the right century. Queen Anne visited it on holiday in the summers of 1702 and 1703, having enjoyed a previous visit there, and a pour of visitors followed, first to be like the Queen, then afterward simply to have visited Bath. It became the resort of resorts, and the wealthy and powerful flocked there to take their ease. A fixture in the town in the first part of the century was Richard Nash, more commonly called Beau Nash, who became known as the informal Master of Ceremonies for the whole town. He was the entrance to the finest parties and the finest company; he pre-booked the tables for those who met his standards, introduced the right people to the right people, guaranteed that the young ladies would not be lacking in dancing partners, and in general was the King of Bath.

Monsieur Beaucaire is the story of a young Frenchman, Beaucaire himself, who according to his passport is a barber serving the French ambassador, and who has come to Bath to vacation. He is a bold sort, a brilliant gambler, unafraid to insert himself into practically any situation. This eventually gets him in trouble, as he is thrown out of the Pump Room by no less than Beau Nash himself. He wishes, however, to court the beautiful Lady Mary Carlisle, and to this end he manages to blackmail the card-cheating Duke of Winterset into introducing him to high society as the visiting Duke of Chateaurien -- Castle Nowhere. When Winterset protests that everyone would recognize him, we discover that Beaucaire has been going about with fake moustache and dark-haired wig to hide his smooth face and blond hair; an interesting point in itself. Can M. Beaucaire navigate English society? But of course. Can he avoid being uncovered? Of course not. But sometimes when one strips the mask from a man one finds that the man is far more than the mask.

The story is a tale of the difference between seeing a man as a name and a role and seeing him as he is in himself. M. Beaucaire teaches all of Bath a lesson -- and learns one himself.

Favorite Passage:
"Mr. Molyneux," said Lady Mary, "in spite of your discourtesy in allowing a servant to address me, I offer you a last chance to leave this room undisgraced. Will you give me your arm?"

"Pardon me, madam," said Mr. Molyneux.

Beaucaire dropped into a chair with his head bent low and his arm outstretched on the table; his eyes filled slowly in spite of himself, and two tears rolled down the young man's cheeks.

"An' live men are jus'--names!" said Monsieur Beaucaire.

Recommendation: A short and charming tale worth reading if you ever come across it.

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