1It was likely in 1724 that Montesquieu was introduced by Fontenelle to the salon of Mme de Lambert where he met, among other men of letters, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688-1763), one of its members. In turn, he became one of the assiduous Tuesday guests at the Rue de Richelieu. After his long journey, making more regular sojourns in Paris, he had the opportunity to find Marivaux again in other Parisian salons, notably that of Mme de Tencin. Outside these select societies, the Académie Française was also a bond between them. Elected in 1728 thanks to the intervention of the Lambert clan, Montesquieu gave his vote to Marivaux in 1743, when from 1741 he had been attending regularly the sessions of the Company, from which he had often been absent up till then. A relationship imbued with esteem and friendship grew up between the two writers, attested by the letter from someone unknown, addressed on 12 February 1755, to Joseph de Navarre on the philosopoher’s death, where we read: “M. de Marivaux sends you his humble condolences” (Montesquieu, Œuvres complètes, André Masson dir., Paris: Nagel, 1955, t. III, p. 1568).
2Friends of Fontenelle, Montesquieu and Marivaux align themselves with the Moderns, even if Montesquieu does not espouse their excesses. They participate in the movement of new preciosity and in the spirit of baroque esthetics. Their respective works reveal the echos: Montesquieu, like Marivaux, he too a novelist, was interested in certain themes that seemed specifically Marivaldian such as love, vanity, self-esteem…, even if they are often developed in his work in an atmosphere of sensuous and affected gallantry. Intersecting influences may have played a role, as Michel Gilot suggests with respect to Marivaux’s journals to which he on occasion compares the Persian Letters. Thus, when Montesquieu evokes the merchant lady who “cajoles” the potential buyer (Letter 56), he may be remembering the Lettres sur les habitants de Paris. Inversely, the fifteenth issue of Le Spectateur français (14 March 1723), on the attachment of the French to fashion, especially with respect to hairdos, seems to refer back to Letter 97 of the Persian Letters. More generally, as Michel Gilot shows with textual evidence, correspondences are knit between certain reflections in Marivaux’s periodicals and notes in the Pensées. These may be remarks of a moral sort, considerations relative to love, observations on criticism and reading… We might also think of the esthetic reflection in the Essay on taste which, with the notions of variety, surprise, je ne sais quoi… can refer to known positions of Marivaux’s. A certain relationship of preoccupations and reactions thus exists between the two writers plunged into the same intellectual and sensorial atmosphere.
3Marivaux, moreover, in the eighth issue of Le Spectateur français (8 September 1722), cannot help saying a word about the Persian Letters, published in 1721. His judgment, quickly formed on unfinished reading, is notable for its mixed character. It begins by recognizing the author’s “great wit”, but the praise is followed by reservations: this “wit” is mainly applied to a matter that lends itself easily to it, which is religion. For in this domain, pleasantry is facile, if you are willing to break with the usual conformity: “I would wish for a mind as sharp as his to feel that there is no great merit in being cute and new on such matters and that any man who treats them with some licence can make himself look clever at little cost” (“Je voudrais qu’un esprit aussi fin que le sien eût senti qu’il n’y a pas un si grand mérite à donner du joli et du neuf sur de pareilles matières et que tout homme qui les traite avec quelque liberté peut s’y montrer spirituel à peu de frais”). He finds a slippery way to limit the criticism: he does not deny that, “among the things” he writes about, “there are some excellent ones in every way and even those where he lets himself go the most can receive a useful interpretation” (“il n’y en ait d’excellentes en tout sens et que même celles où il se joue le plus ne puissent recevoir une interprétation utile”). There remains nevertheless a risk lest this banter, these frivolous jokes, produce disastrous effects on the reader. Attached to traditional beliefs, Marivaux fears that broadly deployed irony on grave subjects may lead to moral relaxation. Taking the example of Letter 74, favorable to suicide, he offers this wry comment to the person who invokes modifications of matter by virtue of the laws of creation: “From his decisive tone, one would almost believe that he is for halves in the secret of said creation” (“De l’air décisif dont il parle, on croirait presque qu’il est entré de moitié dans le secret de cette même création”). He suggests the real reason for such audacious attitudes: “One would think he believes what he says, whereas he only says it because he enjoys producing a bold thought” (“On croirait qu’il croit ce qu’il dit, pendant qu’il ne le dit que parce qu’il se plaît à produire une idée hardie”). In Marivaux’s eyes, Montesquieu is motivated by the search for the provocative trait, an impression of insolence; he indulges in a sort of amusing and brilliant but dangerous game for a vulnerable readership. Without dissimulating the qualities of the writing nor the pleasure of reading, Marivaux tends to accuse the talented writer of imprudence. Montesquieu, for his part, was to defend himself by insisting on the very fictionality of the work, that of the Persian who is ignorant of French realities and is led to discover them little by little without grasping at first all of the connections. But while distancing himself from his character, he seems not to fault Marivaux when he recognizes: “It is true that there is some indiscretion in touching on such matters because one is not so sure of what others will think as of what he will think himself” (“Il est vrai qu’il y a quelque indiscrétion à avoir touché ces matières puisque l’on n’est pas aussi sûr de ce que peuvent penser les autres que de ce qu’on pense soi-même”, Pensées, no. 2032, “Apology of the Persian Letters).
4Montesquieu too speaks occasionally of Marivaux the writer. We have three evidences of this. One, dated 25 September 1749 (a letter to Mme Dupré de Saint-Maur), relates Vauréal’s (bishop of Rennes) reception at the Académie Française: after recognizing the merit of Fontenelle’s discourse, Montesquieu goes on: “But what really enchanted everyone was a short discourse by Marivaux which was a comparison between Racine and Corneille. Nothing could be more finely turned”:“Mais ce qui enchanta tout le monde fut un petit discours de Marivaux qui était une comparaison de Racine et de Corneille. On ne peut rien voir de plus joli”. In the Pensées, Montesquieu returns twice to Marivaux’s works. He picks up a commonplace of the time, the exhaustion of situations and characters: it would take “a new nation” to renew the comic genre, all the “good characters” of which have been taken. Thus Marivaux’s plays “are good in a more difficult way than are Molière’s”: to the latter belong “bold features, distinct traits” (“les grands traits, les traits marqués”) and to the former “finely drawn characters, ones that ordinary minds do not see” (“les caractères fins, ceux qui échappent aux esprits du commun”, Pensées, no. 287). The same homage with respect to La Mère confidente, first performed on 9 May 1735: Montesquieu rightly underscores the “admirable” moral values (Pensées, no. 950) of this play that is notable indeed for the high moral standard of the masters, the withdrawal of the servants into the background, and an atmosphere of dignity, sensitivity and delicacy.
Marivaux, Journaux et œuvres diverses, ed. Frédéric Deloffre and Michel Gilot, Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1969.
Michel Gilot, Les Journaux de Marivaux: itinéraire moral et accomplissement esthétique, Paris: Champion, 1975.
Louis Desgraves, Montesquieu: l’œuvre et la vie, Bordeaux: L’Esprit du temps, 1994.
Jean Ehrard, “Deux parallèles qui se croisent”, in Marivaux et les Lumières: l’homme de théâtre et son temps, Aix-en-Provence, Université de Provence, 1996, reprinted in Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots: Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998, p. 231-245.