The colourful life of the Comte de Mirabeau

Honore Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau

Orator, historian, politician, spendthrift, pursuer of beautiful women – Mirabeau’s life was short but lived to the full.  He was born near Fontainbleu on 9th March 1749 with a deformed foot and an over-sized head.  His father disliked him, especially when an attack of smallpox left him with a scarred face. The young Mirabeau entered a cavalry regiment where he rather unwisely seduced the lady-friend of his colonel; as a result of this scandal, he was imprisoned in the Ile de Ré at the request of his own father.

A Controversial Marriage

Mirabeau married in Aix in 1772 in controversial circumstances.  Marie Emilie de Covet, only daughter of the Marquis de Marignane was 17 years old, very rich and very racy. A proposal of marriage from Mirabeau, 20 years her senior and reputedly ugly, was rejected.  Undeterred, he bribed her maid to leave a door open and appeared one morning on the balcony shared by Emilie’s room, clad in a dishevelled nightshirt and underpants.  Here, he chatted to passers-by and woke the Marquis who realised that his daughter’s reputation had been compromised. A few days later, the couple married at the church of Saint-Esprit in Rue Espariat.  Her furious father cut off his daughter’s money supply but this did not stop Mirabeau’s spending.

More Prison. More Seduction

He ran up enormous debts and was imprisoned in the Château d’If, the grim fortress off the coast of Marseille.  Typically, incarceration failed to suppress his spirits: he wrote ‘Essay on Despotism’ and seduced the prison cook.

Once released, he eloped abroad with the married Marquise de Monnier. Condemned to death in his absence for rapt et viol, he was caught and brought back to France in 1777. This time he was imprisoned for 5 years with, of all people, the Marquis de Sade.  He wrote the ‘Erotica Biblion’ but also spent time studying French constitutional history. Released, he used his formidable knowledge and skills of oratory to have his death sentence overturned.  His next court appearance was in Aix where he tried to have his wife return to him.  She understandably refused and enlisted top Aix barrister Portalis to plead her case.  In fact Mirabeau came close to winning but accusing her of infidelity was too much for the court and the separation was agreed.

Political Exile

Criticism of the French government necessitated another period of exile where he found yet another partner, Madame de Nehra.  And around this time, he was joined by 3-year old Jean-Marie Lucas de Montigny. The story goes that during the winter of 1784, Aix sculptor Jean Nicolas de Montigny, visited Mirabeau with the boy who Mirabeau immediately realised was his son.  Whatever the truth of this, the boy was adopted by him and joined him when, in 1785, he became an exile in England.

Mirabeau made friends in British political and literary circles.  He wrote pamphlets criticising the French monarchy and also took a keen interest in the American War of Independence. For him, it was a time of waiting and refining his political philosophy.  Meanwhile in France the situation was becoming critical.

Return to Paris

Louis XVI had incurred massive expenses through his foreign wars, bringing the country close to bankruptcy.  He agreed to representation from three estates – the aristocracy, the clergy and the ‘third estate’ or rest of the population, in an Estates General. Mirabeau returned.  He was rejected as representative for the Aix aristocracy but was chosen by the town’s third estate.  He propounded practical ideas with impassioned oratory.  Supportive of the Revolution, he was nevertheless a moderate and favoured a British-style constitutional monarchy.  His philosophy was that a government exists in order to allow the people to carry on their lives in safety and prosperity, and that for a government to be successful, it must be strong; but this strength would have to be based on the approval of the majority.

He became leader of the National Assembly but lacked consistent support in the heated, factional atmosphere of the time.  He was trying to retain the monarchy but in a new relationship of equality, with an elected body which truly represented the French people.  The King, he felt, had to recognise the profound changes that were happening and that feudalism and absolutism had disappeared.  Mirabeau himself wanted to become a minister in a British-style government but he fell foul of the Jacobins who suspected that he was too pro-monarchy.

An Early Death

Early in 1791, his health began to fail.  His debauched lifestyle had taken its toll and he deteriorated quickly. The road outside Mirabeau’s sick-room was crowded with silent onlookers; even carriages were forbidden in case they made a noise. He died on 2nd April, widely mourned.  He was buried in state at the Pantheon but his body was removed when it was found that indeed he had been having secret dealings with the king.  It was hastily reburied at midnight in the churchyard Sainte-Catherine, in the suburb Saint-Marceau, to be disturbed no further.

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