Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux was baptized in Paris, in the parish of Saint-Gervais, on February 8, 1688. The traditional date of his birth, February 4, is therefore probably correct. Some time between 1699 and 1702, his father, Nicolas Carlet, was made director of the Mint at Riom, the former administrative capital of Auvergne. The post brought with it a small apartment and a modest income. The father occupied this post until his death on April 14, 1719, and his widow requested and obtained a temporary authorization to continue in his place.
Little else is known of Marivaux’s childhood, including his schooling, although he said later that he had a fair knowledge of Latin and none of Greek. He was in Paris in 1710, where on November 30 he registered in the Faculty of Law as Pierre de Carlet. From 1710 to 1713, there are traces of his career at the faculty, but finally they disappear. He did not become a brilliant law student. Marivaux must have had a strong sense of his true vocation, for he was already writing voluminously. His registrations in law were very likely camouflage for his family, which probably would not have approved of his career as a writer.
Marivaux’s early works reveal him as full of ideas and projects, eager to experiment, yet still unsure of himself, his talent, his future role in the literary life of the day, or even of the name that he was to use. Le Père prudent et équitable, probably written in a week to win a bet and privately performed in Limoges, was signed M*** (Marivaux?). A young law student from Paris on holiday with a friend, Marivaux may not have cared to pose as a writer, but he must have taken satisfaction in following up his local success by having the play published.
Marivaux’s career was launched primarily with parodic and polemical novels directed against the partisans of the Ancients; he had become associated with Antoine Houdar de La Motte and Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, who were influential in favoring the Moderns. Although Marivaux’s Homère travesti: Ou, L’Illiade en vers burlesques (1716) did not amount to much, it was reviewed at length in the Nouveau Mercure and the Nouvelles littéraires. Moreover, Marivaux was introduced in the salon of Mme Lambert, among others, where he was appreciated as a brilliant conversationalist. Like his contemporary Voltaire, the young bourgeois writer of genius now believed that he would never have to practice a safe but boring career in law.
A few months after the appearance of the Homère travesti, the notorious author of twenty-nine contracted a very respectable marriage with Colombe Bologne, aged thirty-four and possessed of a substantial dowry. Although he had known other young women, Marivaux’s courtship of Colombe had been a long one, and their marriage was probably based on inclination as well as convenience.
There is some evidence that Marivaux began writing for the Théâtre Italien as early as 1717, with an edition of The Agreeable Surprise, approved for the censors by La Motte in that year but not staged until 1722, when Luigi Riccoboni’s company produced it. The Italians began to use French plays only in 1718, and Marivaux made his début with them in 1720 with L’Amour et la vérité, coauthored by the chevalier Rustaing de Saint-Jorry. Most of the text of this unsuccessful play has been lost.
More serious was Marivaux’s financial loss a few months later when the famous speculative enterprise of John Law collapsed. Exactly how much Marivaux and his wife lost or how they subsisted immediately thereafter is unknown. Legend has it that this event determined Marivaux to write for a living. This determination is unlikely, however, given not only Marivaux’s temperament but also the fact that it was rare for an author to earn much from his work. In 1720, he had won a marked success at the Hôtel de Bourgogne with a distinctively Italian play, Robin, Bachelor of Love, proving that by himself he could write the kind of play that only Riccoboni’s company could perform, and one that was worthy of their best efforts. This was a very critical time for the Italians, too, however, and in 1721 they closed the Hôtel de Bourgogne to set up at the Foire Saint-Laurent, engaging Alain-René Lesage and his collaborators in the hope of recouping their fortunes with a proven type of spectacle having wide popular appeal.
After trying his hand unsuccessfully at his first and only tragedy for the Théâtre Français, Annibal (1720), Marivaux revised The Agreeable Surprise, which was a great success as staged by the Italians in 1722. It was at this time that, with Marivaux’s assistance in interpreting the text, Silvia went from seconde to première amoureuse, and that a lasting relationship was formed between author and actress. This work not only established the nature and style of...
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