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  • Le Chevalier de Saint-George: biographie
  • Roger Little
Le Chevalier de Saint-George: biographie By Claude RibbeParis: Perrin, 2004. 222 pp. ISBN 26262-02002-7. 20€.

Saint-George was a mulâtre, or "mulatto": sterile as a mule in the contemptible contemptuous language of the latter half of the eighteenth century, the age of classification, when quadroons and octoroons were pigeon-holed and grouped as "Blacks" by "Whites" ("Caucasians" in Blumenbach's highly questionable terminology still used on US immigration forms) with all the legal consequences. "Half-breed" and "half-caste" were no better. "Mixed-race" and "biracial" may appear more acceptable, but imply acceptance of more than one human race. By and large, such natural offspring of virile adventurers, colonists, or armies of occupation coupling with local women, suffered from double jeopardy. Just occasionally, the child was recognized by the father and given double benefit. Such was Saint-George's case. Hugely talented, he was taken to Paris from his birthplace, Guadeloupe, along with his mother, and acquired the accomplishments of a gentleman to become a celebrated man about town, dashingly represented in an eponymous 1840 play by Mélesville and Beauvoir (reedited by Sylvie Chalaye, Paris: L'Harmattan, 2001).

In this third biography of the Chevalier de Saint-George in eight years, Claude Ribbe disdains to mention in his text either Emil Smidak's (Lucerne: Avenira, 1996, privately produced and very expensive) or Alain Guédé's (Arles: Actes Sud, 1999). Indeed the latter, like the earliest (by Roger de Beauvoir, Paris: Dumont, 1840), does not even figure in his bibliography. Ribbe dismisses them as "soi-disants [sic] biographes" 'so-called biographers' (125) and "auteurs peu soucieux de faire la moindre vérification aux sources manuscrites" 'authors little concerned with making the slightest check against manuscript sources' (39, n1). That is fighting talk: like the expert fencer that Joseph de Bologne de Saint-George (1745-99) was, Ribbe will have to take careful guard and watch his back. On many counts, however, his thrusts strike home. A name emerges from the variants proposed; a date of birth (correct in Smidak, but given as 1739 by Guédé) is confirmed; a clear genealogy is provided (though the nonstandard tree is less clear than it might be); many an archive, in France and Guadeloupe, has been profitably scoured; and most significant references to his colorful life as swordsman, violinist, composer, horseman, soldier, and dandy are quoted, but often with maddening imprecision, matched by a novelistic style that works of scholarship generally eschew. The result is nonetheless both readable and informative, with a notable contribution on the musical front, Saint-George's greatest claim to our attention. His known compositions are listed, along with a discography (again registering the upsurge of interest in the last few years) covering the majority of them. He was born into slavery and yet rose to move in court circles, but prejudices and restrictions (such as being prohibited by law to marry a white woman) bring into sharp focus the paradoxes of ancien régime attitudes to the "mulatto" that he was. Certainly Saint-George is interesting as the first French-speaking "black" to display his multiple talents to such a high degree, being instrumental in promoting Haydn's Paris symphonies and even furnishing Mozart with a tune (indeed he himself is often called the black Mozart), but the real interest of this study is to view late-eighteenth-century [End Page 160] society from an unusual and most revealing angle. It was a nice irony when a Paris street was recently renamed in his honor at the expense of the general who quelled the 1802 Guadeloupean uprising. In De la littérature des nègres, Abbé Grégoire recalled Saint-George as "le Voltaire de l'équitation, de l'escrime, de la musique instrumentale" 'the Voltaire of horsemanship, fencing and instrumental music' but high-mindedly considered him a fop; for Ribbe, Voltaire's color prejudice would make the reference (which he avoids) inappropriate, but it is just that kind of intellectual debate that one would like to have seen more fully teased out.

Roger Little
Trinity Collge Dublin