Magazine article The Spectator

A Yank at the Court of King Louis

Magazine article The Spectator

A Yank at the Court of King Louis

Article excerpt

DR FRANKLIN GOES TO FRANCE by Stacy Schiff Bloomsbury, £20, pp. 477, ISBN 0747569231 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

In 1967 Claude-Anne Lopez brought out a perfectly delightful book, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris. It described Benjamin Franklin's eight years as the infant United States' first ambassador to France from the slightly oblique angle of his relations with his French women friends. The book was amusing, subtle, beautifully written and, in its way, said everything that needed saying about Franklin's achievement as the architect of the alliance without which the British might well have won the war of American Independence. It enjoyed great success: The Economist urged its readers to buy it, beg it, or forget to return it.

But 40 years have passed; Stacy Schiff might well feel that a new generation would enjoy a new book on the same theme, and readers of Mon Cher Papa might well anticipate fresh pleasure in meeting Dr Franklin again. The new author might even have made some discoveries, or have something of her own to say by way of supplement to Mrs Lopez.

Unfortunately these agreeable expectations are on the whole disappointed.

Taste in books varies with time and place. Dr Franklin Goes to France is perhaps three times as long as Mon Cher Papa, but then Americans like fat books, even if they resemble over-stuffed and illpacked suitcases. And they are so used to second-rate journalism that they may even like the amiable, slack language in which Dr Franklin is written. This British reader is inclined to urge the author to buy a good dictionary, and to get into the habit of consulting it. It would teach her the true meaning of such words as 'import' (p. 20), 'wrangling (p. 33), 'equitable' (p. 46), 'dulcet' (p. 90), 'devolve' (p. 105), 'militate' (p. 124), 'prevailing' (p. 235), 'roundelay' (p. 236) and 'apse' (p. 388); and why it is infelicitous to describe Franklin's face as 'plush' (p. 21); and that a lime tree and a linden are the same thing (p. 49).

Unhappily it would take more than a dictionary to correct her grammar and syntax, and her tendency to lapse into slang; what is an ur-wowser (p. …

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