One of the key aspects of most narratives is the nature and expression of power. Characters are enmeshed in a web of social and political forces within which they possess greater or lesser agency. Where people exist within these power relationships and how they respond to them goes a long way to defining who they are (in the modern day we can witness this in the real-world debates that underpin identity politics). Within ‘Casanova in Paris’ there is the formal, absolute power of a monarch such as Louis XV on the one hand, in contrast to the informal and highly circumscribed power of an eighteenth-century woman such as Gabrielle on the other. This power may be exercised in ways which are legitimate or illegitimate, self-serving or self-sacrificing, violent or subtle. Any individual at some time may possess agency over others as well as being, in turn, subject to the agency of others. Louis XV, for example, was vulnerable to the manipulation and machinations of his ministers and mistresses while Gabrielle’s decisions over her own body could significantly benefit or harm the fortune of both herself and that of her family.
Although it would take a book to tease apart all the power dynamics in operation in ‘Casanova in Paris’, it is possible to give something of an overview. There are three dominant but related networks of power visibly at play. These centre on the court of Louis XV, Bechard and Casanova.
Louis XV was divinely appointed and the authority of the state resided entirely in his hands. This was the theory anyway, although the political reality was not quite so straightforward. He made the law and was, consequently, above the law. Here was the ultimate expression of formal, hierarchical power. He could select or dismiss his ministers as he wished and could imprison at will. The irony of such power, of course, was that it made him distrustful to the point of paranoia. He could never be confident of anybody’s motives and therefore the truthfulness and value of anything they said to him. Suspicion was an all-pervasive feature of the court as individuals and factions schemed for his favour and the destruction of their rivals. De Bernis had risen to power on the back of his friendship with the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and it is his ambition to cement his power at court that pulls him into one of the central conflicts of the novel.
Bechard, like de Bernis, derives his power from the king. His fanaticism, however, leads him to exploit his authority in ways which are far more violent and coercive and, ultimately, illegitimate even by the measure his own ideological rationalisations. For Bechard, people such as ‘Paul’ or Guillaime are expendable if it serves his purpose. He uses his position to tie others to him in a range of different ways: hierarchically, informally, legitimately and criminally. Thus, he is the head of a spy network, he commissions the services of independent mercenaries and he uses blackmail, threats of violence and actual violence.
Casanova’s network of power, by contrast to the two above, is overwhelmingly informal, characterised by friendship and affection. The closest he gets to a more formal, hierarchical relationship is that with de Bernis and Duverney, but even that is somewhat clandestine and arises out of his friendship with de Bernis. It is not a surprise, then, that Casanova’s network bares a strong resemblance to a family, rooted as it is in trust, cooperation, negotiation and respect. Consequently, it is not hard to assign familial roles to its various members: Casanova – father; Marie – wife; Stefano – brother; Giuseppe – son; d’Urfè – aunt.
‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is now freely available here.
27 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.
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