Sunday, January 02, 2011

Book Review: "Unlikely Allies"

Joel Richard Paul's Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution (Riverhead, 2009) highlights the activities of American diplomat Silas Deane, Pierre-Augustine Caron de Beaumarchais (author of "The Barber of Seville" and "The Marriage of Figaro") and the Chevalier d'Eon (a transvestite soldier-spy). First things first: while Deane and Beaumarchais did work together in arranging the Franco-American alliance, and while d'Eon and Beaumarchais were connected in early 1770s London (when Beaumarchais negotiated on behalf of the French government to recover secret documents d'Eon had in his possession), there is no suggestion that this trio working together "saved the American Revolution." In fact, the sections on d'Eon fit very oddly with the rest of the book, and seem to have been included simply for the fact that d'Eon makes for a curious character.

So, having gotten that out of the way, let's set the subtitle aside and turn to the meat of the story, which covers Deane's involvement with Beaumarchais in order to provide much-needed funding and supplies to the American war effort. As an account of the fascinating diplomatic tangles the American commissioners (Deane, Arthur Lee, and Franklin) worked themselves into as they sought to ally the rebellious American colonies with France while fighting amongst themselves and attempting (entirely unsuccessfully) to avoid British spying, Unlikely Allies works. Paul ably recounts the rivalries between the commissioners (which ultimately led to Deane's recall by Congress) and the British infiltration of their mission (several of the secretaries were spies, including Dr. Edward Bancroft), bringing a good sense of drama to the complicated diplomatic and political wranglings which ultimately resulted in the alliance.

A few minor typographical and other errors mar the text, which otherwise (setting aside the awkward inclusion of the d'Eon sections) is very readable and captivating. The notes are not indicated in the text (and certain statements I wanted citations for didn't have them), but at least the bibliography is extensive.

Generally, an interesting look at an important and convoluted episode of Revolutionary history.