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© Patrick O'Donovan 1986–2019

'Biengamin Content: how a liberal made his name'

In his own lifetime, Benjamin Constant’s fame was equivocal. This paper will examine Constant’s reputation in the wake of his abrupt and sensational conversion to the cause of Napoleon in the 100 Days, drawing on a range of contemporary iconography and other satirical sources. I shall argue that Constant’s ambiguous reputation is to be seen as a factor in the consolidation of his identity as a political actor: the challenges to his integrity that Constant faced for the rest of his political career testify above all to his preeminence among liberal opponents of the Bourbons. I shall also consider the implications of the reception of Adolphe for Constant’s fame. On its publication in 1816, the novel immediately became an occasion of scandal on account of its problematic portrayal of private affairs. Though Constant was quick to deny that it was in any way autobiographical, the work’s impact hinges on what can be termed its complex poetics of disclosure. This effect was notably tangible in his public readings of the novel in manuscript, so much so that in this case the fame of the work and its author anticipated the stir it caused on its appearance in print. In both his political and his literary lives, then, the case of Constant points to the assumption of a certain celebrity as the condition of making one’s name.