François de Chateaubriand
Translated by A. S. Kline © 2005 All Rights Reserved.
This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.
Berlin, March 1821. (Revised July 1846)
It is a
long way from Combourg to
four years have passed between the date when I wrote the facts just recounted
and that on which I resume these Memoirs.
A thousand things have happened; another man has appeared in me, the
politician: I am not much taken with him. I have defended the freedoms of
Yesterday I was at Potsdam, an ornate barracks, empty now of soldiers: I studied the imitation Julian in his imitation Athens. At Sans-Souci they showed me the table at which a great German monarch turned the Encylopedists’ maxims into little French verses; Voltaire’s room, decorated with wooden apes and parrots, the mill which he who ravaged whole provinces made a point of respecting, the tombs of the horse César and the greyhounds Diane, Amourette, Biche, Superbe and Pax. The royal infidel even took pleasure in profaning the religion of the tomb by raising mausoleums to his dogs; he had marked out a burial-place for himself, less from contempt for men, than to display his belief in nothingness.
took me to see the new palace, already decaying. In the old
one thing attracted my attention: the hands of a clock frozen at the moment
In a vault of the
I had such a need to alter the impression I had received, that I sought relief by visiting the Maison-de-Marbre. The king who had ordered its construction had addressed a few honourable words to me formerly, when, as a humble officer, I passed through his army. At least this king shared the ordinary weaknesses of humanity; commonplace, like them, he took refuge in his pleasures. Do those two skeletons go any way to explain today the difference that formerly existed between them, when one was Frederick the Great, and the other Frederick-William II? Sans-Souci and the Maison-de-Marbre are equally ruins without a master.
All in all, though the enormity of the
events of our day diminishes those of the past, though Rosbach, Lissa,
etc, etc, were only skirmishes compared with the battles of Marengo, Austerlitz,
Frederick suffers less than others when compared with the giant chained in St Helena. The
The evenings in
You had left me on the road from Combourg to Rennes: I alighted in the latter town at
the house of one of my relations. He
told me with great delight that a lady of his acquaintance, travelling to
There I was in a post-chaise, alone with a woman, in the middle of the night. How was I, who had never in my life looked at a woman without blushing, to descend from the height of my dreams to this terrifying reality? I did not know where I was; I huddled in my corner of the carriage for fear of touching Madame Rose’s dress. When she spoke to me, I stammered unable to reply. She was obliged to pay the postilion, and see to everything, since I was incapable of anything. At daybreak, she looked with fresh amazement at this booby with whom she regretted being saddled.
As soon as the local scenery began to change, and I no longer recognised the clothes and accents as those of Breton peasants, I fell into a profound depression, which increased the contempt Madame Rose had for me. I became aware of the sentiment I had inspired, and I received from this first trial in the world an impression that time has not completely effaced. I was born unsociable but unashamed; I felt the modesty of my years, but no embarrassment. When I realised that this fine aspect of my nature made me ridiculous, my unsociability turned into an insurmountable shyness. I could not speak another word: I felt I had something to hide, and this something was a virtue; I made up my mind to conceal myself in order to wear my innocence in peace.
We drew nearer
At last we entered
Berlin, March 1821.
A woman mounted a steep, dark
staircase in front of me, holding a labelled key in her hand; a Savoyard followed
me with my little trunk. Reaching the third floor, the servant opened a door;
the Savoyard placed the trunk across the arms of a chair. The servant said:
‘Does Monsieur require anything? – ‘No’, I replied. Three loud whistles were
emitted; the servant shouted: ‘I’m on my way!’ rushed out, closing the door,
and tumbled down the stairs with the Savoyard. When I found myself shut in,
alone, my heart tightened in such a strange manner I was near to taking the
road back to
A joyful feeling entered my heart: the memory of my family in the midst of an indifferent world was like balm to me. We went out. Cousin Moreau raised a storm on the subject of my wretched room, and urged my host to install me at least one floor lower down. We climbed into my brother’s carriage, and drove to the convent where Madame de Farcy lived.
Julie had been in
Lucile has left behind a poignant lamentation: ‘To the sister I no longer have’. The Abbé Carron’s admiration for Julie explains and justifies Lucile’s words. The life written by a holy priest also shows that I spoke the truth in the preface to my Génie du Christianisme, and serves as proof of certain elements of my Memoirs.
Julie an innocent gave herself to repentance; she devoted the riches won from her austerities to redeeming her brothers; and following the example of the illustrious African woman who was her patron saint, she became a martyr.
The Abbé Carron, author of the Vie des Justes, is that ecclesiastic, my compatriot, the François de Paule of the exiles, whose fame attested to by the afflicted, even cut across the fame of Bonaparte. The voice of a poor proscribed clergyman was not stifled by the noise of a Revolution that overwhelmed society; he seemed to have been brought back expressly from a foreign country to pen my sister’s virtues: he sought amongst our ruins; he discovered a victim and a forgotten tomb.
‘Shall it dare to be concerned about that body so tender, so dear; so gentle? Is no pity to be taken on that delicate complexion? On the contrary! The soul conducts itself towards the body as towards its most dangerous seducer; the soul sets out its boundaries; straightened on all sides, it can only breathe at the side of God.’
I cannot defend myself from a certain embarrassment
on finding my name, once more, in the last lines concerning Julie, traced by
the hand of the venerable historian. What am I with my frailties doing
juxtaposed with such great perfections? Have I adhered to all that my sister’s
note made me promise, the one I received during my emigration to
Julie’s fame lacks for nothing: the Abbé Carron has written her life; Lucile has mourned her death.
When I saw Julie again in
Julie was infinitely lovelier than Lucile; she had tender blue eyes and dark hair which she wore coiled or in waves. Her hands and arms, models of whiteness and form, added by their graceful movements something even more charming to her charming appearance. She was radiant, lively, and laughed often and unaffectedly, showing pearly teeth as she laughed. A host of portraits from Louis XIV’s time resembled Julie, among others those of the three Mortemarts; but she was more elegant than Madame de Montespan.
Julie received me with that tenderness
only a sister can show. I felt safe, enfolded by her arms, her ribbons, her
lace and her bouquet of roses. Nothing can replace a woman’s loyalty, delicacy
and devotion; one is neglected by brothers and friends; one is misjudged by
one’s companions; but never by one’s mother, sister or wife. When Harold was killed at the
My brother brought me back to
my hotel; he ordered my dinner, and left me. I dined alone, I went sadly to
bed. I spent my first night in
At eight the next morning, my fat cousin arrived; he was already on his
fifth or sixth errand. ‘Well, Chevalier! We will breakfast: we will dine with Pommereul, and this evening I will
take you to Madame Chastenay’s. This
seemed to be my fate, and I resigned myself. All happened according to my
cousin’s wishes. After breakfast, he proposed to show me
There were several Bretons among the guests, including the Chevalier de Guer and Pommereul. The latter was a good talker, who has since written about a number of Bonaparte’s campaigns, and whom I was destined to meet again as the Director of Censorship.
Pommereul under the Empire enjoyed some sort of reputation for his hatred of the nobility. When a gentleman was made a chamberlain, he cried out joyfully: ‘Another chamber-pot at the head of these nobles!’ And yet Pommereul claimed, with reason, to be a gentleman. He signed himself Pommereux, being descended from the Pommereux family mentioned in the letters of Madame de Sévigne.
After dinner, my brother wished to take me to the theatre, but my cousin claimed me for Madame de Chastenay, and I went with him to meet my fate.
I saw a beautiful woman, no longer in her first youth, but still capable of inspiring love. She received me with kindness, tried to put me at my ease, and asked me about my province and my regiment. I was gauche and embarrassed; I signalled to my cousin to cut short the visit. But he, without a glance my way, never stopped talking about my merits, declaring that I had written poetry at my mother’s breast, and calling on me to celebrate Madame Chastenay in verse. She freed me from this painful situation, begged my pardon that she was obliged to go out, and invited me to return to see her the following morning, in so sweet a voice that I promised to obey without a thought.
I returned the following day alone: I found her in bed in an elegantly furnished room. She told me that she was a little indisposed, and had the bad habit of rising late. I found myself, for the first time in my life, at the bedside of a woman other than my mother or sister. She had noticed my shyness the previous evening; she overcame it so completely that I dared to express myself with a kind of abandon. I forget what I said to her; but I still seem to see her look of astonishment. She stretched out a half-naked arm to me and the most beautiful hand in the world, saying with a smile: ‘We will tame you.’ I did not even kiss that lovely hand; I withdrew quite confused. I left the next day for Cambrai. Who was that lady of Chastenay? I have no idea; she passed through my life like a charming shade.
Berlin, March 1821.
The mail-coach took me to my garrison town. One of my brothers-in-law, the Vicomte de Châteaubourg, (he had married my sister Bénigne, the widow of the Comte de Québriac) had given me letters of recommendation to the officers in my regiment. The Chevalier de Guénan, a man who kept very good company, introduced me to a mess where a number of officers dined who were noted for their talents, Messieurs Achard, Des Maillis and La Martinière. The Marqis de Mortemarte was colonel of the regiment, the Comte d’Andrezel, major: I was placed under the special protection of the latter. I met both of them in later years: the former became my colleague in the Chamber of Peers; the other requested of me certain services which I was happy to render him. There is a melancholy pleasure in meeting again with those we have known at different periods of our life, and in considering the changes that have occurred in their existence and ours. Like markers left behind us, they trace the path we have followed through the desert of the past.
Joining the regiment in civilian clothes, I had donned a soldier’s garb within twenty-four hours; I felt as if I had worn it always. My uniform was blue and white, like the clothes of my vow years ago: I marched under the same colours, as a child and as a young man. I was submitted to none of the trials which the second-lieutenants were in the habit of inflicting on new recruits; I have no idea why they did not venture to indulge in their military horseplay with me. I was with the regiment scarcely a fortnight before I Was treated as an ‘old hand’. I learnt the theory and practice of fire-arms readily; I passed through the grades of corporal and sergeant to the plaudits of my instructors. My room became the meeting-place for old captains and young second-lieutenants alike: the former went over their campaigns with me; the latter confided their love-affairs.
La Martinière would seek me out to accompany him past the door of one of Cambrai’s beauties whom he adored; this occurred five or six times a day. He was very ugly and his face was pitted with pock-marks. He would tell me of his passion while drinking large glasses of red-currant syrup, which I sometimes paid for.
Everything would have been fine but for my foolish addiction to clothes; the army then affected the severity of Prussian dress: a small cap, little curls worn close to the head, a tightly tied pig-tail, and a carefully buttoned coat. It displeased me greatly; I submitted to these shackles in the morning, but in the evening, when I hoped not to be seen by my superiors, I decked myself out in a much larger hat; the barber brushed out my curls and loosened my pig-tail; I unbuttoned and turned back the facings of my coat; and in this amorous undress I would go courting on La Martinière’s behalf, under the window of his cruel Flemish lady. Then one day I came face to face with Monsieur d’Andrezel: ‘What is this, Sir?’ said the terrible major: ‘Consider yourself under arrest for three days.’ I was humiliated somewhat; but I recognised the truth of the proverb, that every evil contains some good; it delivered me from my friend’s love-affair.
These memories of the start of my career amuse me. Passing through Cambrai with the King, after the Hundred Days, I looked for the place where I once lived, and the coffee-house I used to frequent: I could not find them; everything had vanished, men and monuments.
In the same year that I was serving my
military apprenticeship at Cambrai, the
death of Frederick II
occurred: I am now ambassador to that great king’s great-nephew, and am writing this
section of my Memoirs in
Among the authentic documents that serve to guide me I find my parents’ death certificates. I record these certificates, which also in their particular way signify the death of an age, here, as a page of history.
‘Extract from the register of deaths of Combourg Parish, for 1786, in which is written what follows, folio 8, verso:
‘The body of the noble and puissant my Lord René de Chateaubriand, Knight, Count of Combourg, Lord of Gaugres, Le Plessis-l’Épine, Boulet, Malestroit en Dol, and other places, husband of the noble and puissant lady Apolline-Jeanne-Suzanne de Bedée de la Bouëtardais, Countess of Combourg, aged about sixty-nine years, who died in his Château of Combourg, on the sixth of September, at about eight in the evening, has been buried on the eighth, in the family crypt, situated in the body of our church at Combourg, in the presence of the noblemen, judicial officers and other worthy burghers undersigned. Signatories to the register: the Comte du Petitbois, de Montlouët, de Chateaudassy, Delaunay, Morault, Noury de Mauny, barrister; Hermer, prosecutor; Petit, barrister and prosecutor fiscal; Robiou, Portal, Le Douarin de Trevelec, dean of Dingé; Sévin, rector.’
In the collation issued in 1812 by Monsieur Lodin, mayor of Combourg, the nineteen words indicating titles: noble and puissant my Lord, etc, are crossed out.
‘Extract from the register of deaths for the town of Saint-Servan, first district of the department of Îlle-et-Vilaine, for Year VI of the Republic, folio 35, recto, in which is written what follows:
‘The twelfth Prairial, in year six of the French Republic, before me, Jacques Bourdasse, municipal officer for the district of Saint-Servan, elected as public official on the fourth of Floreal last, appear Jean Baslé, gardener, and Joseph Boulin, day labourer, who have attested that Apolline-Jeanne-Suzanne de Bedée, widow of René-Auguste de Chateaubriand, died at the house of citizeness Gouyon, situated at La Ballue, in that district, this day, at one hour after noon. After this declaration, of whose truth I am assured, I have drawn up the present certificate, which Jean Baslé alone has signed with me, Joseph Boulin having declared that he does not know how, on being questioned concerning this.
Written in the public office, on the said year and day. Signed Jean-Baslé and Bourdasse.’
In the first extract, the old society
endures: Monsieur de Chateaubriand is a noble
and puissant lord, etc., etc.: the witnesses are noblemen and worthy
burghers; among the signatories I find the Marquis de Montlouët, who used to
stay at the château of Combourg in the winter, the Abbé Sévin, who found it so
hard to believe I was the author of Le Génie du Christianisme,
faithful guests of my father’s even in his last abode. But my father did not
lie in his shroud for long: he was thrown out of it, when the
In my mother’s death certificate, the globe turns on another axis; a new world, a new era; the computation of the years and even the names of the months have altered. Madame de Chateaubriand is merely a poor woman who dies in the house of Citizeness Gouyon; a gardener, and a day-labourer who cannot sign his name, are the sole witnesses to my mother’s death: no relatives or friends; no funeral ceremony; the only bystander, the Revolution. (My nephew according to the Breton manner, Fréderic de Chateaubriand, son of my cousin Armand, bought La Ballue, where my mother died.)
Berlin, March 1821.
I mourned Monsieur de Chateaubriand: his death showed me his worth more clearly; I remembered neither his severities nor his weaknesses. I seemed to see him still, walking of an evening in the Great Hall of Combourg; I was moved by thoughts of those family scenes. If my father’s affection for me suffered from the rigidity of his character, it was none the less deep. The fierce Marshal de Montluc, who, rendered nose-less by dreadful wounds, was reduced to hiding the horror of his glory under a piece of shroud, that man of bloodshed, reproached himself for his harshness towards a son he had lost.
‘That poor lad,’ he said, ‘never saw anything of me but a grim and scornful countenance; he has died in the belief that I could neither love him nor estimate him at his proper worth. For whom was I saving the singular affection I felt for him in my soul? Was it not he who should have had all the pleasure and the obligation? I was constrained and tormented to wear that false mask, and thereby lost the pleasure of his conversation, and his affection, also, since he cannot have felt anything but cool towards me, having never received anything from me but harshness, nor experienced anything but a tyrannical manner.’
was never cool towards my father,
and I have no doubt that, despite his tyrannical
manner, he loved me tenderly: he would have grieved for me, I am sure, if
I share Monsieur de Chateaubriand’s sentiments concerning literary and other reputations, but for different reasons to his. I don’t know in history of a fame that tempts me: if I had to stoop to pick up at my feet and to my profit the greatest glory in the world, I would not weary myself doing so. If I had moulded my own clay, perhaps I would have created myself as a woman, for love of them; or if I had created myself as a man, I would have endowed myself with beauty above all; then, as a precaution against ennui, my relentless enemy, it would have suited me to be a great artist, but an unknown one, only employing my talent for the benefit of my solitude. In life, weighed by its light weight, measured by its short measure, stripped of all deception, there are only two true things: religion coupled with intelligence, love coupled with youth, that is to say the future and the present: the rest is not worth the trouble.
With my father’s death, the first act of my life ended: the paternal halls became empty; I pitied them, as if they were capable of feeling solitude and abandonment. Henceforth I was independent and master of my fortune: the freedom scared me. What should I do with it? To whom should I give it? I mistrusted my powers; I shrank from myself.
Berlin, March 1821.
I was given a furlough. Monsieur d’Andrezel, appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of
the Picardy Regiment, was leaving Cambrai:
I acted as his courier. I passed through Paris, where I did not wish to stop
for even a quarter of an hour; I saw the moors of my Brittany again with more
joy than a Neapolitan banished to our climes would look once more on the shores
of Portici, the fields of Sorrento. My family gathered at Combourg; we divided the inheritance; that
done we dispersed like birds leaving the paternal nest. My brother, who had arrived
my eldest sister’s chateau, seven miles from Fougères,
is pleasantly situated between two lakes among woodland, rocks and meadows. I
lived there tranquilly for a few months; a letter from
On the point of entering the service, and marrying Mademoiselle de Rosanbo, my brother had not yet abandoned the magistrate’s long robe; for this reason he was not entitled to ride in the royal coaches. His relentless ambition urged on him the idea of obtaining for me the enjoyment of Court honours, in order to prepare the way more readily for his own elevation. Our proofs of nobility had been drafted for Lucile, when she was admitted to the Chapter of L’Argentière; so that all was prepared: the Marshal de Duras would act as my sponsor. My brother wrote to tell me I was on the road to fortune; that I had already been granted the rank of cavalry captain, an honorary, courtesy ranking; that it would be an easy matter next to have me admitted to the Order of Malta, by means of which I would enjoy rich benefices.
This letter struck me like a
thunderbolt: to return to
My first instinct was to reply to my brother that being the eldest it was for him to uphold his name; that, as for me, an obscure Breton younger son, I would not resign from the service, because there was a possibility of war; but that if the king needed a soldier for his army, he did not need a poor gentleman at his Court.
I lost no time in reading this romantic reply to Madame de Marigny, who uttered piercing cries; Madame de Farcy was sent for, who mocked me; Lucile would have genuinely supported me, but she dare not oppose her sisters. They snatched my letter away, and weak as always where I am concerned, I wrote to my brother that I was ready to go.
And so I went; I went to be presented at the first Court of Europe, to commence life in the most brilliant manner, and I had the air of a man being dragged to the galleys, or on whom a sentence of death is about to be pronounced.
Berlin, March 1821.
I entered Paris by the same route I had followed the first time; I went to the same hotel, in the Rue du Mail: it was the only one I knew. I was lodged near my old room, but in a slightly larger apartment overlooking the street.
My brother, either because he
was embarrassed by my manners, or because he took pity on my shyness, did not
take me into society and did not force me to make anyone’s acquaintance. He
lived in the Rue des Fossés-Montmartre; I would go there to dine with him every
day at ; we parted afterwards
and did not meet again until the next day. My fat cousin Moreau was no longer in
Autumn commenced. I rose at six; I went to the riding-school; I breakfasted. Fortunately I had a passion for Greek at that time: I translated the Odyssey and the Cyropaedia until two, interspersing my labours with historical studies. At two I dressed and went to my brother’s; he would ask me what I had been doing; I replied: ‘Nothing.’ He shrugged his shoulders and turned his back on me.
One day there was a noise outside, my brother ran to the window, and called me over: I refused to quit the armchair in which I was sprawling at the back of the room. My poor brother prophesied that I would die unknown, useless to myself or my family.
At four, I returned to the hotel: I
sat at my casement. Two young girls of fifteen or sixteen would come and sketch
at that hour at the window of a house opposite, across the street. They had
noticed my punctuality, as I had theirs. From time to time they raised their
heads to look at their neighbour: they were my only company in
At nightfall I went to some play or other: the desert of the crowd pleased me, though it always cost me a little effort to buy my ticket at the door and mix with mankind. I revised my idea of the theatre formed in Saint-Malo. I saw Madame Saint-Huberty in the role of Armida, I felt there had been something lacking in the sorceress of my imagination. When I failed to imprison myself in the Opera House or the Français, I would wander from street to street or along the embankments until ten or twelve at night. I cannot see the row of streetlamps from the Place Louis XV to the Barrière des Bons-Hommes, to this day, without remembering the agonies I went through as I took that route to reach Versailles for my presentation.
Returning to my lodgings, I spent part of the night with my face turned to the fire, which spoke not a word to me: I had not, as the Persians have, a rich enough imagination to liken the flame to an anemone, and its embers to a pomegranate. I heard the carriages coming and going and passing each other; their distant rumble was like the murmur of the sea on my Breton shores, or the wind in my woods at Combourg. These worldly noises which recalled those of solitude woke my regrets; I called to mind my old malady, whereby my imagination easily invented the tale of those whom the vehicles carried: I saw radiant salons, balls, love-affairs, conquests. Soon, falling back upon myself, I found myself once more abandoned to a hotel, gazing at the world through the window, and hearing it in the echoes of my abode.
Rousseau thinks he owes to his sincerity, as to the education of mankind, the confession of his life’s dubious pleasures; he even supposes that he is being interrogated gravely and asked for an account of his sins with dangerous women, the donne pericolanti, of Venice. If I had whored among the Parisian courtesans, I would not have felt obliged to tell posterity about it: but I was too shy on the one hand, too exalted on the other, to allow myself to be seduced by prostitutes. When I met a crowd of those wretched women accosting passers-by in order to drag them upstairs, as Saint-Cloud cabmen try to entice travellers into their cabs, I was seized by horror and disgust. The pleasures of adventure would not have suited me as in times past.
In the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an imperfect civilisation, superstitious beliefs, alien and semi-barbarous customs, are met with everywhere in story: the characters are noble, imagination powerful, existence secret and mysterious. At night, round the high walls of cemeteries and convents, beneath the deserted town ramparts, in the channels and ditches of the market-places, at the edges of fenced areas, in the narrow noiseless streets, where thieves and assassins set up ambushes, where meetings took place now by the light of torches, now among dense shadows, one sought out the rendezvous appointed by some Héloïse at peril of one’s life. To give oneself over to disorder, it is necessary to truly love: to violate the common morality, it is necessary to make great sacrifices. It is not merely a question of confronting chance perils, and braving the blade of the law, but one is required to conquer in oneself the influence of customary habit, family authority; the tyranny of domestic custom, the opposition of one’s conscience, the terrors and obligations of a Christian. All these obstacles increase the energy of the passions.
In 1788 I would not have followed a starving wretch who tried to drag me into her hovel under the watching eye of the police; while in 1606 I would probably have pursued to the end such an adventure as Bassompierre tells so well.
‘For five or six months,’ the Marshal writes, ‘every time I crossed the Petit-Point (since at that time the Pont-Neuf had not yet been built) a lovely woman, a laundry girl at the sign of the Two Angels, made me a deep curtsey and followed me with her eyes as long as she could; and as I was wary of her actions, I glanced at her too and saluted her with care.
It so happened that whenever I arrived in Paris from Fontainebleau, crossing the Petit-Pont, as soon as she saw me coming, she would stand in the entrance to her shop, and say, as I passed: “Monsieur, I am your servant.” I returned her greeting, and glancing back from time to time, I saw that she followed me with her eyes as long as she could.’
Bassompierre obtained an assignation: ‘I found there,’ he says, ‘a very lovely girl, of twenty years of age, her hair arranged for bed, clothed in nothing but a very thin chemise and a little skirt of green material, slippers on her feet, and her robe round her. She pleased me greatly. I asked her if I might see her again. “If you wish to see me again,” she said, “it shall be at my aunt’s house, she lives in the Rue Bourg-l’Abbé, close to Les Halles, near to the Rue aux Ours, behind the third door towards the Rue Saint-Martin; I will wait for you there from six till midnight, or even later; I will leave the door unlocked. At the entrance there is a little path you must pass quickly, since my aunt’s room leads off it, and you will find a stair that will take you to the second floor.” I arrived at ten, and found the door she had signified to me, with a bright light shining, not only on the second floor, but the third and first too; but the door was locked. I knocked to warn her of my arrival; but I heard a man’s voice demanding who I was. I had returned to the Rue aux Ours, and was returning a second time, when I found the door open, and climbed to the second floor, where I found that the light came from a bed of straw that had been set alight, and that there were two naked bodies laid out on a table in the room. Then I retired, completely dumbfounded, and in leaving encountered the crows (buriers of the dead) who asked me what I wanted; I, to push them aside, took my sword in hand, and ignoring them, returned to my lodgings, somewhat disturbed by the unexpected sight.’
I went in turn to find the address Bassompiere had given, two hundred and forty years later. I crossed the Petit-Pont, traversed Les Halles, and followed the Rue Saint-Denis to the Rue aux Ours on the right; the first street on the left after the Rue aux Ours is the Rue Bourg-l’Abbé. Its sign, blackened as if by time and flames, inspired me with hope. I found the third little door towards the Rue Saint Martin, to that extent the historian’s information was correct. There, unfortunately, the two and a half centuries that I thought still cloaked the street, vanished. The façade of the house was modern; no light shone from the first, second or third floor. In the attic windows, under the roof, a tangle of nasturtiums and sweet-peas flowered: on the ground floor a hairdresser’s salon offered a host of wigs, displayed behind the glass.
Disappointed, I entered this Museum of Éponine: since the Roman conquest, the Gauls have always sold their blonde tresses to those with less favoured heads: my Breton compatriots still cut their hair on certain feast days, and barter their natural covering for an Indian handkerchief. Addressing myself to the hairdresser, who was drawing a wig over an iron comb: ‘Monsieur, have you purchased the hair of a young laundry-girl, who lives at the sign of the Two Angels, near the Petit-Pont?’ He stopped, amazed, unable to say yes or no. I retired, with a thousand apologies, through a labyrinth of toupees.
I wandered afterwards from door to door; no twenty-year old washerwoman made me a deep curtsey; no young girl, candid, selfless, passionate, her hair arranged for bed, clothed in nothing but a very thin chemise and a little skirt of green material, slippers on her feet, and her robe round her. A grumpy old woman, ready to rejoin her teeth in the tomb, decided to beat me with her crutch: perhaps it was the aunt of that rendezvous.
What a lovely story that story of Bassompierre’s! It helps if one understands one of the reasons why he was loved so resolutely. At that time, the French were still divided into two distinct classes, one dominant, the other subservient. The laundry-girl clasped Bassompierre in her arms, as if he were a demi-god descending to the breast of a slave: he gave her the illusion of glory, and French girls, alone among women, are capable of being intoxicated by that illusion.
But who can reveal the unknown cause
of the catastrophe to us? Was it that kind little working class girl of the Two
Angels whose body lay on the table with some other? Whose was the other corpse?
Her husband’s or the man whose voice Bassompierre heard? Did plague (since
there was plague in
You may admire too the chastity and self-restraint of my youthful days in Paris: in that capital, it would have been permissible for me to have surrendered myself to my every whim, as in the Abbey of Thélème, where everyone did as he wished; nevertheless I did not abuse my independence: I only had commerce with a two hundred and sixteen year old courtesan, loved long ago by a Marshal of France, the rival of the Béarnais in the matter of Mademoiselle de Montmorency, and lover of Mademoiselle d’Entragues, sister of the Marquise de Verneuil, who spoke so ill of Henri IV. Louis XVI who I was going to meet, would not have suspected my secret connection with his family.
Berlin, March 1821.
The dreaded day arrived; I was forced to set out for Versailles, more dead than alive. My brother took me there the day before my presentation and introduced me to Marshal de Duras, a worthy gentleman with a mind so ordinary that it cast something of the commonplace over his fine manners: nevertheless this good Marshal scared me terribly.
Next morning, I went alone to the
palace. One has seen nothing, if one has not seen the pomp of
Things went well so long as I only had to pass through the guardrooms: military display has always pleased me and never overawed me. But when I entered the Oeuil-de-Boeuf, the ante-chamber to the Great Hall, and found myself among the courtiers, my agony began. They gazed at me; I heard them ask who I was. One must remember the ancient prestige of royalty, to realise the importance of a presentation in those days. A mysterious sense of destiny clung to the debutant; he was spared the patronising contempt, coupled with extreme politeness, which made up the inimitable manners of the grandee. Who could tell whether this debutant might not become the master’s favourite. One respected in him the future familiarity with which he might be honoured. Today we rush to the palace with even more enthusiasm than before, and curiously, without illusions: a courtier reduced to living on truths is not far from death by hunger.
When the King’s levee was announced, those who had not been presented withdrew; I felt a moment of vanity: I was not proud of remaining, but would have felt humiliated at having to leave. The door of the King’s bed-chamber opened: I saw the King, in accord with custom, complete his toilette that is to say he took his hat from the hands of the first gentleman in waiting. The King passed on his way to Mass; I bowed, Marshal de Duras presented me: ‘Sire, the Chevalier de Chateaubriand.’ The King looked at me, returned my bow, hesitated, and appeared as if he wished to stop and say a word to me. I would have replied with a calm countenance: my shyness had vanished. To speak to the commander of the Army, the Head of State seemed simple enough to me, without my being able to explain why. The King more embarrassed than I was, finding nothing to say to me, passed on. The vanity of human destiny! This sovereign whom I saw for the first time, this monarch so powerful was Louis XVI six years from the scaffold! And this new courtier at whom he scarcely glanced, having been presented on proof of nobility to the grandeur of Saint Louis’ heir, would one day, charged with separating remains from remains, be presented on proof of fidelity to his dust! A twofold mark of respect to the twofold royalty of the sceptre and the palm! Louis XVI might have answered his judges as Christ did the Jews: ‘Many good works I have showed you’…‘for which of those works do you stone me?’
We hurried to the gallery to see the Queen pass on her return from the chapel. She soon appeared with a glittering and crowded retinue; she made us a stately curtsey; she seemed enchanted with life. And those lovely hands which bore then the sceptre of so many kings with so much grace, were destined, before being bound by the executioner, to mend the rags of the widow imprisoned in the Conciergerie!
Though my brother had obtained a
concession from me, it was not in his power to make me pursue it further. He
begged me in vain to remain at
The Duc de Coigny informed me that I was to hunt with the
King in the forest of Saint-Germain. Early in the morning I headed for my
torment, dressed as a debutant in a grey coat, red jacket and breeches, lace-topped
riding boots, a hunting knife at my side, and a little gold-laced French hat.
There were four of us debutants at the
The guard beat the salute: at the
voice of command, they presented arms. There was a shout of: ‘The King!’ The
King appeared, and entered his carriage: we rode in the carriages behind. It was a far cry from this expedition and hunt
with the King of France, to my hunting trips on the Breton moors, and an even
further cry to my hunting trips with the savages of
We reached the rallying-point, where a number of saddle horses, held in hand under the trees, showed their impatience. The carriages with their guards drawn up in the forest; the groups of men and women; the packs barely retrained by the huntsmen; the hounds barking, horses neighing, the sound of the horns, made a very lively picture. The hunts of our kings recalled both the ancient and new customs of the monarchy, the rough pastimes of Clodion, Chilpéric, and Dagobert, the elegant enjoyments of François I, Henri IV, and Louis XIV.
I was too full of my reading not see everywhere Comtesses de Chateaubriand, Duchesses d’Etampes, Gabrielles d’Estrées, La Vallières, and Montespans. My imagination seized on the historic aspect of this hunt, and I felt at ease; besides I was in a forest, I was at home.
Descending from the carriage, I gave my ticket to the huntsman. A mare called L’Heureuse had been chosen for me, a swift creature, but hard-mouthed, skittish and capricious; a fair enough likeness of my fate, which never ceases to set back its ears. The King having mounted departed; the hunt followed, taking different routes. I was left behind, struggling with L’Heureuse who would not let her new master straddle her; however, in the end, I did manage to leap on her back: the hunt was already far off.
At first I mastered L’Heureuse well enough; forced to shorten her pace, she bowed her neck, shook her bit white with foam, and bounded along sideways; but once she neared the scene of the action, there was no holding her. She stretched out her head, forcing my hand down to her neck, and galloped straight into a knot of hunters, sweeping aside all in her way, and stopping only when she collided with the mount of a woman whom she almost knocked to the ground, in the midst of shouts of laughter from some, cries of fear from others. I have tried in vain today to remember the name of the woman, who accepted my apology politely. Nothing else was spoken of but the debutant’s adventure.
I had not reached the end of my trials. About half an hour after my mishap, I was riding across a lengthy clearing in a deserted part of the woods: there was a summerhouse at the end: there I began to think about these palaces scattered about the Crown forests, in memory of the long-haired kings and their mysterious pleasures: a shot rang out; L’Heureuse veered sharply, plunged head first into a thicket, and carried me to the very spot where the roe-buck had just been killed: the King appeared.
Then I remembered, too late, the Duc de Coigny’s warning: the wretched Heureuse had done for me. I leapt to the ground, pushing my mare back with one hand and sweeping my hat off with the other. The king stared; he felt he should speak; instead of being angered, he said in a good-natured tone, and with a loud laugh: ‘He did not hold out long.’ That was the only word I ever had from Louis XVI. People arrived on every side; they were amazed to find me talking with the King. The debutant Chateaubriand made a noise with his two adventures; but as has always happened since, he did not know how to profit from his good or bad luck.
The King brought three other roe-bucks to bay. Debutants were only allowed to pursue the first animal, so I went back to Le Val to wait with my companions for the hunt to return.
The King rode back to Le Val; he was
cheerful and talked of the incidents during the chase. We took the road for Versailles. There was a fresh
disappointment for my brother:
instead of going off to dress, in order to attend the un-booting, a moment of
triumph and favour, I threw myself into my carriage, and returned to
Content with having made his name known,
and hoping one day to bring to maturity by means of his own presentation what
had proved abortive in mine, he did not oppose the departure of so eccentric a
brother. (The Mémorial historique de la
Noblesse has published an unedited document annotated in the King’s hand,
taken from the Royal archives, section
historique, register M813, and
Such was my first view of Town and Court. Society seemed even more odious than I had imagined; but though it scared me it did not discourage me; I felt, confusedly, that I was superior to what I had seen. I took an unconquerable dislike to the Court; this dislike, or rather contempt, which I have been unable to hide, will prevent my succeeding, or bring about my fall at the very summit of my career
As for the rest, if I judged the world
without knowing it, the world, in its turn, ignored me. No one imagined on my
debut what I might achieve, and no one was any the wiser when I returned to
To have done with the Court, I should
say that having revisited
Good for anything on others behalf, good for nothing where I am concerned: there you have me.
Paris, June 1821.
All that has been written so far of
this fourth book was written in
The new solitude I entered into, in
At my sisters’ homes, the province
gathered in the midst of the fields: neighbours danced at neighbours’ houses,
or put on plays in which I occasionally acted badly. In winter one suffered the
small town society of Fougères, with its
balls, assemblies, and dinners, and I could not live forgotten, as in
On the other hand, I had not viewed the Army and the Court without a change taking place in my ideas: in spite of my natural inclinations, something in me, rebelling against obscurity, urged me to quit the shadows. Julie detested the provinces: while the instinct of genius and beauty impelled Lucile towards a wider stage.
Thus I experienced a feeling of dissatisfaction with my existence which informed me that this existence was not my destiny.
Nevertheless, I still loved the country, and that around Marigny was delightful. (Marigny has changed greatly since the time when my sister lived there. It was sold, and now belongs to the Pommereuls, who have rebuilt and embellished it, significantly.) My regiment had changed quarters: the first battalion was stationed at Le Havre, the second at Dieppe: I rejoined the latter: my presentation made me a personage. I acquired a taste for my profession; I worked at drill; I was put in charge of raw recruits whom I exercised on the pebbly beach: that sea has formed the background to almost all the scenes of my life.
La Martinière occupied himself at
Dieppe, with neither his namesake Lamartinière,
nor with Le Père Simon, who wrote
opposing Bossuet, Port-Royal and the Benedictines, nor with the
anatomist Pecquet, whom Madame de Sévigné called Little Pecquet; but La
Martinière was in love in Dieppe as in Cambrai:
he languished at the feet of a formidable lady of Normandy, whose headdress and
coiffure were three feet high. She was not young: by a singular coincidence she
was named Cauchie, apparently a grand-daughter of that Anne Cauchie of
It was in 1647 that Anne of Austria, looking as I did at the sea through the window of her room, enjoyed watching fire-ships consumed for her diversion. She allowed the people who had remained faithful to Henri IV to guard the young Louis XIV; she blessed them endlessly, despite their vile Norman language.
One found again at
I returned to Fougères on six months’ leave. There, a noble spinster reigned, named Mademoiselle de La Belinaye, the aunt of that Comtesse de Trojolif, of whom I have spoken. A pleasant but ugly sister of an officer in the Condé Regiment attracted my attention: I would not have been bold enough to raise my eyes to beauty; it was only in the presence of a woman’s imperfections that I dared to venture a respectful homage.
Madame de Farcy, always ailing, finally
resolved to leave
My brother had married: he was living at the house of his father-in-law, Président de Rosanbo, in the Rue de Bondi. We arranged to settle in the neighbourhood: through the good offices of Monsieur Delisle de Sales, living in the Saint-Lazare villas at the top of the Faubourg Saint-Denis, we secured an apartment in these same villas.
Paris, June 1821.
Madame de Farcy was acquainted, I know
not how, with Deslisle de Sales,
who had once been imprisoned at Vincennes
for philosophical inanities. At that time, one became an important celebrity
when one had scrawled a few lines of prose or inserted a quatrain in the Almanach
des Muses. Delisle de Sales, a man of extreme kindness, a cordial
mediocrity, had great mental flexibility, and let the years roll by him; this
old man had employed his works to collect a fine library which he leant out to
strangers and which no one in Paris read. Each year, in spring, he replenished
his ideas in
If I have spent too much time on my account of this worthy man of the Saint-Lazare villas, it is because he was the first literary man I met: he introduced me to the society of others.
The presence of my two sisters rendered
my stay in
Son of a head keeper of lakes and
forests at Rheims, Flins education had been
severely neglected; for all that he was a man of wit and occasionally talent.
No one fatter could be imagined: short and corpulent, with large protruding
eyes, tousled hair, blackened teeth, and despite all that a not ignoble air. His
mode of life, which was that of almost all the men of letters of
Flins lived in an apartment on the Rue Mazarine, quite near Laharpe, who lived in the Rue Guénégaud. Two Savoyards, dressed as lackeys by virtue of their silk livery, served him: in the evenings they followed him about, and they introduced visitors to his house in the mornings. Regularly Flins attended the Théâtre-Français, then in the Place à l’Odéon, and excellent above all for comedy. Brizard was nearing the end of his career; Talma was commencing his, Larive, Saint-Phal, Fleury, Molé, Dazincourt, Dugazon, Grandmesnil, Mesdames Contat, Saint-Val, Desgarcins, Olivier, were at the height of their powers, in the wings was Mademoiselle Mars, daughter of Monvel, ready to make her debut at the Montansier Theatre. Actresses gave their patronage to authors and sometimes made their fortune for them.
Flins, whose allowance from his family was only modest, lived on credit. When Parliament was not sitting, he pawned his Savoyards’ liveries, his two watches, his rings and his linen, paid what he must with the loan, and left for Rheims, stayed there for three months, returned to Paris, redeemed, with the money his father had given him, what he had deposited at the Mont-de-Piété, and recommenced the circle of his life, always cheerful and received everywhere.
Paris, June 1821.
During the two years which passed
between establishing myself in
I found quite a young man, dressed in
very good taste, tall, thin, his face marked by smallpox. He returned my visit;
I presented him to my sisters. He had little liking for society and he was soon
driven from it by his politics: he was then of the ‘old’ party. I have never
met a writer who conformed more closely to his work; a poet and a Creole, he
only lacked the skies of
‘Let our life so fortunate and happy
Flow in secret ’neath the wings of love,
Akin to a barely murmuring stream
Constraining its waves within its bed,
That softly seeks the leaves’ shade overhead,
And dare not show itself to all the scene.’
It was the impossibility of escaping from his indolence that turned the Chevalier de Parny from furious aristocrat to wretched revolutionary, attacking persecuted religion and priests on the scaffold, purchasing his peace at any price, and lending to the Muse that sang of Eléonore the language of those places where Camille Desmoulins went to bargain for love.
The author of the Histoire de la litérature italienne, who wormed his way into the Revolution as a follower of Chamfort, met us through that cousinship that all Bretons share. Guinguené existed in the world on the reputation of a graceful enough piece of verse that was worth a minor appointment in Monsieur de Necker’s office to him; from there the piece assured his entry into the Office of Public Finance. I do not know who disputed with Ginguené his famous title, the Confession de Zulmé; but in effect it belonged to him.
The poet from Rennes was familiar with music and composed ballades. Humble as he was, we saw his pride grow, as he clung to someone well-known. Close to the time when the States-General were convened, Chamfort employed him to scribble articles for the journals, and speeches for the clubs; he became haughty. At the first Festival of the Federation he said: ‘What a lovely celebration! To shed more light we should burn four aristocrats at the four corners of the altar.’ He lacked originality in his wish; long before him, the Leaguer, Louis Dorleans, wrote in his Banquet du comte d’Arête: ‘that we must tie protestant ministers like faggots to the branches of the bonfire of Saint-Jean, and put Henry IV in the barrel where they put the cats.’
Ginguené had prior knowledge of the revolutionary atrocities. Madame Ginguené warned my sisters and my wife of the massacre which would take place at the Carmes, and gave them refuge: they were living in the Cul-de-sac Férou, near the place where throats were cut.
After the Terror, Ginguené became
virtually the controller of public education; it was then that he sang l’Arbre de la liberté (The Tree of Liberty)
to the crowd in the Cadran-Bleu restaurant, to the tune of; ‘Je l’ai planté, je l’ai vu naître’(I planted it, I have seen its birth.)
One judges him to have admired philosophy too much to be an ambassador to one
of those kings they deposed. He wrote from
Ginguené had a friend, the poet Lebrun. Ginguené protected Lebrun, as a man of talent who knows society protects the simplicity of a man of genius; Lebrun in turn shed his rays on Ginguené’s heights. Nothing was more comical than the role of those two accomplices, providing, by means of genteel exchange, all the services that two superior individuals might render in diverse genres.
Lebrun was quite simply an artificial Empire man; his wit was as cold as his enthusiasms were frozen. His Parnassus, an upper room in the Rue Montmartre, offered as its only furniture books piled haphazardly on the floor, a bed made of webbing whose curtains, formed from two dirty sheets, flapped across a rail of rusty iron, and half a water jug resting against an armchair without stuffing. It was not that Lebrun was financially embarrassed, but he was miserly and devoted to loose-living women.
At Monsieur de Vaudreuil’s classical suppers, he played the role of Pindar. Among his lyric poems, one finds vigorous and elegant verses, as in the ode on the ship Le Vengeur and his ode on Les Environs de Paris. His elegies emerged from his brain, rarely from his soul; he had a studied rather than a natural originality; he only created by virtue of artistic strength; he exercised himself in perverting the sense of words and combining them in monstrous alliances. Lebrun’s only true talent was for satire; his epistle on La bonne et la mauvaise plaisanterie has enjoyed well-merited renown. Some of his epigrams are worthy of comparing with those of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau; Laharpe influenced him particularly. One must also do him the justice to say that he remained independent during Bonaparte’s time, and there are some blood-stained verses of his, written in opposition to that oppressor of our freedoms.
But, without question, the testiest
man of letters I met in
I did not meet l’Abbé Delille except in
When I re-read the writers of the eighteenth century, I am amazed at the fame they acquired, and at my old enthusiasms. Whether the language has advanced, or retreated, whether we have marched towards civilisation, or beat a retreat towards barbarism, what is certain is that I find something worn, faded, dull, inanimate, and cold in the authors that were the delight of my youth. I find in even the greatest writers of the age of Voltaire poverty of sentiment, in thought and style.
Who is to blame for my own lapses? I
am fearful of having been the guiltiest party: a born innovator, perhaps I have
communicated to new generations the malady with which I was infected. Terrified,
I have shouted at my children: ‘Do not forget your French!’ They reply as the Limousin did to Pantagruel: ‘that they come from the
This mania for Graecizing and Latinizing our language is nothing new, as we see: Rabelais cures it, it reappears in Ronsard; Boileau attacks it. In our time it has been resuscitated by Science; our revolutionaries, noble Greeks by nature, have required our shopkeepers and peasants to understand hectares, hectolitres, kilometres, millimetres, decagrams: politics has been Ronsardised.
I might have spoken here of Monsieur de Laharpe, whom I still know and whom I will return to; I might have added to my portrait gallery that of Fontanes; but though my relationship with that excellent man had its birth in 1789, it was only in England that I forged a friendship with him that has grown with bad fortune, and never diminished with good; I will tell you about him later accompanied by all the outpourings of my heart. I can only describe talents that no longer solace the world. My friend’s death occurred at a moment when my memories were urging me to retrace the commencement of his life. Our existence flies past so swiftly, that if we do not write in the evening the events of the morning, the effort burdens us and we no longer have time to bring them to light. That does not prevent us wasting our lives, scattering to the winds those hours that for mankind are the seeds of eternity.
Paris, June 1821.
If my inclination and that of my sisters had launched me into literary society, our position obliged us to frequent another; the family of my brother’s wife was for us, as a matter of course, the centre of that latter grouping.
President Le Pelletier de Rosanbo, who later died with
so much courage, was, when I arrived in
Monsieur de Malesherbes had three daughters, Mesdames de Rosanbo, d’Aulnay and de Montboissier: he loved, by preference, Madame de Rosanbo, because of the resemblance between her opinions and his. President de Rosanbo also had three daughters, Mesdames de Chateaubriand, d’Aulnay, and de Tocqueville, and a son whose brilliant wit is combined with Christian perfection. Monsieur de Malesherbes took pleasure in the company of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Many a time, in the early days of the Revolution, I saw him arrive at Madame de Rosanbo’s, hot from politics, throw off his wig, lie down on the carpet in my sister-in-law’s room, and allow himself to be crawled all over by the pack of children, while they made a tremendous din. He would have been a man of rather vulgar manners, if he had not had a certain brusqueness that saved him from the commonplace: at the first words that fell from his lips, one sensed the man of breeding, and the great magistrate. His natural virtues were tinged with affectation, a little, by the philosophy he mingled with them. He was full of knowledge, integrity and courage; but fiery, passionate to the point of saying to me one day while speaking about Condorcet: ‘That man was my friend; today I would have no scruples about killing him like a dog.’ The tide of the Revolution swept over him, and his death brought him glory. This great man would have been hidden with his merits if an ill fate had not revealed him to the world. A noble Venetian lost his life, while recovering his title deeds in the collapse of an ancient palace.
Monsieur de Malesherbes’ frank manner
freed me from all constraint. He discovered me to be fairly well-educated; that
was our first point of contact: we would discuss botany and geography, his
favourite subjects of conversation. It was through speaking with him that I
conceived the idea of making a voyage to North America, to discover the sea
that Hearne and later Mackenzie saw (In the last few years,
navigated by Captains Franklin
and Parry. Note:
Lastly, what attached me even more to the illustrious old man, was his predilection for my sister: despite Comtesse Lucile’s shyness, we succeeded with the help of a little champagne, of persuading her to take a role in a little play, on the occasion of Monsieur de Malesherbes birthday; she was so touching that the good and great man’s head was turned. He was even more insistent than my brother that she should be translated from the Chapter of L’Argentière to that of Remiremont, which demanded strict and difficult proof of sixteen quarterings. Complete philosopher though he was, Monsieur de Malesherbes possessed the prejudices of nobility to a high degree.
This portrait of men and society at
the time of my debut in the wider world must be taken to cover the space of
about two years, between the closure of the first Assembly of Notables, on
I should add that I was still obsessed by my illusions; though I missed my woods, remote times rather than distant places revealed a different solitude to me. In old Paris, in the precincts of Saint-Germain-des-Près, in the cloisters of monasteries, in the vaults of Saint-Denis, in Notre-Dame, in the narrow streets of the Cité, at Héloïse’s humble door, I saw my enchantress again; but she had assumed, beneath the Gothic arches, and among the tombs, something of a deathlike appearance: she was pallid, she looked at me with melancholy eyes; she was only the shadow or the manes of the dream I had loved.
End of Book IV