Chateaubriand's memoirs, I, 1

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1848



La Vallée-aux-Loups, near Aulnay, this 4th October 1811.

It is four years now since, on my return from the Holy Land, I bought a gardener’s house, hidden among the wooded hills, close to the hamlet of Aulnay, in the neighbourhood of Sceaux and Châtenay. The uneven, sandy ground attached to the house was no more than an overgrown orchard, with a ravine and a clump of chestnut-trees at its far end. This narrow space seemed appropriate to contain my wide-ranging hopes; spatio brevi spem longam reseces (since time is short, limit that far-reaching hope). The trees I’ve planted here have prospered: they are still so small that I overshadow them when I step between them and the sun. One day, repaying me that shade, they will protect my old age as I protect their youth. As far as possible I have selected them from the various climes where I have wandered; they recall my travels, and nourish new illusions in the depths of my heart.

If ever the Bourbons return to the throne, I will ask as recompense for my loyalty, only that they enrich me enough to join the edge of the surrounding woods to my property: ambition possesses me; I would like to extend my walks by a few acres: knight-errant though I am I have the sedentary habits of a monk: since inhabiting this retreat, I don’t think I have set foot outside my close three times. If my pines, firs, larches and cedars ever fulfil their promise, the Vallée-aux-Loups will become a veritable charterhouse. When Voltaire was born at Châtenay, on 20th February 1694, what did this hillside look like where in 1807 the author of Le Genie du Christianisme was to retire?

The place pleases me; since, for me, it has replaced my ancestral fields; I have paid for it with the products of my dreams and my waking hours; it is to the great wilderness of Atala that I owe the little wilderness of Aulnay; and to create this refuge I have not, like the American settlers, despoiled the Florida Indians. I am attached to my trees; I have addressed elegies, sonnets, and odes to them. There is not one of them that I have not tended with my own hands, that I have not rescued from root-beetles, from caterpillars glued to its leaves; I know them all by name as if they were my children: they are my family, I have no other, and I hope to die among them.

Here, I wrote Les Martyrs, Les Abencerages, L’Itinéraire and Moïse; what shall I do now with these autumn evenings? This 4th October 1811, the anniversary of my name day and my entry into Jerusalem, tempts me to commence the story of my life. The man who gives France power over the world today, only to trample her underfoot, that man, whose genius I admire, and whose despotism I abhor, that man envelops me with his tyranny as with another solitude; but though he crushes the present, the past defies him, and I remain free, in everything that preceded his glory.

Most of my feelings remain buried deep in my heart, or have only been revealed in my works as if applied to imaginary beings. Now that I miss my chimeras, without pursuing them, I want to revive the inclinations of my best years: these Mémoires will be a mortuary temple erected by the light of my memories.

My father’s birth and the ordeals he endured in his early life, endowed him with one of the most sombre characters there has ever been. This character influenced my ideas by terrifying my childhood, saddening my youth, and determining the nature of my upbringing.

I was born a gentleman. As I see it, I have profited from this accident of the cradle, maintaining that firm love of liberty that especially belongs to an aristocracy whose last hour has struck. Aristocracy has three successive ages: the age of superiority, the age of privilege, the age of vanity; leaving the first behind it degenerates in the second and expires in the last.

Anyone can enquire about my family, if the fancy takes them, in Moréri’s dictionary, in the various histories of Brittany by D’Argentré, Dom Lobineau and Dom Morice, in the Histoire généalogique du plusieurs maisons illustres de Bretagne by Père Dupaz, in Toussaint Saint-Luc, Le Borgne, and finally in the Histoire des grands officiers de la Couronne, by Père Anselme. (This genealogy is summarized in the Histoire généalogique et héraldique des Pairs de France, des grands dignitaries de la Couronne, by Monsieur Le Chevalier de Courcelles.)

The proofs of my lineage were established by Chérin, for the admission of my sister Lucile as a canoness to the Chapter of L’Argentière, from which she was to pass to that of Remiremont; they were produced for my presentation to Louis XVI, again for my affiliation to the Order of Malta, and again, for the last time, when my brother was presented to that same unfortunate Louis XVI.

My name was first written as Brien, then as Briant and Briand, through an invasion of French orthography. Guillaume le Breton gives it as Castrum-Briani. There isn’t a name in France free of such variations. What is the correct spelling of Du Guesclin?

About the beginning of the eleventh century the Briens gave their name to an important château in Brittany, and the château became the seat of the barony of Chateaubriand. The original arms of Chateaubriand were pine-cones with the device: Je sème l’or (I scatter gold). Geoffroy, Baron de Chateaubriand travelled to the Holy Land with St Louis. Taken prisoner at the battle of the Massorah, he returned to France, his wife Sibylle dying of joy at the shock of seeing him again. St Louis, as a reward for his services, granted him and his heirs, in exchange for their ancient coat of arms, a shield of gules, powdered with golden fleurs-de-lys: Cui et ejus haeredibus, states a cartulary in Bérée Priory, sanctus Ludovicus tum Francorum rex, propter eius probitatem in armis, flores lilii auri, loco pomorum pini auri, contulit.

The Chateaubriands split into three branches from the very start: the first, known as the Barons de Chateaubriand, and the root-stock of the other two, originating in the year 1000 in the person of Thiern, son of Brien, grandson of Alain III, Count or Leader of Brittany: the second, named the Seigneurs des Roches Baritaut, or Seigneurs du Lion d’Angers; and the third going under the name of the Sires de Beaufort.

When the line of the Sires de Beaufort ended, in the person of Dame Renée, one Christophe II a collateral branch of this line held a share of land at La Guérande en Morbihan. At this time, towards the middle of the seventeenth century, there was widespread confusion in the ranks of the nobility, names and titles having been usurped. Louis XIV ordered an enquiry, in order to re-establish everyone’s rights. Christophe was maintained in possession, on proof of his descent from ancient nobility, of his title, and his coat of arms, by order of the Tribunal established at Rennes in order to re-validate the nobility of Brittany. The order was dated 16th September 1669; with this text:

‘Order of the Tribunal established by the King (Louis XIV) for the re-establishment of the nobility in Brittany, given 16th September 1669: Between the King’s Attorney-General and Monsieur Christophe de Chateaubriand, Sieur de La Guérande: the which declares the aforesaid Christophe to be of noble extraction, and permits him to adopt the rank of Chevalier, and maintains his right to bear arms, of gules powdered with golden fleurs-de-lys, to any number, and this after the production by him of his authentic titles, of which there here appear, etc., etc., the aforesaid order signed by Malescot.’

This order confirms that Christophe de Chateaubriand de la Guérande was directly descended from the Chateaubriands who were Sires de Beaufort: the Sires de Beaufort being linked by historical documents to the first Barons de Chateaubriand. The Chateaubriands of Villeneuve, Plessis and Combourg are cadet branches of the Chateaubriands of La Guérande, as is shown by the descendants of Amaury, brother of Michel, which Michel was the brother of Christophe de La Guérande, his lineage confirmed by this order of reformation of the nobility, given above here, of 16th September 1699.

After my presentation to Louis XVI, my brother thought to augment my fortune as a younger son by providing me with some of those ecclesiastical benefits known as bénéfices simples. There was only one practical means of achieving this, since I was a layman and a soldier, which was to enrol me in the Order of Malta. My brother sent my proofs to Malta, and soon afterwards a request in my name, to the Chapter of the Grand Priory of Aquitaine, sitting at Poitiers, asking that commissioners be appointed to pronounce on the matter, urgently. Monsieur Pontois was at that time the archivist, Vice-Chancellor and genealogist of the Order of Malta at the Priory.

The President of the Chapter was Louis-Joseph des Escotais, Bailiff and Grand Prior of Aquitaine, assisted by the Bailiff of Freslon, the Chevalier de La Laurencie, the Chevalier de Murat, the Chevalier de Lanjamet, the Chevalier de La Bourdonnay-Montluc, and the Chevalier du Bouëtiez. The request was granted on the 9th, 10th and 11th of September 1789. It was said, in the terms of admission of the Mémorial, that I deserved the favour I was soliciting on more than one ground, and that considerations of the greatest weight made me worthy of the honour I requested.

And all this took place after the taking of the Bastille, on the eve of the scenes of 6th October 1789, and the transfer of the Royal Family to Paris! And in the session of the 7th August of that year 1789, the National Assembly had abolished the titles of the nobility! How did the Chevaliers and examiners of my credentials come to the conclusion that I deserved the favour I was soliciting on more than one ground, etc., I who was merely an insignificant second-lieutenant of infantry, unknown, without credit, favour or fortune?

My brother’s eldest son (I am adding this in 1831 to my original text written in 1811), Comte Louis de Chateaubriand, had married Mademoiselle d’Orglandes , by whom he had five daughters and a son, named Geoffroy. Christian, younger brother of Louis, great-grandson and godchild of Monsieur de Malesherbes, and with a striking resemblance to him, served with distinction in Spain as a captain in the Dragoon Guards, in 1823. He has become a Jesuit in Rome. The Jesuits compensate for solitude to the extent that they relinquish the earth. Christian nears death at Chieri, near Turin: old and ill, I should precede him; but his virtues ought to call him to heaven before me, who still have plenty of faults to bemoan.

By the division of the family patrimony, Christian inherited the estate of Malesherbes, and Louis the estate of Combourg. Christian not considering the equal division legitimate, wished, in turning his back on the world, to relinquish the worldly goods that did not belong to him and gave them to his elder brother.

In view of my lineage, it would be my affair alone if I were to inherit my father’s and brother’s conceit in believing myself a younger scion of the Dukes of Brittany, descended from Thiern, grandson of Alain III.

The aforesaid Chateaubriands have twice mingled their blood with the blood of the English sovereigns, Geoffroy IV de Chateaubriand having taken as his second wife Agnès de Laval, grand-daughter of the Count of Anjou and Matilda, daughter of Henry I; Marguerite de Lusignan, widow of the English King, and grand-daughter of Louis-le-Gros, was married to Geoffroy V, twelfth Baron de Chateaubriand. Regarding the Spanish royal race we find Brien, younger brother of the ninth Baron de Chateaubriand, who was married to Jeanne, daughter of Alphonse, King of Aragon. Regarding the great families of France, also, it is believed that Édouard de Rohan took to wife Marguerite de Chateaubriand, and that one Croy married Charlotte de Chateaubriand. Tinteniac, victorious in the Combat des Trente, and du Guesclin the Constable made alliance with us in all three branches. Tiphaine du Guesclin, grand-daughter of Bertrand du Guesclin’s brother, ceded the ownership of Plessis-Bertrand to Brien de Chateaubriand, her cousin and heir. In the treaties, the Chateaubriands were assigned in order to guarantee the peace of the Kings of France, at Clisson, to the Baron de Vitré. The Dukes of Brittany sent the Chateaubriands the minutes of their assizes. The Chateaubriands became Grand Officers of the Crown, and illustrious at the court of Nantes; they received commissions to defend the security of their province against the English. Brien I fought at the Battle of Hastings: he was the son of Eudon, Comte de Penthièvre. Guy de Chateaubriand was one of the Knights whom Arthur of Brittany assigned to accompany his sons during his embassy to Rome in 1309.

I would never finish if I were to recount everything of which I have chosen to give only a short summary: the note I intend to place at the end, out of consideration for my two nephews, who are no doubt as well versed as I am in these old woes, will replace what I omit in this text. However, these days, people go a little too far; it has become common to declare that one is working class, that one has the honour of being the son of a man of the soil. Are these boasts as disinterested as they are philosophical? Are they not a way of siding with the stronger party? The Marquesses, Counts and Barons of our day, possessing neither land or privileges, three-quarters of them dying of hunger, denigrating one another, refusing to recognise one another, challenging one another’s titles; these nobles, whose own names are denied them, or who are only granted one with reservations, can they inspire fear? However I wish to be pardoned for having been obliged to descend to these puerile recitations, in order to explain my father’s ruling passion, a passion which formed the crux of my youthful drama. For my part, I neither glorify nor complain of the old social order or the new. If, in the first, I was the Chevalier or Vicomte de Chateaubriand, in the second I am François de Chateaubriand; I prefer my name to my title.

My father would readily, like a great medieval land-owner, have called God the Gentleman up there, and named Nicodemus (the Nicodemus of the Gospels) a holy gentleman. Now, passing by way of my begetter, we arrive at Christophe, sovereign lord of La Guérande, and descend in direct line from the Barons of Chateaubriand to myself, Francois, vassal-less, penniless Lord of the Vallée-aux-Loups.

Going back through the lineage of the Chateaubriands, and its three branches, two of the branches died out, while the third, that of the Sires de Beaufort, extended by a branch (the Chateaubriands of La Guérande), grew poorer, an inevitable consequence of the country’s laws: the elder sons appropriated two thirds of the estate, according to Breton custom; the younger sons divided a mere third of the paternal inheritance between them. The erosion of the latter’s meagre inheritance occurred all the more rapidly through marriage; and as the same distribution of two to one also applied to their offspring, the younger sons of younger sons swiftly arrived at the division of a pigeon, a rabbit, a duck-pond and a hunting dog, though they still remained noble knights and powerful lords of a dove-cote, a toad-hole, and a rabbit-warren. In the old aristocratic families you find a quantity of younger sons: tracing them through two or three generations, then they vanish, descending little by little to the plough, or absorbed by the working classes, without anyone knowing what has become of them.

The head of the family in name, and arms, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, was Alexis de Chateaubriand, Lord of La Guérande, the son of Michel, which Michel had a brother Amaury. Michel was the son of that Christophe, confirmed in his lineage from the Sires de Beaufort and Barons de Chateaubriand by the previously mentioned order. Alexis de la Guérande was a widower; a confirmed drunkard, spending his days in drink, living in disorder amongst his servants, and employing the noblest title-deeds of his house to cover jars of butter.

Contemporary with this head of the family in name and arms, there lived his cousin François, the son of Amaury, younger brother of Michel. Francois, born on the 19th February 1683, possessed the little estates of Les Touches and La Villeneuve. He married, on the 27th August 1713, Pétronille-Claude Lamour, Dame de Lanjégu, by whom he had four sons: François-Henri, René (my father), Pierre, Lord of Le Plessis, and Joseph, Lord of Le Parc. My grandfather, François, died on the 28th March 1729; my grandmother, whom I knew in my childhood, still had beautiful smiling eyes in the shadow of her old age. At the time of her husband’s death she was living in the manor of La Villeneuve, near Dinan. My grandmother’s whole fortune did not exceed 5,000 livres in rents, of which her eldest son took two-thirds, 3,333 livres; 1,667 livres remained for the three younger sons, from which sum the eldest once more deducted the major part.

To complete the misery, my grandmother was thwarted in her plans by her sons’ characters: the eldest François-Henri, on whom the magnificent estate of Villeneuve devolved, refused to marry and became a priest; but instead of applying for the benefices his name could have procured and with which he might have supported his brothers, he sought nothing, out of pride and indifference. He buried himself in a country living and was successively rector of Saint-Launeuc and Merdrignac in the diocese of Saint-Malo. He had a passion for poetry; I have seen a good number of his verses. The jovial character of this sort of aristocratic Rabelais, the cult of the Muses practised by this Christian priest in a presbytery excited curiosity. He gave away all he owned and died bankrupt.

The last of the four brothers Joseph went to Paris and immured himself in a library: ever year he received 416 livres, his portion as a younger son. He went unnoticed in the world of books; he devoted himself to historical research. Throughout his short life, he wrote to his mother every January 1st, the only sign of existence he ever gave. Singular destiny! There were my two uncles, the one a scholar, the other a poet; my elder brother wrote quite good verse; one of my sisters, Madame de Farcy, had the true poetic gift; another of my sisters, Comtesse Lucile, a canoness, deserves to be known for a few admirable pages; while I have blotted plenty of paper. My brother perished on the scaffold, my two sisters quitted a life of suffering after languishing in prison; my two uncles failed to leave enough to pay for the four planks of their coffin; while literature has caused me joy and pain, and with God’s help I still look forward to dying in the workhouse.

My grandmother, worn out trying to make something of her eldest and youngest sons, could do nothing for the other two, René, my father, and Pierre, my uncle. This family which has ‘scattered gold’, according to its motto, could see from its country seat the rich abbeys it had founded, and which enclosed its ancestors. It had presided over the States of Brittany, being possessed of one of the nine baronies; it had added its signature to the treaties between sovereigns, served as surety for Clisson, and still lacked the influence to obtain a second-lieutenant’s commission for the heir to its name.

The one recourse left to the poverty-stricken Breton nobility was the Royal Navy: they decided to take advantage of it in my father’s case; but it meant him going to Brest, living there, paying his instructors, buying his uniform, weapons, books, mathematical instruments: how to defray all these expenses? The commission requested from the Minister for the Navy failed to arrive, for want of a patron to solicit its despatch: the lady of Villeneuve fell ill with grief.

Then my father showed the first sign of that determined character that I later recognised in him. He was about fifteen years old: becoming aware of his mother’s anxiety, he approached the bed where she lay and said: I don’t wish to be a burden on you, any longer.’ At this my grandmother began to cry (I’ve heard my father describe this scene a score of times). ‘René,’ she replied, ‘what would you do? Cultivate your field.’ ‘It can’t feed us all: let me go.’ ‘Ah well,’ said his mother, ‘go then, wherever God wishes you to go.’ She embraced him, in tears. That very evening my father quitted his mother’s farm and went to Dinan where one of our relations gave him a letter of recommendation to a citizen of Saint-Malo. The orphan adventurer was signed on as a volunteer, on an armed schooner, which set sail a few days later.

The little republic of Saint-Malo at that time upheld the honour of the French flag at sea. The schooner rejoined the fleet that Cardinal Fleury was sending to aid Stanislas, besieged in Danzig by the Russians. My father set foot on shore and found himself in the memorable battle that fifteen hundred Frenchmen, commanded by the brave Breton De Bréhan, Comte de Plelo, waged on the 29th May 1734, against forty thousand Muscovites, commanded by Munich. De Bréhan, diplomat, warrior, poet, was killed, and my father wounded twice. He returned to France and signed on again. Shipwrecked on the coast of Spain, he was attacked and despoiled by robbers in Galicia; he took passage by ship to Bayonne, and appeared once more beneath the family roof. His courage and his disciplined nature had made him known. He sailed to the West Indies; he enriched himself in the colonies, and laid the foundations of a new family fortune.

My grandmother entrusted to her son René her son Pierre, Monsieur Chateaubriand du Plessis, whose son, Armand de Chateaubriand, was shot, on Bonaparte’s orders, on Good Friday of 1809. He was one of the last French nobles to die for the Monarchist cause. My father undertook to look after his brother, though he had contracted, from habitual suffering, a rigidity of character which he retained all his life; Virgil’s Non ignara mali is not always true: adversity may engender harshness as well as tenderness.

Monsieur de Chateaubriand was tall and gaunt; he had an aquiline nose, thin pale lips, and small deep-set eyes, sea-green or glaucous, like those of lions or barbarians of old. I have never seen eyes like his: when anger filled them the glittering pupils seemed to detach themselves and issue forth to strike you like bullets.

One passion alone gripped my father, that of his name. His habitual state was a profound sadness that age deepened, and a silence that he only emerged from to vent his anger. Avaricious, in the hope of restoring his family to its former glory, haughty with the nobles at the States of Brittany, harsh with his vassals at Combourg, taciturn, despotic and menacing at home, seeing him one felt fear. If he had lived to experience the Revolution, and if he had been younger, he would have played an important part, or been massacred in his château. He certainly possessed genius: I have no doubt that in charge of the administration or the army he would have proved an extraordinary man.

It was on his return from America that he decided to marry. Born on the 23rd September 1718, he married at thirty-four, on the 3rd July 1753, Apolline-Jean-Suzanne de Bedée, born the 7th April 1726, the daughter of Monsieur Ange-Annibal, Comte de Bedée, Liege Lord of La Bouëtardais. He established himself with her at Saint-Malo, twenty miles or so from where they had both been born, so that from their house they could see the horizon under which they had entered the world. My maternal grandmother, Marie-Anne de Ravenel de Boisteilleul, Madame de Bedée, born at Rennes on the 16th October 1698, had been brought up at Saint-Cyr during the last years of Madame Maintenon: her education was passed on to her daughters.

My mother, endowed with plenty of spirit and a prodigious imagination, had been formed by reading Fénelon, Racine, and Madame de Sévigné, and fed with anecdotes of Louis XIV’s court; she knew the whole of Cyrus by heart. Apolline de Bedée, with large features, was small, dark, and plain; the elegance of her manners and the liveliness of her temperament contrasted with my father’s severity and calm. Loving society as much as he loved solitude, as high-spirited and animated as he was cold and unmoving, she had not a single taste that was not opposed to those of her husband. The opposition she experienced made her melancholy, instead of happy and light-hearted. Obliged to be silent when she would have wished to speak, she compensated for it with a kind of noisy sadness broken by sighs, which alone interrupted my father’s mute sadness. In piety, my mother was an angel.