Chateaubriand's memoirs, I, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Chapter 3
Plancouët – A Vow – Combourg – My father’s scheme for my education – La Villeneuve – Lucile – Mesdemoiselles Couppart – A bad scholar

La Vallée-aux-Loups, January 1812.

Emerging from my mother’s womb, I suffered my first exile; they relegated me to Plancoët, a pretty village situated between Dinan, Saint-Malo and Lamballe. My mother’s only brother, the Comte de Bedée, had built the Château of Monchoix close to the village. My maternal grandmother’s property in the region extended as far as the little market town of Corseul, the Curiosolites of Caesar’s Commentaries. My grandmother, long a widow, lived with her sister Mademoiselle de Boisteilleul, in a hamlet separated from Plancoët by a bridge, and called L’Abbaye, because of the Benedictine abbey, sacred to Our Lady of Nazareth.

My wet nurse was found to be sterile; another poor Christian took me to her breast. She dedicated me to the patroness of the hamlet, Our Lady of Nazareth, and promised her I would wear blue and white in her honour until I was seven. I was only a few hours old, and the burden of time had already marked my brow. Why did they not let me die? It entered into God’s counsels to answer the vow, made in obscurity and innocence, with the preservation of a life which idle fame threatened to extinguish.

That vow, of the Breton peasant-woman, is no longer of our century: it was however a touching thing, which a divine Mother’s intercession established between a child and Heaven, sharing the concerns of the earthly mother.

After three years I was taken back to Saint-Malo; it was already seven years since my father had regained the Combourg estate. He wished to enter again into the possessions his ancestors had held; unable to negotiate for the lordship of Beaufort, which had passed to the Goyon family, nor the barony of Chateaubriand, which had fallen to the house of Condé, he turned his gaze towards Combourg, which Froissart calls Combour: several branches of my family had owned it through marriages with the Coëtquens. Combourg defended Brittany against the Normans and the English: Junken, Bishop of Dol, built it in 1016; the great tower dates from 1100. Marshal de Duras, who had Combourg from his wife, Maclovie de Coëtquen, daughter of a Chateaubriand, came to an arrangement with my father. The Marquis du Hallay, an officer in the mounted grenadiers of the Royal Guard, who is almost too well known for his bravery, is the last of the Coëtquen-Chateaubriands: Monsieur du Hallay has a brother. The same Marshal du Duras, acting as our relation by marriage, later presented my brother and myself to Louis XVI.

I was destined for the Royal Navy: disdain for the court was natural to all Bretons, and particularly my father. The aristocracy of our States reinforced the sentiment in him.

When I was brought back to Saint-Malo, my father was at Combourg, my brother at the College of Saint-Brieuc; my four sisters were living with my mother.

All the latter’s affections were concentrated on her eldest son; not that she failed to cherish her other children, but she showed a blind preference to the young Comte de Combourg. It is true that as a boy, as a late-comer, as the Chevalier (so I was called), I had certain privileges compared to my sisters; but ultimately I was left in the hands of servants. Moreover my mother, full of wit and virtue, was preoccupied with the cares of society and the duties of religion. The Comtesse de Plouër, my godmother, was her intimate friend; she also knew Maupertuis’ parents, and those of the Abbé Trublet. She loved politics; noise; the world: for one played politics at Saint-Malo as do the monks of Saba in the Ravine of Cedron; she threw herself into the La Chalotais affair with ardour. She brought to her household a tendency to scold, a distracted imagination, a parsimonious spirit, which at first prevented us recognising her admirable qualities. Orderly herself, her children ran wild; though generous she gave an impression of avarice; a gentle soul she was always scolding; my father was the terror of the servants, my mother the scourge.

The first sentiments of my life arose from these characteristics of my parents. I was attached to the woman who cared for me, an excellent creature called La Villeneuve, whose name I write with a feeling of gratitude and tears in my eyes. La Villeneuve was a kind of superior nurse to the household, carrying me in her arms, secretly giving me anything she could find, wiping away my tears, kissing me, dropping me in a corner, picking me up again and muttering all the time: ‘This one won’t be proud! He’s good-hearted! He’s not hard on poor folk! Here, little fellow,’ and she would fill me with wine and sugar.

My childish affection for La Villeneuve was soon eclipsed by a worthier friendship.

Lucile, the fourth of my sisters, was two years older than me. A neglected younger daughter, her clothes were simply her sisters’ cast-offs. Imagine a thin, little girl, too tall for her age, with gangling arms, a timid air, speaking with difficulty, and unable to learn a thing: give her a borrowed dress of a different size than her own; enclose her chest in a bony bodice whose points chafed her sides; support her neck with an iron collar trimmed with brown velvet; coil her hair on the top of her head, and hold it there with a toque of some black material; and you behold the wretched creature who struck my sight on returning to the paternal roof. No one would have suspected in this pitiful Lucile the talents and beauty that would one day illuminate her.

She was handed over to me like a toy; I did not abuse my power; instead of submitting her to my will, I became her defender. Every morning I was taken with her to the house of the Couppart sisters; two old hunchbacks dressed in black, who taught children to read. Lucile read very badly; I read even worse. They scolded her; I scratched the sisters; serious complaint was made to my mother. I began to pass as a good-for-nothing, a rebel, an idler, ultimately a donkey. These ideas became entrenched in my parents’ minds: my father would say that all the Chevaliers de Chateaubriand had chased hares, were drunkards and brawlers. My mother sighed and grumbled on seeing the state of my jacket. Child though I was, my father’s words made me bridle; when my mother crowned her remonstrance with a eulogy of my brother whom she called a Cato, a hero, I felt disposed to commit every wickedness that seemed expected of me.

My writing-master, Monsieur Després, with a sailor’s wig, was no more satisfied with me than my parents were; he made me copy eternally, following a sample in his style, these two lines of verse that I held in horror, not through any fault in the language displayed:

It is you, my spirit, to whom I wish to speak:
You possess those failings which I cannot conceal.

He accompanied these reprimands with blows from his fist which he landed on my neck, calling me a dizzard-head; did he mean dizzy? I don’t know what a dizzard-head is, but I take it to be something horrible.

Saint-Malo is nothing but a rock. Once rising from the midst of a marsh, it became an island by the invasion of the sea, which, in 709, hollowed out the bay and set MontSaint-Michel in the midst of the waves. Today, the rock of Saint-Malo is only connected to the mainland by a causeway called poetically Le Sillon (the Furrow). The Sillon is attacked on one side by the open sea: the other is washed by the tide which swings round it to enter the port. A storm almost destroyed it completely in 1730. During the hours of low tide the harbour is dry, and on the northern and eastern margins of the sea a beach of the finest sand is revealed. One can then make a tour around my paternal nest. Near and far are scattered rocks, forts, uninhabited islets: Fort-Royal, La Conchée, Cézembre, and Le Grand-Bé where my tomb will be; without knowing I chose well: be, in Breton, signifies a tomb.

At the end of the Sillon, set with a calvary, you find a mound of sand at the edge of the open sea. This mound is called La Hoguette; it is topped by an old gibbet: the uprights served for our games of puss in the corner; we disputed possession with the sea-birds. But it was not without a certain terror that we lingered in this spot.

There, the Miels are to be found also, dunes where sheep grazed; to the right are the meadows at the foot of Paramé, the post-road to Saint-Servan, the new cemetery, a calvary, and windmills on hillocks, like those which stand on Achilles’ grave at the entrance to the Hellespont.