Chateaubriand's memoirs, I, 4

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Chapter 4
Life of my maternal grandmother and her sister at Plancouët – My uncle the Comte de Bedée, at Monchoix – Release from my nurse’s vow

I reached my seventh year; my mother took me to Plancoët, in order to be released from my wet nurse’s vow; we stayed with my grandmother. If I have ever known happiness, it was certainly in that house.

My grandmother occupied, in the Rue du Hameau de L’Abbaye, a house whose gardens descended in terraces to a valley, at the bottom of which was a spring surrounded by willows. Madame de Bedée could no longer walk, but apart from that she had none of the disabilities of her age: she was a charming old lady, plump, white, neat, distinguished in appearance, with fine aristocratic manners, wearing old-fashioned pleated dresses and a black lace cap tied under the chin. Her wit was mannered, her conversation grave, her temperament serious. She was cared for by her sister, Mademoiselle de Boisteilleul, who resembled her only in her kindness. The latter was a thin little creature, playful, talkative and full of raillery. She had loved a certain Comte de Trémigon, who had vowed to marry her, but had then broken his promise. My aunt consoled herself by celebrating her love, for she was a poet. I often remember hearing her singing in a nasal voice, spectacles perched on her nose, while she embroidered double-cuffs for her sister, an apologia that began thus:

A sparrow-hawk loved a warbler
And, so they say, was loved by her.

which always seemed a strange thing to me for a sparrow-hawk to do. The song ended with the refrain:

Ah! Trémigon, is the tale obscure?

How many things in this world end like my aunt’s love-affair in toora-loora!

My grandmother trusted her sister with the running of the house. She dined at eleven in the morning, followed by her siesta; she woke at one; she was carried down the garden-terraces to the willows by the spring, where she knitted, surrounded by her sister, her children, and her grand-children. In those days old age was a dignity; today it is a burden. At four, she was carried back to the drawing-room; Pierre, the servant, set out a card-table; Mademoiselle de Boisteilleul rapped on the fire-back with the tongs and, a few moments later, three more old ladies appeared who came from the neighbouring house at my great-aunt’s summons. These three sisters were the Desmoiselles Vildéneux; daughters of an impoverished gentleman, who instead of dividing their meagre inheritance enjoyed it in common, had never separated and never left their native village. Close to my grandmother since childhood, they lived next door and came every day at the agreed signal, sounded out on the fire-back, to play quadrille with their friend. The game began; the good ladies quarrelled: it was the only event in their lives, the only time when the equanimity of their tempers altered. At eight, supper restored their serenity. Often my uncle De Bedée, with his son and three daughters, joined the old lady’s supper. The latter told a thousand stories of the old days; my uncle, in turn, recounted the Battle of Fontenoy, in which he had taken part, and crowned his boasting with somewhat frank anecdotes which made the good ladies faint with laughter. At nine, with supper over, the servants entered; everybody knelt, and Mademoiselle de Boisteilleul said prayers aloud. At ten the whole house was asleep, except my grandmother, who was read to by her maid until one in the morning.

That society, the first I took note of in my life, is also the first that vanished from my eyes. I saw death enter that house of blessing and peace, render it more and more solitary, closing one door and then another which opened no longer. I saw my grandmother forced to renounce her quadrille, lacking her customary partners; I saw the number of her loyal friends diminish, until the day when she fell, the last. She and her sister had promised to summon each other if the one arrived before the other; they had kept their word and Madame de Bedée only survived Mademoiselle de Boisteilleul by a month. I am probably the only person in the world who knows that those people existed. Twenty times, since that day, I have made the same comment; twenty times social groups have formed around me and dissolved. The impossibility of continuance and duration in human relationships, the profound oblivion that follows us, the unconquerable silence that shrouds our grave and extends from there to cover our house, continually reminds me of the need for solitude. Any hand will do to gift us the glass of water that we may want in our death-fever. Ah! May it not be one too dear to us! For how shall we abandon without despair the hand that we have covered with kisses and that we would hold to our heart for eternity?

The Comte de Bedée’s chateau was situated a league from Plancoët, in a pleasant elevated position. Everything there breathed joy; my uncle’s good humour was inexhaustible. He had three daughters, Caroline, Marie and Flore, and a son, the Comte de la Bouëtardais, a councillor in the High Court, who all shared his lightness of heart. Monchoix was full of cousins from the neighbourhood; there was music, dancing, hunting, merrymaking from morning to night. My aunt, Madame de Bedée, seeing my uncle cheerfully consuming his capital and revenue, quite reasonably grew angry with him; but nobody listened, and her bad humour increased the family’s good humour; particularly as my aunt was herself subject to a host of fads: she always had a large fierce hunting dog cradled in her lap, and a tame boar following her that filled the château with its grunts. When I came to this house of festivity and noise from my father’s house, so sombre and silent, I found myself in a veritable paradise. The contrast became more striking once my family were settled in the country: to travel from Combourg to Monchoix, was to travel from the desert into the world, from the keep of a medieval baron to the villa of a Roman prince.

On Ascension Day 1775, I left my grandmother’s house, with my mother, my great-aunt De Boisteilleul, my uncle De Bedée and his children, my nurse and my foster-brother, for Notre-Dame de Nazareth. I was wearing a long white robe, white shoes, gloves and hat, and a blue silk sash. We reached the Abbey at ten in the morning. The monastery, sited by the roadside, was dated by a quincunx of elms from the time of Jean V of Brittany. The cemetery was entered through the quincunx: a Christian could not reach the church except by traversing this region of tombstones: it is through death that we arrive in God’s presence.

The monks were already in their stalls; the altar was illuminated by a host of candles; lamps hung from the various arches: in Gothic buildings there are perspectives and, so to speak, successive horizons. The beadles came to meet me, ceremoniously, at the door, and conducted me to the choir. Three chairs had been set out: I took my place on the middle one; my nurse sat on my left; my foster-brother on my right.

The mass commenced: at the offertory the priest turned towards me and read out certain prayers; after which my white clothes were removed, and hung as an ex-voto beneath an image of the Virgin. I was then dressed in a purple habit. The prior delivered a discourse on the efficacy of vows; he recalled the tale of that Baron de Chateaubriand who travelled to the East with Saint Louis; he told me that I might also perhaps visit, in Palestine, that Virgin of Nazareth to whom I owed my life through the intercession of the prayers of the poor, always effective before God. This monk, who recounted to me the history of my family, as Dante’s grandfather told him the history of his ancestors, could, like Caggiaguida, have also added a prophecy of my exile.

Tu proverai sì comme sa di sale
Lo pane altrui, e com’ è duro calle
Lo scendere e il salir per l’atrui scale.

E quel che più ti graverà le spalle,
Sarà la compagnia malvagia e scempia,
Con la qual tu cadrai in questa valle:

Che tutta ingrata, tutta matta ed empia
Si farà contra a te; …………………...

Di sua bestialitate il suo processo
Farà la prova: sì che a te fia bello
L’averti fatta parte per te stesso.

You’ll prove how salt the taste, there
Of another’s bread, how hard the path
To climb and to descend another’s stair.

And what will most weigh on your back
Will be that company, vicious and bad,
With which you’ll fall into that crack,

For all of them ungrateful, impious, mad
Will be against you; ……………………


Their careers will prove their brutishness
So that it will be a worthy thing for you
To have made a party of one of yourself.

After the Benedictine’s exhortation, I always dreamt of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and in the end I accomplished it.

I have been dedicated to religion; the garments of my innocence have rested on its altars: it is not my clothing that should be hung there today, in its temples, but my sufferings.

I was brought back to Saint-Malo. Saint-Malo is not the Aleth of the Notitia Imperii: Aleth was more likely sited by the Romans in the suburb of Saint-Servan, in the naval harbour called Solidor, at themouth of the Rance. Opposite Aleth was a rock, est in conspectus Tenedos (‘Tenedos

is in sight’), not the refuge of perfidious Greeks, but the retreat of the hermit Aaron, who in 507 made his home on the island; it is the date of Clovis’ victory over Alaric; one founded a little hermitage, the other a great empire, monuments equally vanished.

Malo, in Latin Maclovius, Macutus, Machutes, having become Bishop of Aleth in 541, drawn there as he was by the celebrated Aaron visited him. Chaplain of that hermit’s oratory, after the death of the saint, he built a monastic church, in proedio Machutis (on land belonging to Machutis).The name Malo was transferred to the island, and afterwards to the town Maclovium, Maclopolis.

From Saint-Malo, first Bishop of Aleth, to Saint Jean surnamed de la Grille, appointed in 1140, who built the cathedral, there were forty-five bishops. Aleth having been almost completely destroyed in 1172, Jean de la Grille transferred the Episcopal See of the Roman town to the Breton town which developed on Aaron’s rock.

Saint-Malo had to endure great suffering during the wars that arose between the French and English kings.

The Earl of Richmond, later Henry VII of England, with whom the Wars of the Roses ended, was conveyed to Saint-Malo. Betrayed by the Duke of Brittany to Richard III’s ambassadors, the latter prepared to take him to London for execution. Escaping from his guards, he took refuge in the Cathedral, Asylum quod in eâ urbe est inviolatissimum (a place of inviolable refuge in that city): this right of asylum, Minihi (Breton for ‘sacrosanct’) derived from the Druids, the first priests of Aaron’s isle.

A Bishop of Saint-Malo was one of the three favourites (the other two were Arthur de Montauban and Jean Hingaut) who ruined the unfortunate Gilles de Bretagne: this one can read in the Histoire lamentable de Gilles, seigneur de Chateaubriand et de Chantocé, prince du sang de France et de Bretagne, étranglé en prison par les ministres du favori, le 24 avril 1450.

There was a handsome mutual capitulation between Henri IV and Saint-Malo: the town negotiated with strength from a position of strength, protected those who were refugees within its walls, and achieved the right, by an ordinance of Philibert de la Guiche, Grand-Master of the French artillery, to cast a hundred pieces of cannon. Nowhere resembled Venice (full of light and the arts) more than that little Republic of Saint-Malo: in religion, wealth and maritime chivalry. It supported Charles Quint’s expedition to Africa and assisted Louis XIII at La Rochelle. It flew its flag over every sea, maintaining relations with Mocha, Surat, and Pondicherry, and a company born of its womb explored the Southern Sea.

From the reign of Henri IV my native town distinguished itself by its devotion and loyalty to France. The English bombarded it in 1693; they assaulted it with their ‘infernal device’ (a massive fire-ship) on the 29th November of that year, and I have often played with my friends among the debris created by that assault. They bombarded it again in 1758.

The inhabitants of Saint-Malo lent a considerable sum to Louis XIV during the war of 1701: in recognition of that service, he confirmed their right to defend themselves; he required the crew of the flagship of the Royal Navy to be made up exclusively of sailors from Saint-Malo and its environs.

In 1771, the inhabitants of Saint-Malo repeated their sacrifice and lent thirty millions to Louis XV. The famous Admiral Anson swooped on Cancale, in 1758, and burnt Saint-Servan. In the Château of Saint-Malo, La Chalotais wrote on linen, with a toothpick, in water and soot, the memoirs which made so much noise and that no-one remembers. Events wipe out events; inscriptions engraved over previous inscriptions, they are pages in the history of palimpsests.

Saint-Malo furnished the best sailors in our navy; their role in general can be seen in the folio volume, published in 1682, under the title: Rôle général des officiers, mariniers et matelots de Saint-Malo. There was a Coutume de Saint-Malo, printed as part of the collection of the Coutumier Général. The archives of the town are rich in charts useful in mapping maritime history and rights.

Saint-Malo is the native town of JacquesCartier, France’s Christopher Colombus, who discovered Canada. The inhabitants of Saint-Malo have also left their name at the other end of America in the islands that bear their name: the MalouineIslands.

Saint-Malo is the birthplace of Duguay-Trouin, one of the greatest seamen who has ever lived; and in our own time has given FranceSurcouf. The celebrated Mahé de la Bourdonnais, Governor of Île-de-France, was born at Saint-Malo, as were La Mettrie, Maupertuis, and the Abbé Trublet, whom Voltaire mocked: that’s not too bad for an enclosure smaller than the Tuileries’ garden.

The Abbé de Lamennais has left far in his wake these little literary notices of my native place. Broussais equally was born at Saint-Malo, like my noble friend, the Comte de La Ferronays.

Finally, in order to omit nothing, I recall the mastiffs that form the garrison of Saint-Malo: they are descended from those famous dogs, regimental mascots among the Gauls, which, according to Strabo, fought in battles against the Romans alongside their masters. Albertus Magnus, monk of the order of Saint Dominic, an author as weighty as Greek geography, declared that at Saint-Malo ‘the protection of so important a place is entrusted each night to the loyalty of certain mastiffs which perform a thorough and secure patrol.’ They were condemned to capital punishment for having had the misfortune to savage a gentleman’s legs, inconsiderately; an incident that gave rise in our day to the song: Bon voyage. They are all treated with callousness. The criminals are poisoned; one of them refuses to take the food from the hands of its weeping owner; the noble animal allows itself to die of hunger: the dogs, like the men, are punished for their faithfulness. Moreover the Capitol was, like my Delos, guarded by dogs, which avoided barking when Scipio Africanus went to his morning prayers.

Encircled by walls of various ages, classed as the great and small, and on which the people stroll, Saint-Malo is still defended by the château of which I spoke, and to which the Duchesse Anne added towers, bastions and moats. Seen from without, the island city resembles a granite citadel.

Children gather on the shore of the open sea, between the château and Fort Royal; it is there that I have been a pupil, companion of the waves and winds. One of the first pleasures I tasted was to contend with the storms, to play with the breakers that retreated before me, or ran after me along the beach. Another game was to make monuments out of sand which my friends called fours (cakes). Since that time, I have often seen castles built for eternity that have collapsed more swiftly than my palaces of sand.

My fate having been decided irrevocably, I was abandoned to an idle childhood. A few notions of drawing, the English language, hydrography and mathematics, seemed more than adequate an education for a little boy destined in advance for the rough life of a sailor.

I grew up at home, without any course of study; we no longer lived in the house where I was born: my mother occupied a large house, in the Place Saint-Vincent, almost opposite the town-gate that lead to the Sillon. The young urchins of the town had become my dearest friends: I filled the stairs and courtyard of the house with them. I resembled them in every respect; I spoke their language; I shared their manners and looks; I was dressed like them, unbuttoned and untidy like them; my shirts were in rags; I had not a single pair of stockings that was not mostly holes; I trailed around in shabby down-at-heel shoes, that slipped off at every step I took; I often lost my cap, and sometimes my jacket. My face was dirty, bruised and scratched, my hands blackened. My appearance was so strange, that my mother, in the midst of her anger, couldn’t help laughing and crying out: ‘How ugly he is!’

Yet I loved and have always loved tidiness, even elegance. At night I tried to mend my tatters; the maid Villeneuve and my Lucile helped me repair my clothes, in order to spare me scolding and punishment; but their patches only served to render my apparel more bizarre. I was especially saddened when I appeared in rags among the other children, proud of their new clothes and their elegance.

My comrades had a foreign air that smacked of Spain. The Saint-Malo families originated in Cadiz; families from Cadiz took up residence in Saint-Malo. The island site, the streets, the architecture, the houses, the water-tanks, the granite walls of Saint-Malo, gave it a look resembling Cadiz: when I saw the latter town, I was reminded of the former.

Locked up at night in their city by the one key, the inhabitants of Saint-Malo made up a single family. Their manners were so innocent that young women who sent for ribbons and veils from Paris were regarded as worldly creatures whose scandalised companions kept apart from them. A marital weakness was a thing unheard of: a certain Comtesse d’Abbeville

having been touched by suspicion, it resulted in a plaintive ballad that was sung while crossing oneself. However the poet, faithful, despite himself, to the troubadour tradition, sided against the husband whom he called a barbarous monster.

On certain days during the year, the inhabitants of the town and the countryside gathered at fairs called assemblies, held on the islands and in the forts around Saint-Malo: they went to them on foot at low tide, in boats when the tide was high. The host of sailors and peasants; the covered wagons; the caravans of horses, donkeys and mules; the competition between stall-keepers; the tents pitched on the shore; the processions of monks and fraternities winding their way along with their banners and crosses in the midst of the crowd; the boats coming and going driven by oar or sail; the vessels entering harbour, or anchoring in the roads; the artillery salvos, the peals of bells, all combined to bring sound, movement and variety to these gatherings.

I was the only witness to these fairs who did not share in the joy. I appeared there without any money to buy toys or cakes. Evading the scorn that attaches to ill-luck, I sat far from the crowd, by those pools of water that the sea supports and renews in the hollows of the rocks. There, I amused myself watching the puffins and gulls, gazing into the bluish distance, collecting shells, and listening to the waves murmuring on the reefs. I was not much happier at home in the evening; I had a fierce dislike for certain dishes: I was forced to eat them. I used to look imploringly at La France, who removed my plate adroitly when my father turned his head. Regarding warmth, there was the same severity: I was not permitted to approach the fireplace. It is a long way from those strict parents to the child-spoilers of today.

But if I had sorrows that are unknown to childhood these days, I also had pleasures of which it is ignorant.

No one knows any longer what a sense of joy those solemnities of religion and family, or the whole nation and the God of that nation, possessed: Christmas, New Year, Twelfth Night, Easter, Whitsun, Midsummer Day were days of riches to me. Perhaps the influence of my native rock had worked on my feelings and my interests. In the year 1015, the inhabitants of Saint-Malo had vowed to go and help with their hands and their funds in the building of the towers of Chartres Cathedral: have I not also worked with my hands to raise again the fallen spire of the ancient Christian basilica? ‘The sun,’ said Father Maunoir, ‘has never illuminated any region where a more constant and unwavering loyalty to the true faith has been revealed, than Brittany. For thirteen centuries not one infidelity has tarnished the language that has served as a mouthpiece to preach Jesus-Christ, and he is yet to be born who has witnessed a Breton-speaking Breton preach other than the Catholic religion.’

On the feast days that I am about to recall, I was taken on a pilgrimage with my sisters to the various shrines of the town, to the chapel of Saint-Aaron, to the convent of La Victoire; my ears were struck by the sweet voices of unseen women: the harmonies of their canticles mingled with the roar of the waves. When, in winter, at the hour of evening service, the cathedral filled with people; when old sailors on their knees, young women and children with little candles read from their prayer-books; when the congregation at the moment of benediction recited the Tantum Ergo in unison, when, in the interval between songs, the Christmas squalls beat at the basilica’s stained-glass windows, shaking the vaults of that nave which the lungs of Jacques Cartier and Duguay-Trouin had caused to echo, I experienced a deeply religious feeling. Villeneuve had no need to tell me to fold my hands, to call on God by all the names my mother had taught me; I saw the heavens opening, the angels offering up our incense and our prayers; I bent my head: it was not yet charged with those cares that weigh on us so heavily that one is tempted never to raise one’s brow again, once one has bowed it at the foot of the altar.

A sailor leaving these ceremonies, would go on board strengthened against the night, while another was entering port guided by the illuminated dome of the church: so that religion and danger were continually present, and their aspects presented themselves inseparably to my thoughts. I was scarcely born before I heard talk of death: in the evening, a man would go through the streets ringing a bell, calling the Christians to pray for one of their deceased brethren. Nearly every year, boats sank in front of my eyes, and while I was playing along the shore, the sea carried the corpses of foreign sailors, drowned far from their home, to my feet. Madame de Chateaubriand would say to me, as Saint Monica said to her son: Nihil longe est a Deo: ‘Nothing is far from God’. My education had been entrusted to Providence: it did not spare me its lessons.

Dedicated to the Virgin, I came to know and loved my protectress, whom I confused with my guardian angel: her image, which had cost the good Villeneuve a half-sou, was attached with four nails to the head of my bed. I should have lived in the days when people said to Mary: ‘Sweet Lady of heaven and earth, mother of mercy, source of every virtue, who bore Jesus Christ in your precious womb, most sweet and beautiful Lady, I thank you and implore you.’

The first thing I learnt by heart was a sailor’s hymn, beginning:

I place my confidence,
Virgin, in your aid;
Grant me your defence,
With care, protect my days;
And when that final breath
Shall complete my fate,
Grant me holiest death,
In which to steal away.

I have since heard that hymn sung in a shipwreck. Even today I still repeat those humble rhymes with as much pleasure as Homer’s verse; a Madonna graced with a Gothic crown, clothed in a robe of blue silk, bordered by a silver fringe, inspires greater devotion in me than a Raphael Virgin.

If only that peaceful Star of the Seas had been able to calm my life’s disturbances! But I was to be troubled, even in childhood; like the Arab’s date tree, my trunk had scarcely sprung from the rock before it was battered by the wind.