Chateaubriand's memoirs, IV, 13

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IV, 12 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> IV, 13

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IV - Chapter 13
The Rosanbo family – Monsieur de Malesherbes: his predilection for Lucile – Appearance and transformation of my Sylph

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 Paris, a model of flippancy. At that time, everything was disrupted in mind and morals, a symptom of the approaching Revolution. Magistrates were ashamed to wear their robes, and held up to mockery their fathers’ gravity. The Lamoignons, Molés, Séguiers, and d’Aguessaus wished to fight and not to judge. The presidents’ wives, ceasing to be respected mothers of families, left their sombre houses to become women involved in glittering affairs. The priest, in his pulpit, avoided the name of Jesus-Christ and only spoke of the Christian Legislature; ministers fell one after another; power slipped from everyone’s hands. The height of good taste was to be American in town, English at Court, Prussian in the army; anything, except French. What one did, what one said, was no more than a succession of irrelevancies. One claimed to care for the priests who granted benefices, while wanting nothing to do with religion; no one could be an officer if he was not a gentleman, yet one waxed eloquent against the nobility; equality was demonstrated in the salons and beating with sticks in the camps.

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: Geneva, 1831). We were also compatible in our politics: the idealistic sentiments at the heart of the first disorders appealed to the independence of my character; the natural antipathy I felt for the Court added force to this inclination. I was on the side of Monsieur de Malesherbes and Madame de Rosanbo, opposed to Monsieur de Rosanbo and my brother, whom we nicknamed the rabid Chateaubriand. The Revolution would have carried me along with it, if it had not begun criminally: I saw the first head aloft on the end of a pike, and I recoiled. Murder can never be a subject for admiration in my eyes, nor an argument in favour of liberty; I know of nothing more servile, contemptible, cowardly and stupid than a terrorist. Have I not encountered in France the whole race of Brutus in the service of Caesar and his police? The levellers, regenerators, and cut-throats were transformed to valets, spies, sycophants, and still more unnaturally into dukes, counts and barons: how medieval!

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 the 25th May 1787, and the opening of the States-General on the 5th May 1789. During those two years, my sisters and I did not live continuously in Paris, or even in the same part of Paris. I will now regress and return my readers to Brittany.

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.