Chateaubriand's memoirs, IV, 5

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IV, 4 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> IV, 6

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IV - Chapter 5
My father’s death

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 Berlin. To that news important to the world at large, succeeded other tidings, melancholy ones for me: Lucile wrote to tell me that my father had been carried off by a stroke, on the eve of the Angevin Fair, which was one of my childhood joys.

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 France of old was thrown on the dung-heap.

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.)