Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 1

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IX, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> IX, 2


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book IX - Chapter 1
I go to seek my mother at Saint-Malo – The progress of the Revolution – My marriage



London, April to September 1822. (Revised December 1846)

I wrote to my brother, in Paris, giving the details of my crossing, explaining my motives for returning, and begging him to lend me the necessary sum to pay for my passage. My brother replied that he had forwarded my letter to our mother. Madame de Chateaubriand did not keep me waiting, she sent what was needed, to settle my debt and leave Le Havre. She told me Lucile was with her, as well as my uncle Bedée and his family. This news persuaded me to go to Saint-Malo, where I could consult my uncle on the question of my proposed emigration.

Revolutions, like rivers, grow greater along their course; I found the one I had left behind in France vastly increased and overflowing its banks; I had left it with Mirabeau under a Constituent Assembly, and found it again with Danton under a Legislative Assembly.

The Declaration of Pillnitz, of 27th August 1791, had become known in Paris. On the 14th December 1791, while I was in the midst of the storm at sea, the King announced that he had written to the princes of the German states (in particular to the Elector of Trèves) concerning German armament. Louis XVI’s brothers, the Prince de Condé, Monsieur de Calonne, the Vicomte de Mirabeau, and Monsieur de Laqueuille were almost immediately declared traitors. Following the 9th of November a previous decree had struck at the other émigrés: it was among the ranks of those already proscribed that I was hastening to establish myself; others might perhaps have backed away, but the greatest threat always makes me join the weakest side: to me the victor’s pride is insufferable.

Travelling from Le Havre to Saint-Malo, I had the opportunity to witness the divisions and misfortunes of France: mansions were burnt out or abandoned; the owners, to whom symbolic distaffs had been sent, had left; their womenfolk were living as refugees in the towns. Hamlets and market towns groaned beneath the tyranny of clubs affiliated to the central Club des Cordeliers, later merged with the Jacobins. Its rival, the Société Monarchique or Société des Feuillants, no longer existed; the ignoble nickname of sans-culottes had become popular; the King was never spoken of except as Monsieur Veto or Monsieur Capet.

I was received tenderly by my mother and my family, though they deplored the inopportune timing of my return. My uncle, the Comte de Bedée, was preparing to cross to Jersey with his wife, son and daughters. There was a question of how to find the money for me to join the Princes. My voyage to America had made a hole in my fortune; my property as a younger son had been virtually annihilated by the suppression of feudal rights: the benefices which would have become due to me by virtue of my affiliation to the Order of Malta, had fallen into the hands of the Nation along with the rest of the Clergy’s wealth. This combination of circumstances led to the most serious event of my life: I was married off, in order to provide me with the means to go and get killed, for the sake of a cause I did not love.

There lived in retirement at Saint-Malo, a certain Monsieur de Lavigne, a Knight of Saint-Louis, and former Commander of Lorient. The Comte d’Artois had stayed at his house in that town when he visited Brittany: delighted with his host, the Prince promised to grant him any favour he might ask in the future.

Monsieur de Lavigne had two sons. One of them married Mademoiselle de la Placelière. The two daughters born of this marriage lost both father and mother at an early age. The elder married the Comte du Plessix-Parscau, a Navy captain, the son and grandson of admirals, a commodore now himself, a Knight of the Order of Saint-Louis and commander of the Navy cadet corps at Brest. The younger, who lived with her grandfather, was seventeen when I arrived at Saint-Malo on my return from America. She was pale, delicate, slim and very pretty; she allowed her lovely blonde hair to hang down in natural curls, like a child. Her fortune was estimated at five or six hundred thousand francs.

My sisters took it into their heads to make me marry Mademoiselle de Lavigne, who had become very attached to Lucile. The affair was conducted without my knowing. I had scarcely seen Mademoiselle de Lavigne two or three times; I recognised her far off on Le Sillon, by her pink pelisse, white dress and her fair wind-blown hair, while I was on the beach, abandoning myself to the caresses of my old mistress, the sea. I felt I lacked every qualification for being a husband. All my illusions were alive, nothing in me was exhausted; the very energy of my being had redoubled on my travels. I was tormented by my Muse. Lucile loved Mademoiselle de Lavigne and saw this marriage as my means to a private fortune: ‘Go ahead, then!’ I said. In me, the public man is immovable, while the private man is at the mercy of whoever wishes to seize hold of him, and to avoid an hour’s trouble I would become a slave for a century.

The consent of Mademoiselle de Lavigne’s grandfather, her paternal uncle, and her principal relatives was easily obtained; there remained a maternal uncle, Monsieur de Vauvert, to be won over; a great democrat, he opposed his niece’s marrying an aristocrat like me, who was not one at all. We thought we could ignore him, but my pious mother insisted that the religious ceremony should be performed by a non-juring priest, and that could only be done in secret. Monsieur de Vauvert knew this, and let loose the law on us, on the grounds of rape, and violation of the code, asserting that the grandfather, Monsieur de Lavigne, had fallen into his second childhood. Mademoiselle de Lavigne became Madame de Chateaubriand, without my having had any communication with her, was taken away in the name of the law and placed in the convent of La Victoire at Saint-Malo, pending the decision of the courts.

In all of this there was no rape, no violation of the law, no risk, and no love; the marriage only possessed the worst aspect of a novel: the truth. The case was tried, and the tribunal judged the civil union valid. Since the parents on both sides were in agreement, Monsieur de Vauvert dropped the proceedings. The constitutional priest, generously bribed, withdrew his objection to the original marriage blessing, and Madame de Chateaubriand left the convent, where Lucile had immured herself with her.

I had a new acquaintance to make, and it brought me all I might desire. I doubt whether a more acute mind than my wife’s has ever existed: she divines the birth of a thought or a word behind the brow or on the lips of the person she is talking to: it is impossible to deceive her. Of an original and cultivated spirit, writing in the most piquant style, telling a story to perfection, Madame de Chateaubriand admires me without having read two lines of my works; she would be afraid of meeting ideas other than her own, or discovering that there is too little enthusiasm for my merits. Though a passionate critic, she is well-informed and a good judge.

Madame de Chateaubriand’s faults, if she has any, flow from the superabundance of her virtues; my own very real faults stem from the sterility of mine. It is easy to possess resignation, patience, a general willingness to oblige, and an even temper, when one takes to nothing, is bored with everything, and when one replies to ill-luck as to good with a desperate and despairing: ‘What does it matter?’

Madame de Chateaubriand is better than me, though less easy to deal with. Have I been blameless towards her? Have I granted my companion all the attention she deserved and which should have been hers? Has she ever complained? What happiness has she tasted in return for an affection which has never wavered? She has shared my misfortune; she has been plunged into the prisons of the Terror, the persecutions of Empire, the difficulties of the Restoration, and has never known the joys of motherhood to counterbalance her sorrows. Deprived of children, whom a different marriage might have granted her, and which she would have loved to distraction; receiving none of the honours and affection of the mother of a family, which console a woman for the loss of her best years, she has advanced, barren and solitary, towards old age. Often separated from me, disinclined towards literature, the pride of bearing my name has been no compensation to her. Fearful and trembling for me alone, her anxieties, constantly renewed, rob her of sleep and the time to cure her ills: I am her chronic infirmity and the cause of her relapses. How could I compare the occasional impatience she has shown towards me with the worry I have caused her? How could I set my good qualities such as they are alongside her virtue which feeds the poor, which has created the Marie-Thérèse Infirmary, despite every obstacle? What are my labours compared with the good works of that Christian woman? When we both appear before God, it is I who will be condemned.

All in all, when I consider my imperfect nature in its entirety, is it certain that marriage has harmed my life? Without doubt I would have had more leisure and repose; I would have been more welcome in certain social groupings and among certain of the world’s grandeurs; but in politics, if Madame de Chateaubriand has annoyed me, she has never thwarted me, since in that field, as in affairs of honour, I judge only as I feel. Would I have produced a greater number of works if I had remained single, and would those works have been better? Have there not been circumstances, as we will see, where, marrying outside France, I would have stopped writing and renounced my country? If I had not married, might my weaknesses not have left me prey to some unworthy creature? Might I not have wasted and muddied my days like Lord Byron? Now that I am burdened with years, all my follies are past; only emptiness and regrets remain: an old widower without value, whether deceived or undeceived; an old bird repeating my hackneyed song for those who do not listen. Allowing my desires full rein would not have added a single string more to my lyre, a single tender tone more to my voice. My constrained feelings and the mystery of my thoughts have added perhaps to my powers of expression, have animated my works with inner fever, a hidden flame, which would have been dissipated by the free air of love. Restrained by an indissoluble tie, I have bought, at the cost of a little early bitterness, the sweetness that I taste today. I have only retained the incurable effects of the ills of my existence. I therefore owe a tender and eternal gratitude to my wife, whose attachment to me has been as touching as it has been profound and sincere. She has made my life more weighty, noble, and honourable, always inspiring respect in me, if not always the power to fulfil my duty to her.