Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 14

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V, 13 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> V, 15

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book V - Chapter 14
Society – How Paris appeared

Paris, December 1821.

When, before the Revolution, I had read the history of public disturbances in various nations, I could not understand how one could survive in such times; I was astonished that Montaigne could write so cheerfully in a château he could not walk round without risking capture by bands of Leaguers or Protestants.

The Revolution allowed me to understand the possibility of such an existence. Moments of crisis produce an intensification of life in men. In a society which is dissolving and reforming itself, the struggle of two geniuses, the clash between past and future, the mingling of old ways and new, creates a transitory fusion which leaves not a moment for boredom. The passions and characters set free reveal themselves with an energy that they do not possess in a well-ordered city. Breaches of the law, emancipation from duties, customs and proprieties, even the danger, add to the interest in such disorder. The human race in holiday mood parades through the streets, free of its masters, returned for the moment to a state of nature, and does not start to feel the need for social restraint until it begins to bear the yoke of the new tyrants whom licence breeds.

I can depict the society of 1789 and 1790 in no better a way than by comparing it with the architecture of the age of Louis XII and François I, when the Greek orders were combined with Gothic style, or rather by likening it to the collection of ruins and tombs of all eras, piled up in the cloisters of the Petits-Augustins, after the Terror: only the debris I speak of was alive and ceaselessly changing. There were literary gatherings, political meetings, and public entertainments in every corner of Paris; future celebrities wandered amongst the crowd unrecognised, like the souls on the banks of Lethe before enjoying the light. I saw Marshal Gouvion-Saint-Cyr act at the Marais theatre, in Beaumarchais’s La Mère coupable. One passed from the Club des Feuillants to the Club des Jacobins, from balls and gambling houses to the meetings in the Palais-Royal, from the gallery of the National Assembly to the gallery of the open air. In the streets public deputations, cavalry pickets, and infantry patrols went to and fro. Next to a man in a French coat, with powdered hair, sword by his side, hat under his arm, in pumps and silk stockings, walked a man with cropped un-powdered hair, in an English dress-coat with an American cravat. In the theatres the actors gave the latest news; the pit sang patriotic ditties. Topical plays drew full-houses: if a priest appeared on stage the audience would shout: ‘Calotin: Holy Joe!’ and the priest would reply: ‘Gentlemen, long live the Nation!’ They flocked to hear Mandini, his wife, Viganoni and Rovedino sing at the Opera-Buffa, after hearing the strains of the Ça ira; they went to admire Madame Dugazon, Madame Saint-Aubin, Carline, little Mademoiselle Olivier, Mademoiselle Contat, Molé, Fleury, and the new talent Talma, after seeing Favras hanged.

The walks on the Boulevard du Temple and the Boulevard des Italiens, known as Coblentz, and the paths in the Tuileries Gardens were crowded with well-dressed women: three young daughters of Grétry shone there, pink and white like their dresses: all three died soon after. ‘She fell asleep for ever’, Grétry said, speaking of his eldest daughter, ‘sitting on my lap, as beautiful as when she was alive.’ A host of carriages ploughed over the muddy crossroads where the sans-culottes splashed about, and the lovely Madame de Buffon could be seen, sitting alone in the Duc d’Orléans’ phaeton, waiting at the door of some club.

The elegant and tasteful in aristocratic society met at the Hôtel de La Rochefoucauld, at the soirees of Mesdames de Poix, d’Hénin, de Simiane, and de Vaudreuil, or in the salons of the higher magistracy that remained open. At Monsieur Necker’s, at Monsieur le Comte de Montmorin’s, at the houses of the various ministers, there gathered (together with Madame de Staël, the Duchesse d’Aiguillon, Mesdames de Beaumont and de Sérilly) all the new celebrities of France, with all the freedom of the new manners. The shoemaker knelt to measure your foot in the uniform of the National Guard; the monk who on Friday trailed his black or white frock, on Sunday wore a round hat and layman’s coat; the clean-shaven Capuchin, read the paper in a tavern, and a nun sat gravely in the middle of a circle of frivolous women: she was a sister or aunt turned out of her convent. The crowd visited those religious houses now open to the world as travellers at Granada wander the empty halls of the Alhambra, or at Tivoli linger beneath the columns of the Sibyl’s temple.

For the rest, there were many duels and love-affairs, prison liaisons and political friendships, many a mysterious rendezvous among ruins, under a serene sky, amongst the peace and poetry of Nature; remote, silent and solitary walks mingled with undying oaths and indefinable affections, to the dull roar of a vanishing world, to the far-off sound of a crumbling society, which threatened in its fall these joys placed beneath the feet of events. When one was lost sight of for twenty-four hours, one was not certain of being found again. Some took to the road of Revolution, others meditated civil war; others left for Ohio, sending ahead plans for châteaux to be built among the savages; others went to join the Princes: all this cheerfully, and often without a sou in their pockets: the Royalists affirming that one of these mornings the whole thing would be stopped by act of parliament, and the patriots, just as optimistic in their hopes, announcing the reign of peace and happiness with that of liberty. They sang:

The holy candle of Arras,
The torch of Provence,
Though they won’t light us
They’ll set fire to France:
No, we cannot touch them,
But we’ll hope to snuff them.

And that is how they judged Robespierre and Mirabeau!

‘It is no more under the command of any earthly power,’ said L’Estoile, ‘to prevent the French people from speaking out, as to bury the sun in the earth or hide it in a hole.’

There was a swarm of pamphlets and journals, in their thousands; satires and poems, songs from the Actes des Apôtres, answered l’Ami du peuple or the Modérateur of the Royalist Club, written by Fontanes; Mallet-Dupan, in the political section of the Mercure, was opposed to La Harpe and Chamfort in the literary section of the same paper, Champcenetz, the Marquis de Bonnay, Rivarol, Boniface Mirabeau the younger (the Holbein of the sword, who raised the Legion of the Hussards de la Mort, the Black Hussars), Honoré Mirabeau the elder, when dining, amused themselves by creating caricatures and the Petit Almanach des grands hommes: Honoré was on the point of proposing martial law or the seizure of the clergy’s possessions. He spent the night with Madame Le Jay after declaring that he would not leave the National Assembly unless faced with bayonets. Egalité conferred with the Devil in the quarries of Montrouge, and returned to the garden of Monceaux to preside over orgies of which Laclos was the organiser. The future regicide was no worse than his ancestors: doubly prostituted, debauchery handed him over, exhausted, to ambition. Lauzun, already on the wane, supped in his little house by the Barrière du Maine with dancers from the Opéra, given over to the flatteries of Messieurs de Noailles, de Dillon, de Choiseul, de Narbonne, de Talleyrand and a few other elegant spirits of the day of whom two or three mummies remain among us.

Most of the courtiers, celebrated for their immorality at the end of Louis XV’s reign and during that of Louis XVI, were enrolled under the tricolour flag: almost all had been involved with the American War, and had daubed their ribbons with Republican colours. The Revolution employed them as long as they were of mediocre stature; they even became the first generals in its armies. The Duc de Lauzun, romantic lover of the Princess Czartoryska, chaser of women on the highroads, a Lovelace who had had this one, and then had that one, according to the chaste and noble language of the Court, this Duc de Lauzon became Duc de Biron, Commandant in the Vendée for the Convention: how shameful! The Baron de Besenval, blatant liar and cynic regarding the corruption among high society, a horsefly buzzing around the puerilities of the old dying monarchy, this dull Baron compromised by the affair of the Bastille, was saved by Monsieur Necker and by Mirabeau, solely because he was Swiss: how shameful! What had such men to do with such events? As the Revolution advanced, it abandoned with disdain the frivolous apostates of the throne: it had needed their vices, now it required their heads: no blood was scorned, not even that of Madame du Barry.