Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book V - Chapter 5
Receiving the tonsure - The environs of Saint-Malo



Paris, October 1821.

As Madame de Chateaubriand was a true saint, she persuaded the Bishop of Saint-Malo to give me the tonsure; he had scruples regarding this: granting the ecclesiastical mark to a soldier and layman seemed to him a profanation that smacked of simony. Monsieur Cortois de Pressigny, today Archbishop of Besançon, and Peer of France, is a good and worthy man. He was young then, a protégé of the Queen, and on the way to fortune, which he achieved later by a better road: that of persecution.

In uniform, sword at my side, I knelt at the prelate’s feet; he cut two or three locks of hair from the crown of my head; this was called the tonsure, of which I received a formal certificate. With this certificate I could call on two hundred thousand livres of private income, as soon as my proofs of nobility had been accepted in Malta: an abuse, no question, of the ecclesiastical order, but a useful thing in the political order of the old constitution. Was it not better for a kind of military benefice to grace the soldier’s sword rather than the mantle of an abbé who would have spent the fat of his priestly revenue in the streets of Paris?

The tonsure, conferred on me for the aforementioned reasons, has led ill-informed biographers to claim that I first entered the Church.

This took place in 1788. I had horses, and rode in the countryside, or galloped beside the waves, my old mournful friends; I would dismount and play with them; all the howling brood of Scylla leapt at my knees for me to caress them: Nunc vada latrantis Scyllae: now Scylla’s howling waves. I have travelled great distances to see Nature’s landscapes; I might have been content with those my native country offered me.

Nothing is more delightful than the twelve to fifteen miles around Saint-Malo. The banks of the Rance, as you trace the river from near its mouth to Dinan, are enough in themselves to merit the traveller’s attention; a constant mixture of rocks and greenery, sandbanks and forests, creeks and hamlets, the ancient manors of feudal Brittany and the modern habitations of commercial Brittany. These latter were constructed in the days when the merchants of Saint-Malo were so wealthy that on festive days they would scatter their piastres, throwing them red hot through the windows into the crowd. These habitations of theirs were very luxurious. Bonaban, the chateau of Messieurs de Lasaudre, is of marble in part, imported from Genoa, with a magnificence of which we scarcely have an idea in Paris. La Brillantais, Le Beau, Montmarin, La Balue, Le Colombier are or were adorned with orangeries, water-jets and statues. Sometimes the gardens sloped down to a river beneath arcades with lime-tree porticos, through a colonnade of pines, to the end of a lawn; above the tulip-beds the sea revealed its vessels, its calm and its storms.

Each peasant, sailor and ploughman is the owner of a little white cottage with a garden: among the vegetables and herbs, currant-bushes, roses, irises and garden marigolds, you find a Cayenne tea-plant, a head of Virginian tobacco, and a Chinese flower, or some such souvenir of another shore and another climate: it is the owner’s chart and itinerary. The coastal tenant-farmers are of fine Norman stock; the women tall, slender, agile, wear grey woollen bodices, short petticoats of calamanco and striped silk and white stockings with coloured clocks. Their brows are shaded by a wide head-dress in dimity or cambric, with flaps that stand up in the form of a cap or float in the manner of a veil. A silver chain hangs in several loops at their left side. Every morning, in spring, these northern daughters, stepping from their boats as though they were once more invading the country, carry baskets of fruit and shells filled with curds to market: when they balance black jars full of milk or flowers on their heads, when the lace-bands of their white wimples set off their blue eyes, pink faces, and blonde hair beaded with dew, the Valkyries of the Edda of whom the youngest is Futurity,or the Canephori of Athens were never as graceful. Is this picture still a faithful likeness? Those women are doubtless no more; they exist only in my memory.