Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book V - Chapter 7
The States of Brittany in 1789 – Insurrection –The death of Saint-Riveul, my friend from college



Paris, October 1821.

Madame Lucille and Madame de Farcy, having returned to Brittany with me, wished to return to Paris; but I was detained by provincial unrest. The States were summoned for the end of December 1788. The commune of Rennes, and afterwards the other communes of Brittany, had made a decree forbidding their deputies from being involved in any matter before the question of fouage had been settled.

The Comte de Boisgelin, who had to preside over the order of nobility hastened to reach Rennes. The gentlemen were summoned by individual letter, and included those who, like me, were still too young to provide an authoritative voice. We might be assailed; it was a matter of counting arms as much as votes: we took up our posts.

Several meetings were held at Monsieur de Boisgelin’s residence before the States opened. All the scenes of confusion at which I had been present recurred. The Chevalier de Guer, the Marquis de Trémargat, my uncle the Comte de Bedée, who was called Bedée the artichoke because of his fatness, in contrast to another Bedée, tall and slender, who was called Bedée the asparagus, broke several chairs while climbing onto them in order to hold forth. The Marquis de Trémargat, the wooden-legged naval officer, created many enemies for his order: one day they were discussing the establishment of a military college where the sons of impoverished nobles would be educated, when a member of the third estate shouted: ‘And what of our sons? What of them?’ – ‘The workhouse,’ Trémargat replied: a comment which, spreading among the crowd, quickly took seed.

In the midst of these meetings I noticed a trait in my character which I have recognised since in politics and military affairs: the hotter my friends and colleagues become, the cooler I become; I would watch them set light to a platform or a cannon with the same indifference: I have never saluted words or bullets.

The result of our deliberations was that the nobility would deal with general matters first, and would not discuss the fouage until after the other questions were addressed; a resolution directly opposed to that of the third estate. The nobles had no great confidence in the clergy, who often deserted them, especially when the Bishop of Rennes presided, a smooth-tongued, measured, individual, who spoke with a slight lisp which was not unattractive, and took good care to nurture his chances at Court. A newspaper, The Sentinel of the People, produced by some hack at Rennes, reached Paris, and fomented hatred.

The States were held in the Jacobin convent, in the Place du Palais. We entered the meeting room in order of arrival: we were no sooner in session than the crowd besieged us. The 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th of January 1789 were wretched days. The Comte de Thiard had few troops; an indecisive leader, lacking in vigour, he wavered and failed to act. The law-school at Rennes, with Moreau at its head, had summoned the young men of Nantes; four hundred of them arrived and the Commandant, despite his exhortations, could not prevent them invading the town. Meetings of various kinds, on the Montmorin Field, and in the cafes, lead to bloody encounters.

Weary of being packed in our room, we decided to burst out, sword in hand; it was rather a fine spectacle. At a signal from our President, we all drew our swords at the same moment, shouting: ‘Long live Brittany!’ and like a garrison without any other recourse, we executed a wild sortie, to pass through the heart of our besiegers. The crowd received us with howls, showers of stones, blows from iron-tipped sticks, and pistol shots. We forced a gap in the massed ranks which closed over us again. Several gentlemen were wounded, dragged along, and torn, covered with bruises and contusions. We managed to disengage with great difficulty, everyone regaining his lodgings.

Duels ensued between the gentlemen and the law students, and their friends from Nantes. One of these duels took place in public on the Place Royale; honours rested with the elder Keralieu, a naval officer, who when attacked fought with amazing energy, to the applause of his young adversaries.

Another gathering formed. The Comte de Montbourcher saw a student named Ulliac in the crowd, to whom he said: ‘Monsieur, this concerns the two of us.’ The crowd made a circle round them; Montbourcher disarmed Ulliac and returned his sword: they embraced and the crowd dispersed.

At least the Breton nobility did not succumb without honour. They refused to send deputies to the States-General, because they were not convoked according to the fundamental laws of the province’s constitution; they flocked in great numbers to join the Army of Princes, to be decimated in the army of Condé, or with Charette in the fighting in the Vendée. Would it have altered the majority in the National Assembly if it had joined that assembly? That is hardly likely: in great social transformations, individual resistance, though honourable in the participants, is powerless against fate. However it is difficult to say what might have been achieved by a man of Mirabeau’s genius, if, with opposing views, he had been met with in the ranks of the Breton nobility.

The young Boishue, and Saint-Riveul, my school-friend, had died before these encounters, on their way to the Chamber of Nobles; the former was defended in vain by his father, who acted as his second.

Reader, I must detain you: witness the first drops of blood flow which the Revolution was obliged to spill. Heaven willed that they should emerge from the veins of a childhood friend. Imagine if I had fallen instead of Saint-Riveul; they would have said of me, altering only the name, what they said of the victim with whom the great immolation began: ‘A gentleman, named Chateaubriand, was killed while on his way to the Chamber of the States.’ Those two words would have replaced my long history. Would Saint-Riveul have played my role on earth? Was he destined for fame or obscurity?

Pass on, now, Reader; cross the river of blood which separates forever the old world, which you are leaving, from the new world on whose threshold you will die.