Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 8

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V, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> V, 9


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book V - Chapter 8
The year 1789 – Journey from Brittany to Paris–Turmoil along the way – How Paris looked – Dismissal of Monsieur Necker – Versailles – The gaiety of the Royal Family - General insurrection – The taking of the Bastille



Paris, November 1821.

The year 1789, so notable in our history and in the history of the human race, found me on the moors of my native Brittany; indeed I could not leave the province until quite late, and did not reach Paris until after the sack of the Maison Réveillon, the opening of the States-General, the constitution of the third estate as a National Assembly, the Tennis Court Oath, the Royal Speech of the 23rd June, and the union of the nobles and clergy with the third-estate.

There was turmoil along my route: in the villages the peasants were stopping coaches, asking for passports, interrogating travellers. The nearer one approached the capital, the more the unrest grew. Passing through Versailles, I saw troops quartered in the orangery; artillery trains parked in the courtyards; a temporary hall for the National Assembly erected in the Place du Palais, and the deputies coming and going surrounded by sightseers, palace servants and soldiers.

In Paris, the streets were obstructed by crowds standing at the doors of bakers’ shops: passers-by stood debating at street corners; tradesmen came from their shops to hear and tell the news on their doorsteps; at the Palais-Royal agitators congregated: Camille Desmoulins began to emerge from the crowd.

I had scarcely arrived, with Madame de Farcy and Lucile, at a hotel in the Rue de Richelieu, when a riot began: the crowd rushed to the Abbaye to release some French Guards arrested on their officers’ orders. The non-commissioned officers of an artillery regiment quartered at the Invalides joined the people. The army’s defection was beginning.

The Court, now yielding now trying to resist, in a tangle of obstinacy and weakness, bravado and fear, allowed itself to be dictated to by Mirabeau, who demanded the removal of the troops, though it did not agree to remove them: accepting the affront but not eliminating its cause. In Paris a rumour spread that an army was entering by the Montmartre sewer; that dragoons were to force the barriers. Someone suggested stripping the roadways and carrying the paving-stones to the fifth floors to hurl them down on the tyrant’s satellites: everyone set to work. In the midst of this confusion, Monsieur Necker received the order to resign. The new ministry consisted of Messieurs de Breteuil, de la Galaisière, de la Vauguyon, de Laporte, Marshal de Broglie, and Foullon. They replaced Messieurs de Montmorin, de la Luzerne, de Saint-Priest and de Nivernais.

A Breton poet, a new arrival, had asked me to take him to Versailles. There are people who will go and visit gardens and fountains, while empires are being overthrown: scribblers especially have this faculty of remaining abstracted, obsessed, during the greatest of events; their phrase or stanza is everything to them.

I took my Pindar to the gallery of Versailles during mass. The Court was radiant: the dismissal of Monsieur Necker had raised their spirits; they all felt sure of victory: perhaps Sanson and Simon, among the crowd, were spectators of the Royal Family’s delight.

The Queen passed by with her two children; their blond hair seeming to await the presence of crowns: Madame the Duchesse d’Angoulême, aged eleven, drew all eyes with her proud virginity; the flower of the nobility through her blood and her girlish innocence, she seemed like Corneille’s orange flower, in La Guirlande de Julie:

‘I possess the glory of my birth.’

The little Dauphin walked along, protected by his sister, and Monsieur Du Touchet followed his pupil; he noticed me and obligingly pointed me out to the Queen. Casting me a smiling glance, she gave me the same gracious nod she had given me on the day of my presentation. I will never forget that look of hers so soon to be extinguished. Marie-Antoinette, in smiling, shaped her mouth so positively, that the memory of that smile (what an appalling thing!) allowed me to recognise that jaw-bone of that daughter of kings when the head of that unfortunate woman was discovered during the exhumations of 1815.

The counter-stroke to the blow struck in Versailles resounded in Paris. On my return I crossed the path of a crowd carrying busts, covered in crape, of Monsieur Necker and Monsieur the Duc d’Orléans. They shouted: ‘Long live Necker! Long live the Duc d’Orléans!’ and among those shouts could be heard one that was bolder and more unexpected: ‘Long live Louis XVII!’ Long live that child whose name would have been left out of his family’s funerary inscription, if I had not recalled it to the memory of the Chamber of Peers! If Louis XVI had abdicated, and Louis XVII been placed on the throne, with Monsieur the Duc d’Orleans declared as Regent, what would have happened?

In the Place Louis XV, the Prince de Lambesc, at the head of the Royal-Allemand Regiment, drove the crowd back into the Tuileries gardens, and wounded an old man: suddenly the tocsin sounded. The sword-cutler’s shops were forced, and thirty thousand muskets taken from the Invalides. They armed themselves with pikes, staves, pitchforks, sabres and pistols; Saint-Lazare was sacked and the city barriers burnt down. The electors of Paris took over the government of the capital, and in a night sixty thousand citizens were organised, armed, and equipped as National Guards.

On the 14th of July the Bastille was taken. I was present, as a spectator at this attack on a few pensioners and a timid governor: if the gates had been kept closed, the crowd could never have entered the fortress. I saw two or three cannon shots fired, not by the pensioners, but by the French Guards who had climbed up to the towers. De Launay, the Governor, was dragged from his hiding place, and after suffering a thousand outrages was killed on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville; Flesselles, the provost of the merchants of Paris, had his brains blown out: this is the spectacle that heartless admirers found so admirable. In the midst of these murders, they indulged in wild orgies, as in the disturbances in Rome under Otho and Vitellius. Happily drunk, the ‘conquerors of the Bastille’, declared as such in the taverns, were driven about in carriages; prostitutes and sans-culottes, beginning their reign, escorted them. Passers-by took off their hats, with a respect born of fear, in front of these heroes, some of whom died of fatigue in the midst of their triumph. The keys of the Bastille multiplied; they were sent to all the important fools in the four corners of the world. How many times I have missed making my fortune! If, as a spectator, I had inscribed my name on the list of conquerors, I would have a pension today.

Experts hastened to conduct a post-mortem of the Bastille. Temporary cafes were set up in tents; people crowded them, as at the Saint-Germain fair or Longchamps; files of carriages drove by or stopped at the foot of the turrets, the stones of which were being hurled down among clouds of dust. Elegantly dressed women and fashionable young men, standing on various levels of the Gothic ruins, mingled with the half-naked workers demolishing the walls, to the acclamation of the crowd. The most famous orators could be seen at this gathering-place, the best-known writers, the most celebrated painters, the most renowned actors and actresses, the dancers most in vogue, the most illustrious foreigners, the grandees of the Court and the ambassadors of Europe: the old France came here to meet its end, the new its beginning.

Every event, however wretched or odious it may be in itself, cannot be treated lightly if it occurs in serious circumstances and ushers in an era: what should have been seen in the taking of the Bastille (and what is still not seen) is not one violent act in the emancipation of a people, but the emancipation that resulted from that act.

What was admired, the incident, should have been condemned, and people should no longer have sought in it the final destiny of a people, the change of manners, ideas, political power, renewal of the human species, whose era the taking of the Bastille opened, like a blood-stained Jubilee. Savage anger created ruins, and beneath that anger was hidden the intelligence which built among those ruins the foundations of a new building.

But the nation which erred concerning the importance of the material event did not err concerning the importance of the moral fact: the Bastille was in its eyes a monument to its servitude; it seemed to it to have been erected at the gate of Paris, facing the sixteen pillars of Montfaucon’s gibbet, like a scaffold for its liberties (After fifty-two years they have built fifteen Bastilles to suppress that liberty in whose name they destroyed the first Bastille: Note: Paris, 1841). In razing to the ground a State prison, the people thought to shatter the military yoke, and took on the tacit commitment to replace the army it dismissed: we know what wonders are born when a people become soldiers.