Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book X - Chapter 4
The Literary Fund – An attic in Holborn – The worsening of my health – A visit to the doctors – Émigrés in London



London, April to September 1822.

A society exists in London to provide assistance to men of letters, English as well as foreign. This society recently invited me to its annual meeting; it was my duty to attend and pay my subscription. His Royal Highness the Duke of York occupied the president’s chair; on his right was the Duke of Somerset, and Lords Torrington and Bolton; he placed me on his left. There I met my friend Mr Canning. The poet, orator, and illustrious minister made a speech in which appeared this passage making honourable mention of me, which the newspapers repeated: ‘Though the person of my noble friend, the French Ambassador, may be little known here as yet, his character and writings are well known throughout the whole of Europe. He began his career by revealing the principles of Christianity; he has continued it by defending that of the Monarchy, and now he has arrived in this country to unite our two States through the common ties of monarchist principle and Christian virtue.’

It is many years since Mr Canning, man of letters, learnt his politics in London under Mr Pitt; almost the same number of years since I began writing, in obscurity, in this same English capital. Both of us, reaching high station, are members now of a society dedicated to helping unfortunate writers. Is it the affinity of grandeur, or the compatibility of suffering, that has united us? What are a Governor-General of India and a French Ambassador doing at a banquet of the distressed Muses? It was George Canning and François de Chateaubriand who sat there, in remembrance of their past adversity and perhaps felicity; they have drunk to the memory of Homer, reciting his verse for a morsel of bread.

If the Literary Fund had been available to me when I arrived in London from Southampton, on the 21st of May 1793, it might perhaps have paid for the doctor’s visits to my attic in Holborn, where my cousin La Bouëtardais, son of my uncle Bedée, accommodated me. Wonders were expected from the change of air in restoring to me the necessary strength for a soldier’s life; but my health, instead of recovering, declined. My chest was the first problem; I was thin and pale, coughed frequently, and breathed painfully; I experienced sweating and spat blood. My friends, as poor as me, dragged me from doctor to doctor. These followers of Hippocrates made the crowd of beggars wait outside the door then declared, at the price of a guinea, that it was necessary for me to endure my illness patiently, adding: ‘T’is done, dear Sir.’ Doctor Goodwyn, celebrated for his experiments related to drowning and performed on his own person according to his instructions, was more generous: he assisted me with free advice; but told me, with the harshness he applied to himself, that I might last a few months, perhaps a year or two, so long as I gave up everything that tired me. ‘Don’t count on a long career’: such was the summary of his consultations.

The certainty I so gained of my imminent end, by increasing the natural mournfulness of my imagination, induced in me an incredible mental calm. That inner disposition explains a passage in the foreword at the head of my Essai Historique, and this other passage of the same Essai: ‘Attacked by an illness which leaves me with little hope, I regard all objects with a tranquil eye; the calm air of the tomb makes itself apparent to the traveller who is only a few days journey from it.’ The bitterness of the reflections expanded on in the Essai will not then astonish anyone: it was after suffering the mortal blow of a death sentence, between the judgement and the execution, that I composed that work. A writer who thinks he has reached his end, in poverty and exile, can hardly display a smiling face to the world.

But how to pass the period of grace allotted me? I could either live or die swiftly on my sword: physical effort was forbidden me; what was left? My pen? It was unknown and unproven and I did not know its power. Could my innate taste for literature, my childhood attempts at poetry, my travel sketches, suffice to attract the attention of the public? The idea of writing a work comparing the various Revolutions came to me; it occupied my mind as a subject appropriate to the concerns of the day; but who would undertake to print a manuscript without patrons, and during the composition of the manuscript, who would support me? Though I had only a few months left on earth, nevertheless it was necessary to have some means of living out those few months. My thirty louis, already much reduced, would not last long enough, and in addition to my specific needs, I ought to be alleviating the general distress of the émigrés. My companions in London all had occupations: some were in the coal trade; some made straw hats with their wives, others taught French they barely knew themselves. They were all very cheerful. The fault of our nation, its flippancy, at that time became a virtue. They laughed in the face of fortune; that thief sheepishly carried off what no one any longer demanded of her.