Chateaubriand's memoirs, XI, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XI - Chapter 2
The Essai historique sur les Révolutions – Its effect – A letter from Lemière, the nephew of the poet



London, April to September 1822.

Life has often been represented (by me above all), as a mountain which one climbs from one side, to hurtle down the other: it would also be valid to compare it to one of the Alps, its bald summit crowned with ice, which has no far side. Pursuing this image, the traveller always ascends and never descends; thus he has a better view of the distance he has travelled, the paths he has not taken and with whose help he would have been elevated by an easier slope: he gazes with regret and sadness at the point where he started to go astray. So, it is from the publication of the Essai historique that I must mark the first step of mine that made me stray from the path of peace. I had completed the first part of the great work I had planned; I wrote the last words of it caught between the idea of death (I had fallen ill again) and a vanished dream: In somnis venit imago conjugis: the image of a spouse appeared in sleep. Printed by Baylis, the Essai appeared in Deboffe’s bookshop in 1797. The date is that of a transformation in my life. There are moments when our destiny, whether yielding to social pressures, obeying the dictates of nature, or commencing to make of us what we will become, suddenly swerves from its initial path, like a river changing course around a sudden bend.

The Essai offers a compendium of my existence, as poet, moralist, publicist and politician. To say that I hoped, inasmuch at least as I was able to hope, a great success for the work, that goes without saying: we lesser authors, little prodigies of a prodigious era, we have pretensions of maintaining a conversation with the future race; but we have no knowledge, to my mind, of posterity’s place of residence, we pen its address incorrectly. When we sleep in the tomb, death will freeze our words, written or sung, so solidly, they will not melt again like Rabelais’ frozen words.

The Essai became a sort of historical encyclopaedia. The only volume published was already a sufficiently deep investigation; I had the remainder in manuscript, then a poet’s lays and virelais arrived to accompany the annalist’s researches and annotations, then the Natchez, etc. I can scarcely understand today how I managed to carry out such extensive labours, in the midst of an active life, a wanderer subject to so many reverses. My tenacity when working explains this fecundity: in my youth, I have often written for twelve to fifteen hours with getting up from the table at which I sat, editing and reworking the same page a dozen times. I have not lost this ability for application with age: my diplomatic correspondence now, which is not allowed to interrupt my literary compositions, is entirely from my own hand.

The Essai made a stir among the émigrés: it was in contradiction to the views of my companions in misfortune: my independence regarding diverse social attitudes has almost always wounded the men with whom I have been aligned. I have in turn been the commander-in-chief of various armies whose soldiers were not of my own party: I have led the old Royalists to the achievement of public freedoms, and above all that of the freedom of the press, which they detested; I have rallied the liberals in the name of that same freedom to the Bourbon flag which they regarded with horror. Émigré opinion happened to attach itself, through pride, to my person: the English Revues, having spoken of me in glowing terms, their praise reflected on the whole corps of the faithful.

I had sent copies of the Essai to Laharpe, Ginguené and De Sales. Lemierre, nephew of the poet of that name and translator of Gray’s verses, wrote to me from Paris, on the 15th of July 1797, to tell me that my Essai was a great success. It is true that the Essai was acknowledged for a moment, it was also soon forgotten: a sudden shadow engulfed my first rays of fame.

Having become nigh on well-known, the émigré nobility sought me out in London. I made my way from street to street; I first left Holborn-Tottenham Court Road, and advanced as far as the Hampstead Road. There I stayed several months at the home of Mrs O’Larry, an Irish widow, mother of a very pretty fourteen year old daughter, and fond cat-lover. Bound by this mutual passion, we had the misfortune to lose two elegant cats, white as ermine, with black tips to their tails.

Elderly neighbours visited Mrs O’Larry, with whom I was obliged to take tea according to the ancient custom. Madame de Stael has depicted the scene in Corinne at Lady Edgermond’s house: ‘My dear, do you think the water is hot enough to add it to the tea? – My dear, I think that would be premature.’

A very beautiful young Irish lady, Mary Neale, also came to these soirees escorted by her guardian. She found some pain in the depths of my gaze, for she said to me: ‘You carry your heart in a sling’. I carried my heart I don’t know how.

Mrs O’Larry left for Dublin; then moving once more from the eastern district colonised by poor émigrés, I progressed from lodging to lodging, as far as the western quarter of rich émigrés, among the bishops, families of the Court, and colonists from Martinique.

Peltier was back; he had married heedlessly; always boastful, wasting his resources, and frequenting his neighbours’ money rather than their persons.

I made several new acquaintances, especially in the circles where I had family connections. Christian de Lamoignon, badly wounded in the leg in the Quiberon affair, and now a colleague in the Chamber of Peers, became my friend. He presented me to Mrs Lindsay, a friend of Auguste de Lamoignon, his brother: not quite as President Guillaume de Lamoignon was installed at Basville, between Boileau, Madame de Sevigné and Bourdaloue.

Mrs Lindsay, of Irish origin, with a dry wit, a somewhat abrupt manner, elegant height, and a pleasant figure, had nobility of soul and an elevated character: émigrés of note spent the evening at the fireside of this last Ninon. The old monarchy perished with all its abuses and all its graces. It will be disinterred one day, like those skeletons of queens, adorned with necklaces, bracelets, and earrings that they exhume in Etruria. At this rendezvous I encountered Monsieur Malouët and Madame du Belloy, a woman deserving of relationship, the Comte de Montlosier and the Chevalier de Panat. The latter had a well-earned reputation for his wit, slovenliness, and greed: he belonged to that set, of men of taste, who used to sit arms crossed before French society; idlers whose mission was to see everything and judge everything, they exercised the functions newspapers now exercise, without possessing their bitterness, but also without achieving their immense popular influence.

Montlosier was forced to travel because of his famous phrase about the cross of wood, a phrase which I reshaped a little, when I quoted it in the Génie, but which is profoundly true. On leaving France, he went to Coblentz; received badly by the Princes, he was involved in a duel, fought at night on the banks of the Rhine and was spitted. Unable to move, and seeing no blood, he asked the witnesses if the sword point had emerged behind: ‘Three inches’ they said after feeling around. ‘Then it’s nothing,’ Montlosier replied, ‘sir, withdraw your thrust’

Montlosier, welcomed thus for his royalist sympathies, crossed to England, and took refuge in literature, the great hospital for émigrés where I had a straw-pallet next to his. He obtained the editorship of the Courrier de Londres. Beside his newspaper, he wrote physico-politico-philosophical works: in one of these tracts he demonstrated that blue was the colour of life because the veins turned blue after death, which indicated that life was returning to the body’s surface in order to evaporate and return to the blue heavens: as I liked blue very much, I was quite charmed.

Feudally liberal, an aristocrat and democrat, a strange spirit, made of bits and pieces, Montlosier gave birth with difficulty to disparate ideas, but when he could manage to free them from the natal cord, they were often fine, and always full of vigour: opposed to priests as he was to noblemen, converted to Christianity by means of sophisms, while a lover of ancient times, he had been, under the influence of paganism, a warm supporter of freedom in theory and slavery in practice, who would feed the slave to the fish in the name of the liberty of the human race. Crushing in argument, a quibbler, daring and tousled, the former deputy of the Riom nobility nevertheless permitted himself to make concessions to the powerful: he knew how to manage his interests, but allowed no one to see him at it, and hid his weaknesses as a man behind his honour as a gentleman. I will hear nothing evil said of my hazy Auvernat, with his ballads of Mont-d’or and his polemics of the Plain; I had a liking for his heterogeneous personality. The long obscure development and swirl of his ideas, with its parentheses, throaty gasps, and tremulous cries of: ‘oh! oh!’ bored me (the shadowy, muddled, vaporous, and tiresome, I find abominable); but on the other hand, I was diverted by this naturalist of the volcanic regions, this lost Pascal, this orator from the mountains who ranted to the gallery as his little compatriots, the sweeps, sang from the heights of their chimneys; I liked this journalist of peat bogs and little castles, this liberal explaining the Charter through a Gothic window, this shepherd lord half-wedded to his cowgirl, sowing his barley himself, in the snow, in his little stony field: I was always grateful to him for having dedicated to me, in his hut in the Puy-de-Dôme, an ancient black stone, taken from a cemetery of the Gauls which he had discovered.

The Abbé Delille, another compatriot of those Auvernats, Sidoine Apollinaire, the Chancelier de l’Hospital, La Fayette, Thomas, and Chamfort, driven from the Continent by the torrent of Republican victories, had also recently established himself in London. The Emigration counted him among its ranks with pride; he sang our ills, even more reason to be enchanted with his muse. He worked hard; he had to, since Madame Delille locked him up, and only let him out when he had filled his day with a certain number of lines. One day, I had gone to see him; he was delayed, and then appeared, with very red cheeks: they say that Madame Delille used to slap him; I don’t know; I only say what I saw.

Who has not heard the Abbé Delille declaim his verse? He speaks very well; his person, ugly, rumpled, animated by imagination, wonderfully suits the charm of his delivery, the nature of his talent, and his priestly profession. The Abbé Delille’s masterpiece is his translation of the Georgics, in parts close to the original in feeling; but it is as if you were reading Racine translated into the language of Louis XV.

Eighteenth century literature, aside from the few fine geniuses that dominate it, that literature placed between the classical literature of the seventeenth century and the romantic literature of the nineteenth, without lacking naturalness, lacks nature; dedicated to the arrangement of words, it is neither sufficiently original like the new school, nor sufficiently pure like the old school. The Abbé Delille was the poet of modern châteaux as the troubadour was the poet of old ones; the verse of the one, the ballads of the other, reveal the difference between the aristocracy at the centre of power, and the aristocracy in a state of degeneration: the Abbé depicts readings and games of chess in country houses, where the troubadours sang of crusades and tourneys.

The distinguished members of our Church Militant were then in England: the Abbé Carron, of whom I have spoken already, in borrowing from his life of my sister Julie; the Bishop of Saint-Pol-de-Léon, a severe and narrow-minded prelate, who contributed to separating Monsieur le Comte d’Artois further and further from his century; the Archbishop of Aix, slandered perhaps because of his worldly success; another wise and pious bishop, but so avaricious, that if had experienced the misfortune of losing his soul, he would never have bought it back. Almost all misers are men of intelligence: I ought to be totally stupid.

Among the French in the western region of London, one might name Madame de Boigne, charming, spiritual, full of talent, extremely pretty and the youngest of all; she has since represented, with her father, the Marquis of Osmond, the French Court, in England, much better than my savagery achieved. She writes now, and her talent depicts what she has seen, wonderfully well.

mes de Caumont, de Gontaut, and du Cluzel also inhabited that quarter of exiled felicity, that is, if I am not confused regarding Madame de Caumont and Madame du Cluzel, whom I had audience with in Brussels.

Madame la Duchesse de Duras, was certainly in London at this time; I would not meet her till ten years later. How many times in life one passes by what would give delight, like a sailor crossing the waters of a land enamoured of the sun, which he has missed, beyond the horizon, by a day’s sailing! I write this by the banks of the Thames, and tomorrow a letter will go in the post to tell Madame de Duras, on the banks of the Seine, that I have met again with my first memory of her.