Chateaubriand's memoirs, XII, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XII - Chapter 5
England from Richmond to Greenwich – A trip with Peltier – Blenheim – Stowe – Hampton Court – Oxford – Eton College – Private life; political life – Fox – Pitt – Burke – George III



London, April to September 1822.

Now, after having spoken to you of English writers at the time when England served as my refuge, it only remains for me to say something of England itself at that period, its appearance, famous places, stately homes, and its private and political manners.

All of England can perhaps be appreciated in the space of twenty two miles, between Richmond, above London, and Greenwich below it.

Below London, lies industrial and commercial England, with its docks, warehouses, customs houses, arsenals, breweries, factories, foundries, and ships; the latter, at each tide, sail up the Thames in three groups, the smallest first, the middle-sized next, and lastly, the large vessels which shave with their sails the columns of the Royal Hospital and the windows of the tavern where visitors dine.

Above London, is agricultural and pastoral England with meadows, herds, country houses, and parks, whose lawns and shrubs the waters of the Thames, driven back by the rising tide, bathe twice a day. Between these two opposite points of Richmond and Greenwich, London merges together all of this double England: to the west aristocracy, to the east democracy, the Tower of London and Westminster, the boundaries between which the entire history of Great Britain has been enacted.

I spent part of the summer of 1799 at Richmond with Christian de Lamoignon, occupying myself with the Génie du Christianisme. I took boat trips on the Thames, or turns in RichmondPark. I would dearly have liked the London Richmond to be the Richmond of the treaty Honor Richemundiae, since then I would have found myself at home, and here is the reason: William the Bastard presented Alain, Duke de Bretagne, his son-in-law, with four hundred and forty-two areas of manorial land in England, which from then on formed the County of Richmond (see the Domesday Book): the Dukes of Brittany, Alain’s successors enfeoffed these domains to Breton knights, cadet branches of the families of Rohan, Tinteniac, Chateaubriand, Goyon, and Montboucher. But despite my dearest wish I would have needed to seek in Yorkshire for that County of Richmond made into a Duchy under Charles II for his bastard son: Richmond on Thames is the ancient Shene of Edward III.

There Edward III died in 1377, that famous king robbed by Alice Perrers, his mistress, no longer the Alice or Catherine of Salisbury of the early days of the victor of Crécy’s life: do not love except at an age when you can be loved. Henry VII and Elizabeth also died at Richmond: where can one not die? Henry VIII enjoyed it as a place of residence. English historians are deeply embarrassed by this abominable human being; on the one hand they cannot hide his tyranny and Parliament’s subservience; on the other, if they speak out too much against the leader of the Reformation, they condemn themselves in condemning him:

‘The viler the oppressor, the more the slave is vile.’

In RichmondPark they show you the hillock that served Henry VIII as an observation post while watching for the sign of Anne Boleyn’s execution. Henry shivered with pleasure at the signal-rocket fired from the Tower of London. What delight! The axe had severed that delicate neck, bloodying the lovely hair in which the poet-king had twined his fatal caresses.

In a deserted RichmondPark, I did not await a signal indicating murder: I would not have wished even the smallest ill on anyone who might betray me. I walked there among a few peaceable deer: accustomed to run before a pack of hounds, they stopped when they were tired; they were brought back, very happy and quite content from this sport, in a cart filled with straw. I would go to see the kangaroos at Kew, ridiculous creatures, precisely the opposite of giraffes: those innocent quadrupeds stocked Australia more fittingly than the old Duke of Queensbury’s whores did the alleys of Richmond. The Thames bordered the lawn of a cottage half-hidden beneath a cedar of Lebanon, among weeping willows: a newly married couple had arrived to spend their honeymoon in this paradise.

Now, as I was walking quietly one evening on the lawns of Twickenham, Peltier appeared, holding his handkerchief to his mouth: ‘What an eternal cloud of fog!’ he cried as soon as he was capable of speaking. ‘How the devil can you stay here? I have made a list: Stowe, Blenheim, Hampton Court, Oxford; with your dreamy way of going on, you will be here with John Bull in vitam aeternam, and see nothing.’

I asked to be spared, in vain, I had to go. In the carriage, Peltier recounted his hopes to me; he employed relays; one dying under him, he would bestride another, and so on, leg by leg, to the end of his days. One of his hopes, the most solid, led him in the end to Napoleon whom he took by the throat: Napoleon had the foolishness to cross swords with him. Peltier had James Mackintosh as his defence lawyer; condemned by the Court, he made a fresh fortune (which he consumed incontinently) in selling the narrative of his trial.

Blenheim was disagreeable to me: I suffered all the more over my country’s historic defeat, in that I had been forced to endure the insult of a recent affront: a boat upstream on the Thames spotted me on the shore; the rowers aware of a Frenchman began jeering; they had just heard the news of the naval action at Aboukir Bay: this foreign victory which might open the gates of France again, was nevertheless odious to me. Nelson, whom I had seen several times in Hyde Park, followed up his victories at Naples dressed in Lady Hamilton’s shawl, while the lazzaroni (the homeless idlers of Naples) played at bowls with heads. The admiral died gloriously at Trafalgar, and his mistress miserably at Calais, having lost beauty, youth and fortune. And I whom the triumph at Aboukir offended so greatly on the banks on the Thames, I have seen the palm trees of Libya lining the shore of a sea calm and empty which was once reddened by the blood of my countrymen.

The park at Stowe is famous for its ornamental structures: I liked its shade more. The guide to the place showed us, in a dark valley, a copy of a temple whose model I would admire in the gleaming Valley of Cephisus. Fine paintings of the ItalianSchool grieved in the depths of a few inhabited rooms, whose shutters were closed: poor Raphael imprisoned in a mansion of the ancient Britons, far from the heaven of the Farnesina!

Hampton Court retained its collection of portraits of Charles II’ mistresses: that’s how this Prince conducted himself after escaping a Revolution that saw his father’s head fall and which was forced to drive out his race.

We arrived at Slough, Herschel and his learned sister, and his great forty-foot telescope; he sought new planets: that made Peltier laugh who held fast to the seven ancient ones.

We stayed for two days in Oxford. I enjoyed being in that republic founded by Alfred the Great; it represented the privileged freedoms and manners of the literary institutions of the Middle Age. We explored the twenty colleges in depth, the libraries, the paintings, the museum, the botanical garden. Amongst the manuscript collection of WorcesterCollege, I leafed through a life of the Black Prince, written in French verse by the Prince’s Herald at Arms, with great delight.

Oxford, without resembling them, brought to mind the modest colleges of Dol, Rennes and Dinan. I had translated Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,’

an imitation of these lines from Dante:

‘… squilla di lontano,
Che paia il giorno pianger che si more.’

Peltier hastened to publish my translation, to the sound of trumpets, in his journal. At the sight of Oxford, I recalled the same poets Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.

‘Ah, happy hills, ah, pleasing shade,
Ah, fields beloved in vain,
Where once my careless childhood strayed,
A stranger yet to pain!
I feel the gales, that from ye blow,
A momentary bliss bestow,
As waving fresh their gladsome wing,
My weary soul they seem to soothe,
And, redolent of joy and youth,
To breathe a second spring.
Say, Father Thames….
What idle progeny succeed
To chase the rolling circle’s speed,
Or urge the flying ball?....
Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond today.’

Who has not experienced the feelings and regrets expressed here with all the sweetness of the Muse? Who has not been moved at memories of the games, studies, loves of former years? But can one bring them back to life? The delights of youth reproduced in memory are ruins seen by torchlight.

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE ENGLISH

Divorced from the Continent by a long war, the English, at the end of the last century, retained their national character and way of life. They were still one people, in whose name power was exercised by an aristocratic government; there were but two great classes friendly towards each other and bound by a common interest, the patrons and their dependants. That jealous class, called the bourgeoisie in France, which is beginning to appear in England, did not yet exist: nothing stood between the rich landowners and men occupied with their trade. Everything had not yet become the machinery of professional manufacture, the follies of the privileged order. On the same pavements where one now sees grimy faces and men in frock-coats, little girls in white cloaks passed by, their straw hats fastened under the chin with a ribbon, a basket containing fruit or books on their arm; all kept their eyes lowered, all blushed when one looked at them. Britain, says Shakespeare, is: ‘in a great pool a swan’s nest.’ Frock-coats without a jacket beneath were so unusual in London in 1793 that a woman, weeping bitterly over the death of Louis XVI, said to me: ‘But, my dear sir is it true that the poor King was dressed in a frock-coat when they cut off his head?’

The gentleman farmers had not yet sold their patrimony in order to live in London; in the House of Commons they still formed that independent faction which, supporting now the opposition now the government, maintained the ideals of liberty, order and propriety. They hunted foxes and shot pheasants in the autumn, ate fatted geese at Christmas, shouted vivat at roast beef, grumbled about the present, praised the past, cursed Pitt and the war, because it raised the price of port, and went to bed drunk to recommence the same life the next day. They were convinced that the glory of Great Britain would never fade as long as they sang God save the King, rotten boroughs were maintained, the game laws kept in force, and as long as they secretly sent hares and partridges to market under the titles of lions and ostriches.

The Anglican clergy was learned, hospitable and generous; it had welcomed the French clergy with truly Christian charity. Oxford University, at its own expense printed, and distributed freely among the curés, a New Testament according to the Latin Vulgate, with the imprint: in usum cleri gallicani in Anglia exulantis. As for English high society, as a poor exile I only saw it from the outside. When there was a reception at Court or at the Princess of Wales’, ladies went by in sedan chairs sitting sideways; their great hoop-petticoats emerged from the door like altar hangings. They themselves, set on those waist-high altars, looked like madonnas or pagodas. Those fine ladies were the daughters whose mothers the Duc de Guiche and the Duc de Lauzun had once admired; those daughters are, in 1822, the mothers and grandmothers of the little girls who dance at my residence in short frocks to the music of Collinet’s flute, a passing generation of flowers.

POLITICAL LIFE

England in 1688, at the close of the last century, was at the peak of its glory. A poor émigré in London, from 1792 to 1800, I heard speeches by Pitt, Fox, Sheridan, Wilberforce, Grenville, Whitbread, Lauderdale and Erskine; today in 1822, as Ambassador to London in all my magnificence, I am not sure how it strikes me, since, instead of the great orators I admired previously, I see those rise to speak who were their followers at the time of my first visit, students in place of the masters. Common ideas have penetrated that individualistic society. But the enlightened aristocracy, placed in charge of the country for a hundred and forty years, will have displayed to the world one of the finest and greatest social orders which has done honour to the human species since the Roman Patriciate. Perhaps, some old family, in the depths of the country, will recognize the society I happen to describe, and will regret the passing of those times whose loss I here deplore.

In 1792, Mr Burke split from Mr Fox. The breach concerned the French Revolution which Mr Burke attacked, and Mr Fox supported. Never had the two orators, who until then had been friends, deployed such eloquence. The whole Chamber was moved, and tears filled Mr Fox’s eyes, when Mr Burke ended his reply with these words: ‘The Right Honourable gentleman, in the speech he has made, has treated me in every phrase with uncommon harshness; he has censured my entire life, my conduct and my opinions. Notwithstanding this great and serious attack, unmerited on my part, I will not be intimidated; I do not fear to declare my sentiments in this Chamber nor anywhere else. I say to the whole world that the Constitution is in peril. It is indiscreet at any period, but especially at my time of life, to provoke enemies, or give my friends occasion to desert me. Yet if my firm and steady adherence to the British Constitution place me in such a dilemma, I am ready to risk it, and, as public need and public prudence demand, with, my last words to exclaim: “Fly from the French Constitution!”’

Mr Fox having said that it was not a question of loss of friends, Mr Burke cried: ‘Yes, there is a loss of friends! I know the price of my conduct. I have done my duty at the price of my friend. Our friendship is at an end. I warn the Right Honourable gentlemen, who are the greatest rivals in this Chamber, that they must in future (whether they move in the political hemisphere like two great meteors, or whether they march together like brothers), I warn them that they must cherish and preserve the British Constitution, that they must guard it against innovation and save it from the danger of these new theories.’ A memorable age of the world.

Mr Burke, whom I met at the end of his life, overwhelmed by the death of his only son, founded a school dedicated to the children of impoverished émigrés. I went to see what he called his nursery. He was delighted with the liveliness of this foreign race that passed beneath his paternal genius. Watching the little exiles leaping heedlessly, he said to me: ‘Our boys could not do that’ and his eyes filled with tears: he was thinking of his son who had gone to a longer exile.

Pitt, Fox, Burke are no more, and the English Constitution has suddenly acquired the influence of those new theories. One has to have listened to the seriousness of the parliamentary debates of that era, to have heard those orators whose prophetic voices seemed to announce an imminent revolution, to gain an idea of the scene that I recall. Liberty, contained within the limits of order, seemed at Westminster to struggle against the influence of anarchic liberty, which spoke to the gallery still bloody from the Convention.

Mr Pitt, tall and thin, had a mournful mocking air. His speech was cold, his delivery monotonous, and his gestures lifeless; yet, the lucidity and fluency of his thought, the logic of his reasoning, suddenly illumined by flashes of eloquence, rendered his talents something out of the ordinary.

I saw Mr Pitt quite frequently, as he crossed Saint James’s Park on foot from his residence to visit the king. George III, for his part, would arrive from Windsor, having drunk beer from a pewter pot with the neighbouring farmers; he would cross the ugly courtyards of his ugly citadel, in a grey carriage followed by several Horse Guards; he was the master of the kings of Europe, as five or six City merchants are the masters of India. Mr Pitt, dressed in black, a sword with a steel hilt at his side, his hat under his arm, climbed in taking two or three of the steps at a time. On his journey he only met with three or four idle émigrés: casting a disdainful glance towards us, he passed by, nose in air, pale of face.

That great financier kept no order at home; no fixed hours for meals or sleep. Crippled with debt, he paid nothing, and could not bear to commit the sum to paper. A valet ran his house. Badly dressed, without pleasures, or passions, only eager for power, he despised honours, and wished to be no more than William Pitt.

Lord Liverpool, in the month of June of this year 1822, took me to dine at his country house: crossing Putney Heath, he showed me the little house where the son of Lord Chatham died in debt, the statesman who had had Europe in his pay and distributed all the earth’s billions with his own hands.

George III survived Mr Pitt, but lost his reason and his sight. Each session, at the opening of Parliament, the Ministers read quietly in their chambers awaiting the bulletin regarding the king’s health. One day, I went to visit Windsor: for a few shillings I obtained the good will of a doorman who concealed me so as to see the king. The monarch, blind and white-haired, appeared, like King Lear, wandering his palace, groping his way along the walls. He sat down at a piano whose location he was familiar with, and played several bars of a sonata by Handel: a fine end to Old England!