Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIII, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIII - Chapter 3
The year 1800 – The scene in France – I arrive in Paris



Dieppe, 1836
Someone, of the ancestral house, is here (Rabelais)

For eight years, exiled in Great Britain, I had seen only an English world, so different, particularly then, to the rest of the European world.

As the Dover packet neared Calais, in the spring of 1800, my gaze was on shore before me. I was struck by the impoverished air of my country: hardly any masts rose from the harbour; a crowd in short jackets (en carmagnole) and cotton caps strode in front of us along the jetty: the conquerors of a continent were announced to me by the sound of clogs. When we drew alongside the pier, the police and customs men leaped onto the bridge, to check our luggage and passports: in France, a man is always suspect, and the first thing one is aware of in public matters, as in our pleasures, is a three cornered hat or a bayonet.

Mrs Lindsay was waiting for us at the inn; next day we left for Paris with her: Madame Aguesseau, a young relative of hers, and I.

On the road, one saw hardly any men; women bronzed and blackened, worked the fields, their feet naked, their heads bare, or covered by a handkerchief: one would have taken them for slaves. I was bound to be somewhat amazed by the independence and vigour of this land where women handled the hoe while men handled the musket. One would have said that a fire had passed through the villages; they were in a wretched state and half-demolished: all was dust and mud, smoke and debris.

To right and left of the road, ruined country houses appeared; of their razed plantations, only a few felled trunks remained, on which children played. One could see shattered boundary walls, abandoned churches, from which the dead had been driven, bell-towers without bells, cemeteries without crosses, headless saints stoned in their niches. Daubed on the walls, and already old, was the Republican inscription: LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY OR DEATH. Sometimes there had been an attempt to erase the word DEATH, but the red or black letters still appeared under a layer of whitewash. The nation, which seemed on the point of dissolution, was entering a new world, like those peoples fleeing the darkness of barbarity and destruction in the Middle Ages.

Approaching the capital, between Écouen and Paris, the elms had not been cut down; I was struck by those beautiful tree-lined avenues, unknown on English soil. France was as new to me as once the forests of America had been. Saint-Denis was exposed, its windows shattered; rain penetrated its grassy naves, and there were no longer any tombs; I have since seen the bones of Louis XVI there, the Cossacks, the Duc de Berry’s coffin, and the catafalque of Louis XVIII.

Auguste de Lamoignon came to meet Mrs Lindsay: his elegant carriage contrasted with the heavy carts, and dirty stagecoaches, dilapidated and drawn by broken-down nags hitched to them with ropes, that I had encountered since Calais. Mrs Lindsay lived at Ternes. They set me down in the Chemin de la Revolté and I crossed the fields to reach my hostess’s home. I stayed at her house for twenty-four hours; there I met a certain tall fat Monsieur Lasalle who arranged émigré matters for her. She warned Monsieur de Fontanes of my arrival; at the end of forty-eight hours, he came to find me in the depths of a little room which Mrs Lindsay had rented for me in an inn almost at her door.

It was a Sunday: towards three in the afternoon, we entered Paris on foot through the Barrière de l’Étoile. We have no idea today of the impression that the excesses of the Revolution made on the minds of Europe, and principally among men absent from France during the Terror; it seemed to me, that I was literally landing in Hell. I had been witness, it is true, to the start of the Revolution; but the greatest crimes had not then been committed, and I was bowed down by subsequent events, such of them as were recounted in a peaceful and well-ordered English society.

Appearing under a false name, and convinced that I was compromising my friend Fontanes, on entering the Champs-Elysées I was amazed to hear the sounds of violins, horns, clarinets and drums. I saw dance-halls where men and women were dancing; further on, the Tuileries palace appeared at the far end of its two great stands of chestnut trees. As for the Place Louis XV, it was bare; it had the ruined look, melancholy and deserted, of an ancient amphitheatre; I passed it swiftly; I was quite surprised not to hear any groans; I was fearful of putting my foot in a pool of blood of which there was not a trace; my eyes were drawn to that corner of sky where the instrument of death had towered; I thought I could see my brother and sister-in-law in their shifts lying beneath the blood-drenched machine: there Louis XVI’s head fell. Despite the joyful streets, the church towers were silent; it felt as though I was returning on that day of immense grief, Good Friday.

Monsieur de Fontanes lived in the Rue Saint-Honoré, near Saint-Roch. He led me to his house, presented me to his wife, and then conducted me to the house of a friend, Monsieur Joubert, where I found temporary shelter: I was received like a traveller of whom word had been given.

Next day I went to the prefecture, and under the name of Lassagne handed over my foreign passport, receiving in exchange, to cover my stay in Paris, a permit renewable from month to month. After a few days, I rented a mezzanine in the Rue de Lille, near the Rue Saints-Pères.

I had brought with me the manuscript of Le Génie de Christianisme and the first pages of that work, printed in London. I was sent to Monsieur Migneret, a worthy man, who agreed to re-commence the interrupted printing and to forward me an advance to live on. Not a soul knew of my Essai sur les Révolutions, despite what Monsieur Lemierre had told me. I dug out the old philosopher Deslisle de Sales, who was about to publish his Mémoire en faveur de Dieu, and I returned to Ginguené’s house. He was lodged in the Rue de Grenelle-Saint-Germain, near the Hôtel du Bon La Fontaine. On the concierge’s lodge was a sign: Here we respect the title of citizen, and address each other as tu. Keep the door closed, please. I went up: Monsieur Ginguené, who scarcely recognised me, spoke to me from the heights of grandeur of all that he was and had been. I retired humbly, and did not attempt to renew so incompatible a relationship.

Always, in the depths of my heart, I nourished regrets for, and memories of, England; I had lived in that country for so long that I had grown accustomed to it: I could not get used to the filthiness of our houses, and our stairs, our dirtiness, our noise, our familiarity, our indiscreet gossip: I was English in manners, taste, and, up to a point, in thought; for if, as is claimed, Lord Byron was sometimes inspired by René while writing Childe Harold, it is also true to say that eight years residence in Great Britain, preceded by a voyage to America, and a prolonged acquaintance with speaking, writing, and even thinking in English, had necessarily influenced the direction and expression of my ideas. But little by little I tasted that sociability that distinguishes us, that delightful interaction between intelligent men, rapid and easy, that absence of all arrogance and prejudice, that indifference to fortune and name, that natural levelling of the classes, that equality of spirit that makes French society unique and makes amends for our faults: after a few months living among us, one feels one can only live in Paris.