Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIII, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIII - Chapter 7
The year 1801 – Madame de Beaumont: her set

Paris, 1837

I did not have to wait long for punishment of my vanity as an author, of the most unpleasant kind, though not the most foolish: I had thought to savour in petto the satisfaction of being a sublime genius, not by wearing, as now, a beard and a strange costume, but distinguished merely by my superiority while still dressing like other honest men; vain hope! My pride was due its reward; correction arrived via the politicians I was obliged to know: celebrity is a gift paid for by the soul.

Monsieur de Fontanes was a friend of Madame Bacciochi; he presented me to this sister of Bonaparte, and soon to the First Consul’s brother, Lucien. The latter had a country house near Senlis (Plessis-Chamant), where I was forced to go and dine; the château had belonged to the Cardinal de Bernis. In the garden there was the tomb of Lucien’s first wife, a lady half German and half Spanish, and the memory of the poet-Cardinal. The nymph feeding a stream, its bed dug out with a spade, was a she-mule who drew the water from a well: that was the source of all those rivers Bonaparte caused to flow through his Empire. Efforts were made to obtain my erasure from the list of émigrés; already I was called and was calling myself Chateaubriand in public, forgetting that I ought still to be called Lassagne. The émigrés returned, among others Messieurs de Bonald and de Chênedollé. Christian de Lamoignon, my friend in exile in London, took me to Madame Récamier’s house: the curtain between her and I was suddenly parted.

The person who occupied the greatest place in my existence on my return from the Emigration was Madame la Comtesse de Beaumont. She lived for part of the year at the Château de Passy, near Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, which Monsieur Joubert occupied during the summer. Madame de Beaumont returned to Paris and wished to meet me.

In order to make of my life one long chain of regrets, Providence decreed that the first person to treat me with kindness at the start of my public career was also the first to vanish. Madame de Beaumont heads the funeral procession of those women who have died before me. My most distant memories rest among ashes, and they have continued falling from coffin to coffin; like the Indian Pandit, I recite the prayers for the dead, until the flowers of my rosary have faded.

Madame de Beaumont was the daughter of Armand-Marc de Saint-Hérem, Comte de Montmorin, French Ambassador in Madrid, Commandant of Brittany, a member of the Assembly of Notables in 1787, and entrusted with the portfolio of Foreign Affairs under Louis XVI, who was very fond of him: he died on the scaffold to which he was later followed by several members of his family.

Madame de Beaumont, with a poor rather than a fine figure, strongly resembled the portrait of her by Madame Lebrun. Her face was thin and pale; her almond-shaped eyes would perhaps have been too bright if an extraordinary sweetness had not half-quenched her glances, making them glow languidly, as a ray of light is dimmed by passing through clear water. Her character had a sort of stiffness and impatience which was due to the strength of her feelings, and the inward suffering she experienced. An elevated soul, of great courage, she was born for the world from which her spirit had withdrawn through unhappiness, and by choice; but when a friendly voice summoned up that lonely intellect, it emerged and spoke to you heavenly words. Madame de Beaumont’s extreme weakness made her slow of expression, and that slowness was touching; I only knew this sadly afflicted woman at the time of her flight; she was already mortally ill, and I devoted myself to her sufferings. I had taken lodgings in the Rue Saint-Honoré, at the Hôtel d’Étampes, near the Rue Neuve-du-Luxembourg (Rue Cambon). Madame de Beaumont occupied an apartment in the latter street, with a view of the gardens belonging to the Justice Ministry. I went to see her each evening with her friends and mine, Monsieur Joubert, Monsieur de Fontanes, Monsieur de Bonald, Monsieur Molé, Monsieur Pasquier, and Monsieur Chênedollé, men who have played a role in literature and public affairs.

Full of odd habits and originality Monsieur Joubert will be eternally missed by those who knew him. He exerted an extraordinary hold on the mind and heart, and when he captured you, his image was there like an event, like an obsession that one could not rid oneself of. His great pretension was to calm, yet no one was as troubled as he was: he was on the alert to stifle those emotions of the spirit that he thought harmful to his health, and his friends were always disrupting the precautions he had taken to remain well, since he could not stop himself being moved by their sadness or their joy: he was an egotist who only cared about others. In order to gather his forces, he considered himself obliged to close his eyes and not speak for hours at a time. God alone knows what sounds and turbulence occurred within him during the silence and calm he prescribed for himself. Monsieur Joubert altered his diet and regime from one moment to the next, living on milk one day, and mincemeat the next, jogging at a rapid pace on the roughest of roads, or dawdling with tiny steps along the best laid avenues. When he was reading he would tear out the pages he disliked, possessing, as a result, a personal library composed of eviscerated works, enclosed by overlarge covers.

A profound metaphysician, his philosophy, by a process of elaboration peculiar to himself, became art or poetry: a Plato with the heart of a La Fontaine, he was taken with an ideal of perfection that prevented his achieving anything. In the manuscripts discovered after his death, he wrote: ‘I am like an Aeolian harp, which produces sweet sounds but plays no tune.’ Madame Victorine de Chastenay claimed that he had the air of a soul which had encountered a body by chance, and managed it as best it could: a statement both delightful and true.

We laughed at enemies of Monsieur de Fontanes, who took him for a deep and subtle politician: he was quite simply an irascible poet, direct to the point of fury, a spirit whom contrariness drove to extremes, and one who could no more hide his opinions than accept those of anyone else. His friend Joubert’s literary principles were not his: the former found something good everywhere and in all writings; Fontanes, on the other hand, was horrified by some or another doctrine, and could not bear to hear the names of certain authors pronounced. He was the sworn enemy of the principles of modern composition: to display material events to the reader’s eyes, the workings of crime or the gibbet with its rope, to him seemed enormities; he claimed one should never behold an object except in a poetic setting, as if within a crystal globe. Grief played out mechanically in front of one’s eyes seemed to him mere sensationalism, like the Circus or the Place de Grève; he could not comprehend tragic feeling that ennobles through awe, and changes, through art, into a sweet pity. I cited the Greek vase paintings to him: in the arabesques decorating those vases, one sees the body of Hector dragged behind Achilles’ chariot, while a tiny figure, suspended in the air, represents the shade of Patroclus, consoled by this vengeance enacted by Thetis’ son. ‘Well, Joubert’ Fontanes would cry, ‘what do you say to this metamorphosis of nakedness? How those Greeks could portray the soul!’ Joubert would consider himself under attack, and would get Fontanes to contradict himself, while reprimanding him for his indulgence towards me. These arguments, often extremely comical, were never ending: one evening, at half past eleven, when I was living in the Place Louis XV, in the top story of Madame de Coislin’s house, Fontanes climbed the eighty-four steps to vent his fury, rapping the floor with the tip of his cane, to finish an argument he had left incomplete: it was a question of Picard, whom he set, at that moment, well above Molière; he would have taken great care to avoid writing down a single word of what he said: Fontanes speaking and Fontanes with pen in hand were two different men.

It was Monsieur Fontanes, I love to relate, who encouraged my first attempts; it was he who heralded Le Génie du Christianisme; it was his muse that, full of wondering devotion, directed mine to the new paths into which it was hastened; he taught me how to hide the deformities in things by the manner in which they were lit; to place, as much as it as in me to do so, classical language in the mouths of my Romantic characters. There were once men who were the guardians of taste, like those dragons that guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides; they only allowed youth to enter when it could touch the fruit without spoiling it.

My friend’s writings set one on a happy course; the spirit experiences well-being and finds itself in a harmonious environment where everything charms and nothing harms. Monsieur de Fontanes revised his works ceaselessly; no one was more convinced, than this master of a former age, of the excellence of the maxim: ‘Hasten, slowly.’ What would he say of the present day, both morally and materially, where they attempt to dig up the road and yet never consider themselves to be travelling quickly enough? Monsieur de Fontanes preferred to travel as the delightful measure took him. You have read what I wrote of him when I met him again in London; the regrets I expressed then, I must repeat here: life obliges us to weep endlessly, in anticipation or in remembrance.

Monsieur de Bonald had a nimble mind: one might have taken his ingenuity for genius; he had dreamed up his metaphysical politics in Condé’s army, in the Black Forest, like those professors at Jena and Göttingen who have since marched at the head of their students and were killed for the cause of German liberty. An innovator, though he had been a musketeer under Louis XVI, he regarded his seniors as children when it came to politics and literature; and he claimed, employing for the first time that self-conceit of present-day language, that the Vice-Chancellor of the University was not yet advanced enough to understand all that.

Chênedollé, possessing knowledge and talent, acquired rather than natural, was so gloomy he was nicknamed the Raven; he prowled around my works. We had made a treaty: I had abandoned my skies, mists and clouds to him; but he agreed to leave me my breezes, waves and forests.

I am only speaking here of my literary friends; as for my political ones, I am not sure if I should speak to you of them: their principles and speeches have dug deep pits between us!

Madame Hocquart and Madame de Vintimille gathered to the Rue Neuve-du-Luxembourg. Madame de Vintimille, a woman of an earlier age, the like of which few remain, frequented society and reported to us what occurred there; I asked her if they were still founding cities. The description of petty scandals sketched with vivid mockery, without being offensive, made us appreciate the value of our own cautiousness more. Madame de Vintimille and her sister had been celebrated in verse by Monsieur Laharpe. Her language was circumspect, her character restrained, her wit borrowed: she might have known Mesdames de Chevreuse, de Longueville, de La Vallière, and de Maintenon, or Madame Geoffrin and Madame du Deffand. She mixed easily in a society where pleasure was taken in the difference between minds, and in the combination of their various worth.

Madame Hocquart was dearly loved by Madame de Beaumont’s brother, whose thoughts were full of her even on the scaffold, just as Aubiac went to the gallows kissing a piece of blue velvet sleeve left to him through Marguerite de Valois’ kindness. From now on, nowhere were gathered under one roof so many distinguished people differing in social position and possessing different destinies, able to speak of the most ordinary or the most elevated things; a simplicity of speech due not to incapacity but choice. It was perhaps the last social venue where the old style French wit was displayed. One no longer finds that urbanity among young French people, the fruit of education transformed by habitual usage into an aspect of character. What happened to that society? Make your plans then, collect your friends, in order to prepare yourself for an eternity of grief! Madame de Beamont is no more, Joubert is no more, Chênedollé is no more; Madame de Vintimille is no more. Once, during the grape harvest, I visited Monsieur Joubert at Villeneuve: I walked with him on the banks of the Yonne; he picked mushrooms in the copses, I gathered autumn crocuses in the meadows. We talked about everything and especially our friend Madame de Beaumont, lost for ever: we summoned up the memory of our former hopes. That evening, we returned to Villeneuve, that town encircled by crumbling walls from the age of Philippe-Auguste and half-ruined towers, above which rose the smoke from the wine-growers’ hearths. Joubert showed me, far-off on a hill, a sandy path through the woods which he took when he went to see his neighbour, concealed in her château of Passy during the Terror.

Since the death of my dear host, I have travelled that region of Sens four or five times. I gazed at the hills from the high road: Joubert no longer walked there; I saw again the woods, fields, vineyards, the little heaps of stone where we used to take a rest. Passing through Villeneuve, I glanced at my friend’s deserted street and shuttered house. The last time it occurred, I was on my way to the Embassy in Rome: ah, if he had been there, I would have carried him off to the grave of Madame de Beaumont! It had pleased God to reveal a heavenly Rome to Monsieur Joubert, still better suited to his Platonic soul, converted to Christianity. I will see him no longer down here: I shall go to him; but he shall not return to me.