Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 1

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XXVIII, 21 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIX, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIX, chapter 1
Madame Récamier

(Extracts from the 1839 material excised from the 1847-1848 revision)

Before passing on to my Rome Embassy, to that Italy, the dream of my days; before continuing my tale, I ought to speak a little more of that woman who will not be lost from sight throughout the rest of these Memoirs. A correspondence is about to be opened between her and myself: the reader should therefore know more of whom I speak, and how and when I came to know Madame Récamier.

In the various ranks of society she met more or less famous people playing their parts on the world’s stage; all worshipped her; her beauty mingles its ideal existence with the material facts of our history; a serene light illuminating a stormy picture. Let us return once more to time past; and try by the light of my setting sun to sketch a portrait in the heavens, over which an approaching night will soon spread its shadow.

After my return to France in 1800, as I have mentioned, a letter published in the Mercure caught the attention of Madame de Staël. I had not yet been erased from the list of émigrés: Atala drew me from obscurity. Madame Bacciochi (Élisa Bonaparte), at Monsieur Fontane’s request, asked for and obtained the erasure. It was Christian de Lamoignon who introduced me to Madame Récamier; she was living at that time in her elegant mansion on the Rue du Mont-Blanc. Coming from my forests and my obscurity, I was still extremely shy; I scarcely dared raise my eyes to a woman surrounded by admirers, and placed so far above me by her beauty and her fame.

One morning, about a month later, I was at Madame de Staël’s; she received me while she was being dressed by Mademoiselle Olive, during which process she talked to me while toying with a little green twig held between her fingers: suddenly Madame Récamier entered wearing a white dress; she sat down in the centre of a blue silk sofa; Madame de Staël remained standing and continued her conversation, in a very lively manner and speaking quite eloquently; I scarcely replied, my eyes fixed on Madame Récamier. I asked myself whether I was viewing a picture of ingenuousness or voluptuousness. I had never imagined anything to equal her and I was more discouraged than ever; my roused admiration turned to annoyance with myself. I think I begged Heaven to age this angel, to reduce her divinity a little, to set less distance between us. When I dreamed of my Sylph, I endowed myself with all the perfections to please her; when I thought of Madame Récamier I lessened her charms to bring her closer to me: it was clear I loved the reality more than the dream. Madame Récamier left and I did not see her again for twelve years.

Twelve years! What hostile power culls and wastes our days like this, lavishing them, ironically, on all the indifferent relationships called attachments, on all the wretched things known as joys! Then, in further derision, when it has withered and spent the most precious part of life, returns us to our point of departure. And what state does it return us in? With minds obsessed with strange ideas, importunate phantoms, and false or incomplete feelings for a world which has brought us no lasting happiness. Those ideas, phantoms, feelings interpose between us and the happiness we might still enjoy. We return with hearts ravaged by regret, grieved for our youthful errors, so painful to the memory in the modesty of age. That is how I returned after visiting Rome, and Syria; after watching the passing of an Empire, after becoming a man of the crowd, and ceasing to be a man of solitude and silence, such as I had been when I saw Madame Récamier for the first time. What had she been doing? What had her life been like?

Montaigne says that men go gaping after future things: I am obsessed with gaping at things past. Everything is delight, especially when one turn’s one’s gaze on the childhood years of those one cherishes: one extends a life beloved; one casts the affection one feels over days one has not known, and breathes new life into; one embellishes what was with what is, and rewards youth: moreover one is without apprehension, since one has the experience only for oneself; through the qualities one has discovered there, one knows that the relationship started in that springtime can make no use of its wings and can never wither from its first morning.

In Lyons I saw the Jardin des Plantes established near the amphitheatre in the gardens of the former Abbaye de la Déserte, now demolished: the Rhône and Saône are at your feet; in the distance Europe’s highest mountain rises, the first Roman milestone on the road to Italy, a white signpost above the clouds.

Madame Récamier was placed in that Abbey; she spent her childhood behind its grill, which only opened onto the church beyond at the Elevation of the Host. Then one could see young girls prostrating themselves in the chapel inside the Convent. The Abbess’s name-day was the community’s principal day of celebration; the most beautiful of the girls paid the customary compliments: dressed in her finery, her hair plaited, her head was veiled and crowned by her companions; and all was done without speaking, since the hour of rising was one of those named as an hour of profound silence in the convents. It goes without saying that Juliette had the honours of the day.

Her father and mother, established in Paris, summoned their children to them. With the rough sketches written by Madame Recamier I received this note:

‘On the eve of the day when my aunt came to fetch me, I was led to the Abbess’ room to receive her blessing. On the next day, bathed in tears, I passed through the egress whose door I could not remember opening to allow my entry, and found myself in a carriage with my aunt, and we left for Paris.

I left that time of peace and purity with regret, in order to enter one of anxiety. It comes back to me sometimes like a vague sweet dream with its clouds of incense, its endless ceremony, its processions through the gardens, its hymns and flowers.’

Those hours extracted from a desert of piety, now repose in a different religious solitude, having lost nothing of their freshness and harmony.

During the brief Peace of Amiens (1802), Madame Récamier paid a visit to London with her mother.

Such is the power of novelty in England, that the newspapers next morning were full of the arrival of the foreign Beauty. Madame Récamier received visits from everyone to whom she had sent letters. Among these persons the most remarkable was the Duchess of Devonshire, who was then between forty-five and fifty years of age. She was still fashionable and beautiful though she had lost an eye, a fact which she hid with a lock of hair. The first time Madame Récamier appeared in public, it was in her company. The Duchess directed her to her box at the Opera where she met the Prince of Wales, the Duc d’Orléans, and the latter’s brothers the Duc de Montpensier and the Comte de Beaujolais; the first two were to become Kings, one was in reach of the throne, and the other separated from it by the abyss. Lorgnettes and eyes turned towards the Duchess’ box. The Prince of Wales told Madame de Récamier that if she did not want to be stifled she must leave before the end of the performance. She had scarcely risen when the doors of the boxes were flung open: she could not escape and was swept to her carriage by the tide of people.

Next day Madame Récamier went to Kensington Gardens accompanied by the Marquess of Douglas, later Duke of Hamilton, who has since welcomed Charles X to Holyrood, and his sister the Duchess of Somerset. The crowd followed hard on the fair foreigner’s heels. This phenomenon was repeated every time she showed herself in public; the newspapers resounded with her name, and her portrait, engraved by Bartalozzi, was distributed throughout England. The author of Antigone, Monsieur Ballanche, adds that ships carried it as far as the Isles of Greece: beauty returning to the place where its image was invented. We have an unfinished portrait of Madame Récamier by David, a full-length portrait by Gérard, and a bust by Canova. The portrait is Gérard’s masterpiece; it is delightful, but does not please me, because I recognise the features without recognizing the expression of the model.

On the eve of Madame Récamier’s departure, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Devonshire asked leave to call on her and bring with them some of their set. Requests multiplying, the assembly was numerous. There was music; Madame Récamier, with the Chevalier Marin, the leading harpist of the day, performed variations on a theme of Mozart, which were dedicated to her. The English newspapers were full of the details of this soirée. They noted the deeply animated and gracious enthusiasm of the Prince of Wales, and his undivided attention to the beautiful foreigner.

The next day she set sail for The Hague, taking three days for a sixteen hour crossing. She told me that during those storm-wracked days, she read Le Génie du Christianisme; I was revealed to her, according to her generous expression: I recognise there the kindness the winds and seas have always shown me.

Madame Récamier was in Naples in February 1814; where was I? In the Vallée-aux-Loups, I was beginning the story of my life. I occupied myself writing about my childhood games to the sound of foreign soldiers. The woman whose name should close these Memoirs was wandering the shores of Baiae. Did I have a presentiment of the good which would one day come to me from that land, when I described the seductions of Parthenope in The Martyrs:

‘Each morning, as soon as dawn broke, I went out to the portico. The sun rose in front of me; it illuminated with its gentlest fires the range of hills above Salerno, the blue sea scattered with the white sails of fishing boats, the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida, Cape Miseno and Baiae with their enchantments.

Flowers and fruits, moist with dew, are less sweet and fresh than the landscape of Naples emerging from the shadows of night. I was always surprised on reaching the portico to find myself at the edge of the sea: since the waves, in that strait, sounded with barely a fountain’s light murmur. Ecstatic before this scene I leant against a pillar, and without thought, desire, or plan, spent whole hours breathing the delicious air. The spell was so deep that it seemed as if that divine air transformed my own substance and that with inexpressible delight I was lifted towards the firmament like a pure spirit….

To wait for beauty or to seek her, to see her approaching on her seashell, and smiling at us from the midst of the waves; to sail with her across the flood, scattering flowers over its surface, to follow the enchantress into the depths of those myrtle groves and to the happy fields where Virgil places his Elysium; such was the occupation of our days…

Perhaps it is a climate dangerous to virtue, because of its extreme sensuousness? Is that not what an ingenious legend would like to tell us, by recounting that Parthenope was built about a Siren’s tomb? At Naples, the velvet brightness of the countryside, the mild temperature of the air, the contours rounding the hills, the soft curves of rivers and valleys, are as seductive to the senses as all peace is….

To escape the heat of midday, we would retire to a section of the Palace built above the sea. Lying there on beds adorned with ivory, we would listen to the murmur of the waves beneath our heads. If some storm surprised us in the depth of our retreat, slaves would light the lamps filled with the most precious nard of Arabia. Then young Neapolitan girls entered bearing roses from Paestum, in vases from Nola: while the waves sounded outside, they sang and performed tranquil dances for us that recalled the Greek style to me: thus the fictions of the poets were realised for us; they might have been the Nereids playing in Neptune’s grotto…’

Reader, if you grow impatient with my quotations, my recitations, firstly reflect that for all I know you might not have read my works, and then that I can no longer hear you; I sleep beneath the soil you tread: if you want me, stamp with your foot on the earth, you can only insult my bones. Consider moreover that my writings were an essential part of that existence whose leaves I scatter for you. Ah! Did not my Neapolitan sketches contain a deeper reality! Was not the daughter of the Rhône the true woman of my imaginary delights! Yet not so: if I was Augustine, Jerome, Eudore, I was so alone; my days in Italy preceded those of Corinne’s friend: how fortunate I would have been if they had always belonged to her! How fortunate if I could have spread my entire life under her feet, like a carpet of flowers! But my life is harsh and its asperities wound me. May at least my last moments be tender towards she who consoles them! May my dying hours reflect back to her the gentleness and charm with which she has filled them, she who has been beloved by all and of whom no one has ever complained!

It was during a grievous time for France’s glory that I met Madame Récamier again, it was at the time of Madame de Staël’s death in 1817. Returning to Paris after the Hundred Days, the author of Delphine had returned ill; I had seen her since at home, and at Madame de Duras’ house. Gradually as her state worsened she was obliged to keep to her bed. I went to see her one morning in the Rue Royale; the shutters of her windows were two-thirds closed; the bed was against the wall at the far end of the room, leaving only a narrow space on the left: the curtains drawn back on their rods formed two columns at the head of the bed. Madame de Staël was propped up by pillows in a half-sitting position. I approached, and once my eyes were somewhat accustomed to the gloom, I was able to make out the invalid’s features. A feverish flush coloured her cheeks. Her splendid eyes met mine in the shadows, and she said to me: ‘Bonjour, my dear Francis. I am suffering, but that does not prevent me from loving you.’ She held out her hand which I pressed and kissed. As I raised my head, I saw something thin and white rising up on the opposite side of the bed in the space by the wall: it was Monsieur de Rocca, haggard, and hollow-cheeked, with bleary eyes and a sallow complexion: he was dying; I had never seen him before, and I never saw him again. He did not open his mouth; he bowed as he passed me; his footsteps were inaudible: he went away like a shadow. Stopping for a moment at the door, a scrawny figure twisting its fingers, he turned back towards the bed, to wave goodbye to Madame de Staël. Those two spectres gazing at each other in silence, the one pale and erect, the other sitting there flushed with blood that was ready to flow back once more and congeal at the heart, made one shudder.

A few days later, Madame de Staël changed her lodgings. She invited me to dinner at her apartment in the Rue Neuve des Mathurins; I went there. She was not in the drawing-room and was not even able to dine; though she was unaware that the fatal hour was so close. We sat to the table. I found myself placed next to Madame Récamier. It had been twelve years since I had seen her, and then I had only glimpsed her for a moment. I did not look at her; she did not look at me; we did not exchange a single word. When, towards the end of the meal, she timidly addressed a few words to me about Madame de Staël’s illness, I turned my head a little, and raised my eyes, and saw my guardian angel at my right hand.

I should be afraid now to profane with aged lips a feeling which is still young in my memory and whose charm increases as life ebbs away. I draw aside my past years to reveal behind them celestial visions, to hear from the depths of the abyss the harmonies of a happier region.

Madame de Staël died. The last note she wrote to Madame de Duras was traced in big straggling letters like a child’s. It contained an affectionate word for Francis. The death of talent affects us more than the individual who dies: it is a common grief that afflicts society; everyone suffers the same loss at the same instant.

A considerable portion of the age I have lived in vanished with Madame de Staël; such a gap, which the vanishing of a superior intellect makes in a century, cannot be repaired. Her death made a deep impression on me, mingled with a kind of mysterious amazement: it was at that illustrious woman’s house that I had first met Madame Récamier, and after long years of separation it was Madame de Staël once more who brought together two travellers who had become almost strangers to one another: with a funeral banquet she left them a memory of herself and the example of an immortal attachment. I went to see Madame Récamier in the Rue Basse-du-Rempart and later in the Rue d’Anjou. When a man is reunited with his fate, he imagines he has never left it: life according to Pythagoras is merely reminiscence. Who, in the course of his life, does not remember certain little circumstances of no interest to anyone except he who recalls them? The house in the Rue d’Anjou had a garden; in the garden was a lime-tree bower between whose leaves I would see a gleam of moonlight while waiting for Madame Récamier: does it not seem to me now that surely that gleam is mine, and that if I went to that very place I would find it again? Yet I barely remember the sun I have seen shining on so many brows.

It was at that time that I was obliged to sell the Vallée-aux-Loupes, which Madame Récamier rented, going halves with Monsieur de Montmorency. Increasingly tried by fate, Madame Récamier retired to the Abbaye-aux-Bois. A dark corridor connected two little rooms; I maintained that this hallway was lit by a gentle light. The bedroom was furnished with a bookcase, a harp, a piano, a portrait of Madame de Staël, and a view of Coppet by moonlight. On the window sills were pots of flowers.

When, breathless after climbing three flights of stairs, I entered this little cell as dusk was falling, I was entranced. The windows looked out over the Abbaye garden, around the green enclosure of which the nuns made circuits, and in which the schoolgirls ran about. The summit of an acacia tree reached to eye-level and the hills of Sèvres could be seen on the horizon. The setting sun gilded the picture and entered through the open windows. Madame Récamier would be at the piano; the Angelus would toll; the notes of the bell, which seemed to mourn the dying day: ‘il giorno pianger che si more’, mingled with the final accents of the invocation to the night from Steibelt’s Romeo and Juliet. A few birds would come and settle on the raised window-blinds. I would merge with the distant silence and solitude, above the noise and tumult of a great city.

God, in giving me these hours of calm, compensated me for my hours of trouble; I caught a glimpse of the future peace which my faith believes in and my hopes invoke. Worried as I was elsewhere by political affairs, or disgusted by the ingratitude of the Court, tranquillity of heart awaited me in the depths of that retreat, like the coolness of the woods on leaving a scorching plain. I recovered my calm beside a woman who spread serenity around her, without it being too level a tranquillity, for it passed among profound affections. Alas! The men whom I used to meet at Madame Récamier’s, Mathieu de Montmorency, Camille Jordan, Benjamin Constant, the Duc de Laval have gone to join Hingant, Joubert, Fontanes, other absentees of an absent company. Among that succession of friendships other young friends arose, springtime shoots in an old forest where the felling is eternal. I ask of them, I ask of Monsieur Ampère, who will happily take my place when I am gone, and who will read this in editing my proofs, I ask them one and all to preserve a memory of me: I hand them the thread of a life whose end Lachesis is loosing from the spindle. My inseparable friend on the road, Monsieur Ballanche, finds himself alone at the end of my career as he was at the beginning; he has been the witness of my friendships severed by time, as I have been witness to his swept away by the Rhône. Rivers always undermine their banks.

My friends’ misfortunes have often weighed on me and I have never shirked those sacred burdens: the moment of reward has arrived: a serious attachment deigns to help me bear whatever their weight adds to wretched days. Approaching my end, it seems to me that all I have loved I have loved in Madame Récamier, and that she was the hidden source of all my affections. My memories of various times, those of my dreams, as well as those of my realities, have been kneaded together, blended to make a compound of charms and sweet sufferings, of which she has become the visible form. She rules over my feelings, in the same way that Heaven’s authority has brought happiness, order and peace to my duties.

I have followed the fair traveller along the path she has trodden so lightly; I will soon go before her to a new country. Wandering through these Memoirs, through the passages of this Basilica I am hastening to complete, she may come across this chapel which I dedicate to her; it may please her perhaps to rest here a moment: I have placed her image here.