Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXV, 13

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XXV, 12 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXVI, 1


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXV, chapter 13
I assist Monsieur de Villèle and Monsieur de Corbière to their first Ministry – My letter to the Duc de Richelieu – A note from the Duc de Richelieu and my reply – A note from Monsieur de Polignac – Letters from Monsieur de Montmorency and Monsieur de Pasquier



However, the complication of events had still resolved nothing. The assassination of Monsieur the Duc de Berry had led to the fall of Monsieur Decazes, which did not happen without a wrench. Monsieur the Duc de Richelieu would only consent to grieve his old master after a promise from Monsieur Pasquier of Monsieur Decazes’ receiving a foreign mission. He left for the London embassy where I was to replace him. Everything was incomplete. Monsieur de Villèle remained on the sidelines with his shadow, Monsieur de Corbière. I for my part presented a considerable obstacle. Madame de Montcalm never ceased urging me to make peace: I was very well disposed to do so, only wishing sincerely to emerge from the problems which enveloped me and for which I had a sovereign contempt. Monsieur de Villèle, though more flexible, was not easy to handle at that time.

There are two ways to become a minister; the one way is brusquely and by force, the other is by patience and skill; the first method was not Monsieur de Villèle’s approach: cunning excludes energy, but it is more certain and less likely to lose the position it gains. The essentials of this latter method are to accept many rebuffs, and to know how to swallow a tangle of snakes: Monsieur de Talleyrand made great use of this second system for satisfying his ambitions. In general, one achieves an entry into office by means of the mediocre elements in one’s character, and remains there because of the superior ones. This combination of opposing factors is a rare thing, and that is why there are so few Statesmen.

Monsieur de Villèle had precisely the sort of down-to-earth qualities which opened the door for him: he ignored the noise around him, in order to gather the fruits of the fear that had gripped the Court. Now and then he made bellicose speeches, but ones where various phrases allowed optimism of a reasonable nature to shine forth. I considered that a man of that type ought to begin by attaining office, no matter how, and in not too precarious a position. It seemed to me that he ought first to become a minister without portfolio, in order to obtain the Presidency of that same administration one day. That would give him a reputation for moderation, which would suit him perfectly; it would appear evident that the royalist opposition leader in parliament was un-ambitious, since he would have consented to reign himself in for the benefit of peace. Every man who has been a Minister, no matter by what title, becomes one again: a first ministry is a rung on the ladder to a second; the individual who has worn the embroidered coat retains the odour of his portfolio, which sooner or later finds him again in office.

Madame de Montcalm told me, on her brother’s behalf, that there were no Ministries vacant; but that if my two friends wished to enter the government as Ministers of State without portfolio, the King would be delighted, promising something better later. She added that if I consented to go abroad, I would be sent to Berlin. I replied that it was entirely up to him; as for myself I was always ready to leave and that I would go to the devil if it were the case that kings had some mission to fulfil with their cousin; but that I would only accept exile if Monsieur de Villèle accepted a position on the Council. I also wished to obtain a place for Monsieur Lainé alongside my two friends. I charged myself with this threefold negotiation. I had become the master of French politics through my own efforts. One can scarcely doubt that it was I who achieved Monsieur de Villèle’s first Ministerial appointment, and I who promoted that Mayor of Toulouse’s career.

I found unconquerable obstinacy to be an element in Monsieur Lainé’s character. Monsieur de Corbière did not simply wish to enter the Council; I flattered him with the expectation that the position would also involve the Public Education portfolio. Monsieur de Villèle alone went along with my wishes with repugnance, first raising a thousand objections; his fine intellect and his ambition at last made him agree to move forward: all was arranged. Here is the irrefutable proof of what I have just said; tedious documents full of small matters which have rightly passed into oblivion, but useful to my own history:

‘20th of December, 3.30pm
TO MONSIEUR THE DUC DE RICHELIEU
I have had the honour of passing by your house, Monsieur le Duc, to give you an account of the state of affairs: all is going on marvellously. I have seen our two friends: Villèle at last consents to become a Minister as a Secretary of State for the Council, without portfolio, if Corbière will consent to do the same, with the same title, and with control of the Education portfolio. Corbière, for his part, is very happy to accept those conditions, assuming Villèle’s agreement. Thus there is no longer a difficulty. Complete your labours, Monsieur le Duc; see our two friends; and when you have heard what I have written from their own mouths, you can render France peaceful internally, as you have given her peace abroad.
Allow me to suggest a further idea to you: would you find it a great inconvenience to grant Monsieur de Villèle the post left vacant by Monsieur de Barante’s retirement? He would then be placed in a position more equal to that of his friend. However, he has stated to me in positive terms that he will consent to enter the Council, without portfolio, if Corbière takes Education. I only say this as a means of satisfying the Royalists more completely, and securing you an immense and unshakeable majority.
Lastly I have the honour to draw to your attention that tomorrow evening the grand reunion of Royalists takes place at Piet’s, and it would be very useful if our two friends could say something tomorrow evening which might calm the excitement and prevent any division.
As I am not involved, Monsieur le Duc, in the outcome of all this, you will, I hope, interpret my eagerness merely as the loyalty of a man who desires his country’s good and your success.
Accept, I beg you, Monsieur le Duc, the assurance of my highest regard.
CHATEAUBRIAND’


‘Wednesday.
I have just written to Messieurs de Villèle and de Corbière, Monsieur, and committed them to spending the evening with me, since in so vital a matter not a moment should be lost. I must thank you for having progressed everything so swiftly; I trust that we will achieve a satisfactory conclusion. Be assured, Monsieur of the pleasure I take in being under this obligation to you, and receive the assurance of my highest regard.
RICHELIEU.’


‘Allow me to congratulate you, Monsieur le Duc, on the happy outcome of this important matter, and to applaud myself for having played a part in it all. It would be very desirable for the announcement to be made tomorrow: it would put an end to all opposition. In that connection, I can be useful to our two friends.
I have the honour, Monsieur le Duc, to renew my assurance to you of my highest regard.
CHATEAUBRIAND.’


‘Friday.
I have received with extreme pleasure the note which Monsieur le Vicomte de Chateaubriand has done me the honour of writing to me. I think he will have nothing to repent of in his reliance on the King’s kindness, and, if he will permit me to so add, on the desire I have of contributing to whatever might be agreeable to him. I beg him to accept the assurance of my highest regard.
RICHELIEU.’


‘Thursday.
My noble colleague, you will no doubt be aware that the business has been concluded this evening at eleven, and all is settled on the basis agreed between you and the Duc de Richelieu. Your intervention has been very helpful to us: thanks are due to you for this step towards the improvement in the situation that from now on can be considered likely.
‘Yours throughout life,
J. DE POLIGNAC.’


‘Paris, Wednesday the 20th of December, 11.30 at night.
I have just visited your house where you are asleep, dear Vicomte: I came from Villèle who himself returned late from the meeting which you arranged and of which you had informed him. He asked me, as your nearest neighbour, to let you know what Corbiere also wishes to inform you of, namely that the business of the day that you primarily conducted and managed has finally been agreed in the simplest and briefest manner: he without portfolio, his friend taking Education. He seemed to think that, by waiting a little, further conditions could have been exacted; but he agreed not to thwart a spokesman and negotiator such as you. Truly you have opened up a new career for them both: they count on you to make all smooth for them. On your side, during the little time in which we yet have the advantage of your being among us, speak to your most energetic friends on the subject of furthering or at least not hindering the project of closer union. Good night. I further compliment you on the promptness with which you led the negotiation. You will arrange matters in Germany thus, so as to return the more swiftly to your friends. I am delighted, for my part, in the improvement in your own situation.
I reaffirm all my sentiments towards you.
‘MONSIEUR DE MONTMORENCY.’


‘Here is, Monsieur, a request addressed by a Guard of the King’s Corps to the King of Prussia: it has been handed to me on the recommendation of a senior Guards officer. I beg you to take it with you and make use of it, if you believe, when you have had a little time to examine the situation in Berlin, that it is of the kind to command any chance of success.
It is with great pleasure that I take this opportunity of congratulating you and myself on this morning’s Moniteur, and to thank you for the part you played in this happy outcome which, I hope, will have a fortunate influence on the affairs of France.
Please accept the assurance of my highest regard and my sincere attachment.
PASQUIER.’


This sequence of notes shows that I am not over-egging my activities; it was a great bother to me to buzz around like that; the shafts or the coachman’s nose are not places I ever had the ambition to perch on: whether the coach arrives at the top, or rolls back down to the bottom, matters little to me. Accustomed to living concealed in my own depths, or momentarily in the wider life of the centuries, I have no taste for the mysteries of the antechamber. I fail badly when circulating as a piece of today’s coinage; to protect myself I withdraw closer to God; a preoccupation sent from above isolates you, and makes everything around you die away.