Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXV, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXV, chapter 4

In my account of the journey from Ghent, you saw what a worthy scion of Hugh Capet Louis XVIII was; in my text, Le Roi est mort: vive le Roi! I have enumerated that Prince’s actual qualities. But man is not a single unity: why have so few faithful portraits been produced? Because the model was posed at such and such a period of his life; ten years afterwards, the portrait no longer resembled him.

Louis XVIII did not adopt the long view of objects before and around him; all seemed beautiful or ugly to him according to his angle of vision. Influenced by his century, it is to be feared that religion for that Very Christian King was only a suitable elixir in which to mix the compounds from which royalty was constituted. The free-thinking spirit he had inherited from his grandfather might have presented a barrier to his undertakings; but he was self-aware, and when he spoke in an assertive manner, he took pride in making fun of himself. I spoke to him one day about the necessity of Monsieur le Duc de Bourbon marrying afresh, to bring new life to the Condé line: he approved strongly of the idea, though he cared little about the aforesaid revival; but in that regard he spoke to me of Monsier le Comte d’Artois saying: ‘My brother could marry without any alteration in the succession to the throne, he only produces younger sons; as for me, I only produce older ones: I do not wish to disinherit Monsieur le Duc d’Angoulême.’ And he puffed out his breast with a capable mocking air; but I did not to intend to quarrel with the King about power.

An unprejudiced egoist, Louis XVIII desired peace at any price: he supported his ministers as long as they commanded a majority: he dismissed them as soon as their majority was overturned, and there was a risk of his rest being disturbed; he did not mind retreating if, with a view to achieving victory, he had been obliged to take a step forward. His greatness was in patience; he did not advance towards events, events came to meet him.

Without being cruel, the King was not humane: catastrophic tragedies neither astonished nor moved him: he contented himself with saying to the Duc de Berry, who apologised for having had the misfortune to trouble the King’s rest in dying: ‘I slept straight through.’ Yet that calm individual, when he was annoyed, indulged in terrible rages; and this Prince, so cold, so insensitive, had relationships which resembled passions: thus there succeeded in his intimacy the Comte d’Avaray, Monsieur de Blacas, Monsieur Decazes, Madame de Balbi, and Madame du Cayla; all these beloved personages were favourites; unfortunately they kept far too many letters in their hands.

Louis XVIII appears to us clothed in all the depths of historic tradition; he displayed the favouritism of former royalty. Is there some void in the hearts of solitary monarchs which they fill with the first object they find? Is it empathy, affinity with a nature analogous to theirs? Is it a friendship that heaven sends them to console their greatness? Is it an inclination towards a slave who gives body and soul, before whom one conceals nothing, a slave who becomes a garment, a plaything, an obsession linked to every feeling, every taste, every whim of him to whom the slave submits, and whom the slave holds power over through an unbreakable fascination? The more submissive and intimate the favourite has been, the less easily can that favourite be dismissed, being in possession of secrets which would embarrass if they were divulged: the one preferred acquires a dual power from depravity, and from the master’s weaknesses.

When the favourite happens to be a great man, like the obsessive Richelieu or the irreplaceable Mazarin, nations, while detesting him, profit from his glory and his power; they merely exchange a wretched king in law for an illustrious king in fact.