Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVI, 2

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XXVI, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXVI, 3


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXVI, chapter 2
Ministers and Ambassadors – History of the Court and society



The house Under the Lindens, Unter den Linden, was far too large for me, cold and dilapidated: I occupied only a small corner.

Among my colleagues, the Ministers and Ambassadors, the only remarkable person was Monsieur d’Alopeus. I have since met his wife and daughter again, in Rome, with the Grand-Duchess Helène: I would have been happier if the latter had been in Berlin instead of the Grand-Duchess Nicholas, her sister-in-law.

Monsieur d’Alopeus, my colleague, had the pleasant conviction of believing himself adored. He was persecuted by the passions which he inspired: ‘By my faith,’ he said to me, ‘I have no idea what power it is that I possess; but wherever I go women pursue me. Madame d’Alopeus is quite dedicated in her attachment to me.’ He had been a convinced Saint-Simonian. Private society, like public society, has its charms: in the former, there are relationships forever being forged and broken, family matters, deaths, births, particular joys and sorrows; all varying in character according to the age. In the latter, there are governments forever changing, battles lost or won, negotiations with the court, kings who pass by, and kingdoms that fall.

Under Frederick II, Elector of Brandenburg, nicknamed Iron Tooth; under Joachim II, who it was claimed was poisoned by Lippold of Prague; under John Sigismund, who brought his Electorate the Duchy of Prussia; under George William, the Irresolute, who, while losing his fortresses, left Gustavus-Adolphus conversing with the ladies of his court, and said: ‘So what? We have cannon’; under the Great-Elector, who throughout his States found only heaps of ash that kept the grass from growing, who gave an audience to the Ambassador from Tartary, whose interpreter had a wooden nose and cropped ears; under his son, the first King of Prussia, who, woken suddenly by his wife, took a fever from the fright and died of it; under all these rulers, various memoirs allow us simply to witness a repetition of similar events in private society.

Frederick-William I, the father of Frederick the Great, a strange and harsh individual, was raised by Madame de Rocoules, the refugee: he loved a young woman who could not improve him; he retreated to his smoking-room. He named Gundling, the buffoon, President of the RoyalAcademy in Berlin; he imprisoned his son in the citadel of Custrin, and Katte had his head removed in the presence of the young prince; that was the private life of that age. Frederick the Great, when he came to the throne, had an intrigue with an Italian dancer, La Barbarini, the only woman he ever showed an interest in: he was content to play the flute on his wedding night beneath the window of his bride Elizabeth of Brunswick. Frederick had a taste for music, and a mania for verse. The intrigues and epigrams of the two poets, Frederick and Voltaire, troubled Madame de Pompadour, the Abbé de Bernis, and Louis XV. The Margrave of Bayreuth was amorously involved in it all, as much as one can be with a poet. The literary circles around the King, the greyhounds on filthy armchairs; the concerts in front of statues of Antinous; the grand dinners; the bouts of philosophy; freedom of the press and strokes of the birch; then the lobster or eel pie which ended the life of a grand old man, who wanted to live: these are the matters that occupied the private lives of that age of letters and battles. – And, Frederick, nevertheless remodelled Germany, created a counter-weight to Austria, and altered all the political interests and relationships within the country.

In the next reign we find the Marble Palace; Madame Rietz and her son, Alexander, the Graf von der Mark; ‘Baroness’ Stolzenberg, Mistress of the Margrave Schwed, a former actress; Prince Henry and his suspect friends; Mademoiselle Voss, Madame Rietz’s rival; an intrigue at a masked ball between a young Frenchman and the wife of a Prussian general; and finally Madame de F…, whose adventures you can read of in the Secret History of the Court of Berlin; who recalls all those names? Who will remember ours? Now, in the Prussian capital, only a few octogenarians preserve the memory of that past generation.