Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVI, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXVI, chapter 5
My first despatches – Monsieur de Bonnay



Around the 13th of January, I began my series of despatches to the Foreign Minister. My mind submits easily to this kind of task: why not? Were not Dante, Ariosto and Milton as successful in politics as in poetry? Doubtless I was no Dante, Ariosto, or Milton; Europe and France did see what I could achieve however in my Congress of Verona. My predecessor in Berlin had dealt with me in 1816 as he had dealt with Monsieur Lameth, in a little poem at the beginning of the Revolution. When one is as amiable as that, it does not do to leave files behind or to show a clerk’s correctness when one lacks the ability of a diplomat. It might happen, in the age in which we live, that a gust of wind blows someone you have spoken against into your role; and as the first duty of an ambassador is to study the embassy archives, that is where he will come across letters as they fell from the master’s hand. What can one expect? Those profound minds, who laboured for the success of the true cause, could not think of everything.

EXTRACTS FROM MONSIEUR DE BONNAY’S FILES
No. 64                           ‘22nd of November 1816.
‘The words the King addressed to the new Cabinet, formed from the Chamber of Peers, are known and approved of throughout Europe. I have been asked how it is possible that men devoted to the King, people attached to his person and occupying places in his household, or in those of our Princes, could indeed have cast their votes for Monsieur de Chateaubriand’s entry to the secretariat. My response was that the ballot was a secret one, and that no one could know how individuals voted. “Ah!” exclaimed a notable person, “if the King could only be assured of that, I think access to the Tuileries would quickly be denied such disloyal servants.” I thought I should say nothing, and I did so.’
‘15th of October 1816.
‘It will be the same with the measure of the 5th as with that of the 20th of September, Monsieur le Duc: in Europe both merely meet with approval. But what is astonishing, is to see the purest and worthiest of Royalists continuing in their passion for Monsieur de Chateaubriand, despite the publication of a pamphlet which claims in principle that the King of France, by virtue of the Charter, is simply a moral being, essentially null, and devoid of his own will. If anyone other than he had advanced a similar proposition, that man would, not without reason, have been considered a Jacobin.’

See how surely I am put in my place. Moreover it is a good lesson; it teaches us to close our ears, in learning what will be thought of us later.

Reading the despatches of Monsieur de Bonnay and those of other ambassadors of the old regime, it seemed to me that their despatches dealt less with political matters than with anecdotes relating to people in society and at Court: they reduced themselves to being diaries of praise like Dangeau’s or of satire like Tallemant’s. Louis XVIII and Charles X too would have much preferred my colleagues’ amusing letters to my serious correspondence. I could have laughed and mocked like my predecessors; but the age when foreign affairs involved scandalous adventures and petty intrigues had passed. What benefit would a portrait of Monsieur Hardenberg have been to my country, an old man white as a swan, deaf as a post, going off to Rome without permission, amusing himself far too much, believing in all sorts of fantasies, delivered up finally to magnetism at the hands of Doctor Koreff, whom I met in remote places trotting his horse between the devil, medicine and the Muses?

This contempt for frivolous correspondence made me write to Monsieur Pasquier in my letter of 13th February 1821 no. 13:

‘I have not spoken to you, Monsieur le Baron, as is usual, of receptions, balls, plays, etc.; I have sent you no little pen-portraits or vain satires; I have tried to rid diplomacy of gossip. The reign of the commonplace returns when extraordinary times have passed: now it is only necessary to depict what ought to be and to attack what threatens.’