Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVII, 11

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XXVII, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXVIII, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXVII, chapter 11
The end of the old England – Charlotte Reflections – I leave London

The lightning which dogs my footsteps follows me everywhere. With Lord Londonderry the old England, which up till then had struggled amidst a whirlpool of innovation, expired. Mr Canning rose: pride led him to speak at the rostrum in the language of the propagandist. After him the Duke of Wellington appeared, a conservative who came to destroy: when the judgement of nations is pronounced, it will be seen that the hand which ought to have lifted up, only knew how to drag down. Lord Grey, O’Connell, all the specialists in ruination, worked successively at the demise of the old institutions. Parliamentary Reform, the Emancipation of Ireland, things which were excellent in themselves, became, through the un-healthiness of the times, causes of destruction. Fear increases evils; if one is not strongly affected by threats, one can resist them with a modicum of success.

What need had England to indulge in our recent disturbances? Immured in its island, nurturing its national enmities, it remained protected. What need had the Court of St James to dread Irish Separation? Ireland was merely England’s dinghy: cut the painter, and the dinghy, separated from the mother vessel, would founder amongst the waves. Lord Liverpool himself had sad presentiments. I dined with him one day: after dinner we chatted by a window looking out over the Thames; downstream one could see a section of the city looming through the smoke and fog. I praised, to my host, the solidity of the English monarchy, maintaining as it did the balance between freedom and power. The venerable Lord, raising and extending his arm, pointed towards the city, saying: ‘Where is the solidity in vast cities like these? One serious insurrection, in London, and all will be lost.’

It seems to me that I chart a course through England, similar to that which I once made through the ruins of Athens, Jerusalem, Memphis and Carthage. Summoning up the centuries of Albion, passing from famous person to famous person, watching them vanish one by one, I experience a sort of mournful vertigo. Where are those brilliant and tumultuous times in which Shakespeare and Milton, Henry VIII and Elizabeth, Cromwell and William III, Pitt and Burke lived? All that is over; superiority and mediocrity, love and hatred, happiness and misery, oppressors and oppressed, executioners and victims, kings and people, all rest in the same silence and the same dust. What nothingness is ours then, if the most vibrant portion of the human species inhabits it, genius which casts a shadow of former times into the present generations, but no longer has life itself, and is disregarded as if it had never been?

How many times has England been invaded over the course of the centuries! How many revolutions has she passed through to arrive at the brink of the greatest, most profound of revolutions, one which will encompass posterity! I have been witness to those notable British Parliaments in all their power: what has become of them? I saw England in her traditional prosperity, living her traditional way of life: everywhere little solitary churches with their towers, Gray’s country churchyards, everywhere narrow sandy roads, valleys filled with cattle, moorlands dotted with sheep, parks, country houses, towns: a few large woods, a few birds, the wind off the sea. These were not the fields of Andalusia where I came across old Christians and young lovers, among the voluptuous palaces of the Moors, among aloes and palm-trees.

‘Quid dignum memorare tuis, Hispania, terris
Vox human valet?’
:“What human voice, O Spain, is worthy of recalling your shores?”

This was not that Roman Campagne whose irresistible charm ceaselessly called to me; these waves, this sunlight, were not those which bathed and illuminated the promontory on which Plato taught his disciples, that Sunium where I heard the cicada asking Minerva in vain for the hearth of the priests of her temple; but ultimately, she was charming and formidable, that England, surrounded as she was by her ships, covered by her herds, and professing the religion of her great men.

Today, her valleys are obscured by the fumes from forges and factories, her roads are changed to iron tracks; and along those roads, instead of Milton and Shakespeare, restless trains travel. Already the cradles of science, Oxford and Cambridge, take on a deserted air: their colleges and gothic chapels, half-disused, trouble the sight; in their cloisters beside the tombstones of the Middle Ages, rest the forgotten marble annals of the ancient peoples of Greece; ruins guarding ruins.

Beside those monuments, around which a void is beginning to form, I left the rediscovered days of my springtime; I separated from my youth for a second time, on the same shore where I had abandoned it once before: Charlotte had suddenly reappeared like that light, the joy of the darkness, which, retarded in its monthly course, will rise at midnight. If you are not too weary, go and seek in Book X of these Memoirs the effect that the sudden sight of that woman had on me in 1822. When she knew me previously, I had not then met those other Englishwomen a crowd of whom surrounded me in my days of power and fame: their homage brought a kind of mildness to my fate. Now, when sixteen long years have vanished since my London embassy, and when so much else has been destroyed, my gaze returns towards that daughter of the land of Desdemona and Juliet: she is no less important to my thoughts than that day when her unexpected presence relit the torch of my memories. A new Epimenides, waking after a long sleep, I fix my eyes on a beacon, ever more radiant now that the others along the shore are extinguished; except for one that will shine long after me.

I have not related all that concerns Charlotte in the preceding books of my Memoirs: she came with some of her family to see me in France, when I was Minister there in 1823. By one of those inexplicable human misfortunes, preoccupied as I was with a war on which the fate of the French monarchy depended, something was doubtless lacking in my response, since Charlotte, on returning to England, sent me a letter in which she appeared wounded by the coldness of my reception of her. I dared neither write to her nor return the literary fragments she had sent me, which I had promised to add to, and forward to her. If it were true that she had real cause for complaint, I would throw what I have written of my first journey abroad into the fire.

It has often occurred to me to seek clarification of my doubts; but how can I return to England, I who am too weak even to dare visit the native rock where I have marked out my tomb? I am afraid of sensation now: time, in stealing my youth, has left me like those soldiers whose limbs remain on the field of battle; my blood, having a smaller path in which to circulate, reaches my heart with so rapid a flow that this old organ of my joys and sorrows beats as though ready to burst. The desire to burn what appertains to Charlotte, even though she may have been treated there with religious respect, mingles in me with the wish to destroy these Memoirs: if they still belonged to me, or if I could buy them back, I might succumb to the temptation. I have such a disgust with everything, such a contempt for the present and the immediate future, so firm a persuasion that men from now on, taken together as ‘the public’ (and for several centuries ahead), will be pitiful, that I blush to employ my last moments in telling of things past, in depicting a lost world whose language and name are no longer known.

Man is as much deceived by the success of his wishes as by their disappointment: I had desired, contrary to my natural instincts, to go to the congress of Verona; profiting from one of Monsieur de Villèle’s prejudices, I had led him to force Monsieur de Montmorency’s hand. Well, my real inclination was for other than what I had obtained; doubtless I would have been annoyed if they had made me stay in England; but soon the idea of going to see Lady Sutton, of making a tour of the three kingdoms, would have overcome that false wave of ambition, something not fundamental to my nature. God ordered things otherwise and I left for Verona: hence the change in my life, my Ministry, the Spanish War, my triumph, and my fall, soon followed by that of the monarchy.

One of the two fine children in whom Charlotte had begged me to interest myself in 1822 has just been to visit me in Paris; today he is Captain Sutton; he is married to a charming young lady, and tells me that his mother, who is very ill, has recently spent the winter in London.

I embarked at Dover on the 8th of September 1822, the same port from which, twenty-two years earlier, Monsieur Lassagne, of Neuchâtel, had set sail. Between that first departure and this moment when I have again taken up my pen, thirty nine years have elapsed. When a man reads or listens to an account of his past life, he seems to be viewing on a deserted sea the wake of a vanished vessel; he seems to hear the tolling of a bell whose ancient tower is lost to sight.