Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVII, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXVII, chapter 3
English Society



The arrival of the King, the return of Parliament, the opening of the festive season, mingled duty, business and pleasure; one might meet the Ministers at Court, at a ball, or in Parliament. To celebrate the official anniversary of His Majesty’s birth, I dined with Lord Londonderry, I dined on the Lord Mayor’s barge, which sailed as far as Richmond: I prefer the miniature Bucentaur in the Venice Arsenal, bearing only a memory of the Doges and a Virgilian name. Formerly as an émigré, lean and half-naked, I amused myself, though no Scipio, with throwing stones into the water, along that shoreline grazed by the Lord Mayor’s broad and well-lined barge.

I also dined in the East End with Monsieur Rothschild of London, younger brother of Salomon: where did I not dine? The roast-beef had as imposing a presence as the Tower of London; the fish were so large one could not see as far as their tails; ladies, whom I only saw there, sang like Abigail. I drank Tokay, not far from the places where I drank water straight from the jug while almost dying of hunger; reclining in the depths of my comfortable carriage, on the silk-covered padding, I gazed at Westminster Abbey in which I had spent the night imprisoned, and around which I would walk, all muddy, with Hingant and Fontanes. My residence, which cost me 30,000 francs to rent, may be compared with the attic I lived in with my cousin La Bouëtardais, when, in a red robe, he played the guitar on an uncomfortable camp bed, which I had made space for next to my own.

There was no longer any question of those émigré hops where we danced to the sound of a violin played by a Councillor of the Breton Parliament; it was Almack’s, with Colinet as conductor, that provided my pleasures; a public ball-room under the patronage of the great ladies of the West End. There the old and young dandies met. Among the old the conqueror of Waterloo shone, who paraded his glory to set a trap for the ladies during the quadrilles; at the head of the younger ones Lord Clanwilliam was prominent, the son, it was said, of the Duc de Richelieu. He did wonderful things: he rode his horse to Richmond, and returned to Almack’s, having fallen off twice. He had a certain trick of speaking in the manner of Alcibiades, which delighted. Fashions in words, affectations of language and pronunciation, changed in London high society with almost every Parliamentary session: a straightforward man is quite dumbfounded at not understanding English, when he understood it perfectly six months previously. In 1822, the fashionable were obliged to present themselves, at first sight, as ill and unhappy; they had to possess something negligent about the person, long nails, a partial beard, not shaved, but allowed to grow a little, neglectfully, during their preoccupation with despair; locks of straggling hair; a profound gaze, sublime, errant and fatal; lips curled in contempt of the human species; the heart wearied, Byronic, filled with the disgust and mystery of existence.

Today that is all past: the dandy must possess a conquering, careless, insolent air; he must though care for his appearance, cultivate a moustache, or a beard trimmed as round as a ruff in the age of Elizabeth I, or like a radiant sun disc; he reveals his proud independence of character by keeping his hat on his head, lounging on a sofa, stretching his booted legs out under the noses of the admiring ladies seated on chairs around him; he rides with a crop which he holds upright like a candlestick, indifferent to the horse which chances to be between his legs. His health needs to be perfect, and his soul filled with half a dozen joys or so. Some radical dandies, the most advanced, sport a pipe.

But doubtless, all this has changed at the very moment I set out to describe it. They say the dandy of today must not be aware of whether he exists or no, whether society is there, whether it contains ladies, and whether he should greet his fellow man. Is it not strange to find the original of the dandy in the reign of Henri III: ‘Those pretty darlings,’ says the author of The Isle of Hermaphrodites, ‘wear their hair long, curled and re-curled, rising above their little velvet bonnets, like women, and the ruffs of their linen shirts of starched finery, and half a foot long, such that seeing their heads above their ruffs, they look like St John the Baptist, with his head on a platter.’

They go to present themselves at Henry III’s apartments, ‘swinging their body, head and limbs, so one would think they would fall headlong at the slightest obstacle…They find this manner of walking finer than any other.’

The English are all mad by nature or by fashion.

Lord Clanwilliam soon passed by: I met him again at Verona; he became an Ambassador in Berlin after me. We followed the same path for an instant, though we did not walk at the same pace.

Nothing succeeded, in London, like insolence, witness Comte d’Orsay, the brother of the Duchesse de Guiche: he galloped in Hyde Park, leapt the fences, gamed, rubbed shoulders informally with the dandies: he had a success without equal, and, to complete it all, ended by conquering a whole family, father, mother and children.

The ladies most in fashion pleased me least; one of them however, Lady Gwydir, was delightful; she was like a Frenchwoman in her style and manners. Lady Jersey still preserved her beauty. I met the Opposition at her house. Lady Conyngham belonged to that Opposition, and the King himself kept a secret fondness for his former friends. Among the noted patronesses of Almack’s was the Ambassadress of Russia.

She, the Countess von Lieven, had various quite ridiculous affairs involving Madame d’Osmond and George IV. As she was daring and was regarded as being in favour, she had become extremely fashionable. She was thought to show spirit, because her husband was supposed to lack it; which was untrue: Monsieur de Lieven was wholly superior to Madame. Madame de Lieven, of sharp and unpleasant features, is a common woman, wearisome, and arid, who has only one form of conversation, vulgar politics; moreover, she knows nothing, and hides her poverty of ideas beneath an abundance of words. When she finds herself among men of worth, her sterility silences her; she decks out her nullity with an air of superior ennui, as if she has the right to be bored; reduced by the ravages of time, and unable to prevent herself meddling in everything, the Dowager of Congresses arrived from Verona to bestow on Paris, with the permission of the magistrates of St Petersburg, an account of the diplomatic puerilities of yesteryear. She chattered about the contents of private correspondence, and appeared prominently in regard to failed marriages. The novices among us were launched into the salons to learn about polite society and the art of keeping secrets; they confided their own, which elaborated on by Madame von Lieven, were transmuted to dull gossip. The Ministers, and those who aspired to become such, are all proud of being the protégés of a lady who had the honour to know Monsieur Metternich in the days when the great man, in order to relieve himself of the weight of business, amused himself by unpicking threads. Ridicule followed Madame von Lieven in Paris. A grave and pedantic theorist fell at Omphale’s feet: ‘Love, you destroyed Troy.’

The days in London were divided thus: at ten in the morning, people went to an orgy, consisting of breakfast in the country; they returned to dine in London; they changed their clothes to parade through Bond Street or Hyde Park; they changed again to dine at seven-thirty; they changed again for the Opera; at midnight, they changed again for a party or a reception! What an enchanting life! I would have preferred the galleys a hundred times over. The acme of good taste was, after being unable to penetrate the ante-rooms of a private ball, to remain on the staircase blocked by the crowd, and find oneself face to face with the Duke of Somerset; a blessing which I once attained. The new breed of English people is infinitely more frivolous than us; their heads are turned by a show: if the Paris executioner arrived in London he would drive England wild. Did not Marshal Soult fill the ladies, with enthusiasm, like Blücher, whose moustache they kissed? Our Marshal, who is no Antipater, Antigonus, Seleuceus, Antiochus or Ptolemy, no royal general of Alexander’s, is a distinguished soldier, who pillaged Spain while making war, and from whom the Capuchins bought their lives with their paintings. But it is true that he published, in March 1814, a furious proclamation against Bonaparte, whom he welcomed in triumph a few days later: he has since performed his Easter Duty at St Thomas Aquinas. In London they show an old pair of his boots for a shilling.

Everyone famous soon visits the banks of the Thames and goes away again. In 1822 I found that great city full of memories of Bonaparte; they had gone from denigrating Old Nick to wild enthusiasm. Memories of Bonaparte swarmed there; his bust adorned every mantelpiece; prints of him glowed in every picture-seller’s window; the colossal statue of him by Canova decorated the Duke of Wellington’s staircase. Could not another sanctuary have been dedicated to Mars enchained? That deification seems rather the representation of a caretaker’s vanity than a warrior’s honour. – General you did not vanquish Napoleon at Waterloo, you merely broke the last link of a destiny already shattered.