Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVIII, 20

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XXVIII, 19 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXVIII, 21


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXVIII, chapter 20
Madame de Staël’s second trip –– Madame de Staël’s letter to Bonaparte – The Château de Chaumont.



Madame de Staël left for Germany for a second time. The letters she wrote to Madame Récamier are delightful; there is nothing in Madame de Stael’s published works to compare with the naturalness and eloquence of these letters where imagination lends expression to feeling. The virtue of friendship with Madame Récamier must have been great, since she knew how to produce in a woman of genius what was previously hidden, and un-revealed by her talent. Moreover one divines in Madame de Staël’s saddened tones a secret unhappiness to which beauty is by nature a confidante; that could never receive a like blessing.

Madame de Staël, having returned to France, went, in the spring of 1810, to live in the Château of Chaumont on the banks of the Loire, forty leagues (120 miles) from Paris, a distance determined by the terms of her exile.

Madame Récamier joined Madame de Staël at Chaumont. The latter edited the proofs of her work on Germany; when it was almost ready for publication, she sent it to Bonaparte, with this letter:

‘Sire,
I take the liberty of presenting to Your Majesty my work on Germany. If you deign to read it I think you will find there proof of a mind capable of reflection, which time has ripened. Sire, it is twelve years since I saw Your Majesty and was exiled. Twelve years of misery alters anyone’s character, and fate teaches resignation to all who suffer. As I am about to travel, I beg Your Majesty to grant me a half-hour’s interview, I believe I have things to say which might interest you, and it is on those grounds that I beg you to grant me the favour of an audience before I leave. I will permit myself one thing only in this letter: an explanation of the motives which will oblige me to leave the continent if I cannot obtain Your Majesty’s permission to stay somewhere nearer Paris, so that my children can live there. The disgrace Your Majesty inflicts on those who are its object causes them such disfavour in Europe that I cannot move a step without incurring its effects. Some fear to compromise themselves by meeting me, others consider themselves Romans for triumphing over that fear. The simplest relations of society become services rendered which a proud spirit cannot bear. Amongst my friends, there are those who identify with my fate with admirable generosity; but I have seen the most intimate feelings destroyed by the necessity of living with me in solitude, and I have spent the last eight years of my life between the fear of my no longer being the recipient of such sacrifices, and the sorrow of my being their object. Perhaps it is absurd to enter into the details of such feelings with the sovereign of the world; but what you have granted the world, Sire, is a sovereign of genius. And when it is a question of observing the human heart, Your Majesty understands the greatest spirits as well as the most delicate. My sons have no careers, my daughter is thirteen; in a few years time she must be established in life: it would be egoism to force her to live in the insipid circumstances to which I am condemned. Must I be exiled from her as well! This life is intolerable, and I know no remedy for it on the continent. What city can I choose where the disgrace inflicted by Your Majesty will not present an invincible obstacle to my establishing my children in life, and to my personal tranquillity? Perhaps Your Majesty does not himself understand the fear in which exiles hold the majority of the authorities in all countries, and I may be amongst the class of things he is told of that surely exceed what he ordered. Your Majesty has been told that I regret Paris because of the Museum and Talma: that is a delightful jest regarding exile, that is to say regarding something which Cicero and Bolingbroke have called the most unendurable of all; but if I love the masterpieces of art that France owes to Your Majesty’s conquests, if I love those fine tragedies, images of heroism, can you blame me, Sire? Is not the happiness of every individual determined by the natures of their faculties, and if Heaven gave me talent, have I not also an imagination which renders the pleasures of art and the mind essential to me? So many people ask Your Majesty for real benefits of every sort! Why should I blush to ask for friendship, poetry, music, pictures, all that ideal existence which I can enjoy without neglecting the submission I owe to the French Monarch?’

This previously unknown letter is worth conserving. Madame de Staël was heard no more than I was, when I also felt obliged to address myself to Bonaparte, to ask him for the life of my cousin Armand. Alexander or Caesar would have been moved by this letter and its noble tone, written by so illustrious a woman; but that knowledge of self-worth that judges itself and identifies itself with supreme power, that kind of mental familiarity that places itself on a level with the master of Europe, to deal with him head to head, seemed like the arrogance of self-interest, to Bonaparte: he considered himself challenged by all which showed any independent greatness; fawning was loyalty to him, pride defiance; he forgot that true talent only recognises Napoleons by their genius, that it has entrance to palaces as to temples because it is immortal.