Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 9

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X, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> X, 10

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book X - Chapter 9

London, April to September 1822.

Six miles from Beccles, in a little town called Bungay, lived an English clergyman, The Reverend Mr. Ives, a great Hellenist and mathematician. He had a wife, still young, and of charming appearance, mind, and manners, and an only daughter, aged fifteen. Introduced to this household, I was better received there than anywhere else. We drank in the old English fashion, and stayed at table for two hours after the ladies had withdrawn. Mr Ives, who had been to America, liked to recount his travels, hear the story of mine, and talk about Newton and Homer. His daughter, who had studied in order to please him, was an excellent musician and sang as Madame Pasta does today. She re-appeared at tea and charmed away the old minister’s infectious drowsiness. Leaning on the end of the piano, I listened to Miss Ives in silence.

The music being over, the young lady questioned me on France, and literature; she asked me to draw up a plan of study for her; she particularly wanted to know the Italian authors, and begged me to give her some notes on the Divine Comedy and the Gerusalemme Liberata. Little by little, I began to experience the shy charm of an affection born in the soul: I had decked out the Floridians, but I would not have dared to pick up Miss Ives’ glove; I felt embarrassed when I tried to translate a passage from Tasso. I was more comfortable with that more masculine and chaste genius Dante.

Charlotte’s age and mine were complementary. Into relationships which form only in the midst of one’s life, a certain melancholy enters; if two people do not meet at the very outset, the memories of the beloved do not concern the part of one’s life when one breathed without knowing her: those days which belong to the society of others are painful to the memory and as if divorced from one’s true existence. Is there a disproportion of age? Then the drawbacks increase: the older began life before the younger was born; the younger is destined, in turn, to remain alone; one walked in solitude this side of the cradle, the other will traverse a solitude that side of the tomb; the past was a desert for the former, the future will be a desert for the latter. It is difficult to love and possess all the circumstances needed for happiness: youth, beauty, opportunity, taste, character, grace, and maturity.

After a fall from my horse, I stayed for some time at Mr Ives’ house. It was winter; my life’s dreams began to flee in the face of reality. Miss Ives became more reserved; she ceased to bring me flowers; she preferred not to sing.

If I had been told that I would spend the rest of my life, unknown, at the heart of this secluded family, I would have died of joy: love only needs continuance to become at once Eden before the Fall and a Hosanna without end. Make beauty stay, youth last, and the heart never tire, and you will recreate Heaven. Love is so assuredly the supreme happiness that it is haunted by an illusion of never-ending life; it only wishes to pronounce irrevocable vows; in the absence of joy, it seeks to make sorrow eternal; a fallen angel, it still speaks the language it spoke in its incorruptible habitation; its hope is never to die; in its twofold nature, possessed of its twofold illusions here, it tries to perpetuate itself by immortal thoughts and inexhaustible generation.

I looked forward with dismay to the time when I would be obliged to leave. On the eve of the day set for my departure, dinner was a gloomy affair. To my great astonishment, Mr Ives withdrew after dessert taking his daughter with him, and I was left alone with Mrs Ives: she was in a state of extreme embarrassment. I thought she intended to reproach me for an inclination she might have discovered but which I had never spoken of. She looked at me, lowered her eyes, and blushed; charming, as she was, in her confusion, there was no point of feeling that she might not have claimed for herself. At last, with an effort, overcoming the obstacle which prevented her speaking, she said to me, in English; ‘Sir, you have seen my confusion: I do not know if Charlotte pleases you, but it is impossible to deceive a mother; my daughter has certainly conceived an attachment for you. Mr Ives and I have discussed the matter; you suit us in every respect; we think you will make our daughter happy. You no longer possess a country; you have just lost your relatives; your property has been auctioned; who then could call you back to France? Until you inherit from us, you shall live with us.’

Of all the painful things I have endured, this was the greatest and most deeply felt. I threw myself at Mrs Ives’ feet; I covered her hands with my kisses and tears. She thought I was weeping with happiness, and began to sob with joy. She stretched out her arm to pull the bell-rope; she called to her husband and daughter: ‘Stop!’ I cried; ‘I am married!’ She fell back in a swoon.

I went out, and without returning to my room, I left on foot. I reached Beccles, and took the mail-coach for London, after writing a letter to Mrs Ives of which I regret not keeping a copy.

The sweetest, the most tender, and most grateful memory, of this event remain with me. Before I became known, Mr Ives’ family was the only one which took an interest in me, and welcomed me with real affection. Poor, obscure, proscribed, without looks or charm, I was offered a secure future, a country, a delightful wife to draw me out of my solitude, a mother almost her equal in beauty, to take the place of my aged mother, and a father, well-educated, loving and cultivating literature, to replace the father of whom Heaven had deprived me; what did I possess to compensate for all that? They could have had no illusions in choosing me: I could only consider myself loved. Since that time, I have only met with one attachment noble enough to inspire me with the same confidence. As for the interest of which I seemed to be the object later, I have never known whether or not external causes, the noise of fame, the prestige of party, the glamour of high literary or political status, were the cloak which attracted such eager attention to me.

For the rest, in marrying Charlotte Ives, my role in the world would have altered: buried in a county of England, I would have become a hunting gentleman: not a single line would have issued from my pen; I would even have forgotten my own language, since I could write English, and the thoughts in my head were starting to shape themselves in English. Would my country have lost much by my disappearance? If I were to set aside what has been my consolation, I would say I might have already reckoned on many peaceful days, instead of the troubled days that have been my lot. The Empire, the Restoration, divisions, the disputes within France, what would I have had to do with all that? I would not have had to counteract faults, and combat errors, each morning. Is it certain that I have a true talent, and a talent worth the painful sacrifices of my life? Will I outlast my tomb? When I pass beyond, will there be, given the transformations which will occur, in a world altered and preoccupied with other things, will there be a public to listen to me? Will I not be a man of the past, unintelligible to the new generations? Will my ideas, my sentiments, even my style not seem boring and old-fashioned to scornful posterity? Will my shade be able to say as Virgil’s did to Dante: ‘Poeta fui e cantai: I was a poet, and sang.’!