1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chateaubriand, François René
CHATEAUBRIAND, FRANÇOIS RENÉ, Vicomte de (1768–1848), French author, youngest son of René Auguste de Chateaubriand, comte de Combourg, was born at St Malo on the 4th of September 1768. He was a brilliant representative of the reaction against the ideas of the French Revolution, and the most conspicuous figure in French literature during the First Empire. His naturally poetical temperament was fostered in childhood by picturesque influences, the mysterious reserve of his morose father, the ardent piety of his mother, the traditions of his ancient family, the legends and antiquated customs of the sequestered Breton district, above all, the vagueness and solemnity of the neighbouring ocean. His closest friend was his sister Lucile, a passionate-hearted girl, divided between her devotion to him and to religion. François received his education at Dol and Rennes, where Jean Victor Moreau was among his fellow-students. From Rennes he proceeded to the College of Dinan, and passed some years in desultory study in preparation for the priesthood. He finally decided, after a year’s holiday at the family château of Combourg, that he had no vocation for the Church, and was on the point of proceeding to try his fortune in India when he received (1786) a commission in the army. After a short visit to Paris he joined his regiment at Cambrai, and early in the following year was presented at court. In 1788 he received the tonsure in order to enter the order of the Knights of Malta. In Paris (1787–1789) he made acquaintance with the Parisian men of letters. He met la Harpe, Évariste Parny, “Pindare” Lebrun, Nicolas Chamfort, Pierre Louis Ginguené, and others, of whom he has left portraits in his memoirs.
Chateaubriand was not unfavourable to the Revolution in its first stages, but he was disturbed by its early excesses; moreover, his regiment was disbanded, and his family belonged to the party of reaction. His political impartiality, he says, pleased no one. These causes and the restlessness of his spirit induced him to take part in a romantic scheme for the discovery of the North-West Passage, in pursuance of which he departed for America in the spring of 1791. The passage was not found or even attempted, but the adventurer returned enriched with the—to him—more important discovery of his own powers and vocation, conscious of his marvellous faculty for the delineation of nature, and stored with the new ideas and new imagery,
derived from the virgin forests and magnificent scenery of the western continent. That he actually lived among the Indians, however, is shown by Bedier to be doubtful, and the same critic has exposed the untrustworthiness of the autobiographical details of his American trip. His knowledge of America was mainly derived from the books of Charlevoix and others.
The news of the arrest of Louis XVI. at Varennes in June 1791 recalled him to France. In 1792 he married Mlle Céleste Buisson de Lavigne, a girl of seventeen, who brought him a small fortune. This enabled him to join the ranks of the emigrants, a course practically imposed on him by his birth and his profession as a soldier. After the failure of the duke of Brunswick’s invasion he contrived to reach Brussels, where he was left wounded and apparently dying in the street. His brother succeeded in obtaining some shelter for him, and sent him to Jersey. The captain of the boat in which he travelled left him on the beach in Guernsey. He was once more rescued from death, this time by some fishermen. After spending some time in the Channel Islands under the care of an emigrant uncle, the comte de Bédée, he made his way to London. In England he lived obscurely for several years, gaining an intimate acquaintance with English literature and a practical acquaintance with poverty. His own account of this period has been exposed by A. le Braz, Au pays d’exil de Chateaubriand (1909), and by E. Dick, Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France (1908), i. From his English exile dates the Natchez (first printed in his Œuvres complètes, 1826–1831), a prose epic designed to portray the life of the Red Indians. Two brilliant episodes originally designed for this work, Atala and René, are among his most famous productions. Chateaubriand’s first publication, however, was the Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions . . . (London, 1797), which the author subsequently retracted, but took care not to suppress. In this volume he appears as a mediator between royalist and revolutionary ideas, a free-thinker in religion, and a philosopher imbued with the spirit of Rousseau. A great change in his views was, however, at hand, induced, according to his own statement, by a letter from his sister Julie (Mme de Farcy), telling him of the grief his views had caused his mother, who had died soon after her release from the Conciergerie in the same year. His brother had perished on the scaffold in April 1794, and both his sisters, Lucile and Julie, and his wife had been imprisoned at Rennes. Mme de Farcy did not long survive her imprisonment.
Chateaubriand’s thoughts turned to religion, and on his return to France in 1800 the Génie du christianisme was already in an advanced state. Louis de Fontanes had been a fellow-exile with Chateaubriand in London, and he now introduced him to the society of Mme de Staël, Mme Récamier, Benjamin Constant, Lucien Bonaparte and others. But Chateaubriand’s favourite resort was the salon of Pauline de Beaumont, who was destined to fill a great place in his life, and gave him some help in the preparation of his work on Christianity, part of the book being written at her house at Savigny. Atala, ou les amours de deux sauvages dans le désert, used as an episode in the Génie du christianisme, appeared separately in 1801 and immediately made his reputation. Exquisite style, impassioned eloquence and glowing descriptions of nature gained indulgence for the incongruity between the rudeness of the personages and the refinement of the sentiments, and for the distasteful blending of prudery with sensuousness. Alike in its merits and defects the piece is a more emphatic and highly coloured Paul et Virginie; it has been justly said that Bernardin Saint-Pierre models in marble and Chateaubriand in bronze. Encouraged by his success the author resumed his Génie du christianisme, ou beautés de la religion chrétienne, which appeared in 1802, just upon the eve of Napoleon’s re-establishment of the Catholic religion in France, for which it thus seemed almost to have prepared the way. No coincidence could have been more opportune, and Chateaubriand came to esteem himself the counterpart of Napoleon in the intellectual order. In composing his work he had borne in mind the admonition of his friend Joseph Joubert, that the public would care very little for his erudition and very much for his eloquence. It is consequently an inefficient production from the point of view of serious argument. The considerations derived from natural theology are but commonplaces rendered dazzling by the magic of style; and the parallels between Christianity and antiquity, especially in arts and letters, are at best ingenious sophistries. The less polemical passages, however, where the author depicts the glories of the Catholic liturgy and its accessories, or expounds its symbolical significance, are splendid instances of the effect produced by the accumulation and judicious distribution of particulars gorgeous in the mass, and treated with the utmost refinement of detail. The work is a masterpiece of literary art, and its influence in French literature was immense. The Éloa of Alfred de Vigny, the Harmonies of Lamartine and even the Légende des siècles of Victor Hugo may be said to have been inspired by the Génie du christianisme. Its immediate effect was very considerable. It admirably subserved the statecraft of Napoleon, and Talleyrand in 1803 appointed the writer attaché to the French legation at Rome, whither he was followed by Mme de Beaumont, who died there.
When his insubordinate and intriguing spirit compelled his recall he was transferred as envoy to the canton of the Valais. The murder of the duke of Enghien (21st of March 1804) took place before he took up this appointment. Chateaubriand, who was in Paris at the time, showed his courage and independence by immediately resigning his post. In 1807 he gave great offence to Napoleon by an article in the Mercure de France (4th of July), containing allusions to Nero which were rightly taken to refer to the emperor. The Mercure, of which he had become proprietor, was temporarily suppressed, and was in the next year amalgamated with the Décade. Chateaubriand states in his Mémoires that his life was threatened, but it is more than possible that he exaggerated the danger. Before this, in 1806, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, undertaken, as he subsequently acknowledged, less in a devotional spirit than in quest of new imagery. He returned by way of Tunis, Carthage, Cadiz and Granada. At Granada he met Mme de Mouchy, and the place and the meeting apparently suggested the romantic tale of Le Dernier Abencérage, which, for political reasons, remained unprinted until the publication of the Œuvres complètes (1826–1831). The journey also produced L’Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem ... (3 vols., 1811), a record of travel distinguished by the writer’s habitual picturesqueness; and inspired his prose epic, Les Martyrs, ou le triomphe de la religion chrétienne (2 vols., 1809). This work may be regarded as the argument of the Génie du christianisme thrown into an objective form. As in the Epicurean of Thomas Moore, the professed design is the contrast between Paganism and Christianity, which fails of its purpose partly from the absence of real insight into the genius of antiquity, and partly because the heathen are the most interesting characters after all. René had appeared in 1802 as an episode of the Génie du christianisme, and was published separately at Leipzig without its author’s consent in the same year. It was perhaps Chateaubriand’s most characteristic production. The connecting link in European literature between Werther and Childe Harold, it paints the misery of a morbid and dissatisfied soul. The representation is mainly from the life. Chateaubriand betrayed amazing egotism in describing his sister Lucile in the Amélie of the story, and much is obviously descriptive of his own early surroundings. With Les Natchez his career as an imaginative writer is closed. In 1831 he published his Études ou discours historiques . . . (4 vols.) dealing with the fall of the Roman Empire.
As a politician Chateaubriand was equally formidable to his antagonists when in opposition and to his friends when in office. His poetical receptivity and impressionableness rendered him no doubt honestly inconsistent with himself; his vanity and ambition, too morbidly acute to be restrained by the ties of party allegiance, made him dangerous and untrustworthy as a political associate. He was forbidden to deliver the address he had prepared (1811) for his reception to the Academy on M. J. Chénier on account of the bitter allusions to Napoleon contained in it. From this date until 1814 Chateaubriand lived in seclusion at the Vallée-aux-loups, an estate he had bought in 1807 at Aulnay. His pamphlet De Bonaparte, des Bourbons, et de la nécessité de se rattier à nos princes légitimes, published on the 31st of March 1814, the day of the entrance of the allies into Paris, was as opportune in the moment of its appearance as the Génie du christianisme, and produced a hardly less signal effect. Louis XVIII. declared that it had been worth a hundred thousand men to him. Chateaubriand, as minister of the interior, accompanied him to Ghent during the Hundred Days, and for a time associated himself with the excesses of the royalist reaction. Political bigotry, however, was not among his faults; he rapidly drifted into liberalism and opposition, and was disgraced in September 1816 for his pamphlet De la monarchie selon la charte. He had to sell his library and his house of the Vallée-aux-loups.
After the fall of his opponent, the due Decazes, Chateaubriand obtained the Berlin embassy (1821), from which he was transferred to London (1822), and he also acted as French plenipotentiary at the Congress of Verona (1822). He here made himself mainly responsible for the iniquitous invasion of Spain—an expedition undertaken, as he himself admits, with the idea of restoring French prestige by a military parade. He next received the portfolio of foreign affairs, which he soon lost by his desertion of his colleagues on the question of a reduction of the interest on the national debt. After another interlude of effective pamphleteering in opposition, he accepted the embassy to Rome in 1827, under the Martignac administration, but resigned it at Prince Polignac’s accession to office. On the downfall of the elder branch of the Bourbons, he made a brilliant but inevitably fruitless protest from the tribune in defence of the principle of legitimacy. During the first half of Louis Philippe’s reign he was still politically active with his pen, and published a Mémoire sur la captivité de madame la duchesse de Berry (1833) and other pamphlets in which he made himself the champion of the exiled dynasty; but as years increased upon him, and the prospect of his again performing a conspicuous part diminished, he relapsed into an attitude of complete discouragement. His Congrès de Vérone (1838), Vie de Rancé (1844), and his translation of Milton, Le Paradis perdu de Milton (1836), belong to the writings of these later days. He died on the 4th of July 1848, wholly exhausted and thoroughly discontented with himself and the world, but affectionately tended by his old friend Madame Récamier, herself deprived of sight. For the last fifteen years of his life he had been engaged on his Mémoires, and his chief distraction had been his daily visit to Madame Récamier, at whose house he met the European celebrities. He was buried in the Grand Bé, an islet in the bay of St Malo. Shortly after his death his memory was revived, and at the same time exposed to much adverse criticism, by the publication, with sundry mutilations as has been suspected, of his celebrated Mémoires d’outre-tombe (12 vols., 1849–1850). These memoirs undoubtedly reveal his vanity, his egotism, the frequent hollowness of his professed convictions, and his incapacity for sincere attachment, except, perhaps, in the case of Madame Récamier. Though the book must be read with the greatest caution, especially in regard to persons with whom Chateaubriand came into collision, it is perhaps now the most read of all his works.
Chateaubriand ranks rather as a great rhetorician than as a great poet. Something of affectation or unreality commonly interferes with the enjoyment of his finest works. The Génie du christianisme is a brilliant piece of special pleading; Atala is marred by its unfaithfulness to the truth of uncivilized human nature, René by the perversion of sentiment which solicits sympathy for a contemptible character. Chateaubriand is chiefly significant as marking the transition from the old classical to the modern romantic school. The fertility of ideas, vehemence of expression and luxury of natural description, which he shares with the romanticists, are controlled by a discipline learnt in the school of their predecessors. His palette, always brilliant, is never gaudy; he is not merely a painter but an artist. He is also a master of epigrammatic and incisive sayings. Perhaps, however, the most truly characteristic feature of his genius is the peculiar magical touch which Matthew Arnold indicated as a note of Celtic extraction, which reveals some occult quality in a familiar object, or tinges it, one knows not how, with “the light that never was on sea or land.” This incommunicable gift supplies an element of sincerity to Chateaubriand’s writings which goes far to redeem the artificial effect of his calculated sophistry and set declamation. It is also fortunate for his fame that so large a part of his writings should directly or indirectly refer to himself, for on this theme he always writes well. Egotism was his master-passion, and beyond his intrepidity and the loftiness of his intellectual carriage his character presents little to admire. He is a signal instance of the compatibility of genuine poetic emotion, of sympathy with the grander aspects both of man and nature, and of munificence in pecuniary matters, with absorption in self and general sterility of heart.
Bibliography.—The Œuvres complétes of Chateaubriand were printed in 28 vols., 1826–1831; in 20 vols., 1829–1831; and in many later editions, notably in 1858–1861, in 20 volumes, with an introductory study by Sainte-Beuve. The principal authority for Chateaubriand’s biography is the Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1849–1850), of which there is an English translation, The Memoirs of . . . Chateaubriand (6 vols., 1902), by A. Teixeira de Mattos, based on the admirable edition (4 vols., 1899–1901) of Edmond Biré. This work should be supplemented by the Souvenirs et correspondances tirés des papiers de Mme Récamier (2 vols., 1859, ed. Mme Ch. Lenormant). See also Comte de Marcellus, Chateaubriand et son temps (1859); the same editor’s Souvenirs diplomatiques; correspondance intime de Chateaubriand (1858); C. A. Sainte-Beuve, Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire sous l’empire (2 vols., 1861, new and revised ed., 3 vols., 1872); other articles by Sainte-Beuve, who was in this case a somewhat prejudiced critic, in the Portraits contemporains, vols. i. and ii.; Causeries du lundi, vols. i., ii. and x.; Nouveaux Lundis, vol. iii.; Premiers Lundis, vol. iii.; A. Vinet, Études sur la litt. française au XIXe siècle (1849); M. de Lescure, Chateaubriand (1892) in the Grands écrivains français; Émile Faguet, Études littéraires sur le XIXe siècle (1887); and Essai d’une bio-bibliographie de Chateaubriand et de sa famille (Vannes, 1896), by René Kerviler. Joseph Bedier, in Études critiques (1903), deals with the American writings. Some correspondence with Sainte-Beuve was edited by Louis Thomas in 1904, and some letters to Mme de Staël appeared in the Revue des deux mondes (Oct. 1903).
- For full details of the Chateaubriand family see R. Kerviler, Essai d’une bio-bibliographie de Chateaubriand et de sa famille (Vannes, 1895).
- Her Œuvres were edited in 1879, with a memoir, by Anatole France.