Chateaubriand - Biography

Chateaubriand - Biography

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Short biography - Although having been an influential politician, Chateaubriand is best known as a talented writer and precursor of the movement romantic. Coming from an aristocratic class battered by the French Revolution, conservative, pious, he despises the materialist rationalism of the Enlightenment, will not recognize himself in the First Empire and will be greatly disappointed by the Restoration. Free man, extraordinary, melancholy and tormented, François-René de Chateaubriand stands out as one of the greatest minds of the 19th century. As a child, Victor Hugo wrote in his notebooks: " I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing. »

Youth of Chateaubriand

Chateaubriand was born on September 4, 1768 into an old ruined aristocratic family, settled in Saint-Malo where the father made a fortune in colonial commerce. The youngest of 10 children (4 of whom die in infancy), François-René lives far from his parents, with his grandmother, in Plancoët. In 1777 the family moved to the castle of Combourg, François-René spent a childhood there which he described as often gloomy with a taciturn father and a superstitious and sickly mother, but cheerful and cultivated. After his studies in Brittany, he became at the age of 17 a second lieutenant in the Navarre regiment commanded by his brother. In 1788 he came to Paris and established literary contacts, he began in this environment by writing verses for theAlmanac of the Muses.

In 1789, he participated in the States of Brittany and witnessed the storming of the Bastille. Two years later, Chateaubriand left revolutionary France for the New World, with the pretext of seeking the Northwest Passage. For a year he traveled to North America, living with the natives and sketching his poem Les Natchez on the spot. In 1792, he married Céleste, with whom he had no children. He left for Koblenz with the army of emigrants, who remained in Celestial Brittany and was arrested. Chateaubriand was wounded at the siege of Thionville, he was transported to convalescence in Jersey: it was the end of his military career.

He stays in London, in total destitution, forced to give French lessons and do translations for booksellers. In 1794, his brother, his sister-in-law and part of their family were guillotined in Paris. In 1797 he published theHistorical, political and moral essay on ancient and modern revolutions, considered in their relation to the French Revolution. He expresses political and religious ideas little in harmony with those he will profess later, the work goes unnoticed by criticism.

Return to Napoleonic France

Chateaubriand returned to France under the Consulate of Bonaparte in 1800. He headed the review for a time. Mercury from France where he published his novel in 1801 Atala which arouses great admiration! Around the same time he composed Rein. In 1802 he published the Genius of Christianity partly written in England, and of which Atala and Rein, originally, are only episodes. This event book signals a return of the religious after revolutionary dechristianization!

Spotted by Napoleon, he was chosen to accompany Cardinal Fesch to Rome as first secretary of the embassy. He proposes to Céleste to follow him, but this one knowing her connection with Pauline de Beaumont, refuses the household to three ... In 1804, he represents consular France near the Republic of Valais. When he learned of the execution of the Duc d'Enghien, Chateaubriand resigned. His break with Napoleon was consummated with the proclamation of the Empire: Chateaubriand entered the opposition.

Devoting himself only to Letters, Chateaubriand decides to write a Christian epic. Eager to visit the places where he is going to set up the action himself, he left France (with the documents in order made by the imperial administration) and in 1806 traveled through Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine and Egypt .

On his return, exiled by Napoleon three leagues from Paris, he moved with his wife (who also wrote his Souvenirs) in the area of ​​Vallée-aux-Loups. This is where he composed The Martyrs, published in 1809. With his travel notes, he published in 1811 the route from Paris to Jerusalem. The same year, he was elected member of the Académie française. However, as he planned in his reception speech to blame certain acts of the Revolution, Napoleon did not agree to let him pronounce it: he was therefore not allowed to take possession of his seat before the Restoration.

Chateaubriand under the Restoration

Chateaubriand welcomes the return of the Bourbons with joy, on March 30, 1814 he publishes a most virulent pamphlet against the fallen Emperor: From Buonaparte and the Bourbons. This pamphlet is distributed in thousands of copies. According to Chateaubriand himself, Louis XVIII would have said that this pamphlet served him as much as 100,000 men. Chateaubriand becomes ambassador in Sweden, but he does not have time to leave Paris that Napoleon escaped from Elbe Island begins his incredible reconquest of France! During the Hundred Days, he fled to Ghent in the King's luggage and even became a member of his cabinet (he also sent him a Report on the State of France).

Back in Paris after Waterloo, Chateaubriand, member of the Chamber of Peers, voted in December 1815 for the death of Marshal Ney (Marshal of Napoleon, joined to Louis XVIII and who returned to Napoleon during the Hundred Days). Peer of France, Chateaubriand was also Minister of State, at least until he was disgraced for having attacked (in La Monarchie according to the Charter) the ordinance of September 5, 1816 which dissolved the “Untraceable Chamber” (chamber deputies). Chateaubriand then returned to the opposition, among the ultraroyalists, and became one of the main editors of the Conservative, while frequenting Madame Récamier's salon.

In 1820, during the assassination of the Duke of Berry, he wrote Memoirs on the life and death of the Duke which tended to bring him closer to the court. In 1821, he was appointed Minister of France in Berlin, then Ambassador in London and the following year represented France at the Congress of Verona (where it was decided to intervene by France against the Spanish liberals). On his return, he became Minister of Foreign Affairs and managed the Spanish question successfully. However, he was dismissed in 1826, for lack of being able to come to an agreement with the head of government, Monsieur de Villèle. Chateaubriand therefore returned to the opposition against de Villèle, but this time by joining the liberal party. In the House of Peers, as in the Journal of debates, he wants to be the defender of press freedom and the freedom of Greece, which earned him great popularity.

At the fall of Villèle, he was appointed ambassador to Rome (1828), but he resigned when the Polignac ministry took over. More and more at odds with the conservative parties, disillusioned with the future of the monarchy, he retired from business after the Revolution of 1830, even leaving the House of Peers. Having put an end to his political career, he only manifests himself in sharp criticisms against the new government of Louis Philippe (Of the Restoration and the Elective Monarchy, 1831), by trips to the fallen family, and by the publication of a Memoir on the captivity of the Duchess of Berry (1833), memoir about which he was prosecuted, but acquitted. He also published in 1831 Historical studies, summary of universal history where he wants to show Christianity reforming society. This work is intended to be the frontispiece of a History of France, meditated for a long time, but unfinished.

He spent his last years in Paris, with his wife, completing the Memories from beyond the grave started since 1809. His last work which was an "order" of his confessor is Rancé's life, a biography of Dominique-Armand-Jean Le Boutillier de Rancé (1626-1700), worldly abbot owner of the castle of Véretz, in Touraine. Céleste died in 1847 and François-René followed her on July 4, 1848. Her remains were transported to Saint-Malo and deposited facing the sea, according to her wishes, on the rock of Grand Bé, an islet located in the harbor of her birthplace. , which can be reached on foot from Saint-Malo when the sea has receded.

His work

Atala, or The Loves of Two Savages in the Desert (1801)
Young René is welcomed in Mississippi by the Natchez tribe. He is befriended by an old Indian, Chactas, who visited France in the time of Louis XIV. Chactas tells him about his youth, how he had been taken prisoner by an enemy tribe, but freed by the beautiful Atala, converted to Christianity. In their flight they meet Father Aubry who offers to unite them by the sacred bonds of marriage after having baptized Chactas. But Atala, whom her mother had consecrated to virginity, poisons herself rather than breaking the maternal vow, unaware that this vow could be released by the priest ... In this work close to tragedy, Chateaubriand praises Christianity and describes a community close to that of the early fantasized hours of the early Church. This work inspired the painter Girodet who in 1808 produced Atala au tombeau.

René, or the Effects of Passions (1802)

René is presented as a continuation ofAtala, but this time it's a young Frenchman who tells about his melancholy life to an Indian. This tale filled with spleen and discomfort is often considered a standard work for the romantic movement. Several key themes are discussed:

- Loneliness: René is a lonely and tormented being, ultimately poorly integrated into the society of his time.

- Brotherly love: Only Amélie, René's sister, finds favor in his eyes. The state of mind of the romantic hero depends on the quality of their relationship. But behind the romantic some wanted to see the passionate (but chaste) love of Chateaubriand for his sister Lucile.

- The journey: In search of appeasement, René is a great traveler ... like François René de Chateaubriand, moreover ...

- Religion: Amélie is getting closer and closer to religion, to the point of taking orders. This situation torments René to the highest point, divided as he is between heartbreak and admiration.

The Genius of Christianity (1802)This work is written following a great return to the Faith of Chateaubriand, following the death of his mother:

“I have become a Christian. I have not yielded, I confess, to great supernatural lights; my conviction came out of my heart: I cried and I believed. "

In this key work of his bibliography, Chateaubriand seeks to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over other religions and atheism. Taking most of his predecessors in reverse, he does not seek to prove that Christianity is excellent on the pretext that it comes from God, on the contrary, he seeks to show that Christianity is indeed excellent, and that this underlies that it comes from God!
He therefore strives to study the contributions of Christianity to humanity in all fields: art, poetry, morals ...

The Martyrs, or the Triumph of the Christian Faith (1809)
In this novel, Chateaubriand follows a young Roman governor convert to Christianity: Eudore. Eudore frees Velléda, the daughter of a rebel druid who resumes the fight ... The story is that of an impossible love, Velléda falling head over heels in love with her enemy, Eudore, and herself refusing to receive her ... In spite, the beautiful druidess ends up slitting her throat. But the tragedy does not stop there since Eudore himself succumbs, a martyr of Christianity ...

Velléda becomes a theme of sculpture and painting.

Of Buonaparte and the Bourbons, and of the need to rally to our legitimate princes for the happiness of France and that of Europe (1814)
Circumstantial anti-Napoleonic pamphlet on the occasion of the first abdication of Napoleon I.

Memories from beyond the grave (1848)
This great autobiographical project is certainly Chateaubriand's most famous work. These Mémoires were not originally to appear until fifty years after the author's death, but it was otherwise, because to meet financial problems Chateaubriand ceded the exploitation rights to a company which demanded that the book be published upon death. of the author. In a sense these Memoirs are similar to those of Saint-Simon, or Confessions of Rousseau: Chateaubriand evokes his personal life, but also the great historical events of which he was the contemporary: Revolution, Republic, Empire, Restoration ... does the work of a historian while revealing his ego and his melancholy.


- ETERSTEIN Claude (ndd), French literature from A to Z, Hatier, 2011.
- BERCHET Jean-Claude, Chateaubriand, Editions Gallimard, 2012.
- Chateaubriand, biography of Ghislain de Diesbach. Perrin, 2018.

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