François René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), one of the first French romantic writers, was a master stylist. Through the poetic prose of his voluminous work he was able to evoke exotic places and to transform and idealize his own life and times.
René de Chateaubriand was born in Brittany on Sept. 4, 1768, the son of an insignificant provincial nobleman. He grew up first on the Atlantic coast at Saint-Mâlo, later in the gloomy family château of Combourg. As one of 10 children, he was largely neglected and spent his days roaming the woods with his devoted sister Lucille, who first encouraged him to write poetry; by night he slept fitfully, isolated by a whim of his father in a haunted tower.
Chateaubriand attended the nearby College of Dol for 4 years. After acquiring a good classical background, he was sent to the Jesuit college at Rennes for more thorough preparation in mathematics. Following this he studied first for a naval career, later for the priesthood; Chateaubriand then joined the army, only to soon weary of military life.
Leaving the army, Chateaubriand went to Paris, where his brother introduced him at court and his first verses were published in 1789, the year of the fall of the Bastille. Though Chateaubriand was Catholic and royalist, he hated despotism and soon professed sympathy for the ideals of the French Revolution. But the revolutionary violence appalled him, and in 1791 he went to America in search of true liberty, of simplicity, and of the wilderness, where he expected to find American Indians living pure and simple lives. He dressed like a trapper and explored the Great Lakes and the regions around the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The exotic color of his later works derives from diaries he kept at this time. Several American epics were the fruit of this journey.
Chateaubriand returned to France in January 1792, and in March he married Céleste Buisson de la Vigne, a sharp-tongued and witty young heiress. He joined the French émigré army in the Rhineland, was wounded, and dragged himself half dead to France. In 1793, the year of the Terror, he escaped to London. At first he was miserably poor and almost starved to death; at this time, while a resident in the home of a British pastor, he was involved in a pathetic love affair with Charlotte Ives, the pastor's daughter.
Chateaubriand's first book, Essai sur la Révolution (Essay on the Revolution), was written in London and published in 1797. From the viewpoints of the Philosopher and the historian he examined ancient revolutions, compared them to the crisis in France, and attacked the conservative factions. The book shocked the monarchists in London, grieved and stunned his own family, but brought him new friends among French moderates.
One such friend, Louis de Fontanes, a neoclassic poet, was convinced that France was returning to Catholicism. His ideas struck a responding chord in Chateaubriand. Soon after, the death of his mother made Chateaubriand's religious conversion complete: "I wept and I believed." Le Génie du Christianisme (1802; The Genius of Christianity) struck like a flash of lightning when the French public was groping in the dark. This work, which established Chateaubriand as a major figure, defends Christianity not by appeal to reason but rather by appeal to the heart and the imagination. The cameo-like novels, Atala and René, intended merely as illustrations of the author's theses, are the works of Chateaubriand most widely read today.
Napoleon was pleased by this brilliant defense of Catholicism, and he named Chateaubriand secretary to the ambassador of Rome in 1803. When Napoleon had the Duke of Enghien assassinated, Chateaubriand had the courage to resign in protest from his new post in Valais.
Chateaubriand rejoined his wife after 12 years of virtual separation, but he discovered that her mocking gaiety had grown more biting as the years had passed. She was especially acerbic on the subject of his many mistresses, among them Madame de Beaumont, Madame de Custine, Madame de Noailles, and the celebrated Madame de Recamier, who had once refused the advances of Napoleon. These women used their influence to support Chateaubriand in politics and to spread his literary fame.
Chateaubriand and his wife retired to the secluded Valley of Wolves in the region of Sceaux outside Paris. Here he finished Les Martyrs (The Martyr), began his autobiography, Mémoires d'outre-tombe (Memoirs), and wrote in its entirety L'Itinéraire de Paris à Jerusalem (1812; The Journey from Paris to Jerusalem), the story of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Under Louis XVIII, Chateaubriand became minister of state without portfolio. This minor post displeased him, and he managed to be appointed minister to Berlin in 1821. He became ambassador to London in 1822, represented France at the Congress of Verona, and as minister of foreign affairs helped in 1823 to bring about the war with Spain. He was dismissed in 1824. He then engaged in bitter opposition to Louis XVIII but at the King's death and the advent of Charles X rallied back to the monarchy. He became ambassador to Rome in 1827 but resigned in 1829. In 1830 he refused to support the government of Louis Philippe (the "Bourgeois King").
In 1831 Chateaubriand published his Études historiques (Historical Studies) and in the same year went back to his memoirs with greater seriousness. Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'outre-tombe manifest his desire to link his personal history with that of France. He constantly dramatizes his life, enlarging upon his role in events to the point of comparing himself to Napoleon. The book combines features of the confession ("to explain my inexplicable heart") and the historical essay. It is a masterpiece not only as an example of the genre but also as an expression of the 19th-century spiritual quest and its permanent malaise, the mal du siècle.
Chateaubriand's influence was immense; he dominated the literature of his time, to which he taught a fluid prose, intimately molded to the emotions. His Génie du christianisme imprinted a Christian character on the romantic movement; his exotic novels are both the source and the example of the mal du siècle.
Chateaubriand died in Paris on July 4, 1848, and was buried, according to his wish, opposite Saint-Mâlo, where he had played as a boy, on the isle of the Grand-Bé.
Further Reading on Vicomte de Chateaubriand
The best source of information on Chateaubriand is his own memoirs, Mémoires d'outre-tombe; the 1961 translation by Robert Baldick is handsome, exact, and highly readable. Two useful biographies are Joan Evans, Chateaubriand: A Biography (1939), and André Maurois, Chateaubriand: Poet, Statesman, Lover (trans. 1940). See also F. C. Green, French Novelists from the Revolution to Proust (1931), and Friedrich Sieburg, Chateaubriand (trans. 1961).
Additional Biography Sources
Conner, Tom, Chateaubriand's Memoires d'outre-tombe: a portrait of the artist as exile, New York: P. Lang, 1995.
Painter, George Duncan, Chateaubriand: A biography, London: Chatto and Windus, 1977.
Painter, George Duncan, The longed-for tempests: (1768-93), New York: Knopf: distributed by Random House, 1978, 1977.