François-René, Viscount of Chateaubriand: His Childhood

François-René, Viscount of Chateaubriand
Young Chateaubriand portraited by Anne-Louis Girodet (ca. 1790). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

François-René, Viscount of Chateaubriand was born on 4 September 1768 in Saint-Malo, France. He was the youngest of ten children. His father was René de Chateaubriand, a sea captain, turned ship owner, and slave trader. René was an eccentric, taciturn, uncommunicative, despotic, and ill-tempered person. He inspired fear in his family and was as harsh to them as he was haughty to nobles.

Chateaubriand’s mother was Apolline-Jeanne-Suzanne de Bedée. She was dark complected with large features. She was also small and not someone anyone would describe as beautiful. Nevertheless, she was intelligent and imaginative. She loved to read, and her personality and disposition were in stark contrast to that of her husband: where he loved solitude, she loved society, and where he was cold, she was animated.

Château of Combourg. Courtesy of www.all-free-photos.com.

The family lived in Combourg, Brittany, located in northwestern France. It was a sleepy little village that Chateaubriand described in his Mémoirs from Beyond the Tomb. He claimed the area ‘possessed only some barren heaths, a few mills, and two forests Bourgouët and Tanoërn in part of the country where timber is practically worthless.’[1]

Looming over the village was a run-down medieval castle known as the Château de Combourg that René bought in 1761. The gloomy château was made even more gloomy by his unsocial disposition. Rather than gather his family together, René insisted they be scattered throughout the castle. Thus, his father’s bedroom was in an eastern tower, his mother’s and sister’s rooms above the dining-hall, and Chateaubriand’s room a sort of ‘isolated cell’ placed in a separate and remote tower at the top of a staircase.

Lucile, Courtesy of Priscilla Meyer.

Life in the château was somewhat unregulated. Chateaubriand said there was never a fixed hour for rising or eating breakfast. He was generally free to do what he wanted, although he was to study until noon. When Chateaubriand had free time, he spent most it in the company of his older sister Lucile.

Lucile was two years older than Chateaubriand. She was a tall, thin, and timid girl. Chateaubriand described her as being “dressed in a frock not made to fit her, her waist compressed by corsets, with whalebones running into her sides; – forced to hold her head erect by an iron collar covered with brown velvet; – her hair turned up and confined beneath a black toque.”[2]

Every day he and his sister “were taken to the Sisters Couppart, two old hunchbacked women dressed in black, who taught children to read.”[3] Although Lucile was a bad student, he claims he was worse. His poor performance caused his parents more than once to accuse him of being a troublemaker and slouch. When not in trouble, playtime for Lucile and Chateaubriand “consisted in walking side by side, on the great Mall, in spring, on a carpet of primroses; in autumn, on beds of withered foliage, and in winter, on a covering of snow, ornamented by the tracks of birds, squirrels, and ermines.”[4]

At home, Lucile and Chateaubriand adhered to near silence when in the presence of their father. This was especially true each evening because after dinner, René had a habit of silently walking back and forth. His walk always took place in his giant apartment, large enough that he would disappear into darkened shadows before once again returning. Furthermore, all that could be heard during these nightly walks was the sound of their father’s footsteps and the occasional sigh of their mother.

At precisely ten o’clock, his father stopped walking and began his nightly ritual of preparing for bed. It always involved him winding his watch, taking a lit candle, and bending down for an embrace from his children, who stood dutifully waiting. When his footsteps disappeared, animation and liveliness returned to the household, along with a torrent of words.

Count of Combourg’s Wooden Leg and Black Cat. Public Domain.

After René retired for the evening, Chateaubriand accompanied his mother and sister to their rooms. Rumors had long circulated about the chateau’s history and the possibility of apparitions, ghosts, or specters roaming about the castle. One common tale involved the ghost of Count of Combourg. He was a wooden-legged man who had died three centuries earlier. Reports varied, but included various stories about the Count. Either his ghost traversed the staircase, his wooden leg did, or on occasion his wooden leg was accompanied by a black cat.  

Because of these tales, his terrified mother and sister faced bedtime with fear and refused to go to bed without his assistance. To alleviate their fears, Chateaubriand checked their rooms and looked in every corner and nook, even under their beds. He then retired to his own remote room where he listened to the howling wind, the creaks and groans of the old castle, and the voice of his father calling his valet-de-chambre after rising at 4 o’clock in the morning.

Chateaubriand. Public Domain.

Chateaubriand was educated in Dol, Rennes and Dinan. While at Dol he wrote that every Thursday and Sunday, the students took walks in the meadows or to a summit were some Gallic-Roman ruins existed. In May, they were allowed to play outside but ordered not to climb trees. The road was lined with elms and in one of the trees a magpie nest caught the eyes of Chateaubriand and his classmates. They could see the mother sitting on the eggs and a discussion broke out as to who would be daring enough to climb the tree and claim the prize.

Chateaubriand said that he was overcome with a desire to possess the prize and climbed the tree “like a cat.” Near the top, he took off his jacket and continued to climb until he reached the trunk. Unfortunately, the trunk had no branches and about two-thirds of the way up there was a forked branch, from which the nest rested on a far away point. He continued to climb, the magpie took flight at the sight of him, and he then seized the eggs, put them into his shirt, and descended.

As he was sliding down the tree, his foot slipped. He lost his footing and found himself stuck fifty feet in the air. The Prefect soon appeared and attempted to assist Chateaubriand but as Chateaubriand described it, it was useless:

“There was but one means of escaping from my vexatious position, which was that of suspending myself backwards by catching, with my hands, one of the forks of the branch, and the endeavouring to seize with my feet the trunk of the tree below the bifurcation. This maneuver I executed at the peril of my life. In the midst of my distress, I did not cast away my treasure; it would however have been wiser to have thrown it away than many others that I have since flung from me. In descending the trunk I skinned my hands, scratched my legs and breast, and broke the eggs; it was this that betrayed me. … “Come along Sir,” exclaimed [the Prefect] “you must be caned.”[5]

Chateaubriand eventually left Dol, which he claimed to have missed and began to study at Rennes. Chateaubriand’s education at Rennes was also religious in nature. He claimed to have made great progress in the study of languages and mathematics, and it was there he also became interesting in poetry and the arts. He noted that he also enjoyed ‘minor things,’ such as billiards, hunting, and chess.

Dinan was the next stop in his education. He went there to finish his Latin studies. While there the students bathed every Thursday and, perhaps, the most exciting thing that happened to him, was he once declared, “I thought about drowning myself.”[6]

After school, Chateaubriand had a difficult time deciding if he wanted to be a priest or a naval officer, but he decided to pursue a military career. He then acquired a commission as a second lieutenant in the French Army based at Navarre, and within two years, he had been promoted to the rank of captain. When the French Revolution broke out, he was at first sympathetic, but as it grew more violent, he decided to leave and supposedly then journeyed to America to study botany, which also started a new phase of his life.

References:

  • [1] François-René vicomte de Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb (Penguin Books Limited, 2014, Kindle edition).
  • [2] François-René vicomte de Chateaubriand, Memoirs of Chateaubriand: From His Birth in 1768, Till His Return to France in 1800 (London: Henry Colburn, 1849), 56.
  • [3] ibid., 57.
  • [4] ibid., 128.
  • [5] ibid, 98.
  • [6] ibid. 119.

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