Sources for Further Study
Chateaubriand: The Longed-for Tempests is the first volume of George D. Painter’s monumental three-part study of the French romantic writer and politician of the early nineteenth century. A retired incunabulist at the British Museum, Painter has long been known to the literary world for his biographies of André Gide, William Caxton, and Marcel Proust. In this new work, Painter presents Chateaubriand as a bright, impetuous young aristocrat in search of himself during the decline and fall of the old regime in France.
The early life of François-René de Chateaubriand is known to us largely through his memoirs. It is a basically gloomy story. Born at St. Malo, Brittany, on September 4, 1768, Chateaubriand was the youngest of five children of a relatively poor noble family. His mother, more concerned with society and religion than with rearing an infant son, sent François-René to live with his grandmother until he was three. “On leaving my mother’s womb I underwent my first exile,” Chateaubriand later recalled. He received no more love from his father, René-August, who dedicated himself to the task of restoring his family’s ancient lands and titles through a career at sea.
René-August’s career as a privateer and slave trader paid handsome dividends and by the time he was nine, François-René found himself ensconced at Combourg Castle. Long walks through the woods and heaths of the family’s ancestral homeland on holidays and school vacations developed in Chateaubriand an enduring love of nature. But he remained a troubled youth who on several occasions expressed a desire for self-destruction. During adolescence he developed a morbid fascination for his youngest sister, Lucille, who perhaps served to compensate for parental affection denied inside the cold and damp walls of Combourg Castle. Painter carefully weighs the evidence for incest between Chateaubriand and Lucille and concludes tentatively against it.
Painter considers that three persons had a crucial formative impact on Chateaubriand’s emotional and intellectual development: his father René-August, a schoolmate, Joseph Gesril, and the philosophe and statesman Malesherbes. Chateaubriand’s relationship with his father is viewed by Painter as a basically negative experience. René-August’s cold, authoritarian attitude produced in Chateaubriand’s character a deeply rooted strain of “melancholy” and “isolation.”
As a student in clerical schools at Dol, Rennes, and Dinan, Chateaubriand was a restless, undisciplined achiever. He excelled in Latin, Greek, and mathematics and was encouraged to pursue an interest in writing. Upon the urging of Joseph Gesril, who showed him the “bright eyes of danger,” Chateaubriand often found himself in trouble for defying school rules and regulations. His propensity for dangerous living is well documented by Painter. Chateaubriand’s near miss with death at Niagara Falls...
(The entire section is 1208 words.)