The youngest of ten children, François-August-René de Chateaubriand was born at Saint-Malo, France, on September 4, 1768. His father, René-Auguste de Chateaubriand, had become rich as a shipowner and merchant sailor; with his wealth, he had purchased the château of Combourg. There the young Chateaubriand spent a lonely childhood, wandering the woods with his sister Lucile, four years his senior, who early recognized and fostered her brother’s genius. Already as an adolescent he revealed himself as a dreamer. He later recalled that when he spoke with Lucile about the world, “it was the world that we carried within us,” that of the imagination.
His father initially intended for Chateaubriand to pursue a naval career. To this end the youth attended the College of Dol, near Combourg, and then the Jesuit college of Rennes. Having rejected the sea, Chateaubriand next went to the College of Dinan to study for the priesthood but soon abandoned this field as well. An older brother, Jean-Baptiste, who was living in Paris and moving in court circles, then secured for him a military commission; Chateaubriand was to remark that both he and Napoleon I began their careers as sublieutenants. He was also to observe that he spent fifteen years as a soldier before devoting fifteen to writing and another fifteen to politics.
Actually, his military career was considerably briefer. When his father died in September, 1786, Chateaubriand left the army, returned to Combourg, and, in 1789, joined his brother at the French capital. An unintentional witness to the fall of the Bastille and the increasingly violent French Revolution that ensued, in July, 1791, Chateaubriand sailed to America to find true liberty, fraternity, and equality.
On the banks of the Ohio, he chanced upon a newspaper report of the flight of Louis XVI. He hastened back to France to fight for the monarchy. Lacking funds sufficient to join the émigré army, he married the rich and acerbic Céleste Buisson de la Vigne. Wounded and left for dead at the siege of Thionville, he managed to escape to England, where he made a living as a tutor and translator.