by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve

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On the ship that takes him to the United States, probably forever, Amaury undertakes to tell the story of his life to a young friend. Having renounced his past life to live a new one abroad, he is afraid that he might find more pleasure than he should in those past memories; but he feels that his experience can prove useful to the young man, in whom he recognizes so many of his own tendencies.

Amaury, losing his parents, was reared by an uncle in Brittany. In his youth he was sheltered from the world outside his house, which at that time was slowly recovering from the effects of the French Revolution. He spent most of his time studying, and, prone to dreaming, he was actually more concerned with the adventures of Cyrus, Alexander, and Constantine than he was with the men and events of his own day. His Latin teacher was Monsieur Ploa, a man absolutely devoid of personal ambition; only a misinterpretation of Vergil or Cicero could momentarily get him excited. Monsieur Ploa had Amaury translate the voluptuous passages of the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) or the Odes (23 b.c.e., 13 b.c.e.; English translation, 1621) of Horace with a complete candor that his disciple did not share.

When Amaury was about fifteen years old, he spent six weeks at a neighboring castle. His life there, no longer checked by his regular schedule, helped to develop his tendency to melancholy; he would disappear into the woods reciting poetry with tears in his eyes, and he would forget to come back for meals.

At the age of eighteen, he began visiting friends in the neighborhood. He would often visit Monsieur and Madame de Greneuc, in whose household lived two granddaughters orphaned during the revolution. The older, Amélie de Liniers, was a charming woman who soon considered herself engaged to him. Amaury, however, did not feel like settling down in life without first learning something of the world.

During a hunting party, Amaury met the Marquis de Couaën, an influential figure in royalist circles, who invited the young man to his castle. There Amaury met Madame de Couaën, the Irish wife of the marquis. One day, Amaury wandered in the woods, lost in his thoughts. As he emerged from the woods, Madame de Couaën called to him from the window and asked him to pick up an ivory needle she lost. When he took it up to her, she asked him if he would, in the absence of her husband, accompany her to the little chapel of Saint-Pierre-de-Mer before the sun set. As they were walking along, she explained to Amaury that she was making a pilgrimage for her mother in Ireland, from whom she received bad news.

That walk was more or less the beginning of a hopeless love relationship between Amaury and Madame de Couaën, an affair in which his respect for the marquis and the true love of Madame de Couaën for her husband left him with the sole possibility of platonic adoration. To escape such a situation, he attempted to retire as a hermit on a nearby deserted island once inhabited by Druids, but after spending only one night there, he abandoned that project. He then decided to go to Ireland on a boat that brought the marquis some secret dispatches; he would see Madame de Couaën’s mother and possibly establish some useful political connections for the marquis. As he embarked, after leaving a letter of explanation in his room, Madame de Couaën came running to the beach with word that...

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her mother just died. While he tried to comfort her she tearfully begged him never to get married but to stay with them, help her husband, and understand her as no one else can.

The Marquis de Couaën went to Paris for some political meetings and took his wife, son, and daughter with him to avoid raising suspicions. Amaury accompanied them to Paris. When they returned to Couaën, they found the coast occupied by soldiers.

Amaury went to see Amélie, who was preparing to follow her grandmother to Normandy. When he insisted that they ought to delay for two years before making a decision concerning their future, Amélie simply asked him to be prudent.

On his way home, Amaury learned that the marquis was arrested in Paris; he rushed immediately to Couaën to destroy some papers before the police officers would arrive there. Without objection or thanks, Madame de Couaën accepted his help, and the next day they left for Paris with the two children. There Amaury communicated with Monsieur D. and Monsieur R. in an effort to secure their help.

Meanwhile, the marquis was allowed to receive visitors, and his wife went to see him every day. Amaury spent every evening with her. At the same time, he was beginning to feel attracted to Madame R., a lonely and disillusioned woman who often visited Madame de Couaën. Amaury also decided to experience physical love with a prostitute, but he accomplished his purpose with no real pleasure.

In the midst of these circumstances, Amaury could see no future for himself. He became involved in a royalist conspiracy, more in an effort to find self-fulfillment in a chivalric cause than to satisfy any political convictions. Faced with imminent action, he realized that his position might endanger the future of the marquis, bring grief to Madame de Couaën, and show ingratitude toward Monsieur R. and Monsieur D. Fortunately, his secret political involvement was never disclosed.

When the marquis was sent to Blois, Amaury did not accompany his friends, although they wanted him to come with them. Left in Paris, he visited Madame R. and wrote to Blois, where the royalist political leaders were being tried. Madame R., while refusing to become his mistress, liked to be seen with him in public and demanded the most foolish proofs of his attachment. They never really trusted each other, and she was always jealous of his love for Madame de Couaën.

A letter from the marquis arrived, announcing the death of his son and the alarming state of his wife’s health; the nobleman further asked for a two-week pass to bring her to Paris for medical attention. Madame de Couaën, who considered the death of her son a punishment for her own weakness, was unhappy to discover the relationship between Amaury and Madame R.

On a day when Amélie came to visit Madame de Couaën, Madame R. was also present, and Amaury realized that his instability caused the unhappiness of three women. Caught in his youth in the web of illegitimate love, he was unable to choose either true virtue or carefree disorder. He never saw Amélie again.

Back in Blois, Madame de Couaën sent him a medallion of her mother and a souvenir of her son. Shortly afterward, he ended his affair with Madame R. Years later he heard that Monsieur R. received a post of importance and that Madame R. became the mother of a son. Thus reaching the bottom of a moral abyss, Amaury enlisted in the army with the idea of finding death on the battlefield; he arrived at Austerlitz only after the battle was won. Convinced that there was no place for him in society, he decided to become a priest.

Several years later, after he took holy orders, he decided to visit again his uncle’s farm and the castle at Couaën. He received no news from Blois for several weeks, and he was afraid that Madame de Couaën’s health had not improved. On his arrival at Couaën he was surprised to find a flurry of activity; his friends had returned the day before. Although Madame de Couaën was very weak, she welcomed him warmly, adding that someone might soon need his assistance. As her condition became worse, Amaury administered the rites of absolution and extreme unction. Madame de Couaën died soon afterward and was buried in the chapel of Saint-Pierre-de-Mer.

This experience and the emotions it called forth proved extremely trying to Amaury, who immediately left Brittany and, a short time later, France. He hoped to find abroad some peace in obscure but useful activities.