The Mercure de France, the once celebrated literary review founded in the 17th century, which died many times but which was continually to be resuscitated, would not have been particularly noticed during the First Empire, had not the new owner and editor in chief, François-René de Chateaubriand, written a famous article against tyranny and despotism.
Chateaubriand’s words are often taken as symbolic of the anti-Napoleonic stance: “When in the silence of abjection, the only sounds that can be heard are the chains of slaves and the voice of the collaborator, when everything trembles before the tyrant, when it is as dangerous to curry his favour as to merit his disgrace, the historian appears, charged with the vengeance of the peoples. Nero prospered in vain, for Tacitus was already born during the Empire; he grew unknown beside the mortal remains of Germanicus, and already Providence, true to her character, had given to an unknown child the glory of the master of the world”.
These famous remarks were inserted into a long (15-page!) review of a travel book about Spain and published in tome 29 of the Mercure de France, dated 7 July, 1807. Chateaubriand wrote little about the book on Spain, however, preferring to spend the lion’s share of the review recounting his souvenirs of a visit to the Holy Land.
In order to understand the reasons for the article and its impact, we have to go back a few years.
In 1804, Chateaubriand worked for Cardinal Fesch in Rome, but resigned in disgrace, going on to spend two years visiting the Near East (in 1806 and 1807), enjoying the support of local French delegations and the discrete benevolence of the emperor. It was there however that he met Natalie de Noailles, fervent royalist, who became his mistress and who introduced him to a circle of friends who were convinced that the Napoleonic army would get bogged down in Poland and the Empire would fall.
Chateaubriand’s return to France was a bitter one for him: he was once again short of money (he had left in debt and come back even more so) and Napoleon’s glorious triumph at Jena had put the author’s nose out of joint. So he was faced not only with the task of retaking his place in the literary firmament but also of impressing his mistress.
The solution that took the shape was to acquire of the Mercure de France from Fontanes. The main drawback with this was however financial. Whilst the source of the funds is not known, some biographers of Chateaubriand have surmised that the money came from royalists seeking a platform from which to communicate to the elite. Napoleon certainly suspected Chateaubriand (and his clique) of royalist leanings (see Napoleon’s letter to Lavallette, 14 August, 1807, published in Lecestre, Lettres inédites, t. I, no. 162, note P.H.).
Chateaubriand was to inaugurate his accession to the editorial chair with a (to all intents and purposes) harmless review of Monsieur de Laborde’s Voyage pittoresque et historique de l’Espagne. And why was this work, rather than any other, chosen? Because Monsieur de Laborde was Natalie de Noailles’s brother (Natalie had even done some of the illustrations).
As for comment on Laborde’s work, this only begins on page three. In this review, Chateaubriand abandoned himself in a meditation upon history, freedom, and his recent trips to the Holy Land. Perfectly aware of the distance taken from the book, Châteaubriand offered the following excuse: “Monsieur de Laborde will forgive us our digressions. He is a traveller, and we are like him”.
As to what happened afterwards, Chateaubriand gives his version in the Mémoires d’Outre-tombe: “Napoleon was furious: one is less irritated by the criticism made than by its attack on one’s self-image. What! To scorn even his glory; for a second time, to brave the anger of one at whose feet the world had fallen, prostrate! ‘Does Chateaubriand think I am an imbecile: that I don’t comprehend him? I’ll have him sabred on the steps of the Tuileries.'” (See below for the full text.)
The reality behind the event was probably less fierce. It would appear that the emperor was angry with Chateaubriand, but Joseph Joubert, a friend of the author’s, tells a slightly different story in a letter of letter September 1807: “The thunder rolled”, he wrote, “the clouds broke, and the lightning bolt in person said to Fontanes that if his friend did that again, he would be smitten. All this was sharp, violent even, but short. Today, all is peaceful; and the hail has fallen on the Mercure“.
Chateaubriand’s sentence was to be banished to the outskirts of Paris and to be deprived of his ownership of the Mercure, but he was to be compensated apparently handsomely for his loss since in August 1807 Chateaubriand bought the property Vallée-aux-Loups in Chatenay-Malabry (south of Paris). François-René preferred to declare that “My property [the Mercure, ed.] was lost“, forgetting to mention what we learned from Joubert, namely that: “In the storm, it rained gold on those who were evicted [from the Mercure, ed.] and I would advise them not to complain”.
Many years later, in 1833, when writing his Mémoires d’Outre-tombe, Chateaubriand was to return to this notorious article. He explained Napoleon’s anger not as a result of his tirade against despotism, about which he said nothing, but because his account of his pilgrimage to the tombs of the two daughters of Louis XV, buried in Trieste, their place of exile! (For the full text, see below.)
In his (forced) retirement at Vallée-aux-loups, Chateaubriand saw his literary career prosper. In love with his property, and surrounded by a court of female admirers, he wrote Les Martyrs, the beginning of the Mémoires d’Outre-tombe, and the first of his Études historiques. And in his gilt-edged exile, Chateaubriand delighted in his self-imposed role as official opposition. As he loved to say: “Napoleon may have finished with the kings, but it wasn’t yet over with me”.
“Towards the end of June 1807, Monsieur Alexandre de Laborde published his travels in Spain; in July, I published the article in the Mercury from which I have quoted various passages in speaking of the Duc d’Enghien’s death: When in the silence of abjection, etc. Bonaparte’s successes, far from subduing me, had provoked me; I had gained fresh energy from my feelings and the tempests. My face had not been bronzed by the sun in vain, nor had I exposed myself to the wrath of the heavens in order to tremble sad-browed before a merely human anger. If Napoleon had done with kings, he had not done with me. My article, appearing in the midst of his successes and triumphs, stirred France: innumerable copies were made by hand; several subscribers to the Mercure cut out the article and had it bound separately; it was read in the salons and hawked from house to house. One has to have lived at that moment to gain any idea of the effect produced by a lone voice ringing out amongst the silence of the world. Noble feelings, buried in the depths of men’s hearts, revived. Napoleon was furious: one is less irritated by the criticism made than by its attack on one’s self-image. What! To scorn even his glory; for a second time, to brave the anger of one at whose feet the world had fallen, prostrate! ‘Does Chateaubriand think I am an imbecile: that I don’t comprehend him? I’ll have him cut down on the steps of the Tuileries!’ He gave orders to suppress the Mercure, and for my arrest. My property was lost; my person escaped by a miracle: Bonaparte was pre-occupied by the wider world; he forgot me, but I remained weighed down by menace.”
Mémoires d’Outre-tombe, 2nd part, book 18, chapter 5, translations Tony Kline.
“It was to fall to me to discover, at the bottom of the Adriatic, the tomb of the two daughters of kings, whose funeral oration I had heard recited in an attic in London. Ah! at least the tomb which covers these noble ladies will have had its silence broken at least once; the sound of the footsteps of a Frenchman would have roused these two French ladies in their coffins. In Versailles, the respects of a poor gentleman would have been nothing for princesses such as these; the prayers of Christian, in a foreign country, would have perhaps been agreeable to the Saints.”
Extract from the review of Voyage pittoresque et historique de l’Espagne, by Monsieur de Laborde, Mercure de France, Tome 29, 4 July, 1807, p. 16.