The Paradox of Change

by Malcolm Scott (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 259 Pages


This reassessment of Chateaubriand’s literary and political achievements, offered as an intellectual biography of the writer, is centred on the concept of change and Chateaubriand’s emotional suspicion of change, arising both from mistrust of his own inconstancy and from the personal and collective suffering of the French Revolution. His aversion to change spread beyond politics to religion and literature, but conflicted with his intellectual fascination with historic change in all three areas. The paradox of his fluctuating attitude to change allows a challenge to traditional views of Chateaubriand’s status. Was he truly a committed founder of French Romanticism? Was he an unswerving right-wing legitimist? Was he an insincere and ‘aesthetic’ Christian? The book provides new answers to these questions, presenting a very different Chateaubriand both through an analysis of his preference for the epic literature of Greece and Rome and its Christian heritage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and by its account of his subtle pleading for constitutional monarchy. Malcolm Scott argues that the failure of Chateaubriand’s political aspirations led him, again paradoxically, to the espousal of change and to a final dramatic reversal of his literary and religious standpoint, expressed in the writings of the last few years of his life.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on Quotations and Translations
  • Introduction
  • Chateaubriand: A Closed Book?
  • A New Approach
  • Change and Fixity
  • The Biographical and Historical Context
  • CHAPTER 1: Change’s Victim
  • The Shock of Revolution
  • An Interlude of Counter-Change
  • The Depths of Change
  • CHAPTER 2: Revolutions Ancient and Modern
  • Writing the Essai
  • Revolving Revolutions
  • Reflections
  • CHAPTER 3: Apostle of Religious Change
  • A Change in the Man?
  • Chateaubriand’s ‘Religious Book’
  • Apologetic: Chateaubriand and Pascal
  • CHAPTER 4: New Culture for Old
  • Christianity and the Epic
  • Virgil and Fénelon
  • Dante
  • Tasso
  • Milton
  • Voltaire
  • Tragedians
  • Conclusion: Chateaubriand’s Classical Preference
  • CHAPTER 5: Change’s Accidental Agent
  • Apologetic Fictions
  • Atala
  • René
  • The Ambivalence of Love
  • Melancholy
  • Change and Changeability
  • Romantic Legacy
  • CHAPTER 6: Classical Preference
  • A Drying of the Spring?
  • Les Martyrs
  • Le Dernier Abencérage
  • Moïse
  • Les Natchez
  • Postscript: The Romantic Revolutionary
  • CHAPTER 7: Champion of Freedom
  • A Second ‘New World’
  • Emperor Alexander Augustus Nero Tiberius
  • Constitutional Merry-Go-Round
  • Réflexions politiques
  • The Hundred Days
  • De la Monarchie selon la Charte
  • Reprisal
  • CHAPTER 8: The Illusion of Fixity
  • Untenable Affinities
  • Bourbon Blood
  • Vive la Charte, mais vive le Roi
  • Endgame
  • Inertia
  • An Unlikely Conspiracy
  • Defender of Fixity, Advocate of Change
  • CHAPTER 9: Finale: Change and Freedom
  • The Freedom of Political Change
  • Changing Views of Literature
  • Change in a Mind’s Eye
  • Vie de Rancé
  • The Christian Essence of Freedom
  • The Circularity of Change
  • Notes
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Change’s Victim
  • Chapter 2: Revolutions Ancient and Modern
  • Chapter 3: Apostle of Religious Change
  • Chapter 4: New Culture for Old
  • Chapter 5: Change’s Accidental Agent
  • Chapter 6: Classical Preference
  • Chapter 7: Champion of Freedom
  • Chapter 8: The Illusion of Fixity
  • Chapter 9: Finale: Change and Freedom
  • Bibliography
  • Writings of Chateaubriand
  • Other works
  • Index
  • Series Index

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I express my thanks to my friends and colleagues Paul Gifford and Ian Higgins for their advice and encouragement after reading early drafts of this book. I especially thank my wife Isabelle for supporting me yet again through the process of writing; to her it is lovingly dedicated.

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Note on Quotations and Translations

All the quotations in French are translated into English in the notes at the end of the book, followed in each case by book and page references to the original French sources. All the translations are by the author. English-style punctuation is used throughout. Familiar English names are used for historical and mythological personages, while Chateaubriand’s spelling of the names of fictional characters is retained.

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Chateaubriand: A Closed Book?

The continuing presence of even the greatest of authors in the spotlight of both academic and general appraisal depends to some extent on there being a steady flow of monographs dedicated to their work. In the case of Chateaubriand, the regular supply of lifeblood necessary to refresh his standing seemed until quite recently to have dried up. Then two important biographies appeared: in 2004, Ghislain de Diesbach’s well-informed and thoroughly documented life; in 2012, Jean-Claude Berchet’s voluminously detailed biographical study, so exhaustive that it is unlikely that anyone will attempt to rival it for years ahead. The welcome given to both books in France shows that there is still a great interest in Chateaubriand the man; there is no surprise in this, for he was one of the most celebrated and multi-faceted figures in a uniquely turbulent age. Writer, traveller, diplomat, politician: there was scarcely an area of French life in the late eighteenth century and first half of the nineteenth in which he was not a prominent player. If there is one man in whose life and works the cultural image of France, in its revolutionary and Romantic era, can be encapsulated, then only Victor Hugo could aspire to challenge Chateaubriand’s claim to be that man. Good new biographies were needed and we have had two in relatively quick succession, although it has to be added that no account of his life in English has appeared since George Painter’s work in 1977, of which, regrettably, only one of the projected two volumes was ever completed. So English-speaking readers interested primarily in Chateaubriand’s life will have to rely for the moment on the French texts of Diesbach and Berchet, neither of which has been translated. When it comes to Chateaubriand’s literary works or his status as political thinker, new monographs are even rarer; no fresh interest has hitherto been shown ← 1 | 2 → in these to rival the renewed fascination with his larger-than-life persona. No book of substance has attempted to embrace the work as a whole since those of Pierre Barbéris and Pierre Clarac, published in 1974 and 1975 respectively. Before these two books, we have to go back to Jean-Paul Richard’s study (1967) or further back still to that of Pierre Moreau (1956). Because of Chateaubriand’s place (or more precisely that of his best known work René) on the reading lists of undergraduates in France and in the English-speaking world, short study guides to his most famous individual works of fiction have continued to be published, like Colin Smethurst’s perceptive reading of Atala and René (1996). Scholarly articles, however, especially in English, have been few in number in recent years, although one can still read with profit those by Donald Charlton (1969) and Diana Knight (1983) – both on René. Thankfully, Chateaubriand figures prominently in general surveys such as Claude Millet’s recent synthesis of French Romanticism (2007). The paucity of new research is not wholly surprising: no new material has come to light, no rediscovered manuscripts to stimulate reassessment, and it has perhaps been assumed that there was, and is, nothing new to say.1

A New Approach

For those students of Chateaubriand who, like myself, believe that there is still very much to say, and that a new overarching account of his literary and political achievements is overdue, the challenge of an unchanging corpus of material has to be met by locating an area within it on which previous books have not focused, but which is important enough to sustain a fresh reading of the author’s work as a whole. My book identifies one such area, an idea best summarized in a single word: change. This might seem at first glance to be a very simple concept on which to base a new study of so complex a writer. We are all conscious of change as the great determinant of our lives, the core of the unpredictability that characterizes our condition and that of the world in which we live. For Chateaubriand as for us, the ramifications ← 2 | 3 → of change are multiple and complex, and he describes and reflects on them with an insistency that, my book will argue, is the key to his entire work. His attitude to change, in the midst of the tumultuous and ever-changing literary and political world which marked his lifetime, allows us to define in a new way his place in that world. More broadly still, his ability to grasp and mirror this most universal of experiences, change, identifies him as an everyman, a writer who, across the two centuries that separate us from his work, speaks to us, in our time, of our own hopes and fears.

The phenomenon of change was Chateaubriand’s central intellectual preoccupation, a major theme in his writings and an obsessive concern of his personal life. Change is at the heart of his fiction, his autobiographical texts, his study of religion, his travel writing and his historical and political essays. Furthermore, because substance and style are inseparable elements of any writer’s work, Chateaubriand’s sensitivity to change informs his descriptive technique and the very process of his writing. It accounts for the endless annotations and additions he made to his texts, revising and altering them, often over many years, and transferring whole sections of text from one work to another as his perception changed, in a changed context, of the rightness or wrongness, the meaning or potential meaning, the felicity or infelicity of formulation, of what he had originally written. Particular attention will be paid in the course of this book to the dating of the extracts quoted, and to the significance of textual modification in the genetic constitution of his literary work.

Sensitivity to change was the product of Chateaubriand’s experience of life. He lived through three revolutions and saw the fall of monarchies and of empire. He endured a constantly wavering and erratic public career and knew the heights and depths of a chaotic personal life. Coping with radical change was the core challenge of his life, an experience that permeated his writing. Cultural change was his deepest intellectual passion, as his comparative works on the history of revolutions and on the religious and literary transition between the ancient and modern worlds illustrate. In his observation, also, of the visible world, whether as a traveller and travel-writer, or of the familiar settings of his various homes in France or the appearances of places visited and revisited, he was acutely, obsessively, alert to manifestations of change, ever on the lookout for them, grasping ← 3 | 4 → and evaluating with an unfailing keenness their historical significance and emotional poignancy.

However, his reaction to change was complex and often contradictory; although so interesting to him intellectually, change lay at the root of his deepest public fears and private misgivings. The change of which he was most conscious, from an early age, was change within: uncertainty of purpose, fluctuation of mood and feeling that made it difficult to pursue any object to fruition, or even to identify what his object should be. In his memoirs, he calls this condition ‘inconstancy’ and he expressed it, in dramatic and intensified fictional form, in René. Here we encounter the first example of what this book’s title identifies as the ‘paradox’ of change: the fact that the transfer of this unwelcome tendency of spirit – life-obstructing inner changeability – from Chateaubriand’s own experience into that of his most famous fictional character made Chateaubriand’s literary fortune as well as bestowing on him the most abiding attribute of his literary reputation, that of the founder of French Romanticism. Whether or not he set out to win that reputation or welcomed this label, whether they adequately reflect his literary preferences or his true status in literary history, are also questions fraught with paradox. We shall see that his own perceptions of these matters changed over time and most radically in the last two decades of his life, in which long-resisted change, literary and political, was finally and serenely accepted, even embraced, by him, so that his identification with the modern world (liberalism in politics, Romanticism in literature) was finally grasped retrospectively, at the end of his literary career rather than, as conventionally supposed, at its outset; his embrace of the modern came as a realization of a final point reached rather than as a project for a work and a life still to come. His long delay before defining where he stood in relation to politics and literature challenges traditional views of him as an unswerving literary Romantic or as an intransigent political legitimist.

His attitude to change in the outside world was no less paradoxical, because seldom static and constantly varying depending on the object of his attention. He could capture with delight the moment-to-moment changes he observed in nature: the trees of the forest yielding to the wind, the variation of birdsong from one location to another, the play of light on water, the contrasting alternations of dark and light in the night sky. But ← 4 | 5 → changes in the world designed and organized by men were another matter. He was, at different times or at the same time, fearful of change (especially, but not only, in the domain of politics), excited by change (especially in its religious manifestations), and ambivalent towards change in the realm of literature; while change initiated or inspired by himself was usually (but with often spectacular remorse to follow) embraced more readily by him than change that arose from the actions, thoughts and writings of others. Change, and the paradox of change – ‘paradox’, once more, because of the unexpected and often radically varying perspectives in which he views and presents change itself, so that he often seems to reverse what he had first written – is everywhere in Chateaubriand. Change – as a verb (changer) in all its forms and conjugations, or as a noun, changement, or in synonymous terms like modification or transformation, and finally through the word that signals the radical escalation of change, révolution – is the most frequent linguistic and thematic reference to be found in his work, as the quotations from his writings, given in the chapters which follow, amply illustrate.

This study, in tracing all these avenues of change, is the first book to concentrate on this specific aspect of Chateaubriand’s work. Associated aspects, such as time and history, have attracted previous comment but, because they afford a mainly external view, an avenue of critical analysis created and explored by scholars, they are less intimately part and parcel of the fabric of the writing itself. They yield a lesser degree of penetration into the inner workings of Chateaubriand’s intellect and imagination than the revelation of what change consciously represented for him. They are less close to the reader’s experience also; while they identify the temporal and psychological dimensions in which change takes place, they do not carry the same emotional charge as the central idea that his writing thrusts upon us. Change is what we encounter, intensely and immediately, on virtually every page he wrote, while the framework of time and history might come as an afterthought. Chateaubriand was certainly aware of life’s temporal and historical dimensions as inexorable if abstract processes, but what absorbed him most were the no less inexorable but rather more concrete changes occurring in the immediate moment and in the world around him. ← 5 | 6 →


X, 259
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
biography emotional suspicion French Revolution religion literature
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 259 pp.

Biographical notes

Malcolm Scott (Author)

Malcolm Scott is an emeritus professor of the University of St Andrews, where he worked for many years as head of the French Department and School of Modern Languages, while also being an active researcher in the fields of French literature and politics. He was founder of the St Andrews Institute for European Identity Studies and a founder member of the Société des Études Mauriaciennes. He was appointed Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques in 1999. His previous writings include books on Mauriac, De Gaulle, Bernanos, the French Catholic novel and the French and American Revolutions.


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