There were two Constants in Napoleon’s stormy life: Very Constant, his valet, who wrote about the great dictator’s private life, voluminous memoirs disproving an old adage; and Benjamin Constant de Rebecque, who, born in Switzerland, educated in a dozen cities, and finally embattled in France, so littered his life with unpaid debts, discarded mistresses, and political somersaults that it would hardly be profitable to dally with him here had he not come close to history in many frays, been loved to distraction by notable women, and been able to describe his faults with such eloquence, subtlety, and impartiality as might help us to understand our own.
He chronicled his first twenty years of life in a Cahier rouge or Red Notebook; the next twenty in a short novel, Adolphe; and the years 1804–16 in a Journal intime that ranges from Paris to Coppet to Weimar to London with arresting snatches of history, literature, psychology, and philosophy. Only Adolphe was published in his lifetime (London, 1816); the Journal remained in manuscript till 1887, the Cahier till 1907; these scattered members, with a thousand contemporary references, constitute Constant today.
He came of a titled Swiss-German family that traced its pedigree through 800 years. We need go back no further than his father, who was so occupied with his own sins that he had little time left to supervise his son’s. Baron Arnold-Juste Constant de Rebecque was an officer in a Swiss regiment serving the States-General of the Netherlands. He was handsome, well read, a friend of Voltaire. Early in 1767 he married Henriette de Chandieu, of French-Huguenot extraction. She was then twenty-five, he was forty. On October 25, at Lausanne, she gave birth to Benjamin; a week later she died, the first of many women who suffered from his irregularities. The father entrusted the boy to various tutors, carelessly chosen. One tried by beatings and fondlings to make the boy an infant prodigy in Greek. When the beatings endangered Benjamin’s health he was transferred to a second tutor, who took him to a brothel in Brussels. His third tutor gave him a good knowledge of music, and, for the rest, relied on him to educate himself through reading. Benjamin read eight or ten hours a day, permanently injuring his eyes and his faith.73 He spent a year at the University of Erlangen; then he was transferred to Edinburgh, where he felt the final flurry of the Scottish Enlightenment; but there too he took to gambling, which became second only to sex in disordering his life. After adventures in Paris and Brussels he settled in Switzerland, and began to write a history of religion, with a view to demonstrating the superiority of paganism to Christianity.
He passed from woman to woman, from casino to casino, until at last his father arranged (1785) to have him live in Paris with the family of Jean-Baptiste Suard, a literary critic of learning and goodwill.
I was received with full acceptance by his set. My wit, which at that time entirely lacked solidity and accuracy, had an amusingly epigrammatic turn; my learning—which was very desultory but superior to that of most of the men of letters of the rising generation—and the originality of my character, all seemed novel and interesting…. When I remember the kind of things I used to say at that time, and the convinced disdain that I showed toward everyone, I am at a loss to know how I could have been tolerated.74
In 1787 he met “the first woman of superior intelligence whom I had hitherto known.” “Zélide”—i.e., Isabella van Tuyll—had been the difficult pièce de résistance in Boswell’s Holland days. She had rejected him and others to marry her brother’s tutor, and was now living with him, in resigned discontent, in the town of Colombier near the Lake of Neuchâtel. When Constant came upon her she was in Paris seeing her novel Caliste through the press. She was forty-seven, but she had for the nineteen-year-old philanderer the charm of a woman still physically stimulating and intellectually brilliant and blasé to a degree that made his own proud sophistication seem sophomorically juvenile. “I still remember with emotion the days and nights we spent together, drinking tea, and talking with inexhaustible ardor on every possible subject.” When she returned to Colombier he took up his own dwelling in nearby Lausanne. Her husband mistakenly believed that the disparity of their ages would limit Zélide and Constant to friendship. She set herself zealously to educating Benjamin in the wiles of women and the lies of men. “We intoxicated one another with our jests and our scorn of the human race.”75
His father interrupted this semi-intellectual diversion by sending him to Brunswick to serve as a court functionary to the Duke who was soon to lead an army against the French Revolution. Between ceremonies he fell into the tender trap of the Baroness Wilhelmina von Cramm, married her (May 8, 1789), found husband-ry duller than philandering, concluded that Minna loved “cats, dogs, birds, friends, and a lover” more than her lawful mate, and sued for divorce. Feeling heart-free, he developed a passion for Charlotte von Hardenberg, wife of Baron von Marenholz. She refused Benjamin the consolation of adultery, but offered to marry him as soon as she could divorce the Baron. Frightened by the thought of another marriage, Constant fled to Lausanne (1793) and Colombier, where Zélide resumed his education. He was now twenty-six years old, and she felt that he should sacrifice the zest of variety for rest in unity. She told him, “If I knew a young and robust person who would love you as much as I do, and who is no more stupid than I am, I would have the generosity to say, ‘Go to her!’ “76 To her surprise and indignation, he soon found a young and robust person.
On September 28, 1794, on the road between Nyon and Coppet, Benjamin met Germaine de Staël, aged twenty-eight, jumped into her carriage, and began a fifteen-year comedy of vows, tears, and words. He had never known a woman with an intellect so enriched, a will so strong, passions and sentiments stronger still. Against these powers he was all weakness, for he had lost character through a permissive and fragmented youth, and had reduced his natural vitality through physiological campaigns without dignity or growth. Here too his ready triumph was a defeat, for though she accepted him as a lover, and allowed him to believe that he had fathered Albertine, she persuaded him to sign with her, at an unknown date, an oath of allegiance which, aided by his debts to her, kept him in psychological bondage even after both had taken other mates to their beds.
We promise to consecrate our lives to each other; we declare that we regard ourselves as indissolubly bound to each other; that we will share forever, and in every respect, a common destiny; that we will never enter into any other bond; and that we shall strengthen the bonds now uniting us as soon as lies within our powers.
I declare that I am entering into this engagement with a sincere heart, that I know nothing on earth as worthy of love as Madame de Staël, that I have been the happiest of men during the four months I have spent with her, and that I regard it as the greatest happiness in my life to be able to make her happy in her youth, to grow old peaceably by her side, and to reach my term together with the soul that understands me, and without whose presence life on this earth would hold no more interest for me.
He followed her to Paris in 1795, merged his politics with hers, supported the Directory, accepted Napoleon’s coup d’état as necessitated by the condition of France, and served as spokesman for her as well as himself when, nominated by Napoleon, he became a member of the Tribunate. But as soon as the First Consul gave signs of desiring absolute power, the lovers jointly opposed him; she in her salon, he in his maiden speech (January 5, 1800), which demanded the right of the Tribunate to unshackled discussion. He won reputation as a forceful orator, but was marked for replacement as soon as the time should come (in 1802) for the Tribunate’s periodic cleansing. When the lovers nevertheless carried on their war Napoleon banished them from Paris.
Constant went with her to Coppet, though their relations had apparently cooled to a platonic calm. “I need women,” he told himself, “and Germaine is not sensual.”78 He offered to marry her; she refused, saying that this would sacrifice her rank and her daughter’s marital prospects. In September, 1802, she fell in love with Camille Jordan, and invited him to accompany her to Italy, all expenses paid, vowing to “forget everything with you, whom I love profoundly.”79 Jordan refused. In April, 1803, Constant left Coppet for an estate he had bought near Mafliers, some thirty miles from Paris. In the fall, Germaine, risking Napoleon’s ire, moved with her family to a country house in Mafliers. When Napoleon heard of this he bade her obey his order of banishment to 120 miles from Paris. She preferred to visit Germany. Constant, resenting the Consul’s severity and touched by Germaine’s grief, decided to accompany her.
He helped her and her children through the hardships of travel, rejoiced when he reached Weimar, and settled down there to work on his history of religion. On January 22, 1804, he began to keep a Journal intime with a buoyant entry: “I have just arrived in Weimar, I count on remaining some time, for there I shall find libraries, serious conversation after my taste, and, above all, peace for my work.”80 Some further entries reveal his mental growth:
January 23: I am working little and badly, but in revenge I have seen Goethe! Finesse, pride, physical sensitivity to the point of suffering; a remarkable spirit, a fine countenance, a figure slightly deteriorated…. After dinner I chat with Wieland—a French soul, cold like a philosopher, light like a poet…. Herder is like a warm, soft bed, where one has agreeable dreams….
January 27: Johannes von Müller [the Swiss historian] has explained to me his plan for a universal history…. [With him] an interesting question arose: the creation or noncreation of the world. According to how we decide this question the course of the human race will appear diametrically opposite: if creation, deterioration; if no creation, amelioration….
February 12: Have reread Goethe’s Faust [Part 1], It is in derision of mankind and all scientists. The Germans find in it an unprecedented profundity, but as for me, I prefer Candide….
February 26: A visit to Goethe….
February 27: An evening with Schiller….
February 28: Supper with Schiller and Goethe. I know no one in the world who has so much humor [gaieté], refinement, force, and range of spirit as Goethe.
February 29: … I depart tomorrow for Leipzig, and I do not leave Weimar without sadness. I have passed here three months very pleasantly: I have studied, lived secure, suffered little; I do not ask for more….
March 3: I visit the Museum at Leipzig…. The library has 80,000 volumes…. Why should I not remain here and work?…
March 10: I have bought six louis [approximately 150.00] of German books.81
He left Mme. de Staël at Leipzig and made his way down to Lausanne to visit with his relatives. He arrived just in time to learn that Germaine’s father had died—”this good Monsieur Necker, so noble, so affectionate, so pure. He loved me. Who now will guide his daughter?”82 He rushed back to Germany, hoping to break the news to her gently; he knew that this loss would overwhelm her. He came back with her to Coppet, and stayed with her till she had raised her head again.
She needed him most in those days when he was longing to part from her, to be free to pursue his own political and personal career without tying it to her interest. He felt that he had ruined his political prospects by becoming a lieutenant in her war against Napoleon. In April, 1806, his diary analyzed his malady of will: “I always incline to break with Madame de Staël, but every time I feel this way, the next morning finds me in a contrary mood. Meanwhile her impetuosities and imprudences keep me in torment and perpetual danger. We must part …; it is my sole chance for a peaceful life.”83 A month later his journal records: “In the evening a terrible scenehorrible, senseless, atrocious words. She is mad or I am crazy. How will it end?”84
Like so many authors unable to handle life, he took refuge in telling his side of the story in a fiction carefully disguised but transparently confessional. Hot with resentment of Germaine’s domination and reproaches, angry at his own weak-willed hesitations, he wrote in fifteen days (January, 1807) and one hundred pages the first psychological novel of the nineteenth century, more probing and subtle than most, and merciless to both woman and man.
Adolphe traced the fictional author’s aimless youth, his fragmentary education, his hasty and superficial amours, his eager reading—which replaced his faith with a cynicism that gnawed at the meaninglessness of his life. He brought his odyssey of irresponsible loves to a climactic catastrophe in the story of Ellénore, a noblewoman who had sacrificed home, honor, and future to be the mistress of Count P——. Adolphe notes the way in which society—founding its order and stability on laws and customs checking unsocial desires—punishes with gossip and contumely the woman (much less the man) who violates those protective norms. His pity for the ostracized Ellénore, his admiration for her courage, turn easily into love, or perhaps to the secret desire for one more conquest to sustain his pride. Just when his ardor is cooling to controllability she yields to him, leaves the Count and his money, takes a modest apartment, and tries to live on Adolphe’s visits and funds. His interest in the surrendered citadel declines as her devotion mounts. He tries to break away from her; she reproaches him; finally they quarrel and part. She leaves him, and wastes away in poverty and lack of will to live. He rejoins her only to have her die in his arms.
Constant had sought to conceal any key that would unveil his fictional characters as denizens of Coppet; he had made his heroine Polish and submissive, and had made her die in despair. Nevertheless all who became acquainted with the book and its author identified him with Adolphe, and Mme. de Staël with Ellénore. Constant refrained for nine years from publishing his book, but (vanity dulling caution) he read portions—sometimes all—of the manuscript to friends, and at last to Germaine herself, who fainted at its end.
Constant had received some passing strength by the return, into his life, of Charlotte von Hardenberg. She had divorced her first husband, and was tiring of the second, the Vicomte du Tertre; now she resumed her interrupted liaison with Constant. They were married on June 5, 1808, but when Benjamin, to quiet Mme. de Staël, returned to servitude at Coppet, Charlotte went back to Germany. Not till Madame discovered a new lover in John Rocca (1811) did Constant feel free. He went with Charlotte to live near Göttingen, and, helped by the university library, renewed his labor on his history of religion. The next two years were probably the happiest in his life.
But happiness was uncongenial to him. When (January, 1813) he heard from the Comte de Narbonne a firsthand story of Napoleon’s disaster in Russia, and sensed the nearness of Napoleon’s fall, his old restlessness returned. “Must I always be a spectator?” he asked himself in his journal. As the victorious Allies drove Napoleon back to the Rhine, Constant went to Hanover, met Bernadotte there, and was persuaded by him to write a pamphlet, Esprit de conquête, ascribing the collapse of France to Napoleon’s despotism. Published in Hanover in January, 1814, at the height of the Allied push into France, it made him persona grata with the Allied leaders, and he followed their armies into Paris (April, 1814) in hopes of a personal restoration.
He visited Mme. de Staël’s revived salon, and found that she had lost all interest in him. Since Charlotte was still in Germany, he announced in his journal (August 31, 1814) that he had fallen in love with Mme. Récamier, whose strategy of trembling but impregnable virginity he had long ridiculed. He confided to the Duc de Broglie that he had tried to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for the body of Juliette Récamier.85 As she had been an ardent supporter of the Bourbons, she feared for her safety when she learned that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and had landed at Cannes. She inspired Constant to publish in the Journal de Paris (March 6, 1815) a call to the people of France to rise against the “Usurper.” “Napoleon promises peace, but his very name is a signal for war. He promises victory; yet three times—in Egypt, Spain, and Russia—he deserted his armies like a coward.”86 La Récamier had lit in the inflammable Constant a fire that seemed to be burning all bridges behind him. On March 19 he proclaimed in the Journal des débats that he was ready to die for the restored King. That night Louis XVIII fled to Ghent; the next day Napoleon entered Paris; Constant hid in the United States Embassy. Napoleon issued a general amnesty; Constant emerged from hiding; on March 30 Joseph Bonaparte assured him that the Emperor was in a forgiving mood. On April 14 Napoleon received him and asked him to draft a liberal constitution. Napoleon revised the draft considerably, and then proclaimed it as the new charter of the French government. Constant was dizzy with glory.
On June 20, while he was reading Adolphe to Queen Hortense, the Duc de Rovigo entered to tell her that Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo two days before. On July 8 Louis returned to the Tuileries; Constant sent him a humble apology; the King, judging him to be a wayward irresponsible adolescent who wrote excellent French, issued a pardon that surprised everyone. All Paris shunned Constant, and spun puns around his name. He wrote to Mme. Récamier forgiving her for having ruined “my career, my future, my reputation, and my happiness.”87 In October he left for Brussels, where he rejoined the patient Charlotte. Early in 1816 they crossed to England, where he had Adolphe published. In September he returned with his wife to Paris, plunged into politics, and began a new career.