|The estimable Frank Underwood has pointed out that this anonymous portrait of Chamfort shows a man wearing the fashion of c.1805 - 1820, drawing particular attention to the M notch on the lapels. This portrait, therefore, must have been produced some years after Chamfort died.|
Our guest today is a man who lived a life of contradiction. From impoverished beginnings his natural intelligence and wit, good looks and charm won him fans and favours at Versailles and yet he turned his back on that life when the Revolution swept through France. Ultimately the man who rose to fame as a playwright, wit and political firebrand would meet a grisly death, brought low by falling foul of the wrong movers and shakers.
Born Sébastien-Roch Nicolas, his origins are shrouded in mystery. His parents were initially registered as grocer, Nicolas François, and his wife, Thérèse Croizet but his birth was then registered a second time, listing his parents as unknown. It seems likely that Chamfort was illegitimate and adopted by the grocer and his wife, who raised him as their own. As a boy he was possessed of a fierce intelligence that would be the making of him. Aged nine, he won a bursary that paid his way though the Paris Collège des Grassins, making his mark as the college's star student.
When Chamfort completed his studies he turned his back on an academic career and eked out a living writing for periodicals and doing occasional tuition. However, fate held yet another happy twist and Chamfort's easy wit and sparkling social manner brought him into hush French society. A privileged trip through Europe afforded Chamfort the time to work at his comedy, La Jeune Indienne, and when it premiered in 1764, the show was a hit. There would be no more scratching a living to keep up with his illustrious friends any longer and the eminently quotable Chamfort wrote and published a series of works and dramatic pieces, culminating in a decoration from the Académie Française five years later.
When ill health struck, Chamfort's wealthy patrons ensured he was able to visit the best spas in Europe and here he continued to write and win laurels for his works. Amongst his fans were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and in 1776 he took the position of secretary to the Prince de Condé. However, court business was not to Chamfort's liking and when he fell in love with an older widow, Anne-Marie Buffon, he decided that the time had come for a more pastoral life.
The couple retired to live a quiet yet luxurious life in rural France. Fate was not kind to Chamfort though and within six months of his marriage, Anne-Marie died. Without a companion to share his retirement, a Chamfort travelled once again and returned to Paris in 1781.
Despite his previous unsettled experience at court, Chamfort once again joined the royal household, this time as secretary to the king's sister, Madame Élisabeth. However, romantic intrigues saw Chamfort leave court once more and this time, he would not go back. In fact, when the Revolution engulfed Paris, Chamfort threw off his royalist connections and enthusiastically joined the new guard, financing and writing revolutionary pamphlets.
As a senior Jacobin, Chamfort held influence and had the ear of the most famous names of the revolutionary government but, like so many of his contemporaries, his position was far from secure and when he turned his critical eye on the more radical policies put forward by his fellow Jacobins, Chamfort's card was marked. Outspoken in his criticisms of radicals, when he welcomed Marat's death, Chamfort was taken to prison. He spent only a few days in jail but the experience so upset him that, when it looked as though he may be headed back to prison, Chamfort decided that death would be the lesser of two evils.
In September 1793, Chamfort closed the door of his study, took up a pistol and shot himself in the face. The weapon misfired and instead of killing himself, Chamfort blew off the better part of his jaw and his nose, leaving him conscious and in agony. The desperate man took up a paper knife and repeatedly stabbed it into his own throat and torso yet still he survived to be discovered by his valet, who summoned help.
Chamfort lingered on in agony for more than six months and died a broken man, a shadow of the celebrated figure he had once been.