Partner Edward Saint-Barbe
6 Rue de la Rochefoucauld, 75009 Paris, France
Château Catinat, Avenue Gabriel Péri, 95210 Saint-Gratien, Francia
Chapelle d'Auquainville, 14140 Auquainville, Francia
Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine (18 March 1790 – 25 september 1857) was a French aristocrat and writer who is best known for his travel writing, in particular his account of his visit to Russia La Russie en 1839. This work documents not only Custine's travels through the Russian empire, but also the social fabric, economy, and way of life during the reign of Nicholas I.
Astolphe de Custine was born in Niderviller, Lorraine, of French nobility. His father's family had possessed the title marquis since the early 18th century and owned famous porcelain works. His mother, Delphine de Sabran, Marquise de Custine, also came from a prestigious family and was noted for her intelligence and great beauty.
Custine's father and grandfather both sympathized with the French Revolution but were both guillotined. Custine's mother barely escaped the same fate in prison. Subsequent to the overthrow of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror, notorious Minister of Police under Napoleon Joseph Fouché allowed the Marquise to repair her fortune.
Under direction of his strong-willed mother, Custine was raised in an unsettled social atmosphere among the scattered and exiled surviving aristocracy of France. This brought him into frequent contact with noted emigres, such as his mother's ardent admirer François-René de Chateaubriand, considered the founder of Romanticism in French literature. Her château of Fervaques, near Lisieux, in Normandy, was purchased from the Duc de Laval in October 1803, and Chateaubriand noted his visits between 1804 and 1806 and discussed both the Marquise and Custine in Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe. She died at Bex, in Vaud, Switzerland, July 13, 1826.
Custine was given an excellent education and seemed to be headed towards a life in society. An income of 60,000 francs a year enabled him to live as he pleased, including at Saint-Gratien, his estate outside Paris, where Frédéric Chopin was such a favoured guest he came without notice. Custine spent time in the diplomatic service, attending the Congress of Vienna, and even accepted a military commission.
In 1818, unaware that some people referred to the sensitive young marquis as ‘Mlle de Chateaubriand’, the Duchesse de Duras set her sights on Astolphe as a husband for her daughter Clara. Astolphe’s mother knew about his inclinations but saw no reason to prevent the marriage. Her son must have an heir. At first, Astolphe seemed to show interest but then withdrew, pleading some mysterious impediment. In public, he wrapped himself in a fashionable Romantic cloak. He was suffering from an indefinable malady of the soul: ‘Ever since I came into this world, my heart has been an enigma that no other heart has solved [. . .] and that I myself am less able to explain than anyone else.’ ‘Sitting on the ruins of my fife, I stare insensibly at the torrent that bears me off with my shattered hopes.’ It was perfectly possible to talk like this in 1818 without arousing suspicions. Word went round that the mysterious problem was impotence. Custine’s prospective mother-in-law expressed her worries by writing a puzzling novel, Olivier, ou le Secret (1822), in which a shrinking violet called Olivier oddly refuses to marry the perfect woman. Even now, Olivier’s ‘bizarre secret’ is sometimes sometimes said to be impotence. But when Olivier complains that ‘the only feelings of which my heart is capable are those that honour forbids’, is he really referring to genital malfunction? Olivier is a parlour game in which the truth emerges by a process of elimination: the only theory left standing at the end is the unmentionable one. The Duchesse de Duras was not a novice. She was obviously intrigued by her daughter’s reluctant suitor, and the result of her analysis was the first sympathetic novel in modern literature about a homosexual man. Of course, sympathy had to be disguised as something else. At the end of the novel, Olivier blows his brains out and his fiancée goes mad. But this is the death of an innocent tragic hero, not the comeuppance of a pervert.
Custine’s friend Rahel Varnhagen von Ense also guessed the truth: ‘Few people’, she told him, ‘truly know the needs of their own nature, even those of their physical nature.’ Women, too, were likely to be judged either sexless or depraved and were often better able to understand the predicament. Custine’s closest male friend, Édouard de La Grange, was completely mystified and spent the next two years trying to find out what was wrong: ‘Is this misfortune the misfortune of nature?’ he asked his diary. ‘Is it the fault of misdirected leanings? Oh my friend, how you hurt me, and how guilty I feel to have such thoughts!’Like most people in his position, Custine suffered more from the need to deceive his friends than from fear of discovery. Deception was a form of mental suicide. In his unsigned novel Aloys (1829), without specifying the source of his anguish, he gave one of the first psychological analyses of life in the closet.
In 1821 Custine married Léontine de Saint-Simon de Courtomer, an arrangement made by his mother. The Marquis, later to admit his homosexuality and to live openly with a male lover, was genuinely fond of his wife, who was of constant good humour, and they had a son, Enguerrand. During the marriage Custine met and established a romantic relationship with an Englishman, Edward Saint-Barbe, who moved into the house with the couple, and remained his life companion. In 1823, while in the early stages of a second pregnancy, Léontine fell ill and died, aged only twenty. Edward nursed Léontine through her final illness.
On 28 October 1824, Custine's life was irrevocably changed. That night, his unconscious body was found in the mud outside of Paris, stripped to the waist, beaten, and robbed. The attack had been carried out by a group of soldiers with one of whom Custine allegedly had attempted to have a sexual encounter. The exact reason for the attack was never proven. Nevertheless, news of the incident quickly spread around France — "From this time on to the end of his life Custine would figure, in the cruel gossip of the day, primarily as France's most distinguished and notorious homosexual." Even though the literary salons, as opposed to the society salons, remained open to Custine, many people who were friendly with him sneered at him behind his back. His diplomatic career was also cut short by this incident. That same year, 1826, several family friends would die, Custine's young son Enguerrand (born 1822), by his late wife, and his mother. In the years after this tragedy, Custine became very pious.
Custine gravitated toward the Romantic movement and spent the next few years writing poetry and novels. Custine wrote one play and purchased a theater to produce it, but the play closed after three performances. None of his literary works received much attention. Heinrich Heine called Custine "un demi-homme des lettres" (a half-man of letters).
In 1835, an extremely attractive Polish count, the twenty-three year old Ignatius Gurowski (1812–1887), moved into Custine and Saint-Barbe's home in the rue de La Rochefoucauld to form a ménage à trois. Wrote Custine: "He has an excellent heart, an original mind, is graciously ignorant of everything, and what settles it all, a charming bearing and countenance."  The capricious Gurowski was not an easy guest, running up debts and seducing both men and women, but appears to have amused the couple. The detailed register of homosexuals, then maintained by the Paris police prefecture, and which termed Custine's inclinations 'frantic', wrote of Gurowski with a comical note of possible despair: "It is hereditary in his family: his father and grandfather were of the same religion." In 1841 Gurowski married a Spanish infanta Isabella Ferdinanda de Bourbon.
Custine died of a stroke in the evening of 25 September 1857.
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