Marquis de Custine Biography

Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine (March 18, 1790 – October 18, 1857) was a French aristocrat and writer who is best known for his travel writing, in particular his account of his visit to Russia in 1839 Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia. 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 a famous porcelain works. His mother, Delphine, also came from a prestigious family and was known 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. It was to be the beginning of a difficult life for Astolphe Custine.

Custine was raised by his strong-willed mother and saw a lot of the writer Chateaubriand, who was his mother's lover. Custine was given an excellent education and seemed to be headed towards a life in society. He spent time in the diplomatic service, attending the Congress of Vienna, and even accepted a military commission. In the early 1820s, Custine went along with a marriage arranged by his mother. The Marquis, later to admit his homosexuality and to live openly with a male lover, was genuinely fond of his wife and had a son with her, but she died after only a few years of marriage. Still, during the marriage he met and established a romantic relationship with an Englishman, Edward Saint-Barbe, who remained his life companion.

On October 28, 1824 , after his wife had died, Custine's life was irrevocably changed. That night, Custine's 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, several family friends would die, Custine's infant son 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).