It seems fairly certain that the Baron de Geramb is born in Lyon on 14 July 1772. His father is an Austrian citizen who moves to Lyon to trade in silk, and his mother, Marie-Magdeleine Lassause is of the good middle-class. In 1790, his father returns to Vienna, taking his wife and two daughters, the sisters of Ferdinand-Francois, the spirited Baron. No-one knows if Geramb goes with his parents when they return to Austria, which is motivated by the excesses of the French Revolution (the Baron’s own step-father will be guillotined in 1793). This uncertainty also authorises many hypotheses on his identity: the chronicle of his adventures really only starts in 1809, at the Court of Vienna. Is the adolescent fleeing the proscriptions, and the knight serving the Empress of Austria, the same man? Nothing permits us to affirm it with certainty.
On the other hand, we can be assured of the perfect honorablility of the Gerambs who are of authentic nobility, which gives them a very visible situation at the Vienna Court. Geramb’s uncle had received letters of bourgeoisie from the city of Lyon, in 1763, and had acquired the lands and the Castle of Jigny, one of the most beautiful domains in Bourgogne [Burgundy]. We also know that the Baron’s mother returns to live in Lyon, her town of birth, at the end of the French Revolution.
Our Baron makes frequent stays in Lyon, from 1814. His mother never repudiates her prodigal son, and neither does the rest of the family. When she is asked about him, she indicates that he is “in the military state or public servant”, that he is a widower and the father of three children. There is, however, no trace of either his wife or any descendance.
The most troubling fact is that this man, reputed for his sincerity and his often brutal frankness, will deny throughout his whole life that he was born in Lyon, and will never reveal the place of his birth.
The French authorities intend to organize a confrontation between mother and son. Right throughout his detention in France, they zealously try to pierce the mystery of his origins. For very simple reasons: Geramb assuredly knows a lot of important people in Europe. Because of this, he is feared to be a spy and a lot is expected of him as an eventual indicator or informer.
At the time of his incarceration, the French police learn that he really did have plans to kill the Emperor. During his stay in Palermo, he is supposed to have proposed to Queen Marie-Caroline that he go to Paris to assassinate him. Every day, he practised firing pistols at a target which was a portrait of Napoleon.
His acquaintances and his reputation afford him the special prison treatment meted out to “political” prisoners. The quarters in the prisons where he is incarcerated are those reserved for important prisoners.
For example, the man whom he finds in the fiacre which carries him to La Force, and with whom he will share a cell, is none other than Monsignor de Boulogne, a famous Prelate of the time, who is imprisoned for the crime of Ultramontanism.
The confrontation between mother and son is supposed to take place in November 1812. It is the tragic outcome of the Russian campaign which adjourns Madame Geramb’s arrival in Paris. The Empire’s gradual crumbling after that, means that this confrontation, which would have been decisive, never takes place.
Geramb’s title of Baron is authentic. He obtained it in circumstances which are again strange. Many questions have been asked about the reasons for the Baron’s “flight” when, in 1809, Napoleon is advancing in forced marches towards Vienna. He is known to be courageous, even temerarious, and this precipitous retreat does not fit with the character.
His detractors have accused him of embezzling the money that he received from selling lieutenant commissions to young nobles – these sales are customary at the time. This explanation is surely false, for three months later, on 19 July 1809, the Emperor of Austria confers the title of “Austrian Baron” on him, a great and very coveted favour. The best explanation is to be found in the role that Geramb plays at the Court of Vienna. A beautiful young man, spirited, dancing attendance, always in love, our Chamberlain rapidly attracts the fascinated gazes of the ladies of the Court. The Empress finds that he has an allure “which incites to the most romanesque thoughts” and shows him all sorts of attentions. Her prevenances are such that the Emperor of Austria, Franz I is offended by them, obliging our gallant Equerry to go away. It is later shown, however, that he doesn’t hold a grudge.
A superficial examination of Geramb’s existence allows us to see a certain harmony, in spite of the blurred, mysterious parts of it.
All of the first part of his life, that is to say from 1790 to 1815, is consecrated to adventures, pleasures, intrigues and spectacular acts. During all this period, he is taking care of his image of providential man, God’s flail, the defender of civilization.
He succeeds in attracting the confidence of some of the most important men of the epoch… The Cortes name him General and send him with letters patent to England “to solicit the support of King George”.
Getting together an army of deserters can seem like an excellent idea. Le us not forget that from 1810, the Napoleonic armies are above all improvised armies, from which even the generals often defect. One of the reasons for the crumbling of the Empire is the excessive demand for recrutes; deserters, refractory soldiers and prisoners are innumerable.
Persecuted by the recruting sergeants or mortified in their patriotic feelings, the young Europeans of the time dream only of fighting the one that they already call the “Ogre”. The greatest artists of the epoch, Goya, Chateaubriand and Beethoven, are hostile to him, and it is this quasi general reprobation outside France’s frontiers which will precipitate his fall. Geramb therefore dreams, a few years in advance, of making the Emperor the enemy of Europe… which effectively happens in 1814.
To be continued.