Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de La Tour Du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era
by Caroline Moorehead
Reviewed by Ruth Scurr
When she turned 50 in 1820, Lucie Dillon, marquise de la Tour du Pin, began to write her memoirs. She intended them for her two surviving children (four were deceased), but in 1822 Lucie's daughter Charlotte suddenly died, leaving only Aymar, her last-born son, as recipient of the record of his mother's extraordinary life. The unfinished text, which breaks off at Napoleon's return from Elba in 1815, was not published until 1907; it has rarely been out of print since. Historians of the French Revolution have long pillaged Lucie's Journal d'une femme de cinquante ans for colorful anecdotes and eyewitness observations to adorn their narratives and bring them to life. In her new biography, Dancing to the Precipice, Caroline Moorehead returns Lucie to the center of her own story.
Lucie was born in Paris at a fashionable address on the rue du Bac, Faubourg Saint-Germain, in 1770. Her parents were second cousins who married in their teens; both were descended from the Irish Dillons of Roscommon. The family's ancestors had been in Paris since the Seventh Viscount Dillon raised an Irish regiment and followed James II's Jacobite court into exile. Lucie's father, like his forebears, was a soldier, so Lucie saw little of him during her childhood. Her mother, as "beautiful and sweet-tempered as an angel," lived under the dominion of her own unpleasant and exacting mother; caught between the constant warring of these women, Lucie later remembered that she "had no real childhood" but became a reserved, discreet, taciturn judge of the hatred between her mother and grandmother.
Whatever the internal psychological truth, Lucie certainly had the external trappings of a glamorous and privileged childhood. When Lucie was 7, her mother was made a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. That same year, the duc de Lauzun gave Lucie a doll with a full court wardrobe -- including a well-made wig and silk stockings -- ordered from Rose Bertin, the queen's dressmaker. She heard her mother sing with Niccolo Piccinni and had a wealth of opportunities to develop her own musical talent; she was educated by an excellent private tutor, M. Combes, who became a close friend; she was healthy and attractive, and even smallpox left her unscarred.
Grief came early to Lucie's life, well before the revolution that would claim the lives of many of her friends and relatives. When Lucie was 12, her mother died from an undiagnosed stomach complaint; faced with her grandmother's hysterical tears, after all the years of familial unpleasantness there had been, Lucie remained dry-eyed and silent. This was the first serious test of her steely self-possession in circumstances of shattering loss. Her father did not come back to Paris to be at his wife's deathbed, and when he did return, several years later, he brought news of his engagement to a rich Creole with two small children of her own. Lucie met her stepmother only once, before her father departed for the West Indies with his new wife, a new baby known as Fanny and -- most devastating of all for Lucie -- with her trusted tutor, M. Combes. Before leaving, Lucie's father picked out a potential husband for his teenage daughter, Frederic de Gouvernet, a young aide-de-camp, well liked by his fellow officers, who had served with Lafayette in America. But Lucie's grandmother vetoed the proposal. This did not discourage Lucie, who had formed a romantic attachment to Frederic simply from talking to her father about him. When she was 16, in 1786, the engagement went ahead with Marie Antoinette's blessing. Like her mother before her, Lucie was helped by the queen to sidestep opposition in her immediate family. In an age when marital love and fidelity were frowned upon as unsophisticated, Lucie had conceived a passionate love for her betrothed: "It was an instinct...a guidance from above.... I felt that I belonged to him, that my whole life was his."
Lucie miscarried her first baby at Versailles when she tripped while running to the queen's apartments, trying not to be late. Her second was stillborn, strangled by its umbilical cord. Moorehead is right to remind us that "few 18th-century women managed to keep all of their babies," but this is no reason to assume that Lucie was unmarked by those poignant losses. They certainly made her more sympathetic with Marie Antoinette, who had lost a young daughter in 1787. In 1789, at the opening of the Estates General (France's largest representative body, meeting for the first time since 1614 to try to avert national bankruptcy), Lucie could tell from the way the queen used her fan that she was very agitated and sick with worry about the 7-year-old dauphin, who was dying of tuberculosis as France reached the brink of revolution.
You cannot do justice to the French Revolution from the vantage point of Versailles. What you can capture from there is the surprise, misunderstanding and mounting fear of the court as events spiraled out of control. Lucie's memoirs are unmatched in this regard. Her comments on the speeches to the Estates General are not intellectually distinguished but have the ring of truth:
The speech of M. Necker, Minister of Finance, seemed to me unbearably dull. It lasted more than two hours and, to my nineteen-year-old ears, seemed never-ending. The ladies were seated on fairly wide benches which rose in tiers and had nothing to lean against except the knees of the person behind.... I think I have never felt so weary as during that speech, though M. Necker's supporters praised it to the skies.
On the day of the storming of the Bastille in Paris, Lucie set out from Versailles to visit nearby Berny, "unaware that there had been the slightest disturbance." When she was told that the people of Paris had risen, captured the Bastille and barricaded the city, she remembered that her astonishment was even greater than her anxiety. Her father-in-law was appointed minister for war soon afterward, and Lucie and Frederic moved into a fine apartment in the ministry, from which they entertained the delegates to the recently renamed National Assembly, responsible for designing a new constitution for France. Among those delegates seated around Lucie's table were future revolutionary leaders: "So long as we were at Versailles, the men always wore formal dress at these dinners and I remember M. de Robespierre in an apple-green coat, with his thick white hair wonderfully dressed." Lucie's description of October 5, when three or four hundred women advanced on Versailles from Paris demanding bread, includes skillfully economical remarks about the king and queen. Louis XVI, she remembered, "consulted everyone" as to the best course of action, and Marie Antoinette, though equally uncertain of what to do, "could not bring herself to undertake a flight by night." These modest but precise observations have had a decisive influence on the character sketches of the French Revolution's protagonists, which are passed like heirlooms from one generation of historians to the next: Louis XVI was indecisive, his queen too fastidious for her own good. But Lucie's observations are not limited to the rich and famous; her details about the unnamed and unremembered actors are just as telling:
The women who had invaded the Ministry ate everything it was possible to find for them, and then went to sleep on the floor of the kitchens. Many of them wept, saying that they had been forced to march and that they did not know why they were there.
Moorehead encounters a problem familiar to all biographers: how to set a life in its historical context without dissipating the story's central focus? This question is especially pressing in relation to the French Revolution because there is so much to explain. A full account of the transformation of the Estates General into the National Assembly, the fall of the Bastille and the women's march to Versailles on October 5 would require a very different kind of book: one in which the part of Lucie de la Tour du Pin would be a mere footnote. Moorehead's solution is conventional. She interweaves potted summaries of the major political events against which her subject lived her life with longer passages devoted to Lucie's friendships and preoccupations. For the years 1789 to 1794, when Lucie and her family escape from the Terror in Bordeaux, the transition between these two narrative styles is rapid and rather awkward. There are clumsy gestures toward filling in the background: "In the countryside, a sense of panic was catching fire"; "Paris was much altered"; "France's revolution was heading into a new phase." These abstractions or generalizations are not really authorial failings; rather, they are frank indications of how hard it is to tell the story of the revolution. Moorehead is sometimes noticeably frustrated by Lucie's limited political engagement (her task might have been easier if Lucie, like her acquaintance Madame de Stael, had been more politically interested):
More surprising, perhaps, was how unreflective Lucie appeared to be of the revolution gathering pace around her. Even as the army was losing all its officers, as the Assembly was turning steadily more hostile towards the aristocracy and senior prelates, as friends and relations were frantically packing to leave France -- all things she witnessed every day and heard about at length...Lucie continued to pay visits and to enjoy herself.
But Moorehead also makes excuses for her subject: she was young, she had just given birth again, she was pleased to be out of her grandmother's control and she was in love with her husband. The attempt to exonerate one's subject is another standard move on the part of a biographer, one that typically detracts from narrative power. In fact, Lucie needs no excuses made for her; she made her own. In her memoirs, Lucie's unwavering lucidity elicits as much respect for what she knew she could not explain as for the facts about the revolution of which she was certain because she had lived them:
Looking back, now, after many years, and calling to mind the depth of the mistrust, absurdity, unreasonableness and fear which held even intelligent minds in thrall during this period -- so aptly known as the Terror -- the whole situation seems inconceivable. The simplest of reasonings, even that of a ten-year-old child, should have been sufficient to banish this confusion and fear. No one asked, for example, how it was that people were dying of hunger in Bordeaux, when just across the river the necessities of life abounded. No one could explain why, but the fact remains that no peasant from Blaye or Royan would have dared to bring two bags of flour to the great city. He would immediately have been denounced for hoarding. These facts have not been explained in any memoirs of the period. I leave the task to historians and return to my own story.
In 1794 Lucie, Frederic and their two young children escaped to America on the cargo ship Diana. Early in the journey a French man-of-war drew up alongside and demanded their ship return to France, where the passengers would surely have faced the guillotine. Then a thick fog came down and saved them. During the sixty days at sea that it took to reach Boston, Lucie found her long hair unmanageable and hacked it off with kitchen scissors, tossing it into the ocean along with "all the frivolous ideas which my pretty fair curls had encouraged." She was only 24. The revolution had stolen her youth, and in the United States she began again: a sober, healthy, responsible life, running a farm in Albany. The Bostonians she met believed Lucie's hair had been shorn in preparation for the guillotine. They went out of their way to help her. Moorehead recounts, "By 1794, some 20,000 French men and women had reached America and were eking out precarious livings as dancing masters, chefs, teachers of French and music or on small farms." Once it has escaped from the strain of explaining frenetic revolutionary events, Moorehead's narrative settles down to a more comfortable pace, in keeping with the calm and healing that Lucie found in America.
The news that reached them from France was extremely distressing. Lucie's father went to the guillotine shouting, "Vive le roi!" before the blade fell. Frederic's father followed him. Lucie's grief did not destroy her responses to the majestic natural beauty she was now surrounded by, but her life, undoubtedly, became more austere and eventually more spiritual. She rose at dawn and worked all day. She purchased a slave husband and wife who had been cruelly separated, and allowed them to live together in a room of their own on her farm. The purchase of another human being troubled Lucie, and she would "always remember the smallest circumstance connected with it." She could not afford to run a farm without slave labor, so she settled her conscience by making the happiness of her slaves a priority. Before returning to France in 1796, to reclaim property that could be secured only in person, Lucie and Frederic freed their slaves: "The poignancy of such a scene cannot be described," she wrote. "Never have I known a happier moment." Moorehead presents a convincing portrait of Lucie's hard-won happiness in the United States and simultaneously shows the insidious pull of the Old World. People from the past -- Talleyrand, for example -- show up almost like revenants at the Albany farm. The news that Robespierre is dead resounds from the porches of New England. Much as she is fascinated by the Shakers, Iroquois and others she encounters going about the business of trade in her new rural life, it becomes sadly inevitable that Lucie and Frederic will go back to their own traumatized country to witness the rise of Napoleon. "I felt no pleasure," Lucie wrote, "returning to France."
In addition to Lucie's memoir, Moorehead has drawn extensively on private correspondence (especially letters between Lucie and her goddaughter Felicie de Duras) and unpublished manuscripts. These additional sources corroborate rather than dispel the sense of profound reserve that is present in Lucie's own record of her life. Moorehead rightly emphasizes this aspect of her subject's personality: "the gaps in her narrative at moments of tragedy...were telling. It was as if she retired into herself, and simply concentrated on surviving; and, after a period, she picked up the thread again." Telling too are moments of impatience with less self-controlled friends. To one, hopelessly and self-destructively in love with the writer Chateaubriand, she wrote: "To look inside your heart, see what needs destroying and then not have the strength to do it: that is more dangerous than useful; one grows accustomed to one's enemy, and by making it familiar one loses the desire to get rid of it.... I want to persuade you that there are a number of things in life that one must pass by without looking at."
These are the words of someone deep and emotionally sophisticated, rigorously committed, as Moorehead suggests, to a certain set of "manners of the heart." More than this, though, they are the words of a woman who taught herself to survive near-unimaginable grief. By the end of her life in 1853, Lucie had seen three revolutions tear her country and family to pieces. She had lost five of her six surviving children and outlived the husband who was the only love of her life. If there were things in that long brave life Lucie chose not to look at, we can be sure they won't see the light of day now. As the biographer of this formidable woman, Moorehead has conducted herself in a seemly and sensitive fashion. She does not have the upper hand over her subject, and what emerges from Dancing to the Precipice
is that no one ever did. Ruth Scurr teaches history and politics at Cambridge University. She is the author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution.