Dancing to the Precipice : Lucie De La Tour Du Pin and the French Revolution by Caroline Moorehead

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Dancing to the Precipice : Lucie De La Tour Du Pin and the French Revolution by Caroline Moorehead

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of a French aristocrat who lived through the French revolution and the Napoleonic era, and left a vivid eyewitness account of the volatile age in her memoirs.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099490524

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Two hundred years ago, with the fall of the monarchy and the Napoleonic wars, France underwent one cataclysmic change after another. There were many who witnessed and experienced the volatile age at first hand, but few left a more detailed record than the subject of this biography, Lucie-Henriette Dillon, Marquise Marchioness de La Tour du Pin.

Born Lucie Dillon in 1770, her mother was half-French and her father was part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy that had accompanied the former King James II of England into French exile almost a century earlier. Married very young to the diplomat Frédéric de la Tour du Pin, she was at the centre of the extravagant French court, presided over by the hapless Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, who reputedly bought a hundred and seventy two new gowns every year and was known behind her back as 'Madame Déficit'. In a country where the masses were starving and some of the people demanded more power, the revolutionary forces could not be held at bay for much longer. As a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, Lucie was close to the monarchy, but well aware that they were 'dancing to the precipice', and that their privileged world could come tumbling down at any time.

By early 1789, it was evident that unrest was about to ripen into something far worse. The author paints a vivid portrait of two worlds, with beggars on the streets of Paris clamouring for food while the wealthy in their fur-lined cloaks trimmed with gold braid glided through the fashionable streets in their magnificent sleighs, as ever-increasing numbers of subversive pamphlets, political caricatures and tracts were circulated. With the storming of the Bastille in July, the floodgates of revolution were burst open. Her husband was commander of the palace guard at Versailles when the mob descended on the palace in October and forced the royal family to return to Paris. Lucie and Frédéric retreated to their country estates, but the atmosphere became increasingly threatening. The King and Queen were guillotined, as were scores of nobles, clergymen, and anybody believed to have had connections with the old regime, Lucie's father, father-in-law and several other relations among them.

When Robespierre's reign of terror took the situation from bad to worse, they sailed for America, spending two years on a farm in the Hudson Valley where they made cider and butter and grew wheat. Yet the call of home proved too strong to resist, and they returned to France in 1796 once the terror had abated, only to find their home had been systematically looted and stripped, the outbuildings derelict, the garden neglected and overgrown. After a defeated monarchist coup the following year they were exiled in England, returning home yet again to what seemed like a period of stability under Napoleon Bonaparte. Frédéric was appointed ambassador in Brussels, and Lucie was there at the time of the battle of Waterloo. Yet again she saw Paris invaded and pillaged, this time by the victorious allied forces. With her English sympathies and admiration for the Duke of Wellington, she looked upon France's defeat with mixed feelings. Thankfully there was to be no further period of exile, as she and her husband continued to serve the briefly restored Bourbon monarchy, until King Charles X was deposed in 1830 after another coup d'état.

By this time, partly to keep her mind occupied instead of brooding on her grief at so many family losses, particularly at the premature deaths of her children – four out of five predeceased her - she had begun to write her memoirs. These, covering her eventful life from birth to 1814, provided eyewitness accounts of many of the most dramatic moments of her life, as well as much material for this biography. The task would keep her busy over the next thirty years, although nothing was published until 1907. After fifty happy years of marriage, her husband died in 1837. From then until her death in 1853 she lived a quieter life, first in Lausanne and then in Pisa.

Her 83 years were packed with incident, from the height of luxury one moment to danger, escape and penury the next. The author tells the story well against an ever-changing political landscape, with a vivid picture of the horrors in France during years of anarchy. Occasionally I feel she gets a little bogged down in excessive detail and description in which it requires concentration to keep a grip on the central character, and some editing might have been in order to make a leaner, better narrative. That apart, this is an enthralling historical biography of a remarkable character who lived through extraordinary times.

Our thanks to Vintage for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoy this, for more on 19th century France but from a different perspective, why not also try The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe.

Buy Dancing to the Precipice : Lucie De La Tour Du Pin and the French Revolution by Caroline Moorehead at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dancing to the Precipice : Lucie De La Tour Du Pin and the French Revolution by Caroline Moorehead at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Dancing to the Precipice : Lucie De La Tour Du Pin and the French Revolution by Caroline Moorehead at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dancing to the Precipice : Lucie De La Tour Du Pin and the French Revolution by Caroline Moorehead at Amazon.com.

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