There's been a surge of books by and about the survivors of France's bloody Revolution that kicked out the traditional, autocratic monarchy in the last decade. One of the better ones that I have come across has been Caroline Moorehead's Dancing to the Precipice, the story of a remarkable woman who not just survived, but took whatever fate handed her and ran with it.
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Lucie Dillon grew up in the heady surroundings of Paris and Versailles in the late eighteenth century. Her father, Arthur Comte Dillon, was a soldier and a brave one, serving as a diplomat overseas in France's Caribbean holdings. Her mother, Therese, was a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette. As for Lucie, she grew up mostly with her grandmother, a fiercesome old dragon of a woman named Madame de Rothe, and her grandmother's lover, the Archbishop of Toulouse and Narbonne, who was also Lucie's great-uncle. The fact that the good archbishop was more of an administrator than a theologian seems not to have shocked very many. While her grandmother was constantly nitpicking and scolding, Lucie's uncle helped to foster Lucie's mind and intelligence, and it was there that Lucie was able to gain some peace.
Paris at the time was filled with what was known as 'salon-culture,' where men and women could meet, enjoy refreshments and discuss the current events as equals. Wit and elegance were the rules, and Lucie attended them as a young child, learning quickly about what was acceptable behaviour, and developing her own style and grace. And Lucie would prove to be good at other skills as well, courtly graces such as dancing, dress and deportment, as well the more domestic ones of sewing and housekeeping -- after all, one day she would marry and have to oversee her servants.
In her marriage, Lucie would be extremely lucky, marrying Frederic-Seraphim de la Tour du Pin, Comte de Gouvernet, a handsome young military officer nearly her own age. Between the pair there would be an enduring affection and love that would last throughout their lives, and especially stood them in good stance when the French Revolution erupted and the very real threat of death emerged...
In the memoirs that she wrote, Lucie took all that she had learned from her difficult childhood, the years of living in France during the Terror, and the ravages of loss, exile and poverty, and made them into learning experiences. From both her own account and in the surviving comments and letters of those who knew her, Lucie was an exceptionally resilient woman, rarely stopping to obsess and dwell on the past, but instead picking herself up and moving on. She would have to endure poor health, the loss of several children to illness, having to start all over again on a farm near Troy, New York, and the very real chance of death at the hands of the mob or the guillotine.
Another remarkable aspect was her relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte -- Lucie seems to be one of the few people who were able to stand up to him, and he was actually fond of her and her family. I had had no idea of this before reading the book, and it was very enlightening. It seems that Lucie was even approached to be one of Empress Josephine's ladies-in-waiting -- and Lucie turned down the offer.
Most interesting of all are Lucie's own words and observations of the times between 1780 and 1820, when her memoirs abruptly end -- for the remainder of her life, Ms. Moorehead turned to surviving records and letters to fill in the rest of Lucie's life. They are insightful, a touch melancholy, but never dull, and I came away filled with admiration for this woman who had suffered so much loss and tragedy in her own life, but never let it stop her from pressing forward with her own ambitions for herself and her family.
Author Caroline Moorehead has crafted an excellent biography here, and one that I enjoyed reading very much. The narrative is filled with plenty of little details of life, the experiences of being an exile from a beloved homeland, the troubles of when revolution or war overtake, and the wider political and social picture. I came away from this one with a better understanding of the French revolution, Napoleon's rise and fall, and what a fallen French aristocrat would sometimes have to do to survive. Most remarkable is that all of this really happened -- the accounting of the battle of Waterloo from Lucie's eyes was very interesting to read, and most novelists would not dare to touch or include these events for fear of being too over the top.
The writing style is very smooth and easy to read, with enough explanation in the text to help ease over any foreign phrases or comments, a tangled relationship or political stance. Along with the narrative, there are extensive footnotes, a bibliography and timeline, along with numerous black and white illustrations in the text as well as two inserts of glossy black and white photographs and reproductions.
For anyone who is interested in this particular time and place in history, this is a must read, filled with plenty of excitement, good story telling, and interesting lives. Four and a half stars, rounded up to five and this one is going on my keeper shelves.
Very much recommended.
Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era
2009; HarperCollins Publishers