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Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era Hardcover – June 30, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Educated to wait on Marie Antoinette, the marquise Lucie de la Tour du Pin (1770-1853) instead precariously survived a devastating revolution, an emperor, two restorations and a republic. Drawing on Lucie's memoirs and those of her contemporaries, Moorehead (Gellhorn) uses Lucie's descriptions of both personal events and the ever-changing French political atmosphere to portray the nobility's awkward shifts with each new event and the impact they have on Lucie and her diplomat husband, Fréédric. A woman with both court-honed aristocratic manners and rough farm skills (earned in the Revolution's wake during her rural New York exile), Lucie benefited from passing platonic relationships with Napoleon and Wellington, Talleyrand, and countless salon personalities. Lucie's terror during the anarchy of the Revolution remains palpable in her memoirs centuries later. Moorehead obviously admires Lucie, but she gives a convincing and entertaining portrait of an intelligent, shrewd, unpretentious woman and the turbulent times she lived through and testified to in her memoirs. 16 pages of b&w photos, 19 illus. throughout.
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From The New Yorker
In 1820, at the age of forty-nine, Lucie Dillon, the Marquise de la Tour du Pin, started writing her memoirs, an endeavor that went on for thirty years and produced one of the great monuments of French history. Lucie began life as an aristocrat, débuting at Versailles at the age of eleven; at the beginning of the Terror, as friends and relatives fell to the guillotine, she fled France with her husband and children. Resilient and resourceful, the family thrived on a farm in upstate New York, where Lucie churned butter, traded with Indians, and played hostess to Talleyrand. A return to France brought Lucie and her husband into Napoleon’s inner circle; in later years, following an exile in London, they found favor with the restored Bourbon monarchy. Moorehead’s biography, drawing on a trove of previously unpublished correspondence, captures the rhythm of the radical contrasts in her subject’s life.
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Though born within the highest reaches of pre-revolutionary French society, she was able to flourish in any situation, no matter how dire or deprived. And though scores of her friends and relatives, including her own father and her husband's father, were victims of the guillotine, she and her husband - without treachery or compromise - were survivors.
A loving mother and devoted wife, she had the uncanny ability and good fortune to pass through the very gates of hell without succumbing to disaster.
Based on Lucie de la Tour du Pin's own memoir, as well as hundred of her letters, Caroline Moorehead has given us a harrowing, yet warm tale of an incredible woman who lived through incredibly difficult and dangerous times.
I admire them both for their devotion to one another and for their resourcefulness. They adapted to setbacks and tragedy and moved on. Lucie went from attending to Marie Antoinette at Versailles to making butter in the New World and back again to a very changed France.
I liked this book; I never got bored while reading it. THE END or finis!
Beginning with her choice of subject, Caroline Moorehead has delivered something wonderful; a biography and work of history that sets the events of the French revolution and the Napoleonic era in context. By telling them through the life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, born Lucie Dillon in 1770, she makes those events both more fascinating -- we see them as they affect Lucie and her family and friends -- and more understandable (since the discussion doesn't start in 1789 with the fall of the Bastille and stop suddenly with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815.) Lucie, born into a noble family of Irish and English Catholics (her mother is French), grows up and marries in the final years of the reign of Louis XVI; she becomes a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. Escaping the guillotine, she and her husband flee to America, where they take up farming in upstate New York, then return to Europe to try and rebuild their lives. Indeed, before she turned 50 and began to write her own life history (a document that Moorehead draws on heavily, alongside extensive and unpublished correspondence between Lucie and her extended family and friends), Lucie has fled into exile on no fewer than four occasions, trying to keep ahead of the political changes that sweep through France. As she tries to cope with the blows that life deals her, from miscarriages and the deaths of other children at a young age to the trials of adjusting to new political realities and the financial stress of surviving as a refugee, I became more and more fascinated with Lucie and in awe of her ability to develop a strong sense of self and an independent mind. By the time she is in her 40s, people are commenting on how formidable this once-naive young woman has become.
I found two strands of this book particularly compelling. The first is the changing nature of the French society, including the role of the salons, the conversational forums overseen by women throughout the 18th centuries where many of the Englightenment-era ideas that led to the Revolution first saw the light of day. Lucie grew up attending these in her youth, and continued to do so whenever possible, sharing both literary and philosophical discussions with notable figures of the day, from Talleyrand (defrocked priest turned arch-political manipulator, and a very early proponent of a united Europe) to Madame de Stael. Indeed, between her family relationships and her position in society, there are few notable people of her time whom Lucie didn't come to know. She observes Talleyrand and Alexander Hamilton debate each other over dinner in New York, attends the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, mourns the execution of her king and queen but deplores the arrogance and humorlessness of their surviving daughter, the Duchesse d'Angouleme, when the royal family is restored to power in 1815. Her son serves with the Prince of Orange's troops at Waterloo; Lucie herself claims the Duke of Wellington as a childhood friend.
The other particularly fascinating part of Moorehead's book is the extent to which she is able to convey the flavor of the times in which Lucie lived, and blend that effortlessly with the details of her subject's life and experiences. In 1770, the year Lucie is born, more than 6,000 infants ("lice-ridden, stinking of urine, bundled into filthy rags) are abandoned in the streets of Paris; Lucie, however, grows up in an emotionally-deprived but otherwise rich life in "a world in which elegance of performance was a form of freedom of expression" and where people around her were "attentive to the meanings of words and their most subtle nuances, convinced that culture could overcome prejudice, ignorance and the brutality of the instincts." Particularly striking is the degree to which optimism prevailed in the salons in the years leading up to the fall of the Bastille. "It was an extraordinary moment to be young and to be French. Paris was alive with ideas and arguments, rumours and opinions. Never had the salons been so lively nor their guests more outspoken and opinionated." Moorehead captures the changes in Paris, from the horrors of the 'Terror' to the near-frenzied gaiety of the Directoire period that followed. She shows us how Napoleon's moves to seize political power created a welcome sense of stability; daily newspapers shrank in number from 73 to a more manageable -- and censored -- 13 publications. She also shows how the new powers -- lacking an aristocratic background -- tried too hard to be dignified; etiquette at Napoleon's court was more stifling than that at Versailles. Meanwhile, the salons were turning into places where the newly-powerful could learn how to conduct themselves in society, while the remnants of the ancien regime try to find a role for themselves in this new world as tutors.
Every page of this book contains fresh insights into the people and time of this turbulent period, going beyond the fall of Napoleon and into an era in the 1820s where revolutionary ideals of equality and a sense of nationhood that was distinct from the sense of being subjects to a ruling royal family endured. While the restored Bourbon monarchs tried to restore the hoop skirt along with traditional political values, their efforts were to prove fleeting, and Moorehead tells us, through the experiences of Lucie and her family, why that might have been so.
This wonderful biography is as compelling as a great novel; Lucie emerges as a strong and vivid personality, someone who it would be fascinating to sit down and talk to for hours. Even without Moorehead's deft handling of the political backdrop to Lucie's story, the book would be a fascinating one, thanks to the author's ability to weave in small but telling details, from Lucie's attitudes to slavery in the Americas to the advent of toothbrushes, fountain pens and toast in Britain. (Moorehead notes that a Swedish scientist claimed toast was devised as a way to make it possible to spread butter on bread in the chilly English climate...)
Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the period, or in women's lives in European history. A model for what biography can and should be.