Revolutionary Woman

Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution by Caroline Moorehead

Books France History Literature

Memoirs are among the glories of French literature. They can display a grasp of character, plot and the telling detail that any novelist would envy. Few surpass those written by women survivors of the revolution: terror, exile and poverty added bite to the style of born writers such as Mesdames de Boigne, de Staël and de Chastenay. They fought the revolution better with their pens than their relations did with their swords.

In this illustrious band, Madame de la Tour du Pin stands apart. She began to write at the age of 50, after what she called “a career of grief”. She had survived the reign of terror, regime changes, impoverishment and the deaths of nine children: four at birth, three from disease. One son died from pleurisy at three months (“grief curdled my milk”), another was killed in a duel by a Bonapartist: her heart, she wrote, stopped like a clock the moment she heard the news.

Cool and direct by nature, with “gleaming skin” and a strong constitution, Madame de la Tour du Pin also had the confidence of her class and connections. Her mother had been a favourite dame du palais of Marie Antoinette. Her father-in-law was a Minister of War of Louis XVI. Her adoring husband – in the world of Dangerous Liaisons they enjoyed a happy marriage –
became an ambassador and prefect. Wherever she was, she found helpful friends or relations.

In addition, she was strengthened by her double identity. Her father Arthur Dillon was colonel of an Irish Jacobite regiment in French service. Despite the many wars opposing France and Britain, her French family was inseparable from its English relations and servants. Madame de la Tour du Pin knew both the ancien régime and the Empire from the inside. She had been presented to Marie Antoinette (a ceremony which inspired a memorable set piece in her memoirs), received in audience by Napoleon and Josephine, had known the Duke of Wellington since childhood and entertained Louis XVIII to dinner.

Her politics, as well as her Franco-British background, distinguished Mme de la Tour du Pin. She came from the liberal section of the court aristocracy, committed to reforms but tied by a sense of honour to the Bourbons. Both her father and her husband went further than most of their relations in support of the revolution. Her father even fought for the republic – thereby, since he had not emigrated, hastening his death by the guillotine.

With time, she became an extremely formidable figure. When her husband was French prefect in Brussels, their household, one of Napoleon’s officials reported, resembled a court – although she remarked that Belgians were so stupid that they were capable of believing that Racine’s Hector had died in the Seven Years’ War. With one look, wrote a minister, she changed her department’s allegiance in 1814, from Bonaparte to Bourbon. Her best friend, the great novelist Mme de Duras, suffered from her devastatingly frank letters of advice. Mme de Duras’s daughter Félicie transferred her affections from her mother to Madame de la Tour du Pin. As she grew older, however, Félicie would neglect Mme de la Tour du Pin as she had her own mother.

In her magnificently disabused memoirs, Madame de la Tour du Pin showed an astringency and sense of self-criticism sadly lacking in modern bankers and politicians. She spared no one, least of all her own class. Before 1789, she wrote, “We were laughing and dancing on our way to the precipice.” As a young heiress, she received nothing but “showers of pin-pricks” from her relations. “I have not come here, citizen, to hear the death warrant of my relatives. I will not importune you further,” she told Tallien, the Committee of Public Safety’s representative, during the reign of Terror. Her first good meal on arriving in America was “a pleasure so fierce that it surpassed all I had known until then”. Chateaubriand resembled a sultan manipulating his harem of adoring women. Talleyrand was worthless but “his charm always penetrated the armour and left one like a bird fascinated by a serpent’s gaze”; she used him to advance her husband’s career. Only Napoleon with his “winning smile” truly impressed her – she did not see that he too, twice, led France to the precipice.

Caroline Moorehead has written an excellent, lively biography, full of background detail. Quotations from Madame de la Tour du Pin’s unpublished letters, which Moorehead has found in French and Belgian chateaux, make the reader not only return to the memoirs themselves, but also long for more. The letters are masterpieces of emotional and political analysis which make many famous 20th-century writers, including Caroline Moorehead’s previous subjects Freya Stark and Martha Gellhorn, seem, at times, brittle and dated. A collection would reveal Madame de la Tour du Pin to have been at least as brilliant a letter-writer as two of her models, Madame de Sévigné and Madame du Deffand, and throw new light on the most dramatic period in the history of France.