Saturday, October 26, 2013

DANCING TO THE PRECIPICE by Caroline Moorehead (non-fic)

Using direct quotes from letters and a meticulously kept diary, Caroline Moorehead has written a thoroughly enjoyable biography of Lucie De La Tour Du Pin.  I loved this book and admire both its subject and the author who makes Lucie come so alive to the reader.  As her name is such a mouthful, I will refer to her as Lucie.  She was born in 1770 to an aristocratic family with noble ancestors from Ireland and France.  Her fascinating memoirs, published by a grandson, have never been out of print, and it is no wonder as her intellegent observations give a flavor and insight into all that she was eyewitness to during her full life. 

Lucie was born in an imposing house in the Faubourg St. Germain in Paris.  Her father, Arthur Dillon was a brave and honest military officer who fought with Lafayette in the American revolution. He was later guillotined. Her mother who died young, was a friend of Marie Antoinette, and when Lucie was old enough, she too was one of a group of young aristocrats who surrounded the Queen.  At 19 she wrote, "We were laughing and dancing our way to the precipice."

Born in.....the dying days of the ancien regime, into a family of liberal aristocrats with many links to Versailles and the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, she survived the French Revolution, which saw many of her family and friends die or lose all they possessed.  Escaping to America, she and her husband bought a farm and became increasingly concerned about the injustices of slavery.  Later she lived through the eras of Napoleon and the restoration of the French kings, Louis XVIII, Charles X and Louis Philippe.  At the time of her death in 1853 Napoleon III had just ascended the throne.  Almost nothing of the world into which she was born remained, neither the grandeur, nor the idea of absolute monarchy, nor the privileges; but she herself was singularly unchanged.

After her mother's untimely death Lucie was raised by her abusive maternal grandmother, Madame de Rothe, who was carrying on an affair with the Archbishop of Toulouse.  It is a credit to Lucie's character that she refused to marry the unsuitable men her grandmother put forward.  Lucie stood her ground and confided to her diary that though she hadn't met him, she felt drawn to Frederic de Gouvernet a soldier who fought alongside her father.  Her marriage to Frederic was romantic and  thoroughly happy. She had met her soul mate, and they defied the odds surviving the purge that killed the majority of French nobility.  They stayed married for 50 years, until his death.

During the French revolution Lucie and Frederic and their children lived in poverty in a family chateau in Bordeaux.  It wasn't long before this also became too dangerous, and  in 1794 they made a daring escape aboard an American merchant ship.  The account of this is as exciting as anything in a modern thriller. In America they were able to purchase a farm on the Hudson River where they became friends with the Schuylers and Van Rensselaers.  Their settling in New York was greatly aided by Talleyrand, who had himself escaped the guillotine.  Talleyrand was a wiley old fox who managed to survive all the subsequent changes of governments in France, and he remained a loyal friend to Lucie and Frederic. 

While in New York, Lucie became a real farm worman.  Both she and Frederic worked hard in the fields, and Lucie cooked and made all the clothes for the family.  She had ten pregancies, only six children surviving, and only one, her youngest son outlived her. After Robespierre's death, Lucie and her family were able to return to France and claim their properties.  Unfortunately they once again had to flee to England when the political situation heated up.  When Napoleon came into power, they  again returned to France and  Frederic was given several diplomatic postings. 

Lucie gives us not only an accurate accounting of the frantic shifts in the government of France, but she is also an entertaining reconteur of the society and mores of her lifetime.  Her sharp eye missed nothing.  The list of historical characters who passed in and out of her life is mind-boggling and she is a valuable resource for an understanding of the volatile times in which she lived.

I highly recommend this book to all readers who love history and appreciate an entertaining look at an era which saw great changes in France and ushered in the modern age  It is told by one who managed to survive and have as much excitement as a character in a modern adventure story. This would be a terrific book for a reading group, it is full of history, gossip, style and a life time of cheating death.

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