Unusually, my reading group read two biographies about non-Austrian women this year, Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s book on Freya Stark (my review) in January and now, this month, Caroline Moorehead’s book Dancing to the precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution on the French aristocrat Henriette-Lucy, Marquise de La Tour-du-Pin-Gouvernet. Interestingly, Moorehead has also written a biography of Freya Stark. Moreover, while Caroline Moorehead is an English writer, it turns out that her father was the Australian war correspondent and historian Alan Moorehead. How tangled is all this!
But now the book itself. Dancing to the precipice chronicles the life of French-born aristocrat Lucie, from her birth in 1770 to her death in 1853, a period which, you’ll realise, covers some of Europe’s and, in particular, France’s most tumultuous times. Lucie de la Tour du Pin, as Moorehead calls her, saw most of it up close and personal, but somehow managed to survive. The evocative title conveys a sense of how tenuous that survival could be. It comes from Lucie’s own words written just before the storming of the Bastille. She wrote:
Amid all these pleasures we were laughing and dancing our way to the precipice.
Lucie, Moorehead tells us, went on to say that while this blindness was pardonable among the young, it was “inexplicable in men of the world, in Ministers and above all, in the King”. She wasn’t wrong – and the rest of the book tells us how often throughout their lives they nearly went over the precipice.
Dancing to the precipice is a thorough work, thorough in its description of Lucie’s life, and thorough in the research carried out by Moorehead. The biography is footnoted (though not intrusively) and contains an extensive list of sources at the end. It is also well-indexed. All of these are important – to me, anyhow! The reason the book is able to be so thorough – without Moorehead ever needing to resort to gap-filling – is because her life is so well documented, by herself primarily.
Lucie, in fact, has been described as the Pepys of her generation because of the memoir she started writing when she was 49. Titled Journal d’une femme de 50 ans, it was published posthumously and covers her life through the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, to the time of Napoleon, until March 1815 when he returned from exile on Elba. In her Afterword, Moorehead explains that in addition to this memoir, which apparently has never been out of print, she had access to an extensive collection of letters written by Lucie to a god-daughter and many others, and the papers and correspondence of her husband. A wealth of resources that I suspect many biographers would die for.
Except, it’s perhaps this wealth that has caused my one little criticism of what is, really, an excellent biography. My criticism, as you’ve probably guessed, concerns the amount of detail in the book. There were times when I wondered whether I really needed to know as much as she gave, for example, about the wedding of a half-sister or the love-life of her friend. In terms of social history, perhaps yes, but there were times I wanted a tighter focus, and to not be inundated with quite so much information about so many people. That said, Dancing to the precipice is a fascinating story about an astonishing period of history and an engaging and resilient woman.
There were many aspects of the book I enjoyed, starting with refreshing my old high school and university history studies in the French Revolution. As Moorehead revealed each new phase in that tortuous process by which France moved from the ancien regime to the final republic, I remembered. I loved the description of Lucie and her husband’s time as émigrés in Albany, NY, in America, and the resourceful way they fit into the life there, despite their aristocratic training. I also loved the descriptions of fashion and food in Paris, and of the salons, and the role played by women in encouraging intellectual discussion and debate. Every time the émigrés felt it was safe to return to Paris, the salons started up again (until, eventually, they didnt!) Moorehead draws a stark comparison between the engagement of women in public debate in France versus that of their English counterparts:
Englishwomen remained, to the surprise and annoyance of their French guests, firmly in their segregated and inferior places, expected to withdraw after dinner to allow the men to talk literature and politics. In England, a visitor smugly remarked, women were ‘the momentary toy of passion’, while in France they were companions ‘in the hours of reason and conversation’. As Jane Austen put it, ‘Imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms’, something that Lucie, brought up to talk intelligently, would find extraordinary. (Loc 4713)
What most retained my interest in the book, though, was Lucie herself. Always the aristocrat but also believing in the need for change, her resilience and resourcefulness in the face of blow after blow was inspiring. Besides the escapes from France and the returns, only to have to escape again, there was the loss of her children. Only one from her ten pregnancies outlived her, something Moorehead argues was extreme, even accounting for the times. Lucie was also unusual for a more positive feat, that of having a successful, loving marriage for 50 years. She and Frédéric were, it appears, true partners.
So, there was more to enjoy about the biography than to criticise, and I’m very glad I read it. I’ll conclude with a quote from the book describing Frédéric’s last days, and his statements about the importance of studying history:
He now spent much of his time in his room, reading and writing to [grandson] Hadelin, long letters mulling over his own life and urging the young man to study, to think on serious matters, to develop a taste for reflection. He should turn, he wrote, towards ‘the vast questions of humanity: there you will find true riches’. […] It was in history, he told Hadelin, that he should seek to find ways of understanding the world, and to learn how to make his mark on it; for it was to history that ‘one must look to discover motives and judgements, the source of ideas, the proof of theories too often imaginary and vague’. Reflection, he added, was ‘the intellectual crutch on which the traveller must lean on his road to knowledge’.
It’s astonishing that this couple who, Moorehead writes, stood out “for the reckless ease with which they challenged political decisions they considered to be lacking in morality or common sense”, regardless of who was in power, survived into their old ages. It says, I suspect, something about both the respect with which they were held and their ability to judge when it was time to skedaddle. A most interesting read.
Dancing to the precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution
London: Vintage, 2010
ISBN: 9781409088929 (ePub)