I bought this imposing Harvill Press hardback on impulse while looking for something entirely different, and it held me enthralled for five evenings of reading. Before this, I didn’t know much about the French Revolution, and I knew nothing about the years between the Terror and Napoleon’s coronation. Madame de La Tour du Pin’s memoirs – written for her only surviving son over twenty years in the mid-nineteenth century, published for the first time in French in 1906, and translated for the first time into English in the 1960s – have filled in all those gaps. What I find particularly charming are her remarks about her friends who now happen to be famous, notably Angelica Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton, and her lifelong association with Talleyrand, the most devious politician of the ancien régime and of the Revolution.
Henriette-Lucy Dillon (called Lucie) was born an aristocrat. Her Irish-French father, Comte Arthur Dillon, seems to have been perpetually on manoeuvres in North America with his hereditary regiment in the French army, and had little interest in claiming his daughter. Her mother had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie-Antoinette but died young from TB. Lucie was brought up by her malevolent grandmother, who stole her inheritance and lavished it on her lazy, spendthrift clerical uncle. Lucie seems to have been a practical child, avidly learning all household and domestic skills since her grandmother’s avarice made her dubious that she would ever enjoy her own money. Despite this eccentric interest in the capable arts, she married Frédéric de La Tour du Pin Gouvernet, the nobleman of her choice, becoming a countess, later a marquise, and junior lady-in-waiting to the Queen at the age of 19.
She had a part-time life at court, in attendance on a rota like the rest of the ladies, and was critical of the Queen’s lack of loyalty to her servants and courtiers (the Queen mourned Lucie’s mother for a day, and had to be reminded the next day about her funeral). Lucie was at Versailles when the Parisians broke into the palace and the first of the Swiss Guards was killed. She and her husband and their very small children moved about France in secret during the most dangerous periods of the Revolution, and were hidden by sympathetic friends for months near their Bordeaux estate. Lucie’s black French footman and hairdresser Zamorre helped her and the children get out of Paris, since he could pass as a soldier in a francophone black regiment. Soon after her father-in-law’s execution in Paris, the opportunity came to escape to America. The new Marquis and Marquise de La Tour and their family sailed there in a small English boat whose captain refused to speak French.
They bought some land in Albany, and farmed successfully for several years, becoming friends with General Schuyler, the local grandee, who kept an eye on their efforts in self-sustainability. Lucie became friends with the now-married Angelica Schuyler, and was charmed to meet Eliza and Alexander Hamilton, who drove a cart full of their cheerful children to the General’s farm one summer. The General also advised the de La Tours on the local arrangements for acquiring black African slaves. The de La Tours had no particular interest in maintaining slavery as an institution, or in agitating for its cessation, but they treated their slaves as friends and co-workers, ensuring that they were legally freed when they gave up the farm.
Summoned by friends who could see hope in the changing political climate in France, the de La Tours sailed to England, and lived as emigrés in London on the charity of friends and relations. They were now perfectly used to living an impoverished life while waiting for opportunities for the Marquis to serve his country, but the requirement for grand dress and courtly style in London’s social life seemed hard to manage.
The Terror was over, it was the period of the Directoire, Napoleon Bonaparte was in the ascendant, and the de La Tours arrived back in France. As they represented the aristocrats of the old regime, Bonaparte was anxious for Madame to recognise and advise his new wife Josephine, but the future Empress was not to become one of Madame’s close friends. She (later) didn’t think much of the Empress Marie-Louise either. The Marquis would become a Préfect of France, in Brussels, then the Hague, then an Ambassador. Madame de La Tour du Pin was an energetic and practical hostess and manager, advising her husband and her friends and children, constantly in motion. Her industry was exhausting: in her forties and fifties she took many overnight carriage journeys to reach Paris in time to gain a crucial signature, or to claim the Emperor’s attention before breakfast to explain a base calumny against her husband. She was a grande dame with very high standards, and was a sympathetic listener to youth and those with humble sincerity. She endured tragedy stoically, suffering the deaths of all but one of her seven children, as well as many friends and relations in the Terror. She had no particular bent for religious faith: she attended Mass when it was proper, and when it was not she didn’t give it a thought.
I loved these Memoirs. I imagine that they are partial, and miss a great deal out, but they are resoundingly authentic. Their recording of tiny historical details and their personal history has made them a fascinating primary source for the history of the period, but it’s their readability that is their most attractive feature, for which Felice Harcourt, the translator deserves praise. Madame may have grown into a resigned old lady, regretting the loss of her old homes and her husband’s estates after the catastrophe of their eldest son’s involvement in an anti-Orléanist plot, but she would have been the most fabulous conversationalist.
The Memoirs of Madame de La Tour du Pin, trans. Felice Harcourt (1963, Harvill Press)
I haven’t read this, but it looks like an amplification of the Memoirs, by an excellent biographer: Caroline Moorehead, Dancing to the Precipice: the Life of Lucie de La Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era (2010, Harper Perennial)