Dancing to the Precipice

Agatha Christie had a quote that’s something like, “If someone gives you a book to read, there’s not much you can do about it.” Well. Consider me handing you this book, and there’s nothing you can do about it. In the end, you’ll thank me for it.

The book is Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution by Caroline Moorehead. (London: Chatto & Windus, 2009.) Lucie was born in 1770 into a prominent but dysfunctional French family. She also had Anglo-Irish connections, from her father’s side. She witnessed and endured the French Revolution as a young woman, Napoleon found her intelligent and charming. She traveled and lived briefly on a farm in New York State (which she loved), in various places in Western Europe, and died in Italy in 1853, at the age of 83. She is a marvelous Everywoman to illustrate the history of France in the late 18th and first half of the 19th Centuries.

You’ll love the illustrations. There are contemporary drawings of the people and places mentioned in the story. Her family members and friends are shown in portraits, miniature-style– beautiful, intimate revealing pictures of the people in Lucie’s world. And the very last illustration is a picture of Lucie as an old woman, looking rather Victorian in dress and pose, rather than as a proud member of the ancien regime. And I just can’t decide if it’s a drawing or a photo. Tell me if you know.

Lucie’s turbulent life is very well documented, and the upheaval of historical cataclysms in her life captures the reader in their painful immediacy. She lost several very close relatives to the guillotine during the Terror. She had to flee France, twice, to save herself and her family. She had to live secretly, bribe, lie, and connive to keep those nearest her alive. And once you know Lucie, intelligent, outspoken, amazingly perceptive, you realize how she must have suffered, however indomitable she proved to be.  Lucie was diligent and hard-working, but the horrors of the time, the unreliability of friends and relatives, and often, her (and her husband’s) inability to hew to the party line guaranteed that money would always be a problem.

Lucie’s personal life was fascinating. Her grandmother, nasty and imperious, lived openly with a bishop for many years. Her father, charming and ineffectual, nevertheless provided Lucie with her greatest advantage. Arthur Dillon was an army officer who served many years in the Americas, and told stories to Lucie about a young fellow officer he admired and thought would make an excellent husband for her. Frédéric-Séraphim de la Tour du Pin Gouvernet was also told good things about Lucie. Lucie ruthlessly refused all the suitors trotted forth by her grandmother, and was eventually allowed to accept Frédéric’s proposal. He was as intelligent, loyal, out-spoken, hard-working, liberal, and honest as Lucie, all of which landed him in trouble many times during his military and civil service careers. They had fifty wonderful years together, an overwhelming blessing in this time of cold-eyed arranged marriages.

Most of the information is from Lucie herself, and the author frequently provides Lucie’s acerbic remarks about particular events in her life. Lucie wrote in journals until 1814, and after that wrote reams of letters, most of them to an adored god-daughter. Those journals and letters formed the basis for this story.

Read it. You’ll thank me.

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