Wednesday, 29 November 2017

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

Our last book of the year was Caroline Moorehead's biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, who has been described as the Pepys of her generation. The biography, titled Dancing to the precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution, chronicles her life from her birth in 1770 to her death in 1853, a period which covers some of Europe's and, in particular France's, most tumultuous times. The aristocratic-born Lucie de la Tour du Pin saw most of it up close and personal.

As always, we started by each of the seven members present giving her impressions, which are summarised as follows:
  • A couple noted that the book was "solid going" and perhaps included more detail than was needed. Most of us felt that a time-line [there is one in the Kindle edition] and family trees for Lucie and her husband Frédéric would have helped.
  • We varied in our knowledge of the French Revolution, and some wondered whether knowing the history would have helped their enjoyment. However, everyone - at least those who had finished it - were glad they'd read it, and most of those who hadn't finished it said they would keep reading it!
  • Most of us found it a interesting story, and thought Lucie must have been "quite a person" to survive what she did. Resilient was the word most of us used for her. We all admired her for what (and how) she survived.
  • Some found the book harder going at the start, feeling there was not much substance to her in the beginning, while others liked the beginning and felt it got bogged down in detail as the book wore on.
  • One of those who liked the book's beginning did so because of Moorehead's introduction of the 18th century philosophers, such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau.
  • Most found the book well-written, but some felt that it could have been a little tighter or more focused which might have seen some more extraneous detail omitted.
  • While some found the amount of detail - particularly the huge cast of characters - overwhelming, we did enjoy the details about life at the time. Moorehead paints, we all felt, a vivid picture of France of the period. We liked the description of the huge hats, the smells, the food, and so on.
  • A couple noted that they particularly enjoyed reading about Lucie's time in America, with one wondering whether that's because Lucie was particularly happy there.
  • One member commented on parallels to modern life - such as the challenge of taxing the rich, and the idea of "fake news". She felt the book had a modernist feel.
  • The member who recommended the book would love to read Lucie's memoirs, from which much of the biography was drawn, and which, apparently have never been out of print. 
Overall, one member said, and we all agreed, it is a "dizzying" read.

We commented that the book's title comes from Lucie's own words about the period leading up to the storming of the Bastille: "Amid all these pleasures we were laughing and dancing our way to the precipice." Moorehead writes that Lucie added 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". Not surprisingly, then, we spent some time discussing the politics of the time, including Lucie's aristocratic leanings. Moorehead presents Lucie and Frédéric as having strong moral values, but as nonetheless believing that aristocrats should be in control, that they were the best people to govern. They supported a more English-style of constitutional monarchy, rather than a republic.

We discussed Frédéric's diplomatic work for Napoleon in Brussels, his refusal to carry out some of Napoleon's harsher orders, and his recognition that the nobility was often happier to give up their sons to Napoleon's cause than their money! We noted that, although Lucie was a monarchist, she was fascinated by Napoleon, and managed to win his approval. She was astute about people - managing to retain powerful friends like Talleyrand - and this, together with some lucky decisions about when to leave France, ensured their survival through tumultuous times, despite their royalist leanings.

We were fascinated to meet various characters we've heard of - but didn't know or had forgotten where they fit into history - such as writer and diplomat Chateaubriand, bishop and diplomat Talleyrand, and salon leader Mme Récamier (who was depicted by many artists of the time, including Jacques-Louis David.) We also enjoyed references to American and English figures like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Lord Wellington.

We liked Lucie's describing her life, in a letter to god-daughter Félicie, as being like "a chest of drawers" with each drawer representing skills she could draw on when needed. When she needed those of being a lady or ambassadress, for example, she would close the housewife drawer, and so on. Lucie proved herself again and again to be resourceful, practical and a hard-worker, skills she had to learn as a young child growing up in the emotionally cold home of her grandmother Mme de Roche.

A couple of members liked Frédéric's throughts on history, which Moorehead described as follows:

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’. More than anything Frédéric ever wrote, these letters to his grandson revealed a thoughtful and liberal man, intelligent, full of fears and doubts about the future, and intensely clear about the nature of responsibility. 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’.

Other aspects of the book that we enjoyed were its portrayal of the life of France's émigrés (a term which was created during this time), many of whom left and returned to France more than once over the decades of upheaval. We enjoyed reading about the ways they supported themselves while away from their estates - making hats, cooking, teaching dancing, and so on.

We were surprised to discover that the idea of "the left" - referring in this case to the "anti-monachicals" - was first used during France's revolutionary period. We also talked about about other historical figures who were born around the same time, such as Beethoven (in 1770) and Jane Austen (1775).

One member said she'd read that the book is "novelistic"* but another strenuously disagreed, arguing that the book reads as straight biography rather than as belonging to those non-fiction writings sometimes described as "creative" or "narrative" non-fiction. Yes, there is a narrative to the story, but it is in the form of a typical chronological biography, and yes, there are some lovely descriptions, but most of these stem from Lucie's own writing. Moorehead, she argued, has not had to fill in gaps in knowledge, for example, by using the sort of narrative techniques found in novels/fiction and which might justify the use of "novelistic" to describe this book.

Those of us who didn't know were surprised to discover that author Caroline Moorehead is the daughter of Australian journalist and war correspondent Alan Moorehead and his English wife.

Overall, we agreed that Dancing to the precipice was an interesting book that either taught us, or reminded us, of a fascinating time in European history.

* POSTSCRIPT: After the meeting, I found that one reviewer described Lucie's life as being like one you might find in historical fiction. It may have been this rather than the style of writing which prompted the "novelistic" description.

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