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.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Some suggestions for 2018, Pt.1

Some ideas for our next six months organised by category
(most from the side-bar, but I've dropped some that have been there for a while)


Alameddine, Rabih An unnecessary woman
Howard, Elizabeth Jane (one by her)
Robinson, Marilynne (One by her: Housekeeping or Gilead or Home or Lila)

Indigenous Australian

Cobby Eckermann, Ali Ruby Moonlightand/or Inside my mother and/or Too afraid to cry
Coleman, Claire Terra nullius

New books from Aussie favourites

de Kretser, Michelle The life to come
Flanagan, Richard First person
Laguna, Sofie The choke
Miller, Alex The passage of love


Blackman, Barbara All my Januaries
Griffiths, Tom The art of time travel


Nguyen, Viet Thanh The sympathizer (Pulitzer Prize 2016)
Saunders, George Lincoln in the Bardo (Booker 2017)
Stow, Randolph The merry-go-round by the sea (Past Miles Franklin, could also be our Classic)

Recent suggestions from members

Harper, Jane The dry
Harper, Jane Force of nature

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Stan Grant's Talking to my country

It is a particularly pertinent time for Minervans to be reading this challenging work.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s issues have been much in the news in the last few days: knockback of their idea of a consultative assembly by the Federal government,  their banning of climbing Uluru from 2019, and in the ‘Conversation’ recently an article on a project to correct a huge omission in the Australian Dictionary of Biography by the addition of many articles about prominent Indigenous members of Australian society since 1788.

Before we started discussing Stan’s book we were shown the literary site called: Writing black.  Edited by Ellen van Neerven, this anthology was developed by the black&write! Indigenous writing and editing project at the State Library of Queensland. We were also encouraged to visit the current exhibition at the NMA called Songlines: Tracking the Seven sisters—a journey into the heart of Australia.

Stan Grant’s polemic is that Aboriginal people have faced a very tough life in the last two hundred years and are still finding it extremely difficult in 21st century Australia. He is a proud Wiradjuri man from Western NSW (ie. Canowindra and region). He discusses his life, his parent’s and grandparent’s struggles with poverty, as well as his teachings and thoughts about his own son’s appreciation of his Aboriginal heritage. He discusses the great hardship and discrimination suffered by his father and grandfather in particular. He remembers fondly his paternal grandmother (a white woman) who struggled greatly with poverty but was always very loving. He intersperses his family history with ponderings on Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian history and discusses the many assumptions held by the European society since 1788.

The main assumptions:
  • Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders would die out in the 19th century
  • Modern Aborigines should just ‘move on and forget their history’
  • There was aggression between Aborigines and the invaders from the beginning and his Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people are still fighting a battle against injustices but it has not been properly recognised by non-Indigenous Australians
  • Aboriginal love of country is a dominating feature in Stan’s life (as it is for most Indigenous people), no matter where he is in the world.  
  • Lack of formal recognition that Indigenous people have lived here for over 60,000 years is still an issue
  • Aborigines have to accept non Indigenous people as they are so few and have no choice (see page 6)

The book is divided into 10 chapters (and unfortunately they are not labelled by theme). There is a structure, however some of us found it hard to categorise. It is not chronological as he has already written a memoir called: The tears of strangers. Here is a review

Grant’s book is a challenge to read as it made many of us very angry with our ancestor’s treatment of Indigenous people. However racism is still active in 2017 Australia and we all felt very emotional when he talks about the shocking incident in 2015 when the footballer Adam Goodes’ suffered constant ‘abuse and humiliation until he could take no more’ (page 5).  We spent a little time discussing this incident and Goodes’ treatment.

Many of the group discussed incidents where they too had seen open displays of racism against Aborigines. One member made us realise that there is a terrible antagonism held by some Australians who cannot tolerate hearing anything about Aborigines or their issues. Overseas, people are more interested in Aboriginal life in modern Australia but there is great resistance here.

Another member working in a government department has recently done a course in cultural awareness of Indigenous issues and she drew our attention to the ‘sorry’ speech by Kevin Rudd and how that was a significant step in reconciliation. Many Aboriginal people are prepared to forgive us – they do not want to blame us. However that is often not the view of some Australians. Canberrans possibly react in a different way about this issue, possibly because we are more educated.

Stan’s book reminded us of the many other books and speeches over the last 25 years which talk about some of these issues. Such as Carmel Bird’s The stolen generation their stories which is based on the report, Bringing them home.  Also we were reminded of John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the stolen generation and Kim Beazley’s approach – for instance see this ABC report.

We also briefly talked about Eddie Mabo and the 1992 decision: ‘The judgments of the High Court in the Mabo case recognised the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait. The Court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people in Australia prior to the establishment of the British Colony of New South Wales in 1788.’

One member has recently been reading Robert Hughes’ Fatal shore and the impact of the convicts on Aborigines and their lifestyle. It was pretty devastating to say the least.

I talked about our recent interaction with the Adnyamathanha people of the Flinder’s Ranges and our enjoyment and education from them in the welcome to country ceremonies and the tours we attended. The welcome to country is becoming much more accepted and recognised as part of normal beginnings of meetings at universities and other institutions too.

Many members had stories to tell of their interactions with Aboriginal people. Some of the memories evoked are not good, such as memories of humpies in the 1960s. Others are more positive, such as a lady known by Deb who was a warm and friendly person in Deb’s early life in country New South Wales.

One difficult idea was raised by a member who mentioned that writer Kim Scott is worried about books in Aboriginal languages. He is worried that the languages may be appropriated by non-Indigenous writers, representing another dispossession. However non-Indigenous scholars and researchers have been working in this area since the beginning of white settlement.

We all admired the language used by Grant in this book. He is angry but the language is not unreasonable. He is trying to explain his emotions in the simplest way possible so that all Australians can understand his feelings. On the dust jacket it states: ‘the book that every Australian should read’. That is a difficult aim for any writer.

We particularly discussed some of the points raised by Grant on page 148:
how many times have I heard that we should forget our history and move on ?…Long term conflict may never have been a viable option for us and this country has been spared the internecine warfare of other lands, but the impact on us is no less real ... I grew to understand that conflict doesn’t end when the guns stop, that its legacy is passed through the generations. 

(This is Epigenetics according to one member.)

Such terrible injustices were suffered by some Aborigines, such as losing their families and even their identity through being part of the stolen generations and taken to missionary establishments and other institutions.

We also discussed some of the present day challenges for Aborigines such as poor hearing and how that impacts upon their whole lives – often preventing them from a good education and subsequent jobs and satisfactory lives.

A difficult read because of the subject matter but very worthwhile.