Window on a world in flames

Dancing to the Precipice – Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution
By Caroline Moorehead

(Chatto, £20; 480pp)

Lucie de la Tour du Pin’s eyewitness account of living through the French revolution is both a fascinating historical document and a chilling examination of how easily national unrest may evolve into police state terrorism.  As Paris was torn by riots, the courtiers at Versailles continued their social whirl, “laughing and dancing our way to the precipice.”  Three years later Lucie, former lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette, was a refugee in Bordeaux, hiding in a cramped room from where she could hear the clatter of tumbrils and the crash of the plunging blade in the nearby Place Nationale.   Even in the shadow of the guillotine, she continued to take singing lessons from an Italian teacher to alleviate the long hours of fear.

Born into sumptuous privilege in 1770, Lucie Dillon, daughter of a half-French mother and an Anglo-Irish father, first learnt about survival under the tyrannical regime of her domineering grandmother, with whom she and her mother lived.  Though appearing to submit to the old termagant, Lucie’s inner core held firm, and despite her grandmother’s disapproval, she insisted on marrying, sight unseen, a young aristocrat, Frederic de la Tour du Pin, to whom she felt instinctively drawn.  The 50 year marriage proved to be unfashionably happy – Lucie was once accused of treating her husband as if he was her lover.

The climate of fear unleashed after the fall of the Bastille in 1789 infected the whole country.  In the Normandy village to which the 19 year old Lucie had retreated with her two children, there were wild rumours of Austrian troops pillaging the next village.  Lucie prevented the priest from tolling a summons to arms until she had ridden to the neighbouring village to investigate.  The hamlet was unpillaged but in a state of panic, and Lucie had a dangerous moment when a villager identified her as Queen Marie Antoinette.

Worse was to come, following the point of no return that was marked by the execution of King Louis XVI.  On 21 January 1793, Lucie and Frederic stood at the open window of their house in Paris waiting for sounds of a revolt that would rescue the King. “The deepest silence,” she wrote, “lay like a pall over the regicide city.” Later they went into the city in search of Lucie’s father and friends but “people scarcely spoke, so terrified were they.”

Thus the Terror was unleashed, and refugees who had fled to Bordeaux, with the aim of getting to Spain or to America were remorselessly picked up and guillotined. Priests, peasants, merchants, dressmakers, tailors, anyone deemed to have “suspicious opinions” or “nostalgia for the ancien regime” was in danger.  Lucie gambled on approaching Jean-Lambert Tallien, presiding over the Bordeaux Terror, through his famously beautiful mistress Theresia whom she had known in pre-revolution days.  She was just in time.  Shortly after the Du Pins had received their passports, and were on the boat for America, taking with them Lucie’s piano, Tallien was sacked and replaced by an implacable 18 year old revolutionary who hunted down the remaining liberals and nobles, hidden away in concealed vaults behind wine vats or in cellars.

Lucie continued her resourceful life in America, turning her hand to milking cows and selling hand-churned butter, and publicly set free the four slaves who worked for her.  The Du Pins returned to France when the Terror had abated, but were exiled again in 1797 to England.  At the age of 50, Lucie began to write her memoirs to assuage her grief at family losses – her father and father-in-law had been guillotined and four out of five of her children had died young.   The memoirs were published in 1907, and are still in print. Caroline Moorehead has drawn on them and a huge number of unpublished letters from the Du Pins to create this comprehensive and absorbing biography.   Part of its charm is Moorehead’s attention to what Louis XVI’s great-great-grandfather the Sun King would have called le detail de tout.