Monday, April 13, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“MEMOIRS OF MADAME DE LA TOUR DU PIN” (“Le Journal d’une femme de cinquante ans”, written between 1820 and 1840; edited and translated into English by Felice Harcourt - English translation first published 1969)

Sometimes people of no particular achievement and no notable intellectual attainment can write memoirs that are very revealing about the times in which they lived. One such specimen was Madame de la Tour du Pin. I first came across the English translation of her memoirs about twenty years ago, and read them with great delight – not because I endorsed or shared her worldview, but because she expressed so perfectly the attitudes and values of her social class. The historian in me was constantly interested in how she (and implicitly others of her social standing) saw the events of the French revolution and much that followed it.
The Marquise de la Tour du Pin (1770-1853) was born Henriette-Lucy Dillon, the Irish surname coming from the fact that she was descended from an Irish family who had supported King James II in 1688 and therefore had fled to France when William of Orange usurped the British throne. In France the family were ennobled by Louis XIV. Henriette-Lucy was largely brought up by her grandmother in the house of her great-uncle the Archbishop of Narbonne.
In her teens Henriette-Lucy Dillon became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie-Antoinette in her last troubled days at Versailles. She married the Comte de Gouvernet, who later inherited the title de la Tour du Pin and who held a diplomatic post in The Hague early in the revolution. Henriette-Lucy and her husband were in Paris in 1793, at the time Louis XVI was executed. They managed to escape imprisonment and execution in the Terror by retiring to the de la Tour du Pin estate, Chateau du Bouilh, near Bordeaux. Still under threat from the Jacobins (the radical faction in the revolution), the couple managed to escape to America with the surprising help of Madame de Fontenay, the wife of the notorious Tallien, one of the most zealous of the “Terrorists”.
Husband and wife lived as amateur farmers in Albany, in upstate New York, for some of the mid-1790s. Because the Comte de la Tour du Pin was a diplomat, they were acquainted with the wily ex-bishop and diplomat Talleyrand, who was also at this time sitting out the revolution in America and who was later to become an important figure in the couple’s life. All three returned to France in the Directory period, when the Terror was over, but then fled into exile again, this time to England, when the Fructidor coup of 1798 purged possible royalist sympathisers. As French émigrés in England, they had some blood relatives among the English gentry. They welcomed the advent of Napoleon as a stabilising influence, and returned to France in 1800. The Comte de la Tour du Pin worked in Napoleon’s diplomatic service, but accepted the restoration of the Bourbons in 1814, did not support Napoleon’s return in 1815 (the “Hundred Days”), and therefore was part of the French contingent negotiating at the Congress of Vienna.
The Marquise de la Tour du Pin lived to the ripe old age of 83. She wrote her memoirs mainly in the 1820s (although she was still tinkering with them by the late 1830s), addressing them to her sole surviving son Aymar. She was in her fifties in the 1820s, hence the title her memoirs were given when they were published years later, Le Journal d’une Femme de Cinquante Ans. She stops her narrative in 1815.
From this brief summary of her life, you can see that how she lived was mainly dictated by the changing historical situation in France – the end of the Bourbon monarchy, the revolution, the Terror, the Directory, Fructidor, Napoleon, the end of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons.
How do we assess her memoirs? They are the memoirs of a minor French aristocrat, often limited in her judgments by her education and class. Her memoirs are very gossipy – naturally filled with family details of limited historical interest. She is frequently, and quite un-self-consciously, vain about her own good looks, wit and superiority. Often they read as the memoirs of a supernumerary or hanger-on who, quite falsely, sees herself as being at the centre of events.
Husband and wife are (naturally and understandably) often trimmers in dangerous historical times. (I recently reviewed for Landfall an excellent new biography of the great French explorer Dumont D’Urville, and I realise how much being a trimmer was the natural condition of most educated French people in revolutionary and Napoleonic times.)  Basically they belong to the ancien regime – Madame de la Tour du Pin is often snobbish in her judgments upon later upstarts who did not manage the effortless style of her own aristocratic generation – such as the ladies of Napoleon’s court. And yet the couple’s attitudes are not inflexible. The weaknesses and inadequacies of the ancien regime are duly noted. Napoleon is admired as the restorer of French honour. And the Restoration of 1814 is seen as faintly ridiculous. (Bear in mind that France had undergone yet another revolution and regime change in 1830, before these memoirs were first published in France).
There is, I repeat, absolutely nothing remarkable in the mind that produced these memoirs. Perhaps this is the real reason that they are historically interesting. They show the judgments and reaction and prejudices that were typical of Madame de la Tour du Pin’s minor aristocratic class.
And yet… and yet…. I do not wish to underestimate Madame de la Tour du Pin any more than I want to build her up as a major literary figure. Sometimes her observations and judgments are quite shrewd – even witty – and she has seen enough not to romanticise “the good old days”. She knows full well that the revolution was not causeless and did not come out of nowhere.
To illustrate the quality of this book, I can do no better than to quote some of the passages that found their way into my reading diary. [All page numbers are according to the Harvill Press edition of 1969.]
Here is Madame de la Tour du Pin on the destructive laxity and scepticism of the old regime:
In my earliest years, I saw things which might have been expected to warp my mind, pervert my affections, deprave my character and destroy in me every notion of religion and morality. From the age of ten I heard around me the freest conversations and the expression of the most ungodly principles. Brought up, as I was, in an Archbishop’s house where every rule of religion was broken daily, I was fully aware that my lessons in dogma and doctrine were given no more importance than those in history and geography.” (pp.13-24)
She notes that in this archbishop’s household, there was not even a chaplain to serve daily devotional needs. She goes on to speak of the general breakdown of public morality:
The profligate reign of Louis XV had corrupted the nobility and among the Court Nobles could be found instances of every form of vice. Gaming, debauchery, immorality, irreligion, were all flaunted openly. The hierarchy of the Church, summoned to Paris for those congresses of the clergy which the King… was obliged to call every year… had also been corrupted by contact with the dissolute habits of the Court… The older I grew… the more sure I became that the revolution of 1789 was only the inevitable consequence and, I might almost say, the just punishment of the vices of the upper classes, vices carried to such excess that if people had not been stricken with a mortal blindness, they must have seen that they would inevitably have been consumed by the very fire they themselves were lighting.” (pp.26-27)
Having been a young courtier, she paints an affectionate enough portrait of Louis XIV, but she is not dazzled by him:
He was stout, about five feet six or seven inches tall, square-shouldered and with the worst possible bearing. He looked like some peasant shambling along behind his plough; there was nothing proud or regal about him. His sword was a continual embarrassment to him and he never knew what to do with his hat, yet in court dress he looked really magnificent” (pp.71-72)
As she deals with the events that led up to the revolution, she is highly critical of the king’s inactivity and sequestration at Versailles, but she is even more critical of what she sees as the devious behaviour of the leader of the rival branch of the royal family, the Duc d’Orleans. She interprets his actions as undermining real royal authority in his own interests. As for the abolition of feudal dues and rights, she is livid as one would expect a minor aristocrat to be, declaring of this early revolutionary event:
“… the happenings of the night of the 4th of August when, on the motion of the Vicomte de Noailles, it was decreed that feudal rights should be abolished, ought to have convinced even the most incredulous that the National Assembly was unlikely to stop at this first measure of dispossession. The decree ruined my father-in-law and our family never recovered from the effect of that night’s session. It was a veritable orgy of iniquities.” (pp.116-117)
Lafayette is depicted as an honest but theatrical fool who did not realize how much he was being manipulated by Orleans. The story that royal troops donned the white cockade and cursed the people is discounted as a fiction. And we get this unflattering description of Marie-Antoinette:
She was gifted with very great courage, but very little intelligence, absolutely no tact and, worst of all, a mistrust – always misplaced – of those most willing to serve her. She refused to recognise that the terrible danger which had threatened her on the night of the 6th of October was the result of a plot by the Duc d’Orleans, and from then on vented her resentment on all the people of Paris and avoided appearing in public.” (p.139)
While she is largely contemptuous of the feast of federation on 14 July 1790 (the first official celebration of “Bastille Day”, at a time when the king was still on the throne) she is generous enough in spirit to acknowledge the high ideals that motivated it:
Laundresses and knights of St.Louis worked side by side in that great gathering of all the people; there was not the slightest disorder or the smallest dispute. Everyone was moved by the same impulse: fellowship.” (pp.142-143)
She is scandalised by army officers who fled abroad early in the revolution, leaving the armed forces to more radical “other ranks” and hence hastening the breakdown of order and violence against the royal state. She quotes with approval (p.160) Napoleon’s later observation that “Had I been in Lafayette’s place, the king would still be sitting on his throne.”  She also gives a chilling account of the silence that fell on the city of Paris (p.177) on the morning that the king was executed, while she and her husband, in their house outside the old city walls, awaited evidence of popular revulsion against the act of regicide.
Some of her portraits of individuals are waspish and backhanded. Here she is on the revolutionary era’s supreme trimmer Talleyrand:
M. de Talleyrand was amiable, as he unvaryingly was to me, and his conversation had a grace and ease which has never been surpassed. He had known me since my childhood and always talked to me with an almost paternal politeness which was delightful. One might, in one’s inmost mind, regret having so many reasons for not holding him in respect, but memories of his wrong-doing were always dispelled by an hour of his conversation. Worthless himself, he had, oddly enough, a horror of wrong-doing in others. Listening to him, and not knowing him, one thought him a virtuous man. Only his exquisite sense of propriety prevented him from saying things to me which would have displeased me, and if, as sometimes happened, they did escape him, he would recollect himself immediately, and say: ‘Ah yes, but you don’t like that.’ ”  (p.246)
Later she remarks that “It was impossible to feel surprise at anything M. de Talleyrand did, unless, perhaps, it should be something lacking in taste. Although he served a government drawn from the dregs of the gutter, he himself remained a very great gentleman.” (p.304)
The sniffy ancien regime aristocrat comes out in Madame de la Tour du Pin when she describes Napoleon’s wife Josephine (pp.341-342) as “gracious, amiable and kindly…not outstandingly intelligent” and obviously not the sort of upper crust lady who would once have been received at royal Versailles.
In the closing pages of her memoirs, there is a continuous ambiguity in Madame de la Tour du Pin’s attitude towards the restored Bourbon monarchy. She openly expresses the opinion that the Bourbons had learned nothing in their years of exile, that they were weak and indecisive and that they shamed France in comparison with the military glories of Napoleon. But her sense of loyalty still makes her see Bonapartists as upstarts and she presents her husband as having made the right decision in standing by Louis XVIII and not joining the Hundred Days.
If you feel that I (and Madame de la Tour du Pin) have been boring you with the minutiae of French history, allow me to add that Madame de la Tour du Pin does tell some quite delightful anecdotes that have little to do with historical circumstances. She relates the tale (p.145) of a highly intelligent convent-educated girl who read the Classics in the original and who, when finally coming out of the convent in 1790, was bewildered to find that modern France was nothing like the world described in Caesar’s commentaries. Then there is this little gem, with which I will close:
We received a visit from the father of M. d’Aix, a gentleman of the old school, without a vestige of intelligence or learning. It used to be said of him that he had, quite literally, bored his wife to death. Nonetheless, he enjoyed an income of sixty thousand francs or more a year…” (p.357)
Ah yes – boring, wealthy idiots. They are always with us.

Egotistical footnote: If the general subject of this “Something Old” interests you, you might be interested to look up, via on the index at right, my takes on Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution (the dyspeptic Scot’s version of the whole sequence of events); Frances Mossiker’s The Queen’s Necklace (about a great pre-revolutionary scandal) and Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (his novel which gives a fictionalised version of his affair with Madame de Stael, whom Madame de la Tour du Pin credits in her memoirs with influencing appointments to the French Foreign Office in the Napoleonic era, when her husband was a diplomat). You might also look up my take on Honore de Balzac’s wonderful novel La Rabouilleuse / The Black Sheep, which concerns in part the discontents of former Bonapartists. You might have noticed that French history and literature are things that interest me.  

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