Lucie Dillon de la Tour du Pin has been vaguely on my radar for a long time; her memoirs show up in bibliographies when you’re reading about pre-Revolutionary Versailles, or for that matter, about the revolution itself — or even Napoleonic France. To write Dancing to the Precipice, Caroline Moorehead used Lucie’s memoir as a primary source, but the memoir takes us only up to 1814, and Lucie lived until 1850 — yes, her life spanned the reigns of Louis XV to Napoleon III (as president). For the later years, Moorehead refers to Lucie’s many letters. Throughout the book she provides not only historical context, but also the kinds of details I need to help me imagine history: weather, clothes, food, pastimes. For instance, in one of the happiest times of Lucie’s life, when she was farming outside Albany, New York during the Terror, she milked and made butter wearing a black and blue-striped woolen skirt, like the other Hudson County housewives.
Henriette-Lucie Dillon makes an ideal chronicler of her era. On the one hand, as a grand aristocrat, she had perfect access to the grandeur of her era. Daughter of a count, wife of a marquis, she served as one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting and frequented the salons of Napoleonic France. But she’s also appealing to our democratic age: despite her belief in the aristocratic system, she judges individuals and herself according to ideals familiar to us, like courage, humor, intelligence and lack of vanity. She can be grand, but she can also be funny. (Talleyrand, the arch-schemer who keeps recurring throughout her era, comes in for barbed admiration.) She adores her family and handles loss with enormous fortitude.
The most vivid part of the book, of course, is the first section when Moorehead and la Tour du Pin in tandem depict the years leading up to the revolution. Lucie looks back with hindsight on the splendor and waste and heedlessness and beauty and cultivation, while Moorehead adroitly follows the saga of the forces and characters who produced the revolution. (It was probably helpful that I’d read Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety.) Just one detail to whet your appetite: The Duc de Chartres, nephew of Louis XVI, was a wastrel prince who spent his days before the revolution in the Palais-Royal, and developed a system for rating all the women he knew. The available grades were “beautiful, pretty, passable, ugly, frightful, hideous, and abominable.” A bas les aristos!