The one from riches to rags, interrupted

Memoirs of Madame de La Tour du Pin (French: Journal d’une femme de cinquante ans, 1913)

A little while ago, I nearly lost myself into historical research. For the reader, historical fiction opens an exotic window to the reader who feels like he could see with his own eyes how others lived in another era, but for the writer, the feeling is even more powerful! Not only are you transported back in time, but it’s like a mystery investigation, when real events and accounts give you tidbits of clues, which may or may not advance the plot you have in mind. It was a lot of fun.

I got interested in life under the French Revolution, and my reading got a bit utilitarian. That’s how I came to these memoirs by Madame de la Tour du Pin, an aristocrat with Irish ancestors, who wrote in the 1830s about her life chiefly for her children’s interest. The family published the text at the turn of the twentieth century. I only read the first volume which started at the lady’s birth in 1770 and stopped in 1794 when she and her family managed to escape the bloody Terror by embarking on a boat direction the United States.

I’m not sure how much I learnt about real life under Louis XVI and under the revolution. Like many memoirs of this era (or is it not a modern thing too?), she likes dropping names: she is all about meeting the right people and telling of her impression of them in a short vignette, which to me sounds like the 180 signs of Twitter to me. She spends a great number of pages talking about her bad relationships with her mother and grandmother, which is rather candid to me (I haven’t heard of many such memoirs but I guess this is rather unusual). Also, her loving and devoted marriage to Mr De la Tour du Pin, in 1787, seemed to me like a lucky exception to the norm of the time. Her analysis of the revolution, which you can read in between the lines, is that aristocrats were depraved and had forgotten how to live morally and simply.

Naturally, she puts herself aside: she insists that her curiosity as a child led her to learn all things in every possible area, including lots of lowly household jobs for which she had servants and maids. But this proved quite useful as the Revolution deprived her and her family of privileges and wealth, and she had to start over in America with very few resources. She appears very courageous and clever, especially when she had to disguise herself as a nanny during the Terror. She was quite resourceful and managed to adapt easily to new circumstances, but she’s not one to dwell long on feelings and analysis, so that I never quite got to understand how the change of regime must have been a real trauma in French history.

(If you’re interested in learning more about her, there is a biography: Dancing by the precipice, by Caroline Moorhead. Click on the image to get to the NYT review.)

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