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Dancing to the Precipice by Caroline Moorehead

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Posts: 1667
Joined: April 2009
Location: New York

Dancing to the Precipice by Caroline Moorehead

Post by Chatterbox » Thu July 30th, 2009, 8:42 pm

This is a NF book... Hopefully mods will move if I stuck it in the wrong place??

When I picked up the book and idly started to peruse the introductory material, such as the list of major characters, only to look up in alarm from it to find that I had immediately become so engrossed that two hours has passed without my even noticing, I knew I had found that rare creature, the nearly perfect biography. (I say nearly perfect only because I'm sure that there must be flaws; I just haven't identified any...)

Beginning with her choice of subject, Caroline Moorehead has delivered something wonderful; a biography and work of history that sets the events of the French revolution and the Napoleonic era in context. By telling them through the life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, born Lucie Dillon in 1770, she makes those events both more fascinating -- we see them as they affect Lucie and her family and friends -- and more understandable (since the discussion doesn't start in 1789 with the fall of the Bastille and stop suddenly with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815.) Lucie, born into a noble family of Irish and English Catholics (her mother is French), grows up and marries in the final years of the reign of Louis XVI; she becomes a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. Escaping the guillotine, she and her husband flee to America, where they take up farming in upstate New York, then return to Europe to try and rebuild their lives. Indeed, before she turned 50 and began to write her own life history (a document that Moorehead draws on heavily, alongside extensive and unpublished correspondence between Lucie and her extended family and friends), Lucie has fled into exile on no fewer than four occasions, trying to keep ahead of the political changes that sweep through France. As she tries to cope with the blows that life deals her, from miscarriages and the deaths of other children at a young age to the trials of adjusting to new political realities and the financial stress of surviving as a refugee, I became more and more fascinated with Lucie and in awe of her ability to develop a strong sense of self. a formidable intelligence and willpower.

I found two strands of this book particularly intriguing and well portrayed. The first is the changing nature of the French society, including the role of the salons, the conversational forums overseen by women throughout the 18th centuries where many of the Englightenment-era ideas that led to the Revolution first saw the light of day. Lucie grew up attending these in her youth, and continued to do so whenever possible, sharing both literary and philosophical discussions with notable figures of the day, from Talleyrand (defrocked priest turned arch-political manipulator, and a very early proponent of a united Europe) to Madame de Stael. Indeed, between her family relationships and her position in society, there are few notable people of her time whom Lucie didn't come to know. She observes Talleyrand and Alexander Hamilton debate each other over dinner in New York, attends the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, mourns the execution of her king and queen but deplores the arrogance and humorlessness of their surviving daughter, the Duchesse d'Angouleme, when the royal family is restored to power in 1815. Her son serves with the Prince of Orange's troops at Waterloo; Lucie herself claims the Duke of Wellington as a childhood friend.

The other particularly fascinating part of Moorehead's book is the extent to which she is able to convey the flavor of the times in which Lucie lived, and blend that effortlessly with the details of her subject's life and experiences. In 1770, the year Lucie is born, more than 6,000 infants ("lice-ridden, stinking of urine, bundled into filthy rags") are abandoned in the streets of Paris; Lucie, however, grows up in an emotionally-deprived but otherwise rich life in "a world in which elegance of performance was a form of freedom of expression" and where people around her were "convinced that culture could overcome prejudice, ignorance and the brutality of the instincts." Particularly striking is the degree to which optimism prevailed in the salons in the years leading up to the fall of the Bastille. "It was an extraordinary moment to be young and to be French. Paris was alive with ideas and arguments, rumours and opinions. Never had the salons been so lively nor their guests more outspoken and opinionated."

Moorehead captures the changes in Paris, from the horrors of the 'Terror' to the near-frenzied gaiety of the Directoire period that followed. She shows us how Napoleon's moves to seize political power created a welcome sense of stability; daily newspapers shrank in number from 73 to a more manageable -- and censored -- 13 publications. She also shows how the new powers -- lacking an aristocratic background -- tried too hard to be dignified; etiquette at Napoleon's court was more stifling than that at Versailles. Meanwhile, the salons were turning into places where the newly-powerful could learn how to conduct themselves in society.

Every page of this book contains fresh insights into the people and time of this turbulent period. I was delighted to find it stretches into the 1820s and beyond, a time in which revolutionary ideals of equality and a sense of nationhood again became decoupled from the reality as ruling royal families asserted (or tried to reassert) their dominance. While the restored Bourbon monarchs tried to restore the hoop skirt along with traditional political values, both efforts proved ultimately futile, and Moorehead uses Lucie and her family and their experiences to show why that might have been the case.

This wonderful biography is as compelling as a great novel; Lucie emerges as a strong and vivid personality, someone who it would be fascinating to sit down and talk to for hours. Even without Moorehead's deft handling of the political backdrop to Lucie's story, the book would be a fascinating one, thanks to the author's ability to weave in small but telling details, from Lucie's attitudes to slavery in the Americas to the advent of toothbrushes, fountain pens and toast in Britain. (Moorehead notes that a Swedish scientist claimed toast was devised as a way to make it possible to spread butter on bread in the chilly English climate...)

Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the period, or in women's lives in European history. A model for what biography can and should be.

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Joined: August 2008

Post by tsjmom » Thu August 6th, 2009, 4:17 pm

That's an amazing review Chatterbox. I put it at the top of my TBR list. It sounds like a refreshing take on an amazing but tumultuous period in France.

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