When she turned 50 in 1820, Lucie Dillon, marquise de la Tour du Pin, began to write her memoirs. She intended them for her two surviving children (four were deceased), but in 1822 Lucie’s daughter Charlotte suddenly died, leaving only Aymar, her last-born son, as recipient of the record of his mother’s extraordinary life. The unfinished text, which breaks off at Napoleon’s return from Elba in 1815, was not published until 1907; it has rarely been out of print since. Historians of the French Revolution have long pillaged Lucie’s Journal d’une femme de cinquante ans for colorful anecdotes and eyewitness observations to adorn their narratives and bring them to life. In her new biography, Dancing to the Precipice, Caroline Moorehead returns Lucie to the center of her own story.
Lucie was born in Paris at a fashionable address on the rue du Bac, Faubourg Saint-Germain, in 1770. Her parents were second cousins who married in their teens; both were descended from the Irish Dillons of Roscommon. The family’s ancestors had been in Paris since the Seventh Viscount Dillon raised an Irish regiment and followed James II’s Jacobite court into exile. Lucie’s father, like his forebears, was a soldier, so Lucie saw little of him during her childhood. Her mother, as “beautiful and sweet-tempered as an angel,” lived under the dominion of her own unpleasant and exacting mother; caught between the constant warring of these women, Lucie later remembered that she “had no real childhood” but became a reserved, discreet, taciturn judge of the hatred between her mother and grandmother.
Whatever the internal psychological truth, Lucie certainly had the external trappings of a glamorous and privileged childhood. When Lucie was 7, her mother was made a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. That same year, the duc de Lauzun gave Lucie a doll with a full court wardrobe–including a well-made wig and silk stockings–ordered from Rose Bertin, the queen’s dressmaker. She heard her mother sing with Niccolò Piccinni and had a wealth of opportunities to develop her own musical talent; she was educated by an excellent private tutor, M. Combes, who became a close friend; she was healthy and attractive, and even smallpox left her unscarred.
Grief came early to Lucie’s life, well before the revolution that would claim the lives of many of her friends and relatives. When Lucie was 12, her mother died from an undiagnosed stomach complaint; faced with her grandmother’s hysterical tears, after all the years of familial unpleasantness there had been, Lucie remained dry-eyed and silent. This was the first serious test of her steely self-possession in circumstances of shattering loss. Her father did not come back to Paris to be at his wife’s deathbed, and when he did return, several years later, he brought news of his engagement to a rich Creole with two small children of her own. Lucie met her stepmother only once, before her father departed for the West Indies with his new wife, a new baby known as Fanny and–most devastating of all for Lucie–with her trusted tutor, M. Combes. Before leaving, Lucie’s father picked out a potential husband for his teenage daughter, Frédéric de Gouvernet, a young aide-de-camp, well liked by his fellow officers, who had served with Lafayette in America. But Lucie’s grandmother vetoed the proposal. This did not discourage Lucie, who had formed a romantic attachment to Frédéric simply from talking to her father about him. When she was 16, in 1786, the engagement went ahead with Marie Antoinette’s blessing. Like her mother before her, Lucie was helped by the queen to sidestep opposition in her immediate family. In an age when marital love and fidelity were frowned upon as unsophisticated, Lucie had conceived a passionate love for her betrothed: “It was an instinct…a guidance from above…. I felt that I belonged to him, that my whole life was his.”