|Inside the Ancien Regime
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
7 January 2006
Whenever the grand public events she has lived
through seem about to deflect her from her strict purpose, Madame
de la Tour du Pin reminds her singular reader that she is not
writing history. What she is writing, this fervent royalist
with a disenchanted eye, is a memoir for her surviving son,
to tell him the story of her own life and that of his father
and his family.
This takes the author (born in 1770) from childhood
through a marriage arranged after the aristocratic fashion of
the day, to court life as a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette
in the years just preceding the French revolution. From then
on life is a swift series of reversals of fortune: concealment
during the Terror, emigration to the United States, a premature
return to France after the Thermidorian Reaction, exile in England,
public office for her husband under both Napoleon and Louis
On Napoleon's return from Elba, the narrative
ends, because the old lady who was writing it either gave up
or died. She seems to have been frank and honest with her son,
and to have been untroubled by any thought of publication, so
that the iniquitous behaviour of various family members, starting
with that of her vicious grandmother, is quite plainly and all
too convincingly recorded.
This, then, is a private document we are reading,
one that remained unpublished until almost a century after some
of the key events it describes. And it is extraordinary in the
way it brings us into contact with a way of thinking that belongs
to the ancien regime -- not because Madame de la Tour du Pin
was incapable of drawing conclusions from her bitter experiences,
when she started writing them down (over a long period between
the 1820s and 1840s), but because the lessons she drew did not
necessarily go to the heart of the matter.
Yes, she thought, the aristocracy had lived
immoral and irreligious lives under Louis XVI, and might almost
be said to have deserved the fate that was waiting for them.
But it is as if she believed that a better management of estates
and a greater degree of probity in public affairs, together
with less worldliness among the clergy, might have preserved
the status quo.
What she appreciates in Napoleon, apart from
his conscious effort to put an end to the sufferings caused
by the Terror, is his response to the old aristocratic values.
When her husband is Prefect in Brussels, she sets about winning
over the old Belgian aristocracy to the new Napoleonic dispensation.
But as soon as Louis XVIII returns, there is an immediate reversion
to the Bourbon cause. She has found plenty to admire in Napoleon.
On one occasion she goes personally to plead with him (successfully)
on her husband's behalf. But neither she nor her husband seems
to have had the slightest qualm in ditching him.
In vivid contrast to this dyed-in-the-wool
adherence to aristocratic values is the amazing adaptability
Madame de la Tour du Pin displays in America, where she and
her husband lease a farm in upstate New York, near Albany. She
is determined to make a success of it, both by her own labour
and by that of the slaves she buys (to whom she and her husband
eventually grant their freedom). She describes purchasing their
first slave under what must have been a local dispensation whereby
a slave, dissatisfied with his master, could go to a Justice
of the Peace and make an official request to be sold. The owner
was then obliged to allow his slave to seek another master.
What brings this slave-owning agricultural
idyll to an end is the realisation that, unless the family returns
to France, they stand to lose all their French property. One
can well believe, however, that Madame de la Tour du Pin, with
her pride in her own capabilities, could have made a success
of American life, selling her neat slabs of butter imprinted
with the family monogram, and trading with the "savages"
Where they fail, as a family, is in adapting
to new conditions in France. The beloved elder son, after some
unspecified insult to his honour, provokes a duel and is killed.
The eventual recipient of the memoirs, the only survivor of
five children, espouses the Legitimist cause, and brings imprisonment
and eventual exile (this time in Italy) upon his parents' heads.
The Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin, this classic
of the genre, with its vivid evocations of Versailles and the
Terror, was translated by Felice Harcourt, and reissued by Harvill
Press in 1999, with just enough by way of notes and other information
to satisfy the casual reader.