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In My Good Books

Inside the Ancien Regime

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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 XVIII.

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This, then, is a private document we are reading, one that remained unpublished until almost a century after some of the key events it describes.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" for baskets.

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.

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