Memoirs of Madame de La Tour du Pin
translated by Felice Harcourt, with an Introduction by Peter Gay
McCall, 468 pp., $8.95
The Marquise de La Tour du Pin, born in 1770, was a member of the Irish, Jacobite Dillon family. After the Battle of the Boyne, at which the cause of James II was lost, her great-grandfather, Viscount Dillon, emigrated to France with his Irish troops; he was one of the few foreigners at Versailles who was allowed to own and command a regiment and to hand it down to his heirs. (The Scottish Ogilvys also had this privilege.) Two of Mme de La Tour du Pin’s great-uncles were killed leading their men in the service of France, one at Fontenoy and one at Lawfeld; her father then became colonel of the Dillon regiment.
Daughter of soldiers, Mme de La Tour du Pin had all the qualities which make an excellent officer: she was loyal, energetic, and brave; she never lost her head; she had a talent for making people do as she wished. As a child she was left to the care of servants and learned from them the practical management of a house and farmyard. Her character and accomplishments alone ensured the survival of her family in the stirring times to which she was born. She writes in a plain, forthright style and is entirely credible—her memoirs provide an illuminating worm’s eye view of events in France from the revolution to the downfall of Napoleon.
She married the Comte de Gouvernet, as he then was, in 1787. The young people had never seen each other before the engagement ceremonies—they fell deeply in love and remained so to the end of their long lives. Perhaps because she adored him, her husband remains a shadowy figure in the book—he was perfect and that was that—he also did as he was told. On his father’s death he became the Marquis de La Tour du Pin but Talleyrand always called him Gouvernet saying it was the ideal name for him (gouverné = governed). The bride was appointed lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette but was thought too young to take up her functions; she did so two years later. By this time the storm was breaking.
Mme de La Tour du Pin tries to explain the reasons for the French Revolution to the grandchildren for whom she writes her book. She says there was a spirit of revolt (we should call it permissiveness) in all walks of life. Bishops no longer resided in their bishoprics but amused themselves in Paris and so did the colonels of regiments. Women lived openly with their lovers—there was no tenue, no keeping up of appearances. The Court was indifferent to morality. “When society is so corrupt that corruption itself seems natural why should one be astonished at excesses among the lower classes?”
Cleverer people than Mme de La Tour du Pin have thought as she did that high on the list of causes was the disrespect into which the Crown had fallen. A French revolution would have been unthinkable in …