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The Soldier in Her

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 the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV because these monarchs were held in awe by their subjects. Louis XV knew this quite well: Après moi le déluge—he had no illusions about his grandson and heir. Mme de La Tour du Pin would have died for the Queen but she never liked her. “This ill-starred Princess either did not know how to consider people’s feelings or was not prepared to do so…she was gifted with very great courage but little intelligence—absolutely no tact.”

She puts her finger on another sign of the times: the army was filled with a revolutionary spirit. In France the army has always been a barometer of public opinion. During the troubles of 1968 in Paris it became apparent that there was no revolutionary spirit in the army, whereupon the pundits concluded that the riots would soon blow themselves out as in fact they did. In the early months of the French Revolution the army began to disintegrate. After the fall of the Bastille, July 14, 1789, the King’s despicable brother d’Artois fled to Germany and many officers followed him. Things went from bad to worse and on October 5 the calvary of the Royal Family began. The events of this terrible day are described in detail by Mme de La Tour du Pin who was in waiting at Versailles. Her father-in-law was colonel of the King’s Guard with her husband as second in command.

The King was out hunting; the Queen was, for the last time, at her beloved Trianon when news came that a mob from Paris was advancing on Versailles. This had already happened during the two previous reigns when each time the rioters had been stopped and sent about their business by the King’s Guard at Sèvres. Now there was nobody to give orders. When at last the King was found and brought back to Versailles he galloped past a faithful regiment without even acknowledging cries of Vive le Roi, shut himself up in his apartment, and dithered.

The rabble, mostly consisting of women, began to arrive, tired and hungry after a twelve-mile walk. The courtyard of the château was invaded and women poured into Mme de La Tour du Pin’s flat in one of the wings. They ate everything it was possible to find for them—many cried and said they did not know why they were there. M. de La Tour du Pin came and took his wife into the main body of the château for security. He and his father were trying to persuade the King to go to Rambouillet—the King asked everybody’s advice but came to no decision. Then Lafayette appeared with the Guard from Paris, seeming to ensure safety. They all went to bed. But in the middle of the night some traitor opened a door of the château and a bloodthirsty crowd armed with axes made its way to the Queen’s bedroom. Her guards just had time to warn her before being put out of action and she escaped by a secret passage to the King’s room. Had she not done so she would certainly have been killed. The next day the Royal Family was forced to go to Paris escorted by the mob; the King’s last words on leaving the château forever were to M. de La Tour du Pin: You are in complete charge here—try to save my poor Versailles for me.

Mme de La Tour du Pin was pregnant as she was to be practically without remission for the next sixteen years. She had already had one child born dead and one miscarriage but nothing ever daunted her. Like Frederick the Great she thought one did as one liked with the body and she subjected hers to incredible exertions. No harm came of them and she lived to be eighty-three. After the days of October things calmed down and one of those periods set in when it seems as if the French Revolution might have taken a mild and beneficent course if the King had behaved with a modicum of intelligence. The La Tour du Pins moved to Paris where the baby was born and then M. de La Tour du Pin was appointed Minister to the Hague.

In 1792 Marie Antoinette’s brother the Emperor stirred up the violent elements in Paris by threatening to invade France with the intention of rescuing the King and Queen. In effect he signed their death sentence. The La Tour du Pins came back to Paris and were there the day the King was beheaded, then they took refuge in their country house near Bordeaux. All aristocrats were soon in danger and they had to go into hiding; faithful tenants sheltered them, at the risk of their own lives, in separate houses where they lurked for months, often in the dark, never daring to meet.

M. de La Tour du Pin seems to have become quite apathetic; not so his wife. She gave birth to a daughter in her hiding hole and then, with incredible energy and resourcefulness, she managed to get passages on a ship bound for America for herself, her husband, two children, and a friend. She even loaded crates containing all her portable possessions on board. All this time heads were falling fast in Bordeaux and an intensive search for ci-devants was going on.

The La Tour du Pins arrived at Boston in May, 1794, after two months in a ship of 150 tons. They were alive but only just. The news from France was terrible—both their fathers as well as countless friends had perished on the guillotine. Now they had to consider how best to survive in a strange land. First they sold the contents of the crates—china, cloth, lace, clothes, even a piano. The money, added to what they had with them, was enough to buy a farm. They traveled to Albany through country whose virgin beauty amazed them though she foresaw that it would soon be ravaged by the settlers.

At Albany the two grandest families, the Schuylers and the Rensselaers, were most kind and gave useful advice; soon the exiles were settled on a farm which, of course, Mme de La Tour du Pin managed in an exemplary way. “In summer I was up and dressed by 3 o’clock in the morning.” We rather suspect that her husband was not. The farm prospered exceedingly. Their first visitor from France was Talleyrand. “Suddenly from behind me I heard a deep voice: Never have I seen a leg of mutton spitted with greater majesty.”

He was very fond of Mme de La Tour du Pin and did her many a good turn, but we see, as she never did, that he laughed at her up his sleeve. Needless to say he fell in with all the most important people in America and knew what was going on—he was thus able to snatch some money belonging to the La Tour du Pins from a bank the day before it failed. Mme de La Tour du Pin says of him:

He possessed greater charm than I have known in any other man. Attempts to arm oneself against his immorality, his conduct, his way of life, against all the faults attributed to him were vain. His charm always penetrated the armour and left one like a bird fascinated by a serpent’s gaze.

Mme de La Tour du Pin would have been quite happy to stay on her farm to the end of her days. But France is a powerful magnet to Frenchmen and when, in 1796, her husband heard that his property had been restored he could not wait to return. They freed their slaves—they could always be trusted to behave perfectly—and set sail. The baby daughter had died but Mme de La Tour du Pin was, as usual, pregnant. When at last they arrived at their château, they found that it had been pillaged and sacked—however the neighbors, feeling a certain shame, let them buy back their own furniture rather cheaply.

Their position under the Directory seeming less secure than they had hoped, they emigrated again, this time to England. Mme de La Tour du Pin’s description of life there is as lively and amusing as her account of America and adds greatly to the charm of the book. They went home when Napoleon was firmly in the saddle. He was always very kind to her—like Talleyrand he was fond of her and laughed at her—while she loved and admired him without reservation. It was the soldier in her, no doubt. “Seeing me he smiled that smile which all historians have tried to describe and which was truly remarkable because it contrasted so strikingly with his usual serious and even hard expression.” All the same she firmly refused for reasons of caste to be a lady in waiting to Josephine; she says she was the only person she knew who resisted the honor. She saw the return of Louis XVIII without pleasure and her story comes to an end on the eve of Waterloo.

The editing, translation, and index of the Memoirs are beyond praise. Felice Harcourt knows the period inside out; her footnotes always tell the reader exactly what he wants to know. She has also written a brilliantly clear and helpful précis of the sequence of public events. This is a book which should find its way into every gentleman’s library.

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