Amid all these pleasures”,wrote Lucie de la Tour du Pin in her memoirs,”we were laughing and dancing our way to the precipice.” Hence the title of Caroline Moorehead’s excellent new book. The pleasures were the extraordinary extravagance of the French aristocracy during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The fall from the precipice meant the storming of the Bastille in 1789,followed by the revolutionary “Terror” of Robespierre and then by the Napoleonic wars that consumed Europe for almost two decades.
Much the same territory is covered by Flora Fraser in her biography of Napoleon’s young sister,Pauline. Yet the two women were hardly alike. Born Lucie-Henriette Dillon in Paris’s fashionable rue du Bac and descendant of French and Anglo-Irish aristocrats,Lucie was a woman of intellect,culture and learning. Unusually,in an age of arranged marriages and extramarital affairs,she had a faithful 50 years of marriage to Frédéric-Séraphin,Marquis de la Tour du Pin Gouvernet. By contrast,Pauline,her Corsican childhood spent in the relatively modest Bonaparte household in Ajaccio,was a spoilt,sexually promiscuous airhead. Her redeeming feature,apart from a beauty acknowledged by all,was a certain courage: she insisted on accompanying her first husband,General Victor Emmanuel Leclerc,on a hazardous posting in Saint-Domingue (later to become Haiti). She alone of all Napoleon’s siblings was willing to join his exile on Elba-and begged,to no avail,to be with him in his final days on remote Saint Helena.
Pauline’s life of scandal and intrigue makes for a page-turning read: the catalogue of lovers first cherished and then spurned; the jealous dislike of Napoleon’s wife,Josephine; the rumours of lesbian affairs and of incest with the brother who dominated Europe; the suspicions of venereal disease; and,with a near-nudity designed to titillate,Canova’s life-size statue of a reclining Pauline as Venus on display in Rome’s Villa Borghese (Pauline’s second husband was Prince Camillo Borghese).
But the story of Lucie is the more satisfying. In part this is because of her intelligent observations on everything from the nature of America and England-both temporary refuges for Lucie and her husband during the persecution of the aristocracy-to the niceties of the Parisian salon. She was a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette and,at Napoleon’s bidding,attended the Empress Josephine (she bore herself like a queen,though not outstandingly intelligent). Lucie knew everyone who mattered,from the cynical and cunning Talleyrand to the egotistical Chateaubriand.
Yet the greater joy of this book is Ms Moorehead’s skill in building on Lucie’s observations. She covers the interplay of the European powers and the roller-coaster complexity of France from Louis XVI to Napoleon III with deceptive ease. Her description of the revolution and then the Terror shocks the reader; her summary of the human damage wrought by Napoleon’s thirst for conquest is brilliantly succinct: It would later be said that half of all French boys born between 1790 and 1795 had either been killed or wounded in Napoleon’s wars. Meanwhile,she uses the misfortunes of Lucie’s life to cast a wider light on an age where disease and death were all too commonplace. From Lucie’s multiple pregnancies and miscarriages,only one of her six children outlived her.
In comparison,Ms Fraser’s book is a lesser,though still entertaining,work. What is common to both is the presence of Napoleon Bonaparte,viewed for once in English literature through a French lens. Both authors reveal Napoleon’s strength as an administrator,restoring France to order after the chaos of the revolution and the Terror. In the end,of course,Napoleon’s ambition led to the final defeat at Waterloo in 1815,and doubtless Pauline’s excesses help explain her death in 1825 at the age of 44. Fittingly,the virtuous Lucie survived them both,dying in Pisa in 1853 at the age of 83.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009