Some biographers circle the same historical period again and again, vulture-like, picking over the bones. Such is Richard Holmes, who has written – and continues to write – so brilliantly on the era of Romanticism, with his exquisite studies of Shelley, Coleridge and, most recently, his exploration of the relationship between the writers of that period and scientific discoveries.
Caroline Moorhead is quite a different kind of biographer. She moves around, ever restlessly eclectic in her tastes and interests. Her subjects have included a study of refugees, a biography of the celebrated journalist Martha Gellhorn, an account of the life of the great short story writer Freya Stark (together with an edition of her letters), and a life of one the twentieth century’s most eminent philosophers and most glittering sexual predators, Bertrand Russell. All those subjects helped to define the cultural and intellectual life of the 20th century, and to bless us with the children that we probably deserved.
Now she has stepped back almost two hundred and fifty years, to illuminate a period in the history of France which has been trampled over again and again by many great writers, like the ghosts of Napoleon’s great armies, from those who were alive at the time, to those who came after. It is the period between 1770, when the promise of revolutionary ferment was already in the air, and, eighty years on, the beginnings of the Second Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century. Those who witnessed it, helped to bring it about, or reflected upon it with great or lesser degrees of wisdom have included some of the celebrated writers of the last two hundred and fifty years: Goethe, Michelet, Voltaire, Carlyle, Chateaubriand, Rousseau... The list just goes on and on.
What new element can Moorhead herself bring to this oft told story? Moorhead re-tells the history of the period from the perspective of a an aristocratic woman called Lucie de la Tour du Pin. Lucie was born in 1770 and died in 1853, and so the span of her life exactly coincides with this period of extraordinary ferment, when France itself passed from absolutism to bloody anarchy, from empire to republic to constitutional monarchy, and then back to empire again. For a person of aristocratic birth to succeed in remaining alive throughout these decades required the canniness, the fortitude, and all the good fortune required to remain standing upright on Medusa’s Raft in the North Sea during a Force Nine gale. Lucie was such a woman, and this is her story.
Now the story of Lucie de La Tour du Pin is not a new one by any means - the celebrated volumes of memoirs which she began to write at the age of fifty have seldom been out of print since her death, but her name in the English speaking world is must less well known.
She was born in Paris, in the Rue du Bac, the pretty, precocious, only child of a well born soldier. She spoke good English. She possessed intellectual curiosity in abundance, and qualities of strength and fortitude upon which she would need to draw throughout her long and often fortune-blighted life. She witnessed the great turbulence of those years and suffered accordingly. She knew Marie-Antoinette and Napoleon at first hand. She was, in short, at the beating heart of things, an eye witness to half a century of unceasing political change .
Moorhead manages, in her book, to do two things at once, very expertly. She offers us an intimate account of Lucie’s thoughts and feelings as a player on this great stage, and she is also able to step back and set the general scene for us, from broad-brush accounts of civil turmoil, to descriptions of the course of battles, and to give us a general feel for the current of ideas within which all these things were happening, pell mell, and at such frightening speed. Occasionally she fails. When she writes ‘Consular Paris smelt delicious’, the brush stroke feels too hasty, too brisk, too superficial. Generally speaking though, her ability to summarise complicated arguments swiftly and cogently or to describe ever shifting scenes with clarity and forcefulness is expertly done.
And through it all moves this lonely, proud, confident woman. And we feel moved by her in our turn, saddened by her loveless childhood, and somewhat buoyed and cheered by the fact that she enjoyed a happy and long lasting marriage to a stubborn man of great integrity whose dearest and most profound wish was that France would settle, in the end, for a constitutional monarchy of some kind.
Alas, it was a wish never to be realised.