Outbursts of memoir-writing by women followed both the English Civil Wars and the years 1789 to 1830 in France, the period encompassing the Revolution, Napoleon, the Restoration and the July Revolution. It is hardly surprising since both these were periods of profound upheaval, when events left a deep impress on people’s minds as well as a desire to explain and justify them, and their own behaviour at the time, to future generations. Mrs Lucy Hutchinson, Ann, Lady Fanshawe, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle and Anne, Lady Halkett were followed 150 years later by Mesdames de Boigne, de La Tour du Pin and de Remusat. The reissue of Madame de Boigne’s book in translation drew me back to reread the last three.
Adèle de Boigne was the youngest of this trio, born in 1781. Her father, the Marquis d’Osmond, an officer in Louis XVI’s army and then a diplomat, was from an old and distinguished aristocratic family. Her mother, one of the thirteen children of Robert Dillon, an Irish Roman Catholic man of business settled in Bordeaux, was lady-in-waiting to Madame Adelaide, one of Louis XV’s daughters. Her memoirs pass swiftly over the first decade of her life and she recalls only isolated incidents: asking Louis XVI for two drops from a chandelier when she knew her ears were going to be pierced; her tears freezing on her face as she and her family, now exiled by the French Revolution, crossed the Alps on mules to save money.
After two years in England, their finances in desperate straits, Adèle took matters in hand by marrying a self-made Savoyard soldier of fortune, General Benoit Leborgne (later the Comte de Boigne), in London in 1798. She was 16 and he was 49, and she told him to his face that she did not care for him in the least. He had amassed great wealth in the service of the Mahratta princes in India – soon to be subdued by Sir Arthur Wellesley.
Madame de Boigne’s father, an enlightened man with time on his hands, had overseen her studies,
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Outbursts of memoir-writing by women followed both the English Civil Wars and the years 1789 to 1830 in France, the period encompassing the Revolution, Napoleon, the Restoration and the July Revolution. It is hardly surprising since both these were periods of profound upheaval, when events left a deep impress on people’s minds as well as a desire to explain and justify them, and their own behaviour at the time, to future generations. Mrs Lucy Hutchinson, Ann, Lady Fanshawe, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle and Anne, Lady Halkett were followed 150 years later by Mesdames de Boigne, de La Tour du Pin and de Remusat. The reissue of Madame de Boigne’s book in translation drew me back to reread the last three.Adèle de Boigne was the youngest of this trio, born in 1781. Her father, the Marquis d’Osmond, an officer in Louis XVI’s army and then a diplomat, was from an old and distinguished aristocratic family. Her mother, one of the thirteen children of Robert Dillon, an Irish Roman Catholic man of business settled in Bordeaux, was lady-in-waiting to Madame Adelaide, one of Louis XV’s daughters. Her memoirs pass swiftly over the first decade of her life and she recalls only isolated incidents: asking Louis XVI for two drops from a chandelier when she knew her ears were going to be pierced; her tears freezing on her face as she and her family, now exiled by the French Revolution, crossed the Alps on mules to save money. After two years in England, their finances in desperate straits, Adèle took matters in hand by marrying a self-made Savoyard soldier of fortune, General Benoit Leborgne (later the Comte de Boigne), in London in 1798. She was 16 and he was 49, and she told him to his face that she did not care for him in the least. He had amassed great wealth in the service of the Mahratta princes in India – soon to be subdued by Sir Arthur Wellesley. Madame de Boigne’s father, an enlightened man with time on his hands, had overseen her studies, ‘and my English education also turned me instinctively in the direction which has since been called liberal’. She qualifies this, however, by saying she could ‘only conceive of liberty, apart from licence, as based upon a strong aristocracy’. She admitted that she felt the attraction of Napoleon, but she detested his tyranny when she saw it in operation in the years following her return to France from exile in 1804. Yet she had the gravest reservations about the Bourbon princes: the Comte d’Artois (later Charles X) and his sons and, to a lesser extent, the Comte de Provence (later Louis XVIII), surrounded as they were by ultra-reactionary royalist emigres. In the well-worn phrase, they had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, and failed to see, as she clearly did, that the ancient régime was gone for ever. Madame de Boigne and her family were financially independent thanks to her by-now-estranged husband’s riches. They bided their time until Louis XVIII was restored in 1814, when her father took up his diplomatic career once more, first as ambassador in Turin and then in London. Madame de Boigne went with him, remarking on the silence of the London crowds, on ‘the yellow cloud which seems like a vast extinguisher placed over the city’, and on the immense routs when carriages were regularly smashed in the crush to deposit guests. After a few years her father became disenchanted with the increasingly reactionary direction in which France was heading and so retired, which enabled Madame de Boigne to return to Paris and set up a salon, one of the most select and distinguished among those that adorned the capital during the Restoration: ‘My invitations were verbal and were supposed to be given by chance. I was, however, careful to see that chance should bring my way those persons whom I wished to have meet one another.’ Her salon provided her with a grandstand from which to view the obtuse blunderings of the older branch of the Bourbons during their last decade of power, and the positioning of the younger Orleans branch so that they could seize their opportunity when it came. Through her we experience the assassination of Artois’s son at the Opera in 1820; the announcement of Napoleon’s death on St Helena, producing ‘no more effect in the street than the advertisement for a lost dog’; the Duchesse de Montmorency’s vow of chastity and how it ended; the Queen of Sweden’s infatuation with the king’s first minister; and the diseased imagination of Tsar Alexander of Russia, who thought everyone was laughing at him. Once the ‘mulishly obstinate’ Charles X came to the throne in 1824, in his late sixties, it was not long before attention was focused on his son. ‘Alas not the glimmer of the sound sense on which France had set her hopes for many years was to be found in him . . . It was this circumstance which . . . exasperated all minds and drove both parties to excesses.’ In July 1830, when Paris finally took to the streets, Madame de Boigne knew something was up when ‘none of the workmen employed at my house had come back since dinner time’. The fatuity of the Ultras surrounding the king contrasted with the high level of organization among the insurgents, led by the students of the Polytechnique. Madame de Boigne claimed to be nothing more than ‘a fly on the coach wheel’ but in fact took an active part, particularly since her lover Etienne-Denis Pasquier was a major political figure. Anxious to ensure that the Duc d’Orleans became Louis-Philippe, King of the French, she carried messages and arranged meetings, as well as attempting to get the histrionic and self-regarding Chateaubriand on board. Madame de Boigne’s memoirs end with this, for her, supremely successful outcome. She was on terms of the greatest intimacy with the new royal family, and soon they would make her commoner lover both Chancellor of France and a duke. For someone whose outlook, though sharply intelligent, penetrating and clear-sighted, remained thoroughly aristocratic, this was all highly gratifying. Denied by the first Revolution that position at the centre of things that would otherwise have been her birthright, she had got there in the end, however circuitous the route.
*The de haut en bas tone of Madame de Boigne is the true voice of Versailles and the ancien régime, and its somewhat disdainful superiority is to be treasured by anyone trying to understand it today. It is a tone that can also be detected, though not nearly so insistently, in the memoirs of the Marquise de La Tour du Pin. She was born Henrietta-Lucy Dillon in 1770, the daughter of Arthur Dillon, commander of the Dillon Regiment in the French army, and brother of the 12th Viscount Dillon. Her mother was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Antoinette. The Dillons were Irish in origin and had raised a regiment for James II in 1688, which then formed part of the Irish Brigade, in the service of France until 1794 when its remains passed into the pay of Britain. Apparently there was little love lost between Mesdames de Boigne and de La Tour, and one suspects that at the bottom of this there lay the latter’s denial of there being any blood relationship between her father’s family and Madame de Boigne’s relations, the Dillons of Bordeaux. In spite of this Madame de La Tour’s great-uncle, another Arthur Dillon who was the Archbishop of Narbonne, did much to further the careers of the Bordeaux Dillons. But that in itself was a second reason for her hostility, since the Archbishop had in effect defrauded her of a large part of her inheritance. A further cause of friction may have been that Madame de La Tour’s husband succeeded Madame de Boigne’s father as Minister to The Hague, but unlike him he actually took up residence there in 1791, undeterred by the civil unrest in Holland. Then Madame de Boigne had married a parvenu. Lastly, Madame de La Tour lost both her father and her father-in-law to the guillotine in 1794, and came close to losing her own head too, while Madame de Boigne’s family had already been safe abroad for some years. A sneaking suspicion arises that Madame de Boigne played the aristocratic card as often as she did because she felt undermined by her mother’s ancestry and her husband’s origins. Madame de La Tour’s memoirs end in 1815 and the most interesting passages deal with her life during the years of the Revolution, during her exile in America from 1794 to 1796, and from 1808 to 1815 when her husband was one of Napoleon’s Prefects in Brussels, then Amiens. Her mother died young, while her father was away fighting the British in the American War of Independence or governing French colonies like St Kitts. She was brought up by a domineering and ruthless grandmother and was always under threat of being dispatched to a nunnery if she crossed her. She gives us arresting vignettes of the ancien régime. Dancing, for example, was unpopular when she was very young because of the constrictions of the fashions of the time:
narrow heels, three inches high . . . a pannier of stiff, heavy whalebone spreading out on either side, hair dressed at least a foot high, sprinkled with a pound of powder and pomade which the slightest movement shook down on the shoulders, and crowned by a bonnet known as a pouf on which feathers, flowers and diamonds were piled pell-mell.Looking back she has only contempt for the childishness of her life at court, ‘laughing and dancing our way to the precipice’. She remembers the uncouthness of the short-sighted Louis XVI, ‘like some peasant shambling along behind his plough’, while Marie Antoinette had ‘great courage but little intelligence, absolutely no tact and worst of all, a mistrust of those most willing to serve her’. She recalls the almost convulsive way the queen used her fan at the opening of the States General, the event which signalled the beginning of the Revolution. She and her husband were in the thick of the terrifying episode at Versailles in October 1789 when the mob arrived to take the king and queen back to Paris. As the situation became increasingly threatening in Paris after the execution of the king in January 1793, she and her husband left for their chateau near Bordeaux, but they were soon forced into hiding when the Terror spread there. Her description of those days recalls nothing so much as the lives lived by the Resistance during the Nazi occupation – with hideouts, safe houses, couriers, rationing and forged papers. In one house in Bordeaux where she took refuge she could hear the roll of drums every time the guillotine fell in the Place Dauphine. With the help of steadfast friends they managed to escape on an American ship in 1794. There followed something of a rustic idyll, farming 250 acres in Albany, up the Hudson River, growing maize, making cider and butter with the help of their slaves, observed by the local Shakers and Red Indians. One day Talleyrand, that figure of quintessential sophistication, but then also in exile, arrived to find her, chopper in hand, preparing a leg of mutton for the oven. The de La Tours returned to France in 1796 to reclaim their chateau within the time limit set by the government. They went with great reluctance, since ‘France had left me only memories of horror’. The following year they fled yet again after the suppression of a royalist conspiracy put the lives of aristocrats at risk once more. England was their refuge, where they stayed with relations in East Anglia and then in a tiny house in Richmond, at one point down to their last £5. Once Napoleon’s seizure of power had finally settled France, they came back to the chateau and scratched a living for the next eight years by distilling grapes from the surrounding vineyards into brandy. Their fortunes turned when Napoleon and his wife Josephine came through Bordeaux on their way to Spain in 1808. Madame de La Tour’s stepmother was a first cousin of the Empress and this was enough to secure a summons to wait on the imperial party. Almost immediately the Marquis found himself appointed Prefect of Brussels with the brief of winning over the local aristocracy, something which he and his wife were almost too successful in achieving. In 1813 Napoleon removed him from his post after malicious reports that people went to their house in Brussels as if to a court. His wife’s immediate reaction was to go to see Napoleon at Versailles. At the end of an hour’s audience, ‘He spoke these amazing words, “I was wrong. But what can be done about it?” It was perhaps the only time in his life that he made such an admission . . . “There is Amiens. Would that suit you?” “Perfectly, Sir,” I replied without hesitation.’ They were not to be at Amiens for long because Napoleon’s star was fast waning. When she was visiting Paris in 1814 Talleyrand came to see her:
Attempts to arm oneself against his immorality, his conduct, his way of life, against all the faults attributed to him were in vain. His charm always penetrated the armour and left one like a bird fascinated by a serpent’s gaze . . . Taking a candle from the table, he began to study the engravings hanging in fine frames around the walls of the room: ‘Ah, Charles II, James II, just so’ . . . ‘Heavens,’ I cried, ‘what is all this talk of Charles II and James II? You have seen the Emperor. How is he? What is he doing? What does he say after a defeat?’ ‘Oh, don’t talk to me about your Emperor. He’s finished . . . And now, away with you . . . Give Gouvernet [her husband] my good wishes. I am sending him this news for lunch. You will arrive in time.’Although the Marquis de La Tour had grave reservations about whether the Bourbons had learnt their lesson, he went on to serve them as Minister at The Hague again, then as Ambassador in Turin. After July 1830 he and his family even continued to support the claim of Charles X’s grandson, the Duc de Bordeaux, and this meant they ended their days in exile from France yet again.
*Madame de Remusat came from a legal family, and her husband too was a lawyer. This in no way prevented them from suffering during the Revolution: he lost his job as a magistrate while she lost her father and grandfather to the guillotine. This was not the only thing she had in common with Madame de La Tour. It was thanks to a connection with Napoleon’s wife Josephine (a friend of Madame de Remusat’s mother) that this ‘little person, ordinary looking, cold and reserved, in nowise remarkable, devoted to the duties of a pure and virtuous life’, as she described herself, became one of her ladies-in-waiting in 1802, while her husband became Prefect of the Palace and later Chamberlain to the Emperor. Her aim in writing her memoirs was to describe ‘how she at first loved and admired, next condemned and dreaded, afterwards suspected and hated, and finally renounced’ the Emperor. In fact her book ends in 1808, some time before she took that final step. She mounts a devastating indictment. Looking back, she admits that, in 1802, ‘to rely on the hopes that Napoleon inspired was, no doubt, to deceive ourselves, but we did so in common with almost all France’. While still First Consul, Napoleon introduced regal elements into his everyday life, much in the manner of President Putin in recent times. But the event which first made her ‘blush in secret at the chains I wore’ was Napoleon’s kidnapping and killing of the Duc d’Enghien, a royal prince, in 1804. On the night before Enghien was shot she heard Napoleon say, ‘Bloodletting is one of the remedies of political medicine. I stand for the state, I am the French Revolution.’ Once he had declared himself Emperor later that year, but had refused to give a constitution to the French, whom ‘he regarded as fickle children ready to be amused by a new plaything’, he had to ‘conciliate and fascinate them by every possible means’. The ‘fatal lure of military glory’ was one of these and ‘a fever of etiquette’ at Court, that ‘living puppet show set up to surround the Emperor with what seemed to him necessary state’, another. She felt Napoleon spread disquiet and distrust on purpose. ‘Where he could not perceive vice, he sought for weakness or, in default of this, he carefully inspired fear, so that he might always be the stronger.’ She accused him of a ‘supreme and universal contempt for human nature’, and, more specifically, of a dislike of all his Marshals. ‘Who has not heard him say that he preferred men of second-rate abilities?’ At Court, ‘In every ceremonial he was too precipitate . . . and neither knew how to put people at their ease nor cared to do so, for he avoided the slightest appearance of familiarity.’ This broad characterization of the man is supported by details that fill out the picture:
He regularly ruined his footwear by poking the logs in the fire with them; he taught himself to shave for fear of having his throat cut; he refused to repeat himself when dictating, which he always did at great speed; he was abstemious except for coffee; he took great care of his hands and nails, and got through sixty bottles of eau de Cologne a month.As well as giving one of the most perceptive portraits of Napoleon, Madame de Remusat’s memoirs are a mine of information on the rest of the Bonaparte family, on the Empress and her increasingly troubled relations with her husband, and on her own unlikely friendship with Talleyrand. The acuteness of her analysis of him – as a man disgusted with his own cold-heartedness who ‘has long been blase on every point, and seeks for excitement as a fastidious palate seeks for pungent food’ – tells us exactly why he enjoyed her company. The moderate line he advocated fell on deaf imperial ears, but it chimed with her own feeling that Napoleon was constantly ‘diminishing his attention to the welfare of France’, which he saw as ‘only one large province of that empire he was striving to bring under his rule’. It is a regret that Britain did not produce similar memoirs by women from these years, but also a reflection of the fact that her period of real upheaval was behind her. From it had emerged constitutional arrangements strong enough to withstand the assaults of Napoleon and to absorb the demands for reform which followed in 1830, a year in which, as Macaulay pointed out, she was able to ‘afford an ignominious shelter to the exiled heir of forty kings’ – Charles X.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 5 © Roger Hudson 2005
About the contributor
Roger Hudson has worked in publishing all his life and latterly has compiled a number of books for the Folio Society including The Grand Quarrel, selections from the Civil War memoirs mentioned in paragraph one. The last English edition of the Memoirs of Madame de La Tour du Pin was published by Harvill in 1999. The Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat are harder to find: the last time they appear to have been reissued is 1895.