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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