Dancing to the Precipice – How One Woman Witnessed History

Tired of fictionalized stories of famous historical characters – when sometimes it’s hard to remember that the clever dialogue is from the author’s imagination – not a tape recorder under the bed? Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era offers a real story, as engaging as a novel, but with 22 pages of bibliography and source notes.

Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin whisks you into the life of a strong, smart, clever and enduring woman who once served, like her mother, as lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. As difficult as life was for even an aristocratic woman living through the 18th and early 19th centuries, Lucie developed her political astuteness in the company of Thomas Jefferson, Talleyrand, and Napoleon, among other notables, as she survived Revolutions.

If you like to learn history while enjoying a good story, Moorehead offers drama and intrigue – the description of the fishwives storming Versailles could rival the barricade scene in Les Miserables, and her chapter “Heads Falling Like Tiles” gives a somber reckoning of the guillotine. She also offers curious tidbits of information, e.g.,the French created the first Encyclopedia; Marie Antoinette’s wigs were stuffed with horsehair – along with commentary about the French as they evolved from aristocracy to democracy, without losing the essence of what it means to be French.

“…they sincerely believed that France itself was more cultured, more intellectually interesting, more attuned to manners and taste than any other country in the world.”

Madame’s life is dramatic in itself – her mother dies when she is young and she is left to endure her manipulative, cruel grandmother; her children die; she narrowly escapes to America and her French château is replaced with exile to a farm in New York, then the English countryside. She follows her husband from post to post – even to prison – as the political winds drive his diplomatic career and loyalties.

“It is sometimes as if the lives of Frederic (her husband) and Lucie were marked with particular tragedy; they accept, they endure, they recover, only to be struck down again. They do not complain.”

Using Lucie’s journal and letters first published in 1907, Moorehead gives an insider’s view, yet  – unlike Madame’s autobiography (translation reviewed in 1971)   http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,942485,00.html  –

Moorehead fills in the historical facts for you with well-researched plums as she tells Lucie’s life story.

Beware, if you are not interested in the details of French salons, political intrigue and treachery, you might find this story more than you want to know. Over 20 pages of pictures and illustrations as well 6 pages of summary details on the “characters in the book” are good references and worth looking at even if you don’t read the whole book.

But, then you would be missing an opportunity to learn history without listening to a boring lecture, and you would fail to meet one of the best examples of a woman who knew how to survive and how to get what she wanted. A woman who had

” the genuine ability to make the most of wherever she found herself, and a refusal to spend time regretting or anticipating.”