Monday, 21 February 2011

The Marquise de la Tour du Pin Gouvernet

I’ve just re-read the memoirs of one of my favourite people from history, the Marquise de la Tour du Pin Gouvernet. Her first name was Lucy, but I always think of this redoubtable woman by her grand French surname.

Of Irish descent, she married into the French aristocracy and took her place at the extravagant, doomed court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Fleeing the guillotine, she and her husband started over again as farmers in North America. There, she learned how to chop wood and draw water from the well, as well as doing her own cooking and washing. She met French emigrés, Dutch colonialists, Quakers and native Americans.

Dictated shortly before her death aged 83, her memoirs cover everything from political intrigue to domestic detail. Nothing was too trivial to record and I find her diary a treasure trove.

She was a flawed character. Buying her first slave in America, she describes with no compassion that his personal possessions would “fit inside a hat”. When the upstart dictator Napoleon looked round for a few aristocrats to give his new court legitimacy, she and her husband hastened back to France to resume a life of privilege.

Yet she had a talent for survival. Whatever life threw at her, she hitched up her skirts and got on with it – including her own multiple pregnancies. Whether bartering homemade butter for winter necessities, or assisting at a roadside birth, she was ever resourceful. I might not have liked her, but I would like to have known her.

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