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The Interview With Caroline Moorehead

Eyewitness to the Terror and Napoleon

Caroline Moorehead. Caroline Moorehead. (Jerry Bauer)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2009
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Caroline Moorehead is best known for biographies of Bertrand Russell and Martha Gellhorn and, more recently, for “Human Cargo: A Journey Among the Refugees.’’ (She cofounded a UK legal advice center for African asylum seekers.) Moorehead’s latest book, “Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour Du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era’’ (Harper, $27.99), is an astute, thoroughly engaging biography of a formidable woman whose mother was lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette.

Through Lucie’s extraordinary life - which took her from Paris during the Terror to upstate New York and back to Napoleonic Europe - Moorehead illuminates the world of the ancient régime and the upheavals that swept it away. She spoke from her home in London.

Q. After “Human Cargo,’’ was this book a departure?

A. It was more of a return; this is my seventh biography. But human rights work has been part of my life for 25 years. I wrote a column on human rights for The Times [of London], The Independent, then made some films with a colleague.

Q. The French Revolution has been mined in popular culture. Was that an advantage or a disadvantage for you?

A. It’s probably an advantage because publishers are understandably reluctant to take on subjects that are unknown. The thing about Lucie de la Tour du Pin is that her name is just familiar enough from her memoirs, and, of course, she lived through the French Revolution. That made it more sellable for me.

Q. Why is she such a valuable eyewitness?

A. She was born at a time, the 1770s, that might as well have been the Middle Ages in France. Yet by the time she died, her world is one we would recognize; it had trains, telegraph. And she was always in the right place at the right time: at Waterloo for the Battle of Waterloo, in Paris for the Terror, in America for the end of slavery. A biographer could hardly find a better-placed subject.

Q. Had her miserable childhood also made her watchful?

A. Yes, I felt that it made her such a good observer. I worried initially that I wouldn’t find enough material about her childhood. Then I found all those letters of hers in a chateau in Belgium. I didn’t discover them; her descendants knew that they were there. But only a handful had been published. There were about 400, and they were wonderful.

Q. What does Lucie reveal about women of that era?

A. When I began the biography, I read a wonderful book by Benedetta Craveri, “The Art of Conversation,’’ which is about the Enlightenment, the salons, in the 17th and 16th centuries. These were very serious women. They were immensely well-educated, powerful, and extraordinarily interesting. Lucie grew directly out of that. She was a child of the Enlightenment. Her memoirs also reveal her to be so self-aware and so mocking of the excesses around her. She’s such a sensible woman without being boring.

Q. Was her time in America formative?

A. I think she would have liked to have stayed in America, where she slowly recovered from the four years of the Revolution, her escape, her father, other relatives being guillotined. She found herself on this farm, miles from anywhere; she was resourceful, and I think she was happy.

Q. Did you develop sympathy for the French aristocracy?

A. Some of them. Some, absolutely not. Many were complete fiends: willful, spoiled, indulged, corrupt. But there were many good people among them. I spent the first year of this project reading memoirs of the period. It was an incredible time for memoirs - there must be 300 by people who lived before, during, and after the Revolution - I just sat in the library day after day, trying to enter that world.

Q. Is that where many of this book’s marvelous details come from?

A. Yes, the visiting abbé who described how awful England was, the tepid vegetables, and so on. In the next book - not the one I’m working on now - I would return to history because I so love the detail. What people eat, how they travel, the world they’re looking out on, absolutely fascinates me.

Q. And the book you’re working on now?

A. It’s about 230 French women of the Resistance who were sent to Auschwitz. Three trains left France for Auschwitz carrying members of the Resistance (many, of course, transported Jewish men, women and children), and one train carried these women. Forty-nine of them survived. Six are still alive, I’ve interviewed four and I’ve also talked to their children.

Q. Are your writing and research two distinct phases?

A. I do all the research first and try terribly hard not to reach any conclusions about the people or the shape of the book. I have thousands of notes, then I settle down and read everything, and that period nearly drives me mad. After that it’s like laying an egg, it sort of happens.

Q. It has its own momentum?

A. That’s it. But I don’t want to make it sound too easy. I always want to murder writers who say that the writing is such fun. I think that the writing is like training for the Olympics.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached at ama1668@hotmail.com.

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