We reissued the Memoirs of the Marquise de la Rochejaquelein in 2010, but I have only just got around to reading the book. I had no real idea of what to expect: the work was first published in Bordeaux in 1814, and this English translation in 1827 (as part of ‘Constable’s Miscellany of Original and Selected Publications on the Various Departments of Literature, Science and the Arts’), with a foreword by Sir Walter Scott which put into wider context the revolt against the French Republic of the people of the Vendée. In fact, the memoirs make extremely grim, but compelling, reading.
Marie-Louise-Victoire de Donnissan was born at Versailles in 1772, with a metaphorical silver spoon in her mouth. Both her parents were in royal service, and Louis XVI and Madame Victoire, the daughter of Louis XV, were her godparents. In October 1791, she married a cousin, the Marquis de Lescure, and one of the three heroes of this book. It was a marriage arranged by the family, but the narrative makes clear that it was also a love match, embarked on at a time when the outlook for devoted royalists in France was not promising. Having considered and decided against emigrating, the couple were in Paris – and 21-year-old Victoire was seven months pregnant – when on 10 August 1792, a mob attacked the Tuileries palace where Louis XVI was confined, removing any pretence of continuing Bourbon rule and unleashing violence against any perceived royal supporters. Both Lescure and his cousin Henri de la Rochejaquelein (hero no. 2) were members of the ‘knights of the dagger’, the bodyguard of the king, and both decided to leave Paris for their country estates in the Vendée. They survived a nerve-wracking journey during which they escaped capture only through the aid of Lescure’s former tutor, who had some influence with the republican regime, and was able to procure the passports and paperwork they needed.
It’s impossible to summarise the story of exultation, suffering and tragedy which follows. Whether the revolt of the Vendée was doomed from the start, because of the innate limitations of the staggeringly brave but ill-equipped and hopelessly untrained Vendéen peasants; whether it would have succeeded if Britain had actually come up with the naval and military assistance she kept proferring; whether the in-fighting among the rebel commanders made much difference – all this apparently still exercises French historians today. Quite recently, a controversial claim was made that the deliberate slaughter of civilians by the ‘Infernal Columns’ of the Republic, who were intent on wiping out all resistance – and who used mass shootings, bayonetings, burnings, and (at Nantes) drownings – amounted to genocide.
The Marquise’s account, written for her children, is personal, and could not be dispassionate. The death of her first child, the fatal wounding of her husband, who took three weeks to die after receiving a bullet in the head, the execution of her father and her eighty-year-old aunt, the deaths one after another of twin daughters born when she was in flight after her husband’s death, the murder of the courageous and generous Henri de la Rochejaquelein by two enemy soldiers whose life he had spared, are all described in a remorseless sequence, along with the thousands of deaths of anonymous men, women and children, many of whom were caught up in events of which they had no understanding at all.
And there isn’t even an optimistic ending. Victoire, after much hesitation, applies for and is granted an amnesty from the government. She marries Louis (hero no. 3), brother of Henri de la Rochejaquelein (the eldest of their five children is named Henri). They live quietly in the countryside, resisting (at great peril) attempts to lure or coerce Louis into the war machine of Napoleon, hoping and believing that the failure of the Russian expedition will cause the emperor’s fall. Louis is drawn into a conspiracy to urge the citizens of Bordeaux to rise against the government, and to this end sails to Spain to confer with ‘Lord Wellington’, but when all is in hand for the uprising, the Allies force Napoleon to abdicate. Hurray, you think, no more fighting. At Calais, the newly restored King Louis XVIII says: ‘”It is to him I owe the movement of my good city of Bordeaux.” He held out his hand to M. de la Rochejaquelein, who threw himself at his feet.’
The book ends there, except for a footnote which informs us that Louis was killed at the head of a force of Vendéens in a skirmish during the Hundred Days – a fortnight before Waterloo. Victoire lived until 1857, becoming blind in her old age. It is not clear whether her ardour in the royalist cause for which so many of those closest to her had died was dampened by life under the supremely unattractive restored Bourbon monarchs, or what she thought of the subsequent swings to ‘elected’ monarchy, to (brief) republic and back to empire again. But her searing account of her early life should be more widely known, simply as a reminder of the disasters of war.