December 2003

Mark Coffey

nonfiction

Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne

Thirteen years ago the eminent historian Simon Schama published Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and introduced a world of new readers (including myself) to the glorious story of Revolutionary France. Schama produced a masterwork, a narrative that truly deserved the all-too-often-granted appelation of 'page-turner'. Now Helen Marx Press has brought to market a memoir of those times by one who lived them, and the results are decidedly mixed.

I have seldom read a book that has left me this ambivalent. To commend this book is easy the Comtesse was well-placed as an observer, and she has a way with portraiture and no small sense of irony. Born Adele d'Osmond in 1871, daughter of a diplomat, lady-in-waiting to royalty, married to a General, she knew (or knew of) all the major players in this historical epoch. Indeed, the book is preceded by a 19-page 'cast of characters' that is painfully necessary.

Here it is that we run into a problem. Whereas Schama took care to draw out his story for the general reader, the Comtesse, who after all, was writing her memoirs and not a general history, frequently assumes some degree of familiarity with places and people that can leave one with the uncomfortable feeling of indigestion. People come and go, the locale changes frequently, but the overarching perspective that would add in comprehension is too often missing. I found myself consulting the afore-mentioned cast of characters for too frequently for my tastes.

The other major obstacle encounted was that of distance. Perhaps I am unfair to this book because I am seperated from it by several degrees: first, by sex; then by station; next by nationality; and finally by time. It is somewhat difficult for a 21st century American to relate to an 18th century French aristocrat. But while maybe I can't relate, I can still learn, and that is at the heart of my disappointment. My feelings upon finishing this book were similar to those felt by the rapid consumption of a tell-all about Hollywood I might have some understanding of a particular celebrity and his motivations, but I can't really say it was time well spent. Dispite her obvious intelligence and charm, all too often the Comtesse seems a bit of a gossip.

It is not as if the book lacks merit; the student and historian of Revolutionary France would welcome this with open arms, I would guess. After all, it is an intimate eye-witness account from someone in a position to know. It is questionable how much utility will be provided to those not well-versed in the time and place. My recommendation: read Schama, if you haven't already, and go with the big picture.

Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne comes in two volumes: the first covers the years 1781- 1815, the second 1816-1830. This edition is an abridgement of a three-volume version originally published in 1907.

Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne, edited by Anka Muhlstein
Helen Marx Books
ISBN 188558663-
486 pages