Forged in Revolution: Adrienne Lafayette
“There are places in this world where the past still echoes in the stones.”
So begins The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray, a fascinating historical novel about three women and one storied place. In it Dray weaves together the lives of Adrienne de Noailles Lafayette, wife of General Lafayette, the French noble who fought at George Washington’s side in America’s War of Independence; Beatrice Chanler, an American socialite from the Gilded Age; and a fictional character, Marthe Simone, an orphan who grows up at Chateau Lafayette. The way Dray uses history to drive her story’s plot, even Marthe, who lives in occupied France during World War II, seems real.
A fourth “character” is the Chateau Lafayette itself. The Château de Chavaniac, a “fortress of liberty,” is the ancestral home of Gilbert du Motier, more familiar to us as the Marquis de Lafayette, or in America, General Lafayette. During the French Revolution, the chateau was a sanctuary for the Lafayette family. By the time the twentieth century rolled around, it became a safe haven for children orphaned by the destruction of both world wars.
Though The Women of Chateau Lafayette spans three brutal conflicts in French history, the book is not about war but about how miles, and sometimes continents away, lives are forever and profoundly impacted. It’s about how women have a choice in how they respond when the people and places and the things they love are under threat, how rage causes them to act when they fight for ideals that burn in their hearts.
The Women of Chateau Lafayette is fast-paced, tension filled, and features bits of well-placed humor that bring levity to dark times. It is also beautifully written. Hats off to Mademoiselle Dray, who has spun a tale that stays true to the historical record. If you’ve read any of my previous posts you know this can be a deal breaker for me whether I finish a book or add it to my DNF pile.
While my favorite woman in The Women of Chateau Lafayette was Beatrice Chanler for her pluck and colorful personality, from a historical perspective, the woman I found particularly fascinating was Adrienne Lafayette.
The Real Adrienne Lafayette
Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles grew up pretty, pampered, and privileged. At fourteen, this noblewoman married Marie Joseph Yves Rock Gilbert du Motier—the Marquis de Lafayettein 1774. Theirs was an arranged marriage. Lafayette, only sixteen at the time, was an orphan and heir to a massive fortune. The de Noailles family, who lived at court in Paris, considered him a country bumpkin. Lafayette had grown up at the chateau in Chavaniac in Auvergne, away from the world’s highest echelon of style, away from society, away from the political maneuvering common in those days, and it showed. He was rough around the edges, spoke his mind, and disregarded the pomp and circumstance nobles swarmed to partake in.
Adrienne quickly fell in love with the liberal-minded marquis, making theirs a happy union from the start. Lafayette, a student of the Enlightenment, captivated Adrienne with his visions of equality and his constant talk of freedom and liberty and justice. Early on, they devoted themselves to ending slavery and bought two plantations in South America for the express purpose of freeing the slaves.
Rumblings of revolution in the American colonies, however, lured the marquis into wanting to be part of history in making a truly democratic nation, and against the wishes of the French king and Adrienne’s family, he left Adrienne and their first infant daughter, Henriette, and secretly sailed to America in 1777, where he positioned himself with none other than George Washington.
While the marquis was away fighting, Adrienne did not sit idly by. She ran their enterprise. With Lafayette one of the richest men in France, managing their affairs was no small endeavor, yet Adrienne did so with aplomb, making her a true and equal partner in their marriage. Smart as well as sophisticated, she assumed the role with grace and effectiveness. When you need something done, ask a busy woman. After demonstrating her skills, her family called on her to manage its affairs in Auvergne, Brittany, Berry, Touraine, Paris, Guyana, and America, making Adrienne one of the world’s first international businesswomen.
Meanwhile, years pass. Lafayette becomes a hero in the United States and is granted the rank of General. (Just think of all the schools and streets and libraries in America named after Lafayette.) After America wins its bid for independence, General Lafayette returns to France for good. While he was away, however, tiny Henriette dies. The couple eventually have three more children and name their first and only son George Washington Lafayette. They name their second daughter Marie Antoinette Virginie after the French queen, of course, and Virginia in America.
But the marquis has yet to prove himself on French soil and is eager to bring democracy to Europe’s shores. When the French Revolution breaks out in 1789, he quickly elevates to positions of influence. Most notably, he helps write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with Thomas Jefferson’s assistance. (Jefferson was serving as America’s ambassador at the time.) These early efforts earn him a new moniker: The Hero of the Two Worlds.
But leadership has its pitfalls. Lafayette is appointed commander-in-chief of the National Guard, France’s police authority, a no-win position when mob forces threaten Paris. Committed to finding middle ground between the moderate and the radical Jacobins, the marquis remains faithful to the king while trying to bring about a constitutional monarchy. As the military commander of troops in Paris, Lafayette makes several grave errors, among them declaring martial law and ordering people shot. In the end, his decision to align himself with the moderates instead of radical revolutionaries proves his downfall. In 1792, he is forced to flee to Austria to avoid arrest. Austrian troops capture and imprison him.
Alone again, Adrienne is left caring for the couple’s children, this time in the crucible of war on French soil. Members of the nobility are now the enemy in France. The daughter of a well-known noble and the wife of a wealthy marquis who is considered a traitor, her life and that of her family is in danger. Radicals in Paris seize control of the Revolution’s agenda, and things take a marked turn for the worse. The Reign of Terror begins. Adrienne is put under house arrest but, after pleading with the authorities, she is allowed to move to Chavaniac. Shortly thereafter, at significant risk to herself and her family, she sneaks her son out of the country by sending him to America with his tutor.
No longer able to avoid the radicals’ wrath, Adrienne is imprisoned for more than two years. Arranging for her release were none other than James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth, who are in France. Monroe knew the marquis from when the marquis fought in America’s War of Independence. It pays to have friends in high places.
When Adrienne is released she travels with her daughters to Austria, where she demands an audience with the emperor to ask for her husband’s release. The emperor denies her request, so she demands to join her husband in prison. Some love, huh? The emperor grants her demand, and Adrienne and her daughters move into jail.
The family is reunited and spend a year and a half in prison together, where Adrienne authors a book—using toothpicks dipped in ink, no less. How’s that for determination? Eventually, the couple is released. In time, they move back to the chateau after before being forced to live in exile until the Terror at home subsides. Unfortunately, prison life was hard on Adrienne, and she dies a few short years later in 1807, leaving a devasted marquis.
While the marquis goes down in history, far more revered in America than France, by the way, Adrienne remains less well-known, yet she is a prime example of women who hold together home, family, and business while war ravages a nation. She proved what women are capable of when given the chance or when called on to lead.
As mentioned earlier, to me Chavaniac manor is a sort of character for the way it looms in each of the three point of view characters in The Women of Chateau Lafayette. It became a place where wars were fought without guns but with compassion, perseverance, and fortitude. The chateau still stands. Its website does a superb job displaying images and chronicling its history. Scrolling through the photographs, I imagine Adrienne and her children. I imagine her writing. I imagine her sitting with the marquis at day’s end before and after wars for liberty separated them.
They say the wild, harsh region in which the chateau is located shaped General Lafayette, that it made him independent and enthusiastic. I’d also like to think the land and the chateau helped forge Adrienne, strengthening her, bolstering to her incredible resolve, and expanding her love for her husband.
If you’d like to learn more about Adrienne, in addition to reading The Women of Chateau Lafayette where Adrienne’s character is beautifully and movingly revealed, I invite you to read this post by Laura Malone Elliott, who does a terrific job providing intimate details about Adrienne and the marquis. This blog post by Geri Walton on “Stew Ross Discovers” also brings forth information about her that you will find fascinating. All were sources for this post. Last, I recommend reading the biography of General Lafayette on the chateau’s website. While the website overlooks Adrienne to a large degree, it does an excellent job reminding Americans of the marquis and his impact on United States’ history.
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.