French aristocrat tale hides in Albany archives

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, March 18, 2007

Angry mobs and the guillotine conspired to strike fear into the hearts of aristocrats like Henriette Lucy Dillon during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.

By February 1794, Dillon's husband, a marquis and diplomat, and their two young children felt so unsafe in Paris that they fled their homeland. They set sail in a small ship during a dangerous winter crossing of the Atlantic.

They were bound for Albany, N.Y., and an uncertain future.

Dillon, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Antoinette, was completely unprepared for the rough journey.

"It was a horrendous voyage, everyone was sick, the captain was constantly on the lookout for pirates, and the trip took months," said author Sheila Kohler, who lives in Manhattan and traveled often to Albany during research that resulted in her first historical novel, "Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness" (Other Press, 440 pages, $24.95).

Kohler will talk about her research and read from the soon-to-be-published book on Thursday as part of the Visiting Writers Series of the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany. (The book is due in stores April 24; but copies will be available for purchase at the Writers Institute event.)

The destination of the fleeing French aristocrats was stitched to a slim thread. There was a friendship and correspondence between Dillon and Margaret, a daughter of Gen. Philip Schuyler in Albany. Margaret "Peggy" Schuyler had married into the van Rensselaers, family of the Dutch patroon, and the union created the equivalent of Albany's aristocracy.

In setting out to write a fictional account of Dillon's life in Albany and Paris, Kohler cleaved to advice from a friend, the acclaimed South African novelist J.M. Coetzee: "Don't stay too close to the truth."

Forgetting about it: Kohler almost abandoned the subject before she got started.

Born into wealth and privilege in Johannesburg, South Africa, she completed a degree in literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she lived for 15 years.

A friend gave Kohler Dillon's memoir, written in French and published in the 1800s. "I looked at it, saw it was about some old aristocrat, put it on a bookshelf and forgot about it for many years," she said.

The 65-year-old author and mother of three daughters published five novels and three collections of short stories, mostly semi-autobiographical narratives about life in apartheid South Africa.

"I decided my work had been very dark, because of South Africa's history, and I wanted to reach outside myself and to write about an inspiring woman," said Kohler, who pulled down the long-forgotten Dillon memoir from the shelf.

She began to read the old French and became engrossed in the story.

From the outset, Lucy Dillon displayed an independence, resilience and strength that was both rare and discouraged in her era and milieu.

The family stayed briefly with the van Rensselaers, but soon purchased farmland and a house north of Albany. The house no longer exists, but a plaque marks its location on the grounds of what is now the provincial house of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, off Watervliet-Shaker Road in Colonie.

A whole new world

Farm life in the young republic was a culture shock. Dillon's husband, Frederic, chafed at the come-down of the Albany scene, but Dillon, who was of Irish descent, thrived in the New World. "Lucy refused to put on airs and dressed like the local farmers, except when she went in to town to meet the Schuylers and van Rensselaers," Kohler said.

She enjoyed long horseback rides and was an enthusiastic trader with local Indians, whose visits she welcomed. She befriended members of the Shaker community.

She kept track of the pigs and other livestock and taught herself to butcher a lamb. She helped milk their eight cows and oversaw production of the butter, which she marked with her family's crest before taking it to market.

"The local people thought it was rather grand to buy butter with the mark of an aristocrat," Kohler said.

She didn't do the work alone. The couple purchased slaves.

Of course, Dillon's opportunities went far beyond a typical farm family in Albany during that era.

When she was sick, her husband had the means to take her to Manhattan for treatment. They dined with the Schuylers and van Rensselaers. At one gathering, she met Alexander Hamilton, who married Gen. Schuyler's daughter, Elizabeth.

"She was impressed with Hamilton, and he remarked on her excellent French," Kohler said.

The family's Albany sojourn was marked by tragedy. Dillon's daughter, Seraphine, whom she was nursing during the ocean crossing, became sick and died in 1795 at age 2.

By the following year, after two years on the farm on the outskirts of Albany, Frederic was eager to return to Paris. The Reign of Terror had subsided and he wanted to reclaim their property before it was usurped.

Lucy didn't want to return. She liked it in Albany and she argued to stay put.

"She finally acquiesced to her husband, but only under one condition: that they free their slaves before they leave," Kohler said.

The slaves were released from their servitude and Dillon, her husband and son sailed back to France in 1796.

Imagining the life

On her research forays to Albany, Kohler stayed with her husband, Dr. William Tucker, the retired chief medical officer of the state Office of Mental Health, who was commuting from Manhattan and staying at an Albany hotel.

"I visited the Schuyler Mansion, looked through archives and walked around the site of their farm," Kohler said. "It was easy to imagine Lucy Dillon and the life she had there."

Kohler has already begun a new project, a historical novel based on the Brontes.

"I felt like I lived in the 19th century reading the Brontes growing up," she said. "I'm finding that I like taking real characters and playing around with their lives."

Excerpt: Arriving in Albany

From "Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness," by Sheila Kohler.

"It is in the evening, after fifteen days of traveling by coach, with the children and Black, that they come to Albany. Looking for the van Rensselaers' house, they arrive in a long street at the end of which lies a large rose-colored mansion, bookended between tall Dutch chimneys, a distinctive balustrade wrapped around white-trimmed dormer windows, surrounded by a pretty garden with flowering trees and white flowers that glimmer in the gloaming. There is a fragrance of jasmine and honeysuckle and some other wild herb Lucy cannot identify.

Lucy calls out of the window of the carriage to ask a young boy in the street whose house this is. He lifts his hands in the air with surprise. 'But it's the Patroon's house, of course!' he replies."

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Sheila Kohler