Napoleon III A Life by Fenton Bresler (1999)

Fenton Bresler, who died in 2003, was a barrister, newspaper columnist, television pundit and author of many books. He was a popular author rather than a historian so the tone of this book isn’t scholarly, but very much focuses on the personalities, the experiences and feelings of the people involved.

Occasionally this leads the tone to drop into sentimentality or cliché, but for the most part it makes for an entertaining, easy-going and often very illuminating read.

I’m especially glad that Bresler dwells at such length on the origins of Napoleon III’s family: it makes Napoleon III’s relationship with his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, much clearer, and also, in the early pages, amounts to a touching portrait of Napoleon himself and his family circle.

The Napoleonic background

Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in post-revolutionary France emerging as the Republic’s ablest military leader. In 1799 he carried out a coup against the so-called Directorate, the five-man government of France, and had himself declared First Consul. He had married Josephine de Beauharnais in 1795. Josephine came with two children by her first marriage – Eugène born in 1781 and Hortense born in 1783. As Napoleon grew in power, declaring himself Emperor of the French in 1804, it became more pressing that he have a male heir, but Josephine failed to give him one, so in 1810 he divorced her and married an Austrian princess, who soon bore him the much-wanted male child, who Napoleon appointed ‘King of Rome’.

Napoleon had four brothers and arranged for them positions of power on the thrones of the various European countries he had conquered. He also arranged marriages for them with European princesses, in order to expand the family’s reach and power.

One of these plans was to arrange the marriage of his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, to Hortense, daughter of his first wife, Josephine, in 1806, when she was 23 and he was 28.

The couple didn’t get on but managed to have three children, all boys – Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte who died at the age of four, Napoléon Louis Bonaparte (1804 – 1831), and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873)  – who was to become Napoléon III, the subject of this book.

After Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated in 1814, Hortense and her two surviving sons returned to Paris where she was protected by Alexander I of Russia. However, when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and returned to rule France for 100 days before being defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Hortense loyally supported her step-father during his brief resumption of power, and was punished for it when the Allies re-occupied Paris for the second time.

Amid a White Terror, in which aristocrats settled scores with defenders of the old regime, amid a climate of lynchings, murders and executions, Hortense and her two sons – the future Napoleon III just six years old – fled to Switzerland and then began years of exile, moving from country to country around central Europe.

Within a few months of their flight her estranged husband, Louis, by now the ex-King of Holland, demanded custody of the eldest son, Napoléon Louis. From then on it was just Hortense and Louis-Napoléon, wandering Europe for six years before finding a semi-permanent home in Switzerland. Mother and small son formed a very close bond, Louis’ wife later complaining that he never stopped venerating his mother, even long after her death.

Hopefully, the diagram below makes things clearer: showing how Napoleon’s parents had five sons and three daughters, their dates and who they married. It shows how Napoleon himself married Josephine, who already had Eugène and Hortense, how he persuaded his younger brother Louis to marry Hortense, and they had two sons, the younger of which (and the only one shown here) became Napoleon III. Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Marie of Austria by whom he had his only legitimate son, Napoleon, who became known as Franz and died aged only 21 in 1832.

Napoleon III's family tree

Napoleon III’s family tree

Years of exile

Young Louis-Napoléon spent the 1820s spent subject to a string of overbearing tutors. He grew into a handsome charming man, a bit on the short side, but dashing in his army uniform, more intelligent than the other men in his family and, as this book shows in great detail, a great seducer of women. All through his life he seduced and bedded almost every woman he came into contact with.

The family tree I gave above may seem like unnecessary detail but it turns out to be vital in several ways.

By focusing on the ambience and influence of Napoleon on all his family Bresler really conveys the sense of entitlement to royal treatment and to a grand destiny which shaped Louis’ life. By giving all his siblings such exalted roles and royal marriages Napoleon created an extraordinarily complex web of relations across European royalty and aristocracy. These uncles and aunts and cousins don’t fade out but continue to exert an influence on Louis right to the end of his life.

Bresler’s vividly book does what the more academic histories fail to do – it powerfully conveys the real sense of conviction and motivation which fueled Louis, from start to finish. For Mike Rapport or Gareth Stedman Jones or Karl Marx, Louis-Napoleon was a joke, an empty man who believed nothing and was pushed to the surface by the failure of all the other factions of society and politics, a faute de mieux man.

Bresler’s book – personal and sentimental though it often is, wearing its amateur status with pride – nonetheless embeds you in this extraordinary family and has you seeing the world from Louis’ point of view, as a theatre onto which he was irresistibly destined to rise to glory and to lead France.

The extraordinary thing is – that it happened; exactly as he was so convinced that it would.

Death of the other heirs

Louis-Napoléon’s first political involvement was with the Carbonari, the secret society dedicated to achieving unity and independence for the then-fragmented Italy. His brother joined him in the cause, but caught measles on campaign and Bresler paints the affecting scene where Louis-Napoléon holds his elder brother in his arms as he dies. It was 1831.

After Waterloo, Napoleon’s one legitimate son, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the so-called ‘King of Rome’, had been taken by his mother back to Austria. Here he was raised as a prince of the royal blood but in virtual house arrest, given the new name Franz, Duke of Reichstadt. Although he just about remembered his father before he went off to fight at Waterloo and never returned, the young prince was forbidden to speak French or mention his father’s name.

When Napoleon died in 1821, in exile on the island of St Helena, he bequeathed his son a load of priceless memorabilia but the Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, forbade any of it reaching the boy. As an Austrian prince Franz was raised to join the army and in 1832 given a battalion to command, but soon afterwards he caught pneumonia and died, aged 21.

The point of the early deaths of these two young men was that their removal made Louis-Napoleon the heir to the Napoleonic throne (there were two remaining brothers of Napoleon, who lived in affluent retirement, but neither had any interest in returning to public life).

From this point – 1832 – onwards, through thick and thin, Louis became convinced of his destiny to one day rule as his grandfather had. Everyone who met him reported that he had an unalterable conviction that his destiny was one day to rule France.

Napoleonic writings

Napoleon spent his years of exile on St Helena dictating his memoirs. These are famously economical with the truth, tending to gloss over the fact that his rule saw Europe wracked by 15 years of bloody warfare, and preferring to position himself to posterity as a champion of the core revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

His grandson followed in the Emperor’s footsteps and, once he was the heir apparent, published the first of what became a series of political pamphlets – Rêveries politiques or ‘political dreams’ in 1833 at the age of 25.

This was followed in 1834 by Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (‘Political and military considerations about Switzerland’) and in 1839 by Les Idées napoléoniennes (‘Napoleonic Ideas’).

Wordy and pompous, the books boil down to two central ideas: universal suffrage, and the primacy of a national interest which transcended all particular class or factional interest. Louis’s idea was that universal (male) suffrage would allow ‘the people’ to vote for a strong ruler who would implement ‘the advantages of the Republic without the inconveniences’.

Napoleonic referendums

I hadn’t realised that the first Napoleon felt it necessary to call a plebiscite in 1804 to approve his move in status from First Consul to ‘Emperor of the French’. Nor that the vote was so overwhelmingly positive, with 99.93% (3,521,675) in favour and only 0.07% (2,579) against.

This was to be Louis’ strategy: it was universal (male) suffrage which got him elected president in 1848, and which he then appealed to again to support his declaration of himself Emperor. Both times he won by huge majorities.

It was fascinating to learn that government by plebiscite, or referendum, was a well-established reactionary strategy for appealing over the heads of the metropolitan (liberal and bourgeois) elite, to the generally more conservative, and uneducated, population at large.

Quite thought-provoking, given the pickle Britain is in following the 2016 EU Referendum…

The advantage of Bresler’s in-depth accounts

The outline of Louis’ biography in the 1830s and 40s is simply stated: he attempted two ‘coups’ designed to raise the army behind his legendary name and overthrow the then-king, Louis-Philippe – one at a barracks in Strasbourg in 1836, then again in Boulogne in 1840.

The great success of this book is that, whereas other histories dismiss each of these with a paragraph or so, Bresler goes into as much detail as possible, describing the elaborateness of the preparations, and then how they both unravelled into farce. He drills right down to descriptions of how the conspirators entered the barracks, what Louis said and did, how they tried to persuade the head of each barracks to join them, the misunderstandings, the retreats, the squabbles between the conspirators. Bresler makes it feel like a thriller.

Same goes for all the other key moments in Louis’ career. What you don’t get is the kind of detailed socio-economic or political analysis you get from academic history books, but Bresler’s more personal approach not only makes a welcome change, and not only puts you right there, right on the spot at some crucial turning points in French history.

Louis-Napoleon goes to prison

After the fist coup attempt the government of King Louis-Philippe indulgently exiled Louis to the United States, from where, in fact, he quite quickly returned to be with his dying mother, Hortense, in Switzerland. After the 1840 attempt, however, they lost patience and Louis was tried and sentenced to prison in perpetuity.

Bresler’s account of this imprisonment is absolutely fascinating. He was held in a run-down chateau in the town of Ham in the Somme district of north-east France, along with his loyal doctor and valet. He was kept in a small room at the end of a corridor, with holes in the floor and ceiling and only paper flaps to cover the window, with primitive toilet facilities down the hall. Here he built himself shelves and spent a lot of time reading. Louis and his friends (General Montholon and Doctor Conneau) were the only inmates. A garrison of 200, of whom 60 soldiers were on duty at any time, was devoted just to oversee them. One of the most flabbergasting things is that Louis and the general were both allowed to have their mistresses move in and live with them. How very French! Louis’ mistress, Alexandrine moved in and, over the course of the six years, bore him two children, Eugene and Louis, both of which were farmed out to the Cornu family in Paris to look after.

The size of the garrison guarding Louis makes it all the more amazing that in 1846 he managed to escape. Builders had arrived to finally do up the crumbling chateau and Bresler gives a characteristically detailed and nail-biting description of the plan the General, the doctor and the valet concoct, to have Louis disguise himself as one of the workmen and simply walk out the main gate. Which is what he did.

1848 to 1852

I have described the events in France of 1848 to 1852 in my reviews of:

Briefly, King Louis-Philippe of France was overthrown by a popular uprising in February 1848 and a Republic was declared, but there was then a prolonged period of chaos and uncertainty. Liberals tried to form a national government but, when they shut down the workshops which had given some work and a dole to the unemployed of Paris, the working men set up barricades which led the government to appoint a general to retake the city which he did with a week of merciless violence. Not only were thousands slaughtered but the entire far left / socialist leadership was rounded up and imprisoned.

This helped the drift in both practical politics and the national mood towards the right. His prison sentence having lapsed with the abolition of the old regime, Louis-Napoleon stood for election to the Chamber of Deputies and surprised commentators by being elected. He was wisely understated and restrained but – in line with his writings – supported the idea of universal (male) suffrage. As the action-packed year of 1848 drew to a close, Louis-Napoleon stood in the presidential race, alongside General Cavaignac, responsible for the massacre of the ‘June Days’, and various liberals. To everyone’s amazement Louis-Napoleon stormed home, with five and a half million votes compared to his nearest rival, the general, who got one and a half million.

He spent the next three years conspiring to convert the four-year presidency to rule for life, succeeding in December 1851, with a coup against the National Assembly, and then having a plebiscite to appeal to the entire male population of France in December 1852, at which point – like his grand-father before him – he declared himself Emperor Napoleon, taking the number III in memory of Napoleon’s only son who, although he never ruled a country, was now given the posthumous title Napoleon II.

The great strength of Bresler’s book compared to conventional political histories is that they all start from the present – they start from a modern perspective in which the liberal opposition, or even the French socialists – are taken as standard bearers for what we now know ended up happening i.e. the development of parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, limiting the power of the rich and aristocracy, introduction of the welfare state, right to work, right to strike, trade unions, pensions and so on.

From this perspective Napoleon III was a freak, an inexplicable anomaly. Bresler shows you the world from a completely different perspective, from the perspective of the extremely upper class sections of French society, not to mention the very cream of European royalty, and the world of privilege and entitlement they inhabited. What mattered in this world was the opinion of Louis-Napoleon’s mother or wife or cousin the arch-duke and so on, an extremely small, closely-knit society. And within this world there was always the expectation that royalty or imperial values will triumph. It is is God’s will. It is inevitable. And that this perspective was shared by millions of ordinary Frenchmen.

What, to the secular liberal writers of history appears a freakish accident appears, from the perspective Bresler gives us, quite natural and almost inevitable.

He also makes the point that Louis-Napoleon was good with people. He was a poor speaker, with a flat metallic voice and a pronounced German accent – so he came over badly in the National Assembly and among the metropolitan elite of journalists and commentators.  But he had a highly developed sense of the importance of people out there and Bresler describes Louis’ very modern campaigns or ‘charm offensives’ in which he toured virtually all of France, getting on easily with crowds and individuals of all stations of life. Having been an exile on the run and a prisoner himself living in very reduced circumstances, Louis had an easy way with all classes.

Thus while the Deputies and political theorists squabbled in Paris, Louis-Napoleon toured the country and was rewarded with a plebiscite confirming his claim to the title Napoleon III – 7.4 million in favour to 641,000 against.

The Empire of Napoleon III

Domestic

I hadn’t realised the coup itself led to such violence and repression. The population of Paris brought out the barricades which the army quickly stormed with the loss of up to 400 lives. But it was the political repression which surprised me. About 26,000 people were arrested, mostly members of the left wing opposition, some 4,000 in Paris alone. The 239 inmates who were judged most severely were sent to the penal colony in Cayenne, 9,530 political opponents were sent to Algeria, 1,500 were expelled from France, and another 3,000 were given forced residence away from their homes. Louis-Napoleon – painted by Bresler as essentially a mild man – set up a commission to reivew the sentences and some 3,500 were reprieved.

Imprisonment of the left opposition was accompanied by strict press censorship: No newspaper dealing with political or social questions could be published without the permission of the government, fines were increased, and the list of press offenses was greatly expanded. After three warnings, a newspaper or journal could be suspended or even permanently closed.

On the plus side, the 18 years of the Second Empire are remembered for the growth of the French economy and boom times, especially in Paris. Having spent time in exile in Britain, Napoleon III had seen the power of the industrial revolution and he supported the expansion of the French railway network and the diversification of the French economy into iron and steel works.

Possibly the most famous development of his time was the extensive remodelling of Paris by the architect Hausmann, responsible for creating the broad straight boulevards which cut through Paris’s squalid slums and created the airy, sunny Paris which survives to this day. The Emperor inaugurated weekly balls and concerts at the Elysées Palace which he selected as his Paris residence and remains to this day the official seat of the French President. A new Opera House was built and the Second Empire almost exactly corresponds with the output of Offenbach, creator of witty entertaining operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld and the Tales of Hoffman.

The Emperor Napoleon II in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The Emperor Napoleon III in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Foreign Policy

The Crimean War 1853-56 Napoleon III came supported Britain and Turkey against Russian expansion into the Balkans. After the long grinding war, horribly mismanaged on the Allies’ side, the conference which agreed the peace was held in Paris, a diplomatic coup for Napoleon.

Mexican adventure Less successful was the scheme Napoleon III was persuaded to support, of sending a European monarch to rule over chaotic Mexico. France along with Britain and Spain had invaded the Mexican Republic in the winter of 1861 in order to reclaim debts the Republic had inherited from its monarchy which it had just overthrown. Once the money was paid Britain and Spain withdrew but the French decided to stay on and, though his contacts with the Austrian royal family, Napoleon managed to persuade Maximilian, younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis, to take the ‘throne’ of Mexico, as Emperor Maximilian I.

This bizarre situation was only possible with the backing of the most reactionary elements of mexican society and due to the simple fact that Mexico’s neighbours, the United States, were bogged down in their own brutal civil war (1861-65). But:

  1. Maximilian turned out to be a ‘modern’ ‘liberal’ emperor, much to the disgust of the Catholic, landowning autocracy, who weakened his position
  2. Even with the backing of over 30,000 French troops, Maximilian was never able to defeat the Republican forces of  President Benito Juárez
  3. Once the American Civil War was over the Americans began to actively support Juárez

Facing increasing opposition at home, Napoleon withdrew the last of France’s army in 1866. Maximilian’s ’empire’ collapsed, and he was captured and executed by the Mexican government in 1867. True to form, Bresler concentrates less on the international power politics of the tale and more on the personal experiences of those concerned. Before the end, Maximilian’s wife, Carlotta, sailed to France and insisted on an audience with Napoleon III, by this time a sick man, and begged for military help to be sent to her husband. She had a nervous breakdown in front of Napoleon and his wife, before travelling on to see the Pope to beg for help, in front of whom she began raving that everyone was trying to poison her. Carlotta was eventually committed to a lunatic asylum in Belgium where she lived for a further sixty years.

Here, as in so many other places, Bresler really brings history alive by going beyond the dates and geopolitical events to show you the character and suffering and personalities of the people involved.

The Franco-Prussian War and overthrow

I’ve covered the events of the Franco-Prussian War in other blog posts:

Bismarck tricked Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. This was just the patriotic war which Bismarck had been seeking in order to persuade the still-independent states of southern Germany to unite with the North German Confederation which Bismarck had forged under the leadership of Prussia. It worked beyond his wildest dreams. Not only did Napoleon III declare war but the Chamber of Deputies rose to their feet acclaiming the war, and mobs marched round French provincial towns singing the Marseillaise.

What idiots. The main French Army was surrounded at Metz and the army marching to the relief was cornered and annihilated at Sedan. The Germans had better weapons, better logistics and better leadership. Many French soldiers were still trying to figure out where they were being deployed to by the time the war ended.

Napoleon, now quite ill with very painful bladder stones, made the quixotic decision to go to the front and lead by example like his grandfather. Except he was nothing like his grandfather, made and reverse judgements and decisions, and eventually handed over authority to the general on the spot just in time to be captured along with the wreckage of his army at Sedan.

Once peace was made he went through the lines to parley with his former colleague, the German King Wilhelm I. An embarrassing conversation. Bismarck, who Napoleon had entertained at the French court, was there with his army, and also spent some time condoling with the tired old man.

Napoleon III was moved to a castle in Germany before being sent into exile in England. He wasn’t in France to see the catastrophe which followed, namely the government fighting on from Bordeaux while the Germans surrounded and besieged Paris. The eventual breaking of the siege and fierce fighting until the Germans had subdued the French capital, marched about arrogantly, then left for the Palace of Versailles where King Wilhelm was crowned Kaiser of the new German Empire created by Bismarck.

And then, when the Germans withdrew, the collapse of Paris into chaos as far left socialists declared a socialist republic, started executing the rich and conservatives while the national government responded by embarking on a second siege of Paris and, once they’d broken into the city, vicious street fighting which left some 20,000 Parisians dead.

Napoleon III was in England, at Chislehurst, where he was to remain until his death from complications after an operation to remove his painful bladder stones, just three years later.

 The Empress Eugénie and her son by James Tissot (1878)

The Empress Eugénie and her son in the grounds of Camden Place, five years after the death of her husband, by James Tissot (1878)

A medical indictment

The last chapter in the book is a surprisingly fierce indictment of the British doctors who, in Bresler’s opinion, killed Napoleon. The Emperor had suffered from stones in the bladder for some years, which caused him a lot of pain. This ailment came on severely during the height of the Franco-Prussian War so that even as he attempted to guide the army he was sweating with pain.

Bresler goes into barrister mode to marshal evidence from two contemporary specialists in ailments of the bladder – James Bellringer and Sir David Innes Williams. He met, interviewed and corresponded with these witnesses and uses their testimony to assemble an argument that the procedure to destroy the stone in the bladder – inserting a device down the urethra which grasps and attempts to crush the stone so the fragments can be passed – should never have been carried out. A first procedure was carried out, but less than half the stone destroyed and passed. After a few days’ recovery, another procedure took place in January 1873, but again the stone proved bigger than anticipated. All was in readiness for a third procedure when the Emperor suddenly flagged, weakened, and died of heart failure. According to the modern doctors this was almost certainly due to sepsis i.e. the bladder was infected by the blockage and the medical procedure dislodged infected tissue which got into the circulation and infected the heart, causing it to fail.

Apparently, the Emperor’s death at the hands of ‘incompetent’ British doctors was a source of bitterness among French doctors and a subject of dispute between the two nations’ medics for some years afterwards.

All this is fairly interesting but the revelation for me was that Napoleon submitted to these painful operations because he was planning another coup. Elaborate arrangements had been made; he was to join a cousin in Switzerland then ride with supporters to Lyon, recruiting support along the way, raising the Imperial flag and so on.

But the crucial element was that he should be able to ride a horse. Over the previous few years this had become pretty much impossible because of the acute pain in his bladder caused by the horse’s jogging movement. So the immediate cause of his death might have been medical ‘incompetence’. But the ultimate cause was his relentless, obsessive refusal to be denied what he saw as his pre-destined fate, to rule France and to hand on the Empire to his son.

This is not quite so completely bonkers as it sounds because Bresler explains how the Third Republic, created after Napoleon’s fall, remained deeply unpopular for years, so much so that there was even talk of restoring the grandson of Charles X, who had fled the throne back in 1830, the 60-year-old Comte de Chamborde.

The sensible academic histories I read make history sound like an inevitable unfolding of socio-economic trends. Bresler’s book reinserts the element of populism and mass psychology which combine with the fanaticism or abilities of specific individuals to remind us just how weird and contingent history often is.

A personal history

Bresler wears his personal approach on his sleeve. Rather than quote the latest academic texts, he prefers to reference very old previous biographies of Napoleon III, including some he was lucky enough to find in second hand bookshops in Paris.

He tells us about his own personal visits to various key sites in the story, and the chats he has with the locals and local tourist officials. For example, he shares with us his surprise that the tourist bods in Boulogne didn’t seem to realise the shattering importance of Napoleon III’s botched coup there. At another moment he stands on the very same quayside where the Emperor Maximilian reluctantly took ship to set off for his adventure in Mexico.

I have stood on the landing stage at Miramar from which they embarked and it seemed as if an air of melancholy still lingers upon the scene. (p.314)

He visits as many of the exact locations where Napoleon lived throughout his life as he can (including a trip to the remains of the Chateau d’Ham where he was imprisoned), especially all the houses in London which he rented, and lastly the grand Camden Place where he and the Empress spent their last years in exile – and which stands to this day, as the headquarters of Chislehurst Golf Club!

This is all rather sweet and endearing, a refreshing change from the earnest, statistical and geo-political accounts of history I’m used to reading. Much closer to the personalised way in which most people actually experience life.

A verbal token of Bresler’s very personal involvement with his hero is his repeated use of the word ‘sad’. Academic historians rarely express emotion, and then it’s at most the cliché that this or that decision was ‘tragic’ – but Bresler again and again takes the kind of soft, sentimental and rather naive point of view epitomised by ‘sad’.

The two boys [the illegitimate sons of Napoleon III], then aged fifteen and thirteen, were taken away from her [their mother, Lizzie Howard] and sadly, with the callousness of youth, soon forgot her. (p.275)

In later years, Margot married a Prussian named Kulbach and died at the sadly early age of forty-five. (p.322)

As for Louis, he would be a prisoner-of-war (albeit in the soft comfort of the new German Emperor’s summer palace) soon to be released to his last sad exile at Camden Place, with his health so badly deteriorated that he had become a pale, indecisive and sad version of the witty, commanding and assured man he had once been. (p.323)

I believe that two other factors, apart from his ill-health, led to his sad deterioration. (p.328)

Sadly [these criticisms] also apply to Louis himself. (p.332)

The year 1865 began on a sad note for Louis. (p.334)

The sad news of Maximilian’s death was much more in keeping with the reality of French life and the circumstances of Louis’ rule than all the fine uniforms and magnificent spectacles.

Sadly, they were all living in a fool’s paradise. (p.353)

Mathilde’s entry in her diary for that day makes sad reading. (p.366)

And much more in the same ilk. The ghost of Barbara Cartland floats over many of these pages.

Imperial sex

Everything we were brought up to believe about the French is confirmed by this book. The amount of shagging, infidelity, adultery, prostitutes, procuring, pandering and debauching taking place among the French upper classes is mind boggling.

Napoleon I had many ‘flings’ and a number of illegitimate children. Josephine had a number of lovers. But their grandson and his peers far outdid the older generation. He loved sex and he had it with as many women as possible. I’ve mentioned the lover he had while imprisoned at Ham but she’s just a drop in the ocean. Soon after he became Emperor he realised he needed an Empress and so married the Spanish aristocrat, Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox y KirkPatrick, 16th Countess of Teba, 15th Marchioness of Ardales.

But that didn’t stop him having an ‘official’ mistress – Bresler relishes the way the French have a phrase for top mistress, maitresse de titre – for a while the Englishwoman Lizzie Howard, but also a steady string of young ladies presented at the numerous balls and concerts Napoleon arranged.

There was a well-established process. A flunky brought the potential victim into Napoleon’s private study at the Élysée Palace. He made a quick visual assessment. If he wasn’t interested, he chatted politely for a few minutes then said that his papers called him. If he liked what he saw, he dismissed the flunky and then, after a bit of chat, took the young lady up some hidden backstairs to a bedroom. Here a servant was waiting who helped the lady disrobe and then led her into the Imperial Bedroom where Napoleon was waiting, also naked.

Bresler includes quite a few gory descriptions of Napoleon’s love-making which was quick and to the point, his point anyway. One young lady recorded that she had barely had time to make a few coy protestations before he grabbed her in an intimate place, manhandled her onto the bed and was in like Flynn. There were a few minutes of grunting noises and – here is the wonderful detail – the carefully waxed ends of Napoleon’s moustache melted and wilted in the heat – before with a final grimace it was all over, he stood, and she was despatched back to the changing room.

For a while the maîtress en titre was the slender, sexy Virginia Castiglione who, Bresler reveals, was probably a spy sent to seduce Napoleon (not very difficult) and report back on his thoughts about Italian unification to the canny Prime Minister of Piedmont, the Count of Cavour.

A propos of Italy, Bresler makes much of the surprising crudity of King Victor Emmanuel who ended up becoming the first king of united Italy. He was once at the Paris opera as a guest of Napoleon’s and pointed out a particularly tasty ballet dancer. ‘How much for the little girl?’ he asked. ‘I’ve no idea,’ replied Napoleon. ‘For your majesty,’ quickly interjected Napoleon’s fixer and procurer, Bacciochi, ‘five thousand francs.’ ‘That’s damn expensive,’ grunted Victor. ‘Never mind,’ said Napoleon turning to Bacciochi. ‘Put it on my tab.’

From 1863 to 1864 Napoleon’s maîtress en titre was Marguerite Bellanger, a bouncing 23-year-old country girl who catered to Napoleon’s every whim, eventually giving birth to yet another illegitimate child, Charles Jules Auguste François Marie. On one occasion Napoleon returned to the Imperial Palace so exhausted by a prolonged session with Margot that he collapsed and had to be carried to bed at which the Empress Eugenie stormed round to Margot’s house and shouted that she was killing the Emperor, to which Margot tartly replied that if he got enough at home he wouldn’t have to play away.

(Eugenie emerges as not exactly likeable but as a tough, independently-minded woman. She caused lots of ructions among his advisers by insisting on sitting in on Cabinet meetings and, in some of the most fraught decisions, casting the deciding vote. She was all in favour of declaring war on Prussia in 1870. After meeting the French Cabinet in 1866, Bismarck described Eugenie as ‘the only man in his Government’ – p.340).

But it wasn’t just Napoleon who was at it. Almost every French figure of note seems to have had a mistress and quite a few of them were married women whose husbands didn’t mind because they had their own harem of lovers. The atmosphere was rampant with infidelity with countless love children being farmed out or given away.

It all makes quite a contrast with the unimaginative faithfulness of stiff Prussian Bismarck or the sweet uxoriousness of Victoria and Albert and goes a long way to explaining the reputation for sexual licence which France, and especially Paris, enjoyed well into the period of my youth. (In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Christmas Holiday, which I’ve just read, young Charley’s family assume he will mainly have sexual adventures when he goes to see an old schoolfriend in Paris – and that was published in 1939.)

La gloire

In accounts of the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War, and then of France’s colonial disasters in Algeria and Indo-China, again and again I’ve come across the obsession of the French military and political class with la gloire – glory. Glory is an important part of French cultural history and political discourse. Again and again the French have behaved recklessly and stupidly because obsessed with retaining or winning la gloire for the fatherland.

Bresler suggests this delusion started with Napoleon himself – within a decade of his fall, many Frenchmen had forgotten the misery of the non-stop wars he’d engaged in, let alone the fact that he was militarily defeated – twice – and become dazzled by the vague blurry memory of the ‘glory’ of the days when France had an Empire which controlled most of Europe.

‘I swear to rule for the interests, happiness and glory of the people of France,’ said Napoleon as part of his Coronation Oath; and he had used that same vital ‘glory’ when accepting his earlier nomination as Consul for Life.

These two appeals to ‘glory’ are an indication of the psychological appeal of Napoleon I, and later of Napoleon III, to the French nation: it appealed to the average French person’s desire, above all else, for national glory; for France to be perceived as the finest, the best, in whatever context she is engaged. General de Gaulle trumpeted the same message in the 1960s. Even today’s French politicians use it as an essential part of their platform. By contrast, no British politician has ever promised glory to the electorate. It has never been part of a British sovereign’s Coronation Oath to swear allegiance to the achievement of glory as a sacred mission. No British sovereign or politician would dream of making a similar claim but to Napoleon I and Napoleon III such boasting came easily.

Boasting. That’s the word. This will-o’-the-wisp explains much of France’s preposterous pomposity, despite their actual dismal track record.

  • Napoleon – defeated and exiled – twice, 1814, 1815
  • 1830 revolution overthrows Bourbon King Charles
  • 1848 democratic revolution – defeated, leads to constitutional chaos, then autocracy
  • Napoleon III – humiliating failure in Mexico 1867, crushing defeat in Franco-Prussian War 1870
  • The Commune – Red Terror then government reprisals lead to massacres in Paris 1871
  • Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906, twelve year long humiliating revelation of corruption and lies in the French army and government
  • First World War 1914-1918 – French narrowly escape defeat thanks to the British – epic mutinies at Verdun and elsewhere in 1917
  • Between the wars – political chaos
  • Second World War – defeat and occupation by the Nazis, widespread collaboration
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Indo-China leading up to catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Algeria, leading to French Army attempts to assassinate the French president
  • 1958 Military plans a coup d’etat against the government
  • 1968 – chaos leading to near revolution

A few years ago I took the kids to Paris and visited the traditional tourist sights. It was when inspecting the Arc de Triomphe really closely, reading the dates and names of battles, that it began to dawn on me – the history of the French Army for the past two hundred years, 1815 to 2015, is a history of unending defeats.

This is what makes the French obsession with la gloire, with boasting about their ‘achievements’, all the more amusing.

No one has ever lost popular support in France by reminding people of their eternal glory. (p.250)


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  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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