Napoleon III and Eugénie Analysis

Napoleon III and Eugénie (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In his Foreword to this mammoth study of two important figures of the French Second Empire, Jasper Ridley states, “This is not a history of the Second Empire, but a biography of Louis Napoleon and a biography of Eugénie.” He further points out that he has included much historical background merely to “show the significance of Louis Napoleon’s and Eugénie’s reaction to them,” and has omitted others on the basis that they were of little importance to the biographies with which he is concerned. The reader of the book may question this judgment because, for the most part, the book does read like a history. Such an approach is necessary, however, in that the Second Empire is a time filled with complex and relatively little-known events, negotiations, and conflicts, and any writer dealing with the period must fill in massive gaps existing in our twentieth century understanding of the minutiae of the political situation in nineteenth century Europe. As expected, those portions of the book devoted to Eugénie, who was not involved in politics except through her husband, concentrate instead on accounts culled from gossip and recollections of her contemporaries. The result is a book in which Napoleon III emerges as the central character despite the several early chapters devoted entirely to Eugénie. It is not until Louis Napoleon’s death that she takes on much of a life of her own in these pages.

Ridley informs the reader that his interest in Napoleon III derived from his earlier 1976 biography of Garibaldi, although he must certainly have become intrigued with Eugénie from stories his grandfather told, who had met her when he was resident engineer of the newly constructed railway at Durban. Indeed, this feeling of closeness to the past gives the book one of its pleasures as Ridley recounts Eugénie’s relationships with such twentieth century figures as Clemenceau, King George V, and Kenneth Clark. One can almost feel the closeness of Napoleon himself.

Although he is sketchily known to all but professional historians, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, known as Louis Napoleon, was born on April 20, 1808. Doubly related to his namesake, the future emperor was nephew on his father’s side to Napoleon I as well as son to Napoleon’s stepdaughter and sister-in-law. His parents’ marriage was arranged by Napoleon himself as a means of establishing a dynasty. Ridley exhaustively but inconclusively tracks down the rumors that Napoleon fathered two of his brother’s sons. Despite such credentials, Louis Napoleon’s rise to prominence was as difficult as it was unlikely due to his being the youngest son. Yet, Napoleon Charles, his eldest sibling, died in 1807 and, upon the death of his second brother, Napoleon Louis, in 1831, the way was prepared for Louis’s political aspirations. Ridley claims that Napoleon’s one hundred day successful return to France in 1815 was the most formative event in the life of the young Louis Napoleon; it was from this experience that he gained his lifelong belief that the French people would always welcome a Napoleon in favor of imposed rulers. Although it was not until the death of Napoleon’s own son, Napoleon II, in 1832, that Louis Napoleon became more or less undisputed heir of his uncle, Ridley states that upon the death of his elder brother the year earlier he changed overnight, becoming conscious of being “nothing but a Bonaparte.”

The rigid educational regime imposed upon him by his mother, Queen Hortense de Beauharnais, when he was twelve years old, helped to reverse his earlier apparent laziness and lack of mental concentration. Beginning shortly after his brother’s death in his role as heir apparent, he frequently authored pamphlets and books outlining his political doctrines, a combination of Republicanism and Bonapartism. As early as 1836, he was involved in an attempted coup at Strasbourg which lasted two and a half hours. Ridley indicates that at this time Louis had come under the influence of the man “who was to have the greatest influence on his life,” the totally loyal Jean Gilbert Victor Fialin, a man described by Ridley as a “ruthless and unscrupulous adventurer.”

Subsequent to and as a result of the abortive coup, Napoleon spent some time in New York where he met major American figures including the writers Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper. The following year, having moved to London after being convicted of sedition for writing his account of the Strasbourg coup, Louis met most of the important political leaders of England whom he easily charmed. These social contacts led to his long and cordial relationship with that country.

For his 1840 attempted coup at Boulogne, Louis was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Castle at Ham, near St. Quentin, eighty miles from Paris. This imprisonment Ridley refers to as the “university” of Ham because of the many amenities accorded to Louis and his opportunities for study and the writing of articles. He was granted a handsome per diem allowance along with almost unlimited visitation privileges from his friends. An indication of his freedom is that during this period he fathered two sons, Eugène and Louis, by his laundress.

While Ridley does catalog Louis Napoleon’s rather prodigious sexual escapades, he suggests that Louis’s comment that, rather than attack as other men do, he spent most of his energies in defending himself against women’s advances, sometimes surrendering, is not to be taken as seriously as other biographers have insisted. Yet, it is in these affairs that Ridley’s book leaves most questions unanswered. His accounts show that, indeed, Louis Napoleon frequently did “surrender,” but his explanation of Eugénie’s tolerance of his behavior and her apparent frigidity as “Her refusal to take a lover, even after she knew that Louis Napoleon had several mistresses,...

(The entire section is 2402 words.)