Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2402
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, was due to her principles, and also perhaps to a lack of enjoyment of the sexual act, but not to a natural coldness or hardness of character,” is less than satisfactory. He suggests that after giving birth to a son, Eugénie was warned against future pregnancies and that sexual relations were difficult for her. He also states that Louis’s passion for her began cooling at this time. The intimate part of their life together remains elusive.
After the abdication of Louis Philippe in February of 1848, the “year of revolutions,” Louis Napoleon’s chances looked very meager. They seemed worse after he gave a poor speech in the Assembly prior to the presidential election upon the establishment of the Second Republic; however, in the subsequent election, primarily because of the magic of his name, he polled seventy-five percent of the votes to become president.
During his years as France’s leading political figure Napoleon III was almost constantly at odds with the various political factions—radicals, socialists, moderate republicans—and Ridley details both his open fights and his secret and public negotiations with the different groups. It is difficult to reconcile these official actions with the apparently leisurely days described by Ridley which included rising at ten in the morning, driving about with his then mistress Miss Howard, and attending the many balls and receptions scheduled, without realizing there had to be much more to the man than appeared superficially to his contemporaries. In addition to all this activity, Louis Napoleon also found time to complete two volumes of a biography of Julius Caesar, which Ridley claims to be a sufficient memorial to its author even if he had never entered public life.
Ridley describes Louis Napoleon’s methods of dealing with his political enemies within France as the granting of “every possible concession to his enemies immediately before destroying them.” When he failed in his attempt to change the constitution to enable himself to run for reelection, Louis Napoleon simply arrested deputies, officials, radical and socialist leaders, and took over the presses, issuing a proclamation setting up a referendum for a new constitution. He then dissolved the Assembly. When the remaining members of the Assembly met and voted a resolution deposing him, he had them arrested too. Although the Constitutional Court ruled him guilty of treason and declared him no longer president they had no power to enforce their edict and the referendum was duly held in December of 1851. Louis Napoleon’s winning margin was overwhelming; only one electoral district voted against him. In the following year, the Second Empire was established by a vote of more than seven million; Louis Napoleon became Emperor Napoleon III.
Louis Napoleon’s love for Eugénie is described as contrasting with that of his more rational usual affairs. He allegedly “fell madly and overwhelmingly” in love with her. Her initial reaction is not as clear. Ridley tries to sort out the rumors of Eugénie leading a loose life and of her attempted suicide over Pepe Alcañices, Duke of Sesto, concluding that any definite evidence is lacking. Nevertheless, Ridley says, her attraction to him was not as strong as his. Their marriage, in January of 1853, over the objections of his ministers proved initially injurious to his career. That she was unpopular with the French is attested by the many rumors and insulting epithets aimed at her. Even the Pope was concerned about the scandals associated with her resulting in his refusal to come for the coronation of her husband. Napoleon III was never formally crowned.
Remembered mainly for his failures, Napoleon III was involved in most of the intrigues on the international political scene if not in all the wars. Ridley claims that it is a “grotesque exaggeration” to suggest, as historians have, that Napoleon III “deliberately schemed” to engage Britain and Russia in the Crimean War. In Ridley’s view, he was engaging in his usual tactic of scheming with both sides to his own advantage. His success in this case was not matched in the 1859 Franco-Austrian War in Italy where he surreptitiously negotiated a personal treaty but gained political enemies at home and abroad instead of the hoped for peace. His fiasco in Mexico, Ridley says, is again entirely due to his usual tactics and not to his being misled by his advisers, as is often cited by historians. Ridley claims that he was acting with his usual motives of defending French honor, promoting self-interest, and striking against republicanism in his usual deceitful way. In this case, he was suffering from two false assumptions: that the Mexican radicals had no support in the country and that the South would win the Civil War in the United States. On the more successful side, French involvement in Cochin China and West Africa began at this time.
Louis Napoleon also attempted to emulate his great namesake by leading the French on the battlefield, although he had no military training. When he was forced to surrender to the Germans at Sedan in September of 1870, the immediate result was the proclamation of a new French Republic and his imprisonment. He was deposed and spent the rest of his days in England. On his death following an operation for kidney stones in January of 1873, a controversy again arose over the cause of his death. Although Ridley does not dwell on Louis Napoleon’s health at any great length, he does point out that he had had intervals of being prostrated by ill health from the stone in his bladder as well as rheumatism contracted while imprisoned at Ham. The post mortem indicated the cause of death was kidney disease, but Ridley suggests there was a possibility of an overdose of chloral. Again, the evidence available today is inconclusive.
After Louis Napoleon’s death, the Empress Eugénie lived for fifty more years until her death at age ninety-four in 1920. The most significant crisis in her life was the death of their son, the Prince Imperial, Napoleon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph, on June 1, 1879, in Zululand, where he apparently was deserted by the English with whom he was a “distinguished visitor attached to the general staff.” Ridley says it took Eugénie twenty years to recover. Because of her personal friendship with Queen Victoria (Ridley points out that Queen Victoria asked her to write in the informal style) a monument was built to the Prince Imperial at Windsor. Ultimately, Eugénie did recover despite her later comment that she had died in 1870. She learned to ride a bicycle in her seventies and she traveled widely despite frequent ill health, which was due to rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, and headaches. She died shortly after a cataract operation undergone in Spain without anesthetic.
Throughout this double biography, Ridley is thorough in his coverage of those events he feels of importance to the principals. There are, however, some areas omitted in which the reader may question his judgment, such as the industrial revolution and its impact, and such civic works as the railroad building, establishment of hospitals, reorganization of the banks, and the reconstruction of Paris. These are briefly noted by Ridley, but it is a matter of debate how much these influenced Louis Napoleon personally, as well as in the minds of his public who had relinquished their liberty for him. Nevertheless, to have included as detailed an analysis of these as is contained in the rest of the book would certainly have made the length formidable, and as it is, many would question whether Napoleon III is important enough to warrant the present sized book. Despite Ridley’s attempt to give Eugénie equal treatment, most of the interest is focused on Napoleon III; and despite the author’s disclaimer, the book does read more as history than as biography. Had Ridley included those few domestic works during the Emperor’s rule instead of including so much about Eugénie, this book would certainly be in contention as the definitive study of the Second Empire.
Considering his scope, Ridley’s organization is clear and adequate. He devotes separate chapters to Louis Napoleon and to Eugénie detailing their lives before their marriage. Because of the information available on each, as well as Louis Napoleon’s greater historical importance, most of the chapters are devoted to him, and the reader’s understanding of the inner workings of the man is much more thorough than that of his wife. Nevertheless, this book presents as much information as one could expect concerning this relatively obscure couple who played a major role in nineteenth century Europe.
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