His Uncle’s Nephew

Napoleon III and Eugénie

by Jasper Ridley
Viking, 768 pp., $25.00

Napoleon III
Napoleon III; drawing by David Levine

Prince Louis Napoleon once occupied a great place on the European stage. From 1852 to 1870 he was Napoleon III. Emperor of the French, reviving if only in name the glories of his uncle. The other European rulers feared and courted him. Queen Victoria visited him at Paris with her family and entertained him at Osborne. Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, and Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, both sought his favor, though neither was prepared to pay a high price for it. Conservatives hailed him as the Guardian of Order. At the other end of the spectrum Victor Hugo called him Napoleon le Petit and Marx exercised his wit on “Badinguet,” allegedly (though Ridley says incorrectly) the name of the building worker in whose clothes Louis Napoleon escaped from his prison at Ham. Other revolutionaries, including Kossuth, thought that he could be won for the cause of nationalism.

Napoleon III fell from power in 1870 and died three years later. What had he achieved during his years of imperial bombast? He had assisted, perhaps unwillingly, the unification of Italy. He had acquired Savoy and Nice for France and had lost Alsace and Lorraine. Frenchmen, apart from a few nostalgic adherents, blamed him for the loss by France of her position as the premier power in Europe, if they considered him at all. Historians passed him over in embarrassed silence. The early twentieth century saw a revival of interest in Napoleon III. His economic policy, hither-to obscure, was highly praised. One distinguished historian wrote that he had done more for the economic amelioration of the French people than any other government since the great Revolution. Alternatively he was hailed as a precursor of twentieth-century fascism, a comparison which was soon overdone. For instance Louis Napoleon had no mass body of followers. His name, he contended, would be enough of itself. And so in time it proved.

What with one thing and another Louis Napoleon has again sunk into obscurity except for a few administrative studies of the Second Empire. Bismarck is still fully alive historically; even Franz Joseph has some sparks of life left in him. Louis Napoleon has not kept up in the race. Now Jasper Ridley has made a bid to restore him. Ridley’s book is very long—over 600 enormous pages. It is also however very readable. It scores also by being a biography of Eugénie, Louis Napoleon’s wife, as well as of Napoleon. She was not as odd a character perhaps as her husband but she was certainly a strong one. The biography of both is intensely personal: two curious, even interesting, persons into whose lives historical events happened to intervene. Louis Napoleon remains to the end a mystery, a sphinx without a riddle, as Bismarck called him. Eugénie is much more straight-forward, a Spanish countess of more pretensions than wealth who happened to marry an emperor.

One thing…

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