Emperor Napoleon
Emperor Napoleon; drawing by David Levine

One day, a gifted French director will film a new life of Bonaparte. Emperor of the underworld in a provincial city, Napoleon will marry, in an overblown suburban church, a blonde Breton girl of superior family and subnormal will-power; he will cow her with gigantic, orchidaceous presents and bewilder her with a sexuality in which violence and greed fail to compensate for premature ejaculation and prudishness. Madame Mère will be installed as concierge of the university hostel, and continue to regard her son as a contemptible failure although the King of Holland has been installed in the best “bureau de tabac,” the King of Spain has been intruded into the public prosecutor’s office, the King of Württemburg runs the city hall department concerned with building tenders, and the Princess Borghese has the best stretch of sidewalk on the Rue de la République. The career of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, was a huge prefiguration of ten thousand small Corsican careers to come.

All three of these books are concerned with Bonaparte personality, rather than policy. Mr. Kurtz’s life of the Empress Eugénie is a serious biography, attempting an objective estimate of the subject’s influence on public affairs and to distinguish fact from legend. The other two works are volumes of more or less absorbing gossip, and had much legend been winnowed from fact, they would be pretty thin volumes too. None the less, the reading of seven or eight hundred Napoleonic anecdotes skimpily pinned to a screen of conventional political history conveys eventually some powerful general impressions of the two Empires and the family’s behavior between the “whiff of grapeshot” and the death of the Prince Imperial in the Zulu War.

Miss Mossiker, avoiding dangerously exposed areas of political episode, sticks to her topic of one Imperial marriage, and has written a book which is long, jovial, fairer to Josephine than to Napoleon, but seldom dull and never prudish. She has used every diary and letter she could find, avoiding the need to cook up fictionalized thoughts. Mr. Aronson, on the other hand, has overstepped himself. To produce a study of the whole Bonaparte dynasty considered primarily as family, without much regard to political Bonapartism itself, to what this golden swarm really thought it was at, is to miss the way the Bonapartes became dominated by their own myth. Like Miss Mossiker, Mr. Aronson has read libraries, taken notes for years, but his approach is too light to bear the huge weight he has chosen to present. Chattiness is all right, perhaps, for a single Bonaparte; not for the whole dynasty, which blackened Europe, killed her children, and poisoned the tradition of authority in France.

Clearly, the first Napoleon did have many of the characteristics of the gangster. Raving under the burden of obligation to his mother and yet lacking the moral courage to cut his dreadful family adrift, all his close human relationships partook of a quality of hysteria. Nothing went easily. If he loved somebody, he pinched them, slapped them, teased them until they screamed. Of this conqueror, at least, it seems possible that his martial violence was truly delinquent, and that his contemporary enemies were accurate in calling him a brigand. Unable to keep still, he tried constantly to calm himself with several boiling hot baths a day, with discreet chamber music, or with pages of anodyne poetry read to him by Josephine—he was eighteenth-century enough to demand an effect of order from poetry rather than a stimulation. Was it an effect of order or of stimulation that he sought in women?

There is plenty of evidence in Frances Mossiker’s book in which to look for an answer. His passionate letters to Josephine from Italy show him frantic with love and desire, proud to have conquered a lady from a world once well above his own, overpowering her with every extravagant compliment and declaration until the very speed of the torrent conveys something like a threat, a bombardment; at the same time, endlessly anxious and jealous about her state of mind. “Never was a woman loved with more devotion, more fire or more tenderness. Never has a woman been in such complete mastery of another’s heart, so as to dictate all its tastes and penchants, so as to influence all its desires. If it is otherwise with you, I deplore my blindness and leave you to the remorse of your soul.” This is persuasive address as much as passionate communication, public relations copy for a private relationship. Miss Mossiker rightly compares the language to that used in his proclamations to the Army of Italy: praise, more praise, and then another demand.

Later in his life, the need for order and stimulation begin to find satisfaction in separate women. But at first, he seemed to make scenes with Josephine because he knew that she was helpless to do anything but cry and let him rush her off to bed afterwards. A sick pattern of provocation and luxurious forgiveness was set out by Napoleon; her surrender setting him on the path to a new act of provocation. This lasted until his sexual fascination with Josephine waned, and was replaced by a balanced affection which at last took notice of her as a person. Engaged with other mistresses, Napoleon now wrote her fond and understanding letters, and drew some real benefit from her calm and tolerance.


At the same time, his relations with his mistresses were becoming disconcertingly practical, a quick “fix” of violence to settle his nerves for the next few hours. As a young man, Napoleon used to ask prostitutes to describe the loss of their virginity before he could summon up the spirit to grasp them. As Emperor in the field, so Stendhal recalled, “when a lady was announced, he would request her—without looking up from his worktable—to go and wait for him in bed. Later, with a candlestick in his hand, he would show her out of the bedroom and then promptly go back to his table to continue reading, correcting and signing those endless decrees. The essential part of the rendezvous had not lasted three minutes.” Meanwhile, this busy man’s idle relations lolled on European thrones and had few bothers with their inhibitions.

Mr. Aronson’s book abounds with saucy stories about these relations; they were a liability to Napoleon and a condemnation of his system. But gradually, after Waterloo, their jollity slowed down, and by the Second Empire the Bonaparte relations were either solemn statesmen or forgotten remittance men. Alone, Princess Mathilde displayed the child-like relish for the new and splendid which the first Bonapartes had shared. Meanwhile, the Napoleon ruling at St.-Cloud was more of a Beauharnais than a Bonaparte. Louis-Napoleon could be callous, but there was little violence in him, and from these books, an obscure adjectival description forms itself: indecisive, sensual, well-intentioned, chaotic. Really liking women where the first Napoleon squirmed with a concealed “Frauenhass,” Louis-Napoleon let his mistresses take his mind off his work and divide his attention. The silliness of grand people infected him, as it infects legitimate monarchs; he was superstitious, and kept putting off the doctor because he knew there was something badly wrong. Kind and intelligent, he still let tyranny develop and evaded the autocrat’s real problem: on what can my rule rest? There was no mass Bonapartist movement, only a popular vote. Foreign war seemed loathsome, after his first sight of a battlefield in Italy. Louis-Napoleon drifted around doing good works, wrecking himself on his mistresses, and wondering about the pain in his insides. In 1870, the Empire folded up as neatly and inevitably as a newspaper read to the last page.

The Empress understood more. Mr. Kurtz makes a case for her as a better Bonapartist than her husband. Absorbing “social” ideas from Fourier and impressions of glory from the talk of Stendhal, Eugénie had a clear notion of Bonapartism as a liberal monarchy with a popular programme. That is what she supposed she was exporting to Mexico with Maximilian, but she also realized that the Second Empire would not survive defeat in war because it did not rest upon active popular consent. Mr. Kurtz shows that she was not, however, anxious for victorious war, and describes how court intrigue deliberately built up the lasting impression that Eugénie was an ultra in religion and a fire-eater in foreign affairs. His book is sound, complete and intelligent. Why, though, does Mr. Kurtz take such a contemptuous view of republicans? They were right to object to the shams of the Second Empire, which they correctly perceived to be undemocratic and unsafe, and when it had fallen, they built a Republic which stood for seventy years. Grateful for all that Mr. Kurtz writes about Eugénie in exile and her emergence as the “stateswoman” she never was in France, one would have liked to hear his conclusions on the decline and fall of the Second Empire itself, rather than an able exculpation of the Empress. If it is true that Eugénie was far from “Second Empire” in her tastes and views, was she not simply an enlightened queen who, like legitimist monarchs abroad, herself found the Napoleonic trappings rather vulgar and constricting?

Bonapartism is still with us. A candidate still lives (quietly, in Belgium), supported by the groups even more pious and respectable than the Jacobites who mourn King Charles and Divine Right. More prominently, the tradition of government by plebiscite against private interest lives on with de Gaulle, and, surprisingly enough, with Chancellor Erhard of West Germany. But it is hard to share Mr. Kurtz’s enthusiasm for the Second Empire, and his distaste for republicans who wanted to pull it down. Bonapartism was not really a doctrine; it was a failure of nerve, a wish among moderates to achieve social advance without the republican institutions which might quicken the advance to a charge. Without the black energy of motherridden Corsicans, nobody would have associated this mild view with glory.


This Issue

December 31, 1964