Al The Court Of Napolean: Memoirs Of The Duchesse D'Abrantes. Introduction by Olivier Bernier (The Windrush Press, I:20)
R C Baker THE English, who are not always that inclined to adulation of Napoleon, are not perhaps the audience for whom the arch-Bonapartist Duchesse D'Abrante's intended her memoirs; at times she is almost sour at the refusal of the British to acknowledge her hero as "master of the world".
She was born Laure Permon in 1785 into that class of wealthy bourgeoisie whose ambitions had been so frustrated by the Ancien Regime. By chance her family came from a Corsican background and like so many others they rose with the Corsican adventurer.
At the age of 16 Laure married General Junot, then Governor of Paris, and a former aide-de-camp to Napoleon. During the Consulate and early years of the Empire she was close to the centre of power but in later years much less so. After 1814 she was left a virtually penniless widow.
In 1831 Balzac, who found her a romantic figure, persuaded Laure to publish her memoirs. These appeared over a period of four years in 18 volumes and proved both popular and profitable.
These memoirs have now been reissued (edited down to one manageable volume) though the language in which they are written is mannered to a degree that reads very maladroitly in English.
The editor supplies a full biography and interpolates the very necessary historical background. For if Madame Junot is writing history she is definitely writing it from the anteroom. She concentrates rather on the social side of the scene; providing a rich, vivid, lively account of the numerous formal receptions, balls, fetes, dinners and amateur dramatics that filled the life of Napoleon's parvenu court. Filled it to such an extent that one almost wonders how he found time for anything else. Witnessing a moment of real significance she seems to have noticed only what everyone wore.
Yet it is in precisely these details and her anecdotes of Napoleon, for instance playing with his baby son, or showing affection by pulling peoples' ears, that her recollections are fascinating. While acidulously sharp in her comments on unimportant people she attempts no political or even critical judgements on her idealised hero and avoids any mention of his autocracy or increasing meglomania.
The Duchesse is tiresomely discreet about the sordid side of the court and the worthless Boneparte family. Sadly at the point when her reminiscences would have been of real interest, during the years of decline and defeat, she had long since fallen from favour and seems almost unable to comprehend the final debacle.