Page 11, 5th March 2004

5th March 2004
Page 11
Page 11, 5th March 2004 — More than just a pretty face

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Organisations: Academie Française
Locations: Rome, Paris


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More than just a pretty face

Empress Eugénie was famous for her looks and her clothes. But, as Claus von Bülow discovers, she was also a woman of extraordinary power and advanced intellect Eugénie: The Empress and Her Empire by Desmond Seeward, Sutton Publishing £20.

This is the season for revisionist biographies of great female Catholic rulers. Last month I reviewed Leonie Frieda’s excellent life of Catherine de Medici, and this month it is Desmond Seward’s equally challenging oeuvre Eugénie, about the consort of the ill-fated Napoleon III. We must look forward to the next instalments in this series. Cherie Blair and Cristina Odone, perhaps?

Most figures in history are remembered, and indeed often judged by, some misleading feature in their identikit. Eugénie is unavoidably tainted by the basic vulgarity and frivolity of the Second Empire. She is also remembered, more kindly, for her own beauty and splendid wardrobe from the couturier Worth. But Desmond Seward paints a much deeper and more interesting picture of this intelligent and tragic figure.

There is an element of tragedy in almost every chapter. Eugenia di Montijo’s father was exiled from Spain for his Bonapartist sympathies and then, after inheriting his elder brother’s estates and titles, fell ill and died. Eugenia’s first and probably only love did not love her; her distant cousin, the Duke of Alba, married her sister, not her. Her mother then carted her off to Paris, shamelessly engineered the meeting of Eugenia and the priapic emperor, and steered the pair towards the altar. Once married to the physically unprepossessing emperor, Eugénie found the biological preliminaries for producing an heir quite distasteful, and had to put up with her husband’s continuous and demonstrative infidelities. One of these was with the legendary Cora Pearl (née Emma Crutch) a famous demi-mondaine. Another was Virginia de Castiglione, by whom the emperor had a son who was entrusted to the Imperial dentist, Dr Evans, who brought him up under the pseudonym of Dr Hugenschmidt.Surely this branch of the Bonaparte dynasty deserves further research.

Lord Hertford, a great connoisseur and founder of the Wallace Collection, paid one million francs for one night with La Castiglione, and apparently got his money’s worth. There can be no doubt that Offenbach, the wittiest and most lighthearted of composers, painted a verismo portrait of the gaudy and constant festivities at the Tuileries, Compiègne and Saint Cloud.

Seward rightly gives Eugénie credit for her interest in writers, artists and other good causes. Octave Feuillet, Stendhal and, in particular, Prosper Merimée were close to the Court. The empress intervened in favour of Flaubert when he was prosecuted for Madame Bovary, and she had Baudelaire’s fine for Les Fleurs du Mal reduced. The members of the Academie Française remained hostile, and Victor Hugo stayed fulminating as an exile on Guernsey.

Eugénie was also interested in women’s rights, supporting the painter Rosa Bonheur and an ungrateful George Sand. She made it possible for the Englishwoman Elizabeth Garrett to qualify as a doctor in Paris. Her courageous support of Dreyfus, when she was herself an exile, was admirable, especially as there were many who blamed L'Espagnole for France’s defeat in 1870. Marie-Antoinette, L’Autricienne, had lost her life in an earlier French fever of xenophobia.

Eugénie exercised extraordinary power for a woman of her day, and France was indeed still a major power. The empress attended all Council meetings and, after the birth of the Prince Imperial, she served as regent during the emperor’s absences on military campaigns. Although Napoleon III claimed that “The Empire is Peace”, it was almost impossible for a Bonaparte usurper not to go to war. France suffered as much as Britain in the futile Crimean War. Then the Emperor supported Cavour’ s schemes for a united Italy, fought the Austrians in the two bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino, and yet antagonised the Liberals by opposing Garibaldi’s invasion of Rome and the Papal States. Having weakened Austria, and lost them the Archduke Maximilian in the Mexican adventure, he allowed Bismarck a free hand in the Battle of Koniggratz.

The resulting Prussian hegemony amongst the German states led inevitably to the War of 1870 and the fall of the Second Empire. France and the rest of Europe suffered the consequences in 1914 and 1939.

Napoleon III’s regime was always opposed by Legitimists, Orleanists, Republicans, and of course opportunists. The empire, and indeed most monarchies on the Continent, were held together by a fear of a recurrence of the 1848 revolutions. The defeat at Sedan led to the Commune, the burning of the Tuileries, the murder of the Archbishop of Paris and more horrors. This inevitably taints Eugénie’s memory. She retired to England, where she was eventually joined by her ailing husband and her son. With her considerable Spanish fortune she was easily able to build a palace at Farnborough Hill, where the architect Destailleur created an early-Rothschild transitional Sassoon-style dower house with its own adjacent abbey for Benedictine monks.

Her only son served with the British forces and was killed in the Zulu War, bravely seeking the hero’s death which had tragically eluded his father on the battlefield at Sedan. Since both Bismarck and Queen Victoria admired her, she must have had great qualities, which endured for the rest of her sad life. She lived until 1920, and her funeral was attended by the crowned heads of Europe, many of whom had by then also lost their thrones.

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