A Frivolous Bonaparte

By Goode, Stephen | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Frivolous Bonaparte


Goode, Stephen, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Busby Berkeley, the legendary director of such lavish Hollywood musicals with precision dancing as "Footlight Parade" and "Gold Diggers of 1933," would have loved it. At a fancy dress ball held during the evening of Feb. 9, 1863, at the Tuileries palace in Paris, four women elegantly costumed as bees emerged from four huge beehives to dance a tribute to Napoleon III, then in the second decade of his reign as Emperor of the French.

There were many such evenings during the Second Empire, at least among France's privileged and wealthy. But as David Baguley shows in his fascinating "Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravganza," the almost endless pomp at the top of French society under Napoleon III, also known as Louis Napoleon, Napoleon le Petit and Napoleon the Well-Intentioned, was not matched by a single achievement on the monarch's part that might justify that pomp and display, and thus left the emperor's regime open to ridicule which came pouring in from many quarters.

Napoleon III's story is a dramatic one, but unheroic. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte had been elected president of France in 1848, but seized power in a coup d'etat staged in early December, 1851. The following year he became emperor. He fell from power in 1870 after the complete German victory over the French at the town of Sedan, a very low point in French history and an event for which he was blamed. He died disgraced in England in 1873 and was buried there.

A nephew of Napoleon I, the conqueror of Europe, Louis Napoleon, who was born in 1808, took the name Napoleon III out of deference to his uncle's son and heir, the Duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon II, who died in 1832. Long before he became emperor, Louis Napoleon had twice attempted to stage coups that would make him ruler of France - and both attempts had ended in failure and ignominy. He spent time imprisoned and many years in exile in England where he gained a reputation as a womanizer and voluptuary. As a young man, he wrote utopian works including one entitled "The Extinction of Pauperism."

An enormously ambitious man, Napoleon learned to conceal his ambition under the cover of his oft-expressed desire to do only what was best for France. His "contradictory nature," writes Mr. Baguley, uneasily combined the opportunist willing to do anything to gain power and the visionary desirous of perfecting society. As a matter of public relations, he played down his opportunistic side and displayed his visionary aspect.

His physiognomy did not inspire admiration. Louis Napoleon had short legs that ill fit the rest of his body and a large nose which cartoonists loved to caricature. The poet Theophile Gautier - who was no enemy of the emperor - once said that Louis Napoleon in the general's uniform he wore for ceremonial events looked "like a ring-master who has been sacked for getting drunk." With friends such as that, Napoleon III didn't need enemies. Nor were his imperial credentials completely in order. He may or may not have been a true Bonaparte - his promiscuous mother left great room for doubt. It was yet another aspect of his life that rendered him vulnerable to his opponents.

But Mr. Baguley, who holds the Chair of French at the University of Durham, England, isn't writing a traditional biography of the third Napoleon. "How could one adequately and convincingly write a biography of a man such as Louis Napoleon for whom dissimulatlion was the natural state?" Mr. Baguley asks.

Instead, Mr. Baguley focuses on what he calls the "more `extravagant' texts and images" of Louis Napoleon's reign. Those texts and images include "pictures, performances, spectacles, rituals, fiction, poems, and plays," all of which the Second Empire produced in profusion.

It's out of this profusion of images that Mr. Baguley skillfully weaves the two subjects of his book. First, the creation of the extravagant imperial myth around Louis Napoleon and his court by his supporters and by the emperor himself.

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