The Second Empire

The Second Empire

The Second Empire

The Second Empire

Excerpt

This book is neither a history of the Second Empire nor a biography of Louis Napoleon. For the former, with its wars and its tortuous diplomacy, we turn to the massive surveys of Ollivier, La Gorce and Seignobos; for the latter to Simpson, Sencourt and Thompson. Its purpose is to transmute mere names into men and women of flesh and blood; to study the Emperor's complex character in sunshine and storm; to assess the influence of his wife and relatives, legitimate and illegitimate; to watch his Ministers at work and his critics in attack; to recapture something of the atmosphere of the two colourful decades which separate the drab Bourgeois Monarchy from the equally drab Third Republic.

Inevitably there is overlapping, for the highlights of the drama are described in different contexts. Yet every chapter adds a few touches to the portrait of 'Napoleon the Little' -- 'a blend of Don Quixote and Machiavelli', an echo of the mighty Emperor but an infinitely better man. Close acquaintance reveals the most humane of dictators, part idealist, part adventurer, sincerely desiring the welfare of his country and a fairer lot for the common man. Émile de Girardin, the most influential journalist of the time, described him as Napoléon le bien intentionné, a title subtly blending compliment with criticism. No one could have been more different from the popular conception of a ruthless autocrat than this kindly ruler who never lost his temper nor raised his voice. Neither a superman nor a rogue -- as Francis Joseph described him -- he is best described in Queen Victoria's verdict, after his visit to Windsor in 1855, as 'an extraordinary man'. Though there were other Bonapartes of the second generation, he alone possessed the drive and the quasi-mystical faith to secure a niche in the temple of fame.

There was nothing new either in the nature of the experiment, the success of the début, or the humiliating collapse. Dictator is a Latin term, but the type had flourished in Greece, where the feverish life of the City States threw up the Tyrannos as a recurring . . .

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