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Eugenie, the Tragic Empress

winterhalterEver since she became an empress, Eugenie de Montijo feared Queen Marie-Antoinette’s fate. She was right to feel uneasy. Eighteen years into the reign and some eighty years after Marie-Antoinette’s head was severed under the guillotine, Eugénie ran in terror through the streets of Paris with a mob at her heels. The year was 1870 and the only friend the French empress found in her distress was her American dentist.

Eugenie doesn’t deserve her lack of fame. Who doesn’t know Marie-Antoinette and her horrible end? Who has never heard of Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon I? Both are legendary figures of the French history. One was executed; the other had to agree to a divorce. That the French had two more empresses, Marie-Louise and Eugenie, is a lesser known fact. Marie-Louise’s contribution to the French history was reduced to giving Napoleon his only legitimate heir, an heir that Josephine was unable to provide.  After the fall of the First Empire, Marie-Louise and her little son (who might have ruled as Napoleon II had he not died in the exile) went to live in her native Austria and neither saw France again.

napoleon

Napoleon III

With the Bonaparte family banished from the country, France went through two Bourbon kings and two revolutions to become, again, a republic. After 34 years in the exile, the Bonapartes were back, this time headed by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I. His four-year stint as an elected French president ended in 1852 with a coup d’état when he took what he considered rightfully his: the imperial crown. Henceforth, he was known as Napoleon III.

Generally, the French don’t like Napoleon III. They call him Napoleon le Petit and they say that he did nothing for the glory of France. They seem not to notice that their glorious Napoleon I turned Europe into a battlefield where he sacrificed an entire generation of Frenchmen and caused untold misery to people all over the continent from Spain to Russia. His nephew, on the contrary, was an achiever of another sort. Under his 18-year rule, France conquered the world with her culture and industry. He was the builder of Paris as we know it today, with the wide avenues and sanitary underbelly. He was a modern man in every sense and he truly cared for his people’s well-being.

Fortunately, the new emperor was a bachelor and he could hope to find a bride of royal blood to solidify his lofty position.  Unfortunately, he was also the slave of his lust. While his emissaries were shopping for a suitable bride among the reluctant royal families of Europe—they all still smarted from the consequences of his uncle’s conquests—Napoleon III met the woman of his life and she was not a royal.

Even though Eugenie de Montijo was a stunning beauty, she would never have made the history books had she been only one of Louis Napoleon’s easy conquests. Let’s say it right here:  the man had a long list of bedroom adventures although he wasn’t averse to having sex in any other room, in any stationary or moving vehicle, or even in a haystack –  standing, sitting or laying down.  His sexual appetite was legendary and sometimes embarrassingly noticeable. His Majesty the Empereur was renamed by his sneering courtiers His Majesty the Ampleur.

In Eugenie he found a fortress to be conquered. The rules were laid down very early after the two met.  He was still the Prince-President of the French Republic, she the 26-year-old daughter of a widowed Spanish countess. He invited the two women for a weekend in a country chateau. As he was returning from a horse ride, he spotted Eugenie at one of the numerous windows. Not knowing the exact layout of the building, he called: “How do I get to you?” “Through the chapel, Sire,” she answered.

The siege of Eugenie lasted eleven months before her would-be-conqueror declared defeat. By that time France had, once again, become an empire with Louis Napoleon on the throne. Everyone, especially his family, expected him to do his duty by marrying a virginal foreign princess. Instead, he presented them with a Spanish adventuress of dubious virtue. They were furious.  “But I love her,” he said simply.

Eugenie’s extraordinary resistance to seduction was explained during the wedding night.  She had no appetite for physical love. “Sex? Quelle saleté!” (Sex? What filth!) she was heard saying the next morning. Despite his wife’s attitude, the emperor remained faithful to her for a period of six months before he returned to his old habits. That did not sit well with the new empress. She was very particular about her possessions and she would make a scene for a displaced pillow let alone for a displaced husband. The household was soon aware of her displeasure, most of all the emperor, who was forbidden access to the marital bed. But the pair had to produce an heir. A truce followed during which the task was accomplished. A lovely baby boy was born and given the title Prince Impérial. There were no other children. For the rest of the Napoleon III’s reign, the easily virtuous Eugenie presided over one of the most debauched courts in history, a court where adultery was the norm and a one-night stand with the emperor a badge of honor.

tuileries

The Second Empire court at its zenith. A soiree at the Tuileries, 1867

By now the reader has reached the opinion that Eugenie was a gold-digger with a block of ice where her heart ought to have been. That is incorrect. Most of her life was spent in serious charitable endeavors. An early feminist, she was pushing for female education and advocating the recognition of women’s achievements in literature, arts, and education. That her efforts were largely unsuccessful was the fault of the society she lived in. The reforms she championed came too early.

As an empress, Eugenie was without a reproach. Always courteous and elegant, she represented her country admirably, whether at home or abroad. Queen Victoria, favorably impressed, quickly became Eugenie’s intimate friend. Politically, Eugénie certainly had an influence on the Emperor, especially when he was weakened by a disease in the last years of his reign.  The Bonapartes had many enemies; the most influential among them was the ultra republican Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables. Acting from his exile, he bombarded the imperial pair with insulting pamphlets.  The mud stuck and Eugenie was blamed for everything that went wrong. Like Marie Antoinette, she was foreign and foreign queens were suspected of spying for their homeland and generally wishing ill to the French populace.

The declaration of war on Prussia and the consequent debacle were entirely laid at her feet. While her husband, suffering from a debilitating pain, vainly sought honorable death on the battlefield before surrendering to Bismarck, Eugenie refused to shoot into an angry mob that surrounded the imperial palace.  She chose to flee.  Alone, she tried several addresses before help was offered.  Her savior was Dr. Evans, her American dentist. The pair sneaked off to the coast where the empress, in strict incognito, boarded a ship for England.  As for Dr. Evans, he dined on the story for the rest of his life.

eugenie-tissot-1878

The widowed Eugenie and her son in a Tissot’s painting

After the emperor’s comfortable imprisonment in the newly formed German Empire, the family is reunited in Camden Place, Chislehurst, southeast of London, to begin a life in the exile.  A plan for regaining his throne is certainly in the making when the emperor dies. From then on, Eugenie lives entirely for her son’s future.  Not long after, tragedy strikes again: the prince, engaged in the war with the Zulus in South Africa, is slain by the savages.

The news makes the round of the planet. That his mother is devastated is understandable. oldBut the prince’s death crushed the hopes of numerous Bonapartists. It was generally understood that should the handsome prince claim the imperial crown it would be his for the taking. The grief in France could be compared to the one felt by the British when Princess Diana succumbed after the car accident. Husbandless and childless, Eugenie drags her sorrow through the rest of her long life. She dies in 1920 at the age of ninety-four.

Related posts:

Mark Twain on Napoleon III

Cocottes and Cocodettes

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869

How Germany Was Born in France

paris-color-3

In 1909, a French banker Albert Khan sent several photographers around the world to take polychrome images on all continents. The project was called The Archives of the Planet. These twenty pictures of Paris are a part of that project. They were taken in 1914 at the beginning of the WW1.

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paris-color-1

17 more pictures…

More about Paris history:

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869 – Part 7: Sightseeing

 

cafe

Leon Joseph Voirin, La Terrasse du Cafe – Spending time in a café “en famille” was not a sin in France. Elsewhere, women seen in cafés risked their reputation

I would have a hard time trying to find the exact source of this anonymous text, but the writing style points to the early Victorian times. No doubt, the author was one of the American tourists appreciating France’s unabashed joie-de-vivre and the lack of remorse for having good time – a remorse which was so ingrained in the Anglo-Saxon soul.

An American is made for indoors, but a Frenchman’s home is the outside half of his house. It is for the street he sacrifices domestic comfort. He eats and drinks in the street; he reads his newspaper and takes his dram in the street. To appear like ladies or gentlemen in public one day in the week, either sex will economize their personal wants the remaining six to a condition bordering almost on penury, to save sufficient money to hire, if they cannot purchase, the necessary garments. More can be made of a small capital in Paris than in any other city. There is no occasion to buy anything. Whatever is needed of clothing, domestic utensils, or any article whatever, even to a newspaper, can be hired at moderate rates for any period of time.

One of the most striking contrasts between the French and Americans is in their physical appearance. Both sexes of the former look healthy and robust. Their countenances are full and florid, and have an expression of sensual ease and contentment, as if they were on good terms with themselves and the world. They have none of the care-worn, haggard American physiognomy, which gives youth the air of age, and betokens a race in which labor and thought are paramount to all other considerations. On the contrary, the French when old, look young. The pleasures of this life oil the joints of age, so that time slips smoothly by. If any class belie their years it is the children, to whom overdress and physical restraint give an expression of premature gravity or unnatural heaviness. No doubt the outdoor, and “care not for to-morrow,” life of the French, combined with their passion for amusements, has much to do in their fine state of preservation. Something must be put down to their superior toilets. For the English, with perhaps a higher condition of health, look beside them, to use a comprehensive term in the female vocabulary, like frights, or in other words, there is about as much difference of exterior between the two races as between a buffalo and a blood horse. This applies more particularly to the women. I verily believe an English lady to be incorrigible in matters of taste; or else it has become a point of honor with her to make herself as unattractive as possible. If both nations would divide equally their respective pride and vanity, the result would be a decided improvement in each. Add to this composition the go-ahead principle of brother Jonathan, and the world would have a specimen of a race that would soon distance all national competition in the essential points of order, beauty, and energy.

For a man whose passions are his slaves, whose sentiments are obedient to his will, whose emotions are made so many sources of epicurean pleasure, who lives only to extract the greatest amount of happiness from the sensual world, regardless of a spiritual life, Paris affords resources which are not to be found elsewhere. It is emphatically the home of the man of the world. All that the head can covet is at his option ; but if he has the faintest suspicion of possessing a heart in which dwells the love of the true and natural, he had better withdraw it from the vortex of Parisian life, before it is sucked in too deep to escape.

Related posts:

The Pilgrims and the Sinners: Sunday in Paris

Mark Twain and the Cancan

 

chaleur

You would not want to experience a sultry summer in the 19th century, of that I’m sure. Look at the picture of suffering Parisians. No tank tops for the women, no short pants or sandals for the men. The fashion did not allow for such a relief. The only human being happy with the situation is the lemonade vendor, who is doing brisk business while carrying a pack of ice on his back.

Our ancestors fought back without air conditioning. Some  ways of staying cool are described in Mrs Daffodil’s post How to Keep Cool: 1860 – 1902. The post is an amalgam of heat remedies of the past: some efficient, others humorous if useless, and some downright ingenious. Who would have thought of serving ice cream inside a hollowed out rose? Do read the post and see whether you can find something useful should modern technology fail us.

 

 

André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819 -1899)

André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819 -1899)

Photographic portraiture in the mid 19th century was a slow and expensive process until a clever man invented the carte de visite format. The inventor, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, juxtaposed multiple shots on the same negative, forming a mosaic comparable to that of the photo booth camera. The process, patented in 1854, reduced the cost of production of each photograph and made this kind of portraiture more popular. The visit card took its final shape when each image was pasted on a slightly larger rigid cardboard bearing the name and address of the photographer.

A plate with eight portraits of Princess Lizaveta Trubetzkaya with different fashion accessories, 1858

A plate with eight portraits of Princess Lizaveta Trubetzkaya posing with different fashion accessories, 1858

At first, the portrait card was limited to the narrow circle of the aristocracy and the business in the studio was slow. Then, in 1858, the emperor Napoleon III dropped in on his way to a military campaign in Italy. His portrait was immediately sold by the hundreds throughout Paris. The celebrities, who instantly understood the value of the process, wanted in turn to see their image immortalized in the form of a portrait-card and displayed behind the windows of the souvenir shops on the main boulevards. Political leaders, men of letters, stars of the theater and opera, clowns and acrobats, dancers and women of the demimonde, all joined in. The phenomenon, far from being confined to the capital, quickly won major provincial cities. It spread throughout France, Europe, and later the United States. The images of Queen Victoria, President Lincoln, or Sarah Bernhardt were sold by hundreds of thousands. Following the lead, the bourgeois, too, got on board. Smaller studios opened their doors to produce family portraits.

The emperor became a loyal customer along with his son, wife, and numerous mistresses

The emperor became a  loyal customer along with his son, wife, and numerous mistresses

Queen Victoria, too, sat for several portraits

Queen Victoria, too, posed for several portraits

So did Cora Pearl, the most rapacious of all leading courtesans

So did Cora Pearl, one of the most rapacious of all leading courtesans

Monsieur Léotard with his trapeze, checking his plimsole, c.1865

Performers considered the visit card an essential self-promoting tool. Here is Monsieur Léotard with his trapeze c.1865

The evolution of photography brought social changes. The living room now contained a heavy album with portraits of family members, to which were added others containing collections of now immediately identifiable celebrities, of art, curiosities, and faraway places.  Hidden in secret drawers were new gentlemen’s treasures: the first pornographic photographs.

Was it Disdéri;s assistant or the Master himself who spent considerable time creating this photomontage of ballerina's legs?

Was it Disdéri’s assistant or the Master himself who spent considerable time creating this photo montage of ballerinas’ legs? It was, no doubt, a bestseller. A woman’s ankle was rarely seen, let alone a knee!

Emilie Ellis showing almost all. As you have noticed on the previous photos, fashionable ballerina's legs were eather on the heavy side. Thin wasn't in

Emilie Ellis showing almost all. Fashionable legs were rather on the heavy side. Thin wasn’t in

Disdéri’s carte de visite offered a direct view of society, of its rulers, artists, and other personalities of the Second Empire. It helped to forge new connections between people and enriched the social and cultural knowledge.

To visit a 19th century photography studio, click on the image below. It will take you to the Camera Museum.

Related posts:

Mark Twain on Napoleon III

Cocottes and Cocodettes: Two faces of the same morality

maquette

Slumming It in Paris

 

Apaches at Work

Encounter of the Apaches with the police on the Place de la Bastille

 

Tourist traps were not invented yesterday. The Parisians have got the hang of it very early on. One of the tourist attractions in the past was the glimpse of the redoubtable Apaches, the vicious gangs that terrorized Paris. (More about them in The Gangs of Paris.) Like other tourists, the American author and humorist Irvin S. Cobb followed this fashion of playing with the fire. We first came in contact with his caustic humor in Jacques Takes a Bath where he questions the local hygiene. In the following text, Cobb explores the Paris underground hoping for an adrenaline high in mingling with the Apaches:

Knowing from experience that every other American who lands in Paris will crave to observe the Apache while the Apache is in the act of Apaching round, the canny Parisians have provided a line of up-to-date Apache dens within easy walking distance of Montmartre; and hither the guides lead the round-eyed tourist and there introduce him to well-drilled, carefully made-up Apaches and Apachesses engaged in their customary sports and pastimes for as long as he is willing to pay out money for the privilege.

Being forewarned of this I naturally desired to see the genuine article. I took steps to achieve that end. Suitably chaperoned by a trio of transplanted Americans who knew a good bit about the Paris underworld I rode over miles of bumpy cobblestones until, about four o’clock in the morning, our taxicab turned into a dim back street opening off one of the big public markets and drew up in front of a grimy establishment rejoicing in the happy and well-chosen name of the Cave of the Innocents.

Alighting we passed through a small boozing ken, where a frowzy woman presided over a bar, serving drinks to smocked marketmen, and at the rear descended a steep flight of stone steps. At the foot of the stairs we came on two gendarmes who sat side by side on a wooden bench, having apparently nothing else to do except to caress their goatees and finger their swords. Whether the gendarmes were stationed here to keep the Apaches from preying on the marketmen or the marketmen preying on the Apaches I know not; but having subsequently purchased some fresh fruit in that selfsame market I should say now that if anybody about the premises needed police protection it was the Apaches. My money would be on the marketmen every time.

Beyond the couchant gendarmes we traversed a low, winding passage cut out of stone and so came at length to what seemingly had originally been a wine vault, hollowed out far down beneath the foundations of the building. The ceiling was so low that a tall man must stoop to avoid knocking his head off. The place was full of smells that crawled in a couple of hundred years before and had died without the benefit of clergy, and had remained there ever since. For its chief item of furniture the cavern had a wicked old piano, with its lid missing, so that its yellowed teeth showed in a perpetual snarl. I judged some of its important vital organs were missing too – after I heard it played. On the walls were inscribed such words as naughty little boys write on schoolhouse fences in this country, and more examples of this pleasing brand of literature were carved on the white oak benches and the rickety wooden stools. So much for the physical furbishing.

By rights—by all the hallowed rules and precedents of the American vaudeville stage!—the denizens of this cozy retreat in the bowels of the earth should have been wearing high-waisted baggy velvet trousers and drinking absinthe out of large flagons, and stabbing one another between the shoulder blades, and ever and anon, in the mystic mazes of dance, playing crack-the-whip with the necks and heels of their adoring lady friends; but such was not found to be the case. In all these essential and traditional regards the assembled Innocents were as poignantly disappointing as the costers of London had proved themselves.

According to all the printed information on the subject the London coster wears clothes covered up with pearl buttons and spends his time swapping ready repartee with his Donah or his Dinah. The costers I saw were barren of pearl buttons and silent of speech; and almost invariably they had left their Donahs at home. Similarly, these gentlemen habitués of the Cave of the Innocents wore few or no velvet pants, and guzzled none of the absinthe. Their favorite tipple appeared to be beer; and their female companions snuggled closely beside them.

apache 1

We stayed among them fully twenty minutes, but not a single person was stabbed while we were there. It must have been an off-night for stabbings. Still I judged them to have been genuine exhibits because here, for the first, last and only time in Paris, I found a shop where a stranger ready to spend a little money was not welcomed with vociferous enthusiasm. The paired-off cave-dwellers merely scowled on us as we scourged past them to a vacant bench in a far corner. […]

For the sake of the conventions I tried to feel apprehensive of grave peril. It was no use. I felt safe – not exactly comfortable, but perfectly safe. I could not even muster up a spasm of the spine when a member of our party leaned over and whispered in my ear that any one of these gentry roundabout us would cheerfully cut a man’s throat for twenty-five cents. I was surprised though at the moderation of the cost; this was the only cheap thing I had struck in Paris. It was cheaper even than the same job is supposed to be in the district round Chatham Square, on the East Side of New York, where the credulous stranger so frequently is told that he can have a plain murder done for five dollars – or a fancy murder with trimmings, for ten; rate card covering other jobs on application. In America, however, it has been my misfortune that I did not have the right amount handy; and here in Paris I was handicapped by my inability to make change correctly. By now I would not have trusted anyone in Paris to make change for me – not even an Apache. I was sorry for this, for at a quarter a head I should have been glad to engage a troupe of Apaches to kill me about two dollars’ worth of cabdrivers and waiters. For one of the waiters at our hotel I would have been willing to pay as much as fifty cents, provided they killed him very slowly. Because of the reasons named, however, I had to come away without making any deal, and I have always regretted it.

Related posts:

Jacques Takes a Bath

The Gags of Paris: Les Apaches

100

A milestone like the hundredth post naturally calls for a pause, for a look back at what has been achieved. These days VP posts are read around the world, even in countries I never knew existed.  It was not so at the very beginning.  Buried deep in the archives are posts that few eyes have seen recently. Yet given the small readership at the time, they gathered exceptional attention either for their content, or for the quality of the writing. Victorian Paris, it should be known, is history written by the people who lived it. From time to time, I contribute by writing a post, but usually I limit myself to finding a catchy title. After all, the texts published here don’t need more than a short introduction. Even though they were written more than a hundred years ago, they are rich in content and very often full of sparkling wit. Let’s revisit three of them:

 

La Grisette

Homage to the grisette. Statue erected in 1830

 

 

Living Vertically: Parisian Housing in 1850 / Part 1

Parisian house, January 1st, 1843

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Paris Morgue in Emile Zola’s Words (warning – gruesome!)

The Morgue at Paris. The Last Scene of a Tragedy.

 

 

 

 

 

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