Carnival Empire by John Bierman (John Murray £15.95) R C Baker
TO MANY contemporaries Prince Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Napoleon, "Napoleon lc Petit" as Victor Hugo disparagingly called him, must have appeared at first a comic figure. His initial attempts to seize power in France (on one occasion using a tame vulture in place of an imperial eagle) were farcical failures.
He even looked faintly
ludicrous, with, as Anthony
Trollope described it, "the long
prickly-ended clotted moustache, which looked as though it were being continually rolled up in saliva . . .". His early adventures were more than a little humiliating, but nevertheless, as John Bierman points out in his new biography, Louis Napoleon "seemed possessed of a sublime certainty that he was destined to occupy the throne of France and to recreate the Empire".
After the defeat of 1815 Louis Napoleon was alone among his mediocre family in having any sense of remaining destiny.
Though Mr Bierman suggests that given the bad relationship between his parents he was possibly not a Bonaparte at all. Indeed when his real opportunity came it took Louis Napoleon by surprise: the outbreak of revolution in 1848 and the flight of King Louis-Philippe found the Prince living quietly in England where he had recently enrolled as
a special constable against the Chartists. He had to borrow money from his English mistress to finance his return to France.
Once there, as he hoped, the magic of his name was still a potent force. Elected President a few years later, in a cleverly managed coup d'etat he declared himself Emperor. The achievement comes almost as an anti-climax.
John Bierman says firmly that his book is not a work of scholarship. He is writing as a journalist, nOt an historian: at times, as when he speculates on the Empress Eugenie's family background, one might be forgiven for thinking he writes as a tabloid journalist.
Some of his style and
vocabulary may be slightly jarring to the British reader, too. On occasion, also, his use of modern terminology might seem simplistic, as when he refers to communist agitators and "the reds" in 1848.
Drawing on a wide range of published sourc ; the author demonstrates how surprisingly modern in style Napoleon 111's rule was. His use of plebiscites and referenda to confirm popular support for actions already taken, his appreciation of the publicity value of Royal visits, his repression of opponents and free speech, his stage-managed military triumphs after the pyrrhic victories at Magenta and Solferino all have something in common with the dictators of the twentieth century. The Second Empire was an important time for France. It was a period of expansion and rapid industrial growth, of prosperity and real cultural distinction. In every sense, France was the fashion leader of Europe. Yet Mr Bierman does not really explore these aspects of the reign very deeply, concentrating instead on Napoleon's foreign policy (where the Emperor never quite lost the habits of a conspirator) which was finally to prove his downfall.
Much of the book is devoted to Napoleon's many love affairs,
another area where he sought to
emulate his high-achieving uncle.
His biographer acknowledges that Napoleon 111 was complex and fascinating but somehow does not quite get far enough beneath the surface to enlighten us much further.