Eugenie - Empress of the French - George Upton

Private Life of the Empress

Besides the annoyances caused by the ill-will of the anti-clerical party, Eugenie at this time had also sorrows and anxieties of her own to endure. Painful as her youthful passion for the Duke of Alva had been, it had failed to affect the close affection of the two sisters—an attachment that only deepened as time went on. The Duchess and her husband frequently spent their winters in Paris, and were always sure of a cordial welcome from the imperial pair.

Eugenie's life before her marriage was one of such freedom that although she fulfilled all her duties as sovereign with dignity and apparent content, there were many lonely hours when her thoughts turned longingly to those youthful days in Spain and to the dear ones there, especially her mother, with whom the Duchess of Alva was now her only link. The Duchess had been afflicted for some time with an incurable malady, though Eugenie was ignorant of its serious nature. While travelling with the Emperor in August, 186o, she was shocked to receive word that her sister's condition had changed greatly for the worse. The august travellers were then in Algiers, and Eugenie begged Napoleon to turn back at once. But elaborate preparations had been made for their entertainment and to abandon the festivities would have been too great a disappointment to the people. Torn with anxiety, the Empress attended a grand ball given in their honor, and not till it was over did she learn the sad truth that her sister was dying. She sailed at once for France, but it was too late. Before she reached land the Duchess had expired. It was a terrible blow to Eugenie; overcome with grief she shut herself up in her own apartments, refusing to see any one. It was months before she recovered herself sufficiently to appear again in court circles.

Nor was this all. Although Napoleon's marriage with the beautiful Spaniard had been one of love alone, yet the passion with which she inspired him gradually cooled, and although he continued to treat his wife invariably with the same respect and admiration he had shown in their early married life, there were many occasions when he gave her cause for jealousy.

In these conjugal trials the Duchess of Alva had been her confidante and had helped her through many bitter hours. Now that this gentle comforter was gone she felt doubly the neglect so hard for her warm and generous nature to endure; and these sorrows, added to anxiety for the health of her son, cast a permanent shadow over her bright spirits. She fell more and more under the influence of the priesthood, devoted herself to religious works, had new convents built, and even thought of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This plan was afterwards abandoned, but her irritability, capriciousness, and bigotry reduced her household to desperation. The constant alternations of religious frenzy and feverish pursuit of pleasure, of extreme gayety and deepest melancholy, characteristic of the Empress's later life, were no doubt due to an overwrought nervous system, like the hysterical fits of laughing or weeping that often seized her without any apparent cause. But with so gay and sanguine a temperament as hers, these moods never lasted long; and her warm-heartedness never failed to win the affection of those about her.

Among the friendships formed by Eugenie, that with the Princess Metternich is of especial interest, since no lady of the Imperial Court was so much talked of and criticised as the young wife of the Austrian ambassador. From Vienna, where they had been favorites at the Austrian court, the Metternichs had come to Paris in 186o, shortly after the conclusion of peace between Italy, France, and Austria, and soon after their own marriage. Born of one of the oldest and most distinguished families in the country, Pauline Metternich was at once a type of the proud aristocrat and the gay, witty, thoughtless Viennese, full of original and daring ideas, which she took no pains to conceal. In the days of the Empire the Austrian Embassy was the rendezvous of all the rank, wealth, and intellect of Paris. Disciples of art and literature, diplomats and government officials and Legitimists from St. Germain met in these salons. Even the Emperor and Empress often made their appearance there.

At their very first meeting the Princess had conceived the greatest admiration for Eugenie; and with the exception of her young niece Anna Murat (afterward Duchess of Monchy), for whom the Empress had an almost motherly affection, no one was so close to her as the Princess Metternich. Perfect sympathy of tastes, and a certain magnetic attraction for which there is no explanation, proved the foundation of an intimate friendship that lasted for years. Pauline's sparkling wit and vivacity were of just the sort to strike a responsive chord in so lively a nature as Eugenie's. She was the soul of all the fetes at Compiegne and Fontainebleau, and added to the long evenings at court a life and gayety they often sadly lacked.

At home the Princess Metternich was an excellent wife and mother, and attended personally to every detail of her household. In society, however, she disregarded all conventions, spoke her mind freely on all occasions, and had the courage to stand up for her convictions. The brilliant witticisms and clever sayings attributed to her are numberless; they were repeated not only among the court and diplomatic circles, but even by the public. Her influence in the world of fashion was almost equal to that of the Empress, but she was always causing painful embarrassments to her imitators. One day she would appear dressed with a simplicity and plainness that would not have been permitted in any one else; the next, her costume would be of a costliness no one could possibly hope to rival. She was a clever mimic, and would delight the whole court with her imitations of Madame Therese, a well known music-hall singer, the Empress usually leading in the applause; yet on formal occasions no one at court could appear with greater dignity and stateliness. In fact Eugenie's fondness for her was partly founded on that weakness for birth and rank of which we have already spoken. She was peculiarly sensitive as to her own origin, and no greater insult could be inflicted upon her than any allusion to it. The French authoress Olympe Andouard relates an instance of this that almost severed the friendship between Eugenie and the Princess Metternich.

It was during one of the court evenings at Fontainebleau which happened to be most dull and tedious. Among those present, as usual, was the wife of the Austrian ambassador to whom private apartments had been assigned in a wing of the palace. Weary at last of the monotony, Pauline whispered to a friend that she would feign a bad headache and retire to her own rooms, whither the friend was to follow quietly with a dozen chosen ladies and cavaliers. No sooner said than done. The headache served as an excuse. The Princess withdrew and hastily prepared to receive her guests, who soon succeeded in stealing away unobserved. All was going well. The music and dancing were at their height, when suddenly the door opened and Eugenie appeared—to inquire for her poor Pauline whose "frightful headache" had filled her with sympathy. In spite of her nervous temperament Eugenie on certain occasions (usually unimportant) was not lacking in the necessary calm and self-possession. Instead of laughing at the lively scene before her, she was indignant and reproved the Princess sharply for her lack of proper respect.

"Madame!" replied the diplomat's wife no less hotly, "you forget that I was born a great lady and submit to no reprimands!"

In consequence of this scene the Princess was forced to absent herself from court for a time, and only by degrees was the old familiarity restored.

Next to Pauline Metternich the most important member of the Empress's small private circle was Prosper Merimee, the clever author—"the Empress's court jester," as he laughingly called himself. He had first met the Countess Montijo while Eugenie was still a child, and the acquaintance had ripened with years into a close friendship which was shared by the imperial pair. Although not strictly speaking a member of the court, both Napoleon and Eugenie treated him as a member of their family, and the bigoted Empress not only honored him as a gifted author, but felt an almost sisterly affection for the avowed free-thinker.