Eugenie - Empress of the French - George Upton

Paris Under the Second Empire

The Danish writer, Hermann Bang, says:

It was a strangely mixed society that formed the court of the Second Empire, and during this splendid period Paris became more than ever a brilliant social arena. New names and new celebrities sprang up like mushrooms and withered away as quickly. Since life was short, it must needs be rapid. Looking back upon it now, one is reminded of a juggler's performance at the circus. The glittering balls fly about in bewildering numbers and seem to fill the whole air. Different performers come and go, but the dazzling display continues. This society was neither composed of the representative families of France nor yet of the mass of the population, who supported the Government, and to whom the Second Empire seemed a complete restoration of the glories of the First. Truly the richest legacy of greatness is the magic that lies in a name."

Napoleon was well aware of the value of the name he bore. He had not forgotten that to it alone he owed his possession of the throne; and he determined that the name at which Europe had trembled and which all France adored should serve as the foundation of his power. As far as possible he tried to revive all the Napoleonic traditions and preserve the fond illusion of the Parisians. Everything about the court was conducted on a scale of the greatest magnificence. Uniforms of officials, ministers, and deputies were a mass of gold embroidery. The gorgeousness of the palace guards suggested the operatic stage; customs of the time of Louis the Fourteenth were even revived. Visits from foreign sovereigns were attended with an almost fabulous display, and with Napoleon's rising importance these visits became more and more frequent. Indeed there were times during the Second Empire when whole solar systems of potentates revolved about one another.

On Thursday evenings during the winter, dinners were given at the Tuileries for diplomats and state officials, followed by receptions and dancing. Four court balls were given in the course of the season, to which as many as five thousand invitations were issued, and which were marked by the utmost splendor. Both sides of the grand staircase were lined with palace guards. Guests waited in the galleries until the arrival of the sovereigns, when the doors of the great salon were thrown open and the Emperor and Empress took their places on the dais, the princes and princesses grouped about them. The Empress danced only the opening quadrille on these occasions, and at eleven retired with the Emperor to a smaller salon where there was also dancing.

Eugenie possessed the truly royal gift of never forgetting a face or a name, and always had a kindly word or glance for every one as she passed through the crowded room; but when it was over and she reached her own apartments, she would be completely exhausted with the weight of the crown jewels, which she wore in the greatest profusion on these occasions. Sometimes she would not even wait for her women, but would snatch off the crown and heavy ornaments and toss them into the lap of the lady-in-waiting, who bore them carefully away, for each was worth a fortune. Besides these grand balls to which any one with the slightest claim to rank or position could easily obtain admission, the most splendid and original masquerades were given in Carnival time, to which invitations were more limited. During Lent there were no entertainments with the exception of four state concerts given under the direction of Auber, then court kapellmeister, and Count Bacciocchi, director of the theatre, in which all the most famous artists took part.

Far more interesting than these semi-official affairs were the weekly Monday receptions held by the Empress in her own apartments. Only a select few were invited to these, and the Empress's "Mondays" soon became famous all over Europe. Napoleon and Eugenie received their guests with the greatest cordiality, and conversed familiarly with all. Here Princess Metternich shone her brightest; here too were seen the beautiful Princess Murat, Duchess of Monchy; the gallant Count Walewski, who so closely resembled his father, the great Napoleon; the Emperor's half-brother, the Duke de Morny; and his youthful friend and ally Duke Fialni de Persigny. Here Merimee's inexhaustible fund of wit and humor found full play. Here the Emperor's favorite, General Fleury, and the elegant Marquis de Caux (afterward the husband of Adelina Patti) led the cotillon and invented figures that made the rounds of Europe.

Scarcely less famous in their way were the hunting parties held by the court at Compiegne every autumn. To these only a few were invited at a time, and the weekly list of guests was prepared with as much care as if it had been some important affair of state. Fifteen new gowns of the costliest kind were regarded as indispensable by the feminine world for a visit to Compiegne. Many feigned illness to escape the expense of so many new toilettes, while others were almost ruined by accepting the invitations. Art, literature, and science were well represented at these gatherings; and once arrived at Compiegne, all received the most cordial welcome, no matter what their political opinions.

Next to court entertainments the most popular rendezvous for the world of fashion in the days of the Empire was the opera; and although it then had its home in the narrow Rue Lepelletier, instead of its present magnificent palace, this did not deter royalty and all the highest society from attending regularly. Full dress was required, and the costly gowns and the jewels of the ladies, with the brilliant uniforms of the men, lent an air of festivity to each performance that is usually seen only on some gala occasion. But if grand opera were the temple of art in which Eugenie showed herself most often, it was by no means her favorite place of amusement. She not only lacked all knowledge of the higher music, but it was distasteful to her; and even well written drama at the Theatre Francais had no interest for her. On the other hand, she adored anything amusing and had the greatest fondness for Offenbach's lively airs. Her musical taste may be judged by the fact that during the Czar Alexander of Russia's stay in Paris in 1867, she could think of no greater mark of attention than to send him tickets for a performance of the "Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein."

Her fancied resemblance to Marie Antoinette has already been mentioned; indeed, there were many points of similarity between the Spanish Countess and Maria Theresa's unfortunate daughter. Both possessed remarkable beauty, charm, energy, and strength of character. Both were boundlessly extravagant and open-handed, as both in their younger days allowed the pursuit of pleasure to banish all serious occupations. Eugenie avoided the imprudences of which Marie Antoinette was guilty, and instead of risking her popularity, did all in her power to preserve and strengthen it; yet she too was powerless to escape calumny. There were but too many evil tongues ready to suggest that a woman who owed her sovereignty to beauty alone was scarce likely to remain a pattern of virtue, and we have seen how even in her own family she had enemies who tried to undermine her reputation.

The court of the Second Empire was full of corruption and was abandoned to a life of pleasure and luxury. But it is ever the way of aristocratic society to seek amusement; and if at the courts of Berlin and London a more serious tone prevailed, those of Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Madrid were scarcely less frivolous than that of France under the Second Empire.

The Empress's daily life was very different from this; intermixed with the feverish pursuit of pleasure were many days of weariness and ennui. At eight o'clock she rose and devoted an hour regularly, sometimes two or three, to her favorite occupation, the study of her toilettes. At half-past eleven she breakfasted alone with the Emperor and the Prince Imperial, after which Napoleon would smoke a cigarette in his wife's apartment, chatting and playing with his little son. Kindness of heart was one of the Emperor's most marked characteristics. Indeed he was often over-indulgent with the child—a weakness Eugenie continually struggled against, with the natural result that the little Prince preferred his father to his mother. At one, every day he went for his drive in the Bois de Boulogne, and the Empress retired to her study, back of the audience chamber, where no one was allowed to enter. Here her tastes and habits were best displayed, for in this room she had surrounded herself with all her most precious possessions, portraits of her family and intimate friends, busts, vases, statuettes, and all sorts of personal souvenirs, and a small set of bookshelves containing the works of French, Spanish, English, and Italian writers. Every day Eugenie wrote to her mother, a sacred duty with which neither fete nor illness, travel' nor court entertainment, was ever allowed to interfere. Among others with whom she also kept up a lively correspondence were Queen Victoria and the Queen of Holland. After the Empress's personal letters were finished she summoned her secretary, Damas Hinard, with whom she went through the vast number of begging letters and appeals of all kinds she received daily, to each of which she gave her personal attention.

Adjoining Eugenie's bedchamber was an ante-room without windows in which a lamp was always burning, and from which a narrow stairway led to the Emperor's apartments. Concealed in the wainscoting of this room by sliding panels were a number of caskets, all numbered and marked in cipher. To look over and arrange their contents was one of Eugenie's favorite amusements. Here she kept not only her own private papers, but many interesting contributions to the history of Napoleon the First and his times, in the form of letters from statesmen soldiers, and scholars. All the Emperor's discarded documents and correspondence were carefully preserved by Eugenie, and stored away where only she could get at them. Napoleon was much amused at this mania of hers for collecting, and she herself used to laugh over it.

"I am like a little mouse, running around after the Emperor and picking up all the crumbs he lets fall," she once said.

The ladies-in-waiting did not live in the Tuileries; it was only during the summer that they were constantly with her, whether travelling about or at one of the summer palaces. Of these, some were naturally more congenial than others, but Eugenie had no choice in the matter of a companion; this was regulated strictly by the law of precedence. Day after day she entered her carriage, accompanied by whichever lady was entitled by etiquette to a seat in the imperial equipage, and drove through the Bois, bowing incessantly to left and right, and day after day she returned at exactly the same hour in time to dress for dinner.

Besides these monotonous outings, she sometimes drove out in the morning in a carriage drawn by only two horses. Each man and footman wore the plainest livery, and she and her companion were quite simply dressed. On these occasions she attended to all her charitable errands. She liked to investigate in person all the cases that especially appealed to her sympathies, and always carried with her a well filled purse, the money thus dispensed often amounting to a considerable sum in the course of a year.

"I could just as well send what I give to the poor," she declared, "but one should do a little good oneself. The sight of so much misery and suffering makes it easier to bear one's own troubles."

Of all the Empress's attendants the one to whom she was most attached was Madame Pollet, or Pepa as she called her. This woman, the only Spaniard in her service, had entered it in early youth, and remained with her ever after. She had accompanied her on all her travels and shared all the vicissitudes of her mistress, whom she adored and for whom she would have gladly died. She had charge of the Empress's wardrobe and personal belongings, and was untiring in her efforts to fulfil the slightest wish of Eugenie, who on her part, while she never allowed the distance between them to be forgotten, returned the affection and reposed the most boundless confidence in Pepa. Madame Pollet was supposed to have great influence with the Empress, and wives of high officials were not ashamed to court her favor and load her with gifts when they wanted something of her mistress. But Pepa, a modest little creature, had no desire to meddle with matters that did not concern her; besides she was far too busy and too much in demand by Eugenie to have time for other things.

The dinner hour at the Tuileries was half-past seven. At this meal the Prince Imperial, after his eighth year, was present as well as all the ladies and gentlemen of the court. Shortly before the hour, the Emperor went to his wife's apartments and escorted her to the Hall of Apollo, where the court awaited Their Majesties. As soon as dinner was served the palace prefect was notified, who in turn informed the Emperor; Napoleon gave his arm to Eugenie and the rest followed in order of rank. The ceremony was simple but strictly in accordance with etiquette. At table a young blackamoor, whom she had brought with her from Algiers, always stood behind Eugenie's chair, and waited on her with as lofty an air as if he were fulfilling some sacred office. He was said to be of noble birth, and proudly refused to serve any one but the Empress.

After dinner, which was served with such smoothness and precision that it seldom lasted more than three-quarters of an hour, the court returned to the Hall of Apollo, where the evening was spent, usually in a most tedious manner. The presence of the sovereigns prevented any spontaneous general conversation. The Emperor himself rarely spoke at all, while Eugenie, finding this atmosphere of repression unbearable, talked incessantly with the nervous vivacity peculiar to her. To vary the monotony of these evenings, reading aloud was sometimes suggested but it was difficult to find anything suitable for such an assemblage. A French or English romance would entertain the Empress but bored the Emperor horribly; while if a scientific work that interested Napoleon were chosen, Eugenie would yawn, therefore this too had to be abandoned.

The Emperor was fond of solitaire, which he often played; but it did not amuse Eugenie except when she did not feel like talking, which was seldom the case. There was never music or card-playing at the palace. Once in a great while the Empress would have a sudden fancy to do something, as when, for example, late one evening a courtier was hastily despatched to procure all the necessary materials for making artificial flowers, that she might learn the art at once. On another occasion it was the desire to model in clay that must be gratified on the spot.

Punctually at ten, a table was brought in with tea and cakes, which the ladies served themselves, and conversation now became general. Between eleven and twelve the Empress withdrew to her own apartments and generally retired at once though she sometimes kept her reader, Mlle. Bouvet, to read aloud to her after she was in bed. As a general rule, however, she preferred to read to herself which she did often and very rapidly.