Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza
Referred to in his time as “the Pretender” and “the sphinx of the Tuileries,” Louis Napoléon Bonaparte—the nephew of Emperor Napoleon I of France and himself ruler of the Second Empire (1852–1870)—so managed the manufacture of his public image and the masking of his private self that he is, ultimately, unknowable to this day. From the mysterious circumstances of his conception in 1807 to the strange events of his downfall in 1870 and death in 1873, he lived, loved, and reigned in an extraordinary aura of myth and fantasy under the shadow of his more famous uncle.
Taking a highly innovative approach to this intriguing historical figure, David Baguley entertains sources in a mélange of media and forms—pictures, performances, spectacles, rituals, music, fiction, poems, plays, architecture, fashion, as well as Louis Napoléon’s own writings—to explore how the ruler was represented, invented, and interpreted by detractors and defenders alike. The dynamic process by which the legend of Napoleon III was elaborately fabricated and then vigorously dismantled unfolds under Baguley’s hand not chronologically but by generic categories, reflecting the author’s underlying conviction that history and literary depictments are not as incompatible as is often assumed.
Baguley examines works by, among many others, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, Émile Zola, Honoré Daumier, Jacques Offenbach, Gustave Flaubert, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning that range from history and biography to romanticized versions of the Emperor’s feats to parody, caricature, and satire. With its conspiratorial origins, its rising and dramatically falling action, its schemes, scandals, and tragic denouement, the Second Empire appears designed to inspire writers and artists. Napoleon III, Baguley observes, could well have been the central character, or temperament, in a naturalist novel.
While most historians consider Louis Napoléon’s coup d’état of December 1851 to be his boldest endeavor, Baguley shows in this expansive and eloquent work that his most extravagant venture was to found a second Napoleonic empire, and he illustrates not only the power of the name and the image but also the precariousness of the Emperor’s reliance upon them. For Napoleon III, dissimulation was his natural state; opportunist or utopian reformer, or something in between, he must remain one of history’s most elusive and controversial figures, ever resisting final assessment.