- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
In Constantinople this April, three daughters of the Sultan of Turkey become engaged, by parental order, and elaborate ceremonies and gift givings are performed. The dowries are £5,000, Turkish, each, brought in specie in red satin bags, but the gifts far overshadow the money; it is estimated that one lucky bridegroom has spent on jewels alone upwards of £120,000, Turkish—all this to a lady he never sees during the engagement ceremony. There is some contact, of a sort, however, between palace and seraglio, for each fiancé sends each sultana, none of them over fifteen, a hundred trays of sweetmeats to tide her through the festivities. And the man on the street catches a glimpse of the sultanas when, preceded by their eunuchs and followed by their mothers, slaves, and presents, they are driven pell-mell through the streets. Save in England, all nineteenth-century royalty drives fast; it is well to present a moving target.
The fact of the matter, though, is that Europe at this time boasts a fairly poor order of assassin, zealous at times, but woefully lacking in skill. They have killed a few grand dukes but have failed in several attempts to carry off the most remarkable royal adventurer of the era, Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. One of the unsuccessful assaults, which occurs in 1857, says something about all participants. In August three Italians, by name Tibaldi, Bartolotti, and Grilli, each of whom has received fifty gold napoleons in advance from a group of Italian conspirators in London, arrive in Paris to accomplish the end of the Emperor, who was once one of their fiery advocates, and whom they feel—rather unjustly—has deserted them. But Paris is an enchanting place in 1857, and the assassins dawdle in the cafés, using their time and money to enjoy themselves until, never having unsheathed a poniard, they are apprehended and sent to the galleys.
The object of these unsuccessful attentions is the wonder of the age, from a monarchical point of view, and in 1857 his star is in the ascendant. Drab Louis Napoleon, with his flat, pale, expressionless face and his short, plump body, remains to this day a poorly explained figure. He is both the nephew and the adopted grandson of Bonaparte; he has helped both establish and destroy the Second Republic. “His mind is as full of schemes as a warren is of rabbits,” notes Palmerston with distaste. Making himself Emperor by a coup d’état a scant five years before, this poor relation of past glories seeks to embody in his own rather inconsequential person every one of the contradictory dreams of the French. He sets himself up as the advocate of clerical and anticlerical, republican and monarchist, legitimist and Bonapartist, peasant and bourgeois, progress and reaction, democracy and “order.” Naturally this grand design has irreconcilable aspects, and he tries, like so many princes and dictators in his position, to unify his subjects by foreign successes, which leads him to give aid to many a remote cause—the Romanians, the Poles, and the disastrous adventure of Maximilian of Mexico. He has made himself the champion of Italian unity and is playing a large part in bringing it about, only to be reviled at the end as a tyrant and friend of reaction. His very last adventure, of course, will take place at Sedan, and he will end his life as he began it, a refugee.
But now, in 1857, the courts of the Tuileries and Fontainebleau are all power and glory. In the Crimean War, Napoleon helped bring on a war with Russia, and peace has been made at Paris. The late Russian emperor who, alone, would not call the new Emperor “ Mon Frère ” has been humbled; state visits have been exchanged with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the British sovereign has been properly impressed with the brilliant glories of “the city of light,” newly laid out and glorified by the Baron Haussmann. As Victoria admitted, she was “enchanted and bewildered.”
The Emperor and former Prince-President engagingly admits himself a parvenu (with a faint German accent, since he was educated across the Rhine) ; he prides himself on the beauty of his consort, the Empress Eugénie, and the fact that she is not of royal blood. It was a love match, he is proud to announce, omitting to say that he was turned down first by the houses of Wasa and Hohenzollern.
This is accounted a “brilliant” court. Bear for a moment with a scene at Fontainebleau, where the royal couple have arrived amid booming cannon, flourishes of trumpets, and the beating of drums. There is to be a play tonight, written for the Théâtre Impériale by the Emperor’s half-brother, Charles, Due de Morny, minister for foreign affairs. The plot? A sedate French provincial comes to Paris, his purpose to speak with the Emperor on serious state affairs, with the Empress about her charities, with Monsieur le Duc de Morny about matters of diplomacy. And what happens? All three of them are bored, for the worthy provincial has failed to discuss the three subjects in which the personages named are really interested—Napoleon’s Life of Caesar , the Empress’s crinolines, the Due’s talent as a playwright! Amazing as it may seem, this triumph of wit brings down the royal house.