The Memoirs of Madame De Rémusat
THE unheroic side of a certain number of great men cannot fail to interest a very large number of readers, and a thorough account of the private life of a man like Napoleon Bonaparte is full of instruction for every student of history and of human nature. Madame de Rémusat, who has given us this entertainment, held for some years the position of lady-in-waiting to the Empress Josephine. She was evidently a person of great intelligence, and she kept a diary in which she recorded her observations from day to day. It is very plain that Napoleon admired and respected her, low as was his general opinion of women, and he frequently talked with her about himself, — this was always his favorite subject,—his past history and his plans for the future. Unfortunately, in the commotion of his return from Elba she burned these memoirs, to prevent their falling into strange hands ; but shortly afterwards she rewrote them in the form in which they are now given to the world. Doubtless the fresh charm of the first draught is gone, but no one can read these pages without being impressed with their truth and intelligence, as they now stand. While we miss the precision of a diary, we have the story told by a writer whose memory of the most momentous part of her life was unimpaired, and there is no reason to doubt the shrewdness of her judgment of men and things.
As for his personal appearance, Napoleon was short and clumsily built, his legs being too short for his body. His head was handsome, especially the upper part; his eyes were bluish-gray, generally wearing a melancholy expression ; his laugh was, we are told, irresistible. But he seldom laughed; he preferred to wrap himself up in dignity; or, more exactly, to make himself feared rather than loved. Madame de Rémusat records one or two instances of flashes of amiability on his part, but some of them only bring into greater relief the coldness of his heart, as when he tried to make himself agreeable to her while she was almost heart-broken about the murder of the Duke of Enghien. At another time, just after he had made himself emperor, he talked for a while most pleasantly to herself and her husband ; then suddenly his face became sombre, and he gave M. de Rémusat some harsh, trifling order, evidently with the intention of preventing them from attaching too much weight to this brief relaxation of his dignity. He condemned Henri IV. for his personal amiability. “ He lacked seriousness,” he said one day. “ Bonhomie is an affectation that a sovereign should avoid. What does he mean by it ? To remind those who are near him that he is a man like other men ? What absurdity ! When a man is a king, he is a man apart; and I have always admired the true political instinct that Alexander the Great showed in claiming descent from a god.” His aim, like his practice, was to hold every one aloof, to keep those about him in terror.
In a brief summary of his character, Madame de Rémusat says that he had “ no generosity, no real greatness. I have never seen him admire or understand a fine action. He always distrusted a noble feeling; he never made any account of sincerity, and did not hesitate to say that he recognized a man’s superiority according to his skill in lying; and on this occasion he took pleasure in recalling that, when he was a child, one of his uncles predicted that he would govern the world, because he was such an inveterate liar. 'M. de Metternich,’ he added, 'is very near being a statesman ; he lies very well.’ ” Those whom he won by flattery he kept in subjection by severity. He understood the French people well. The evening before his coronation, his marshals were disputing about precedence, and referred the matter to his decision. Madame de Rémusat said to him, “ You seem to have stamped the ground of France, and to have said, 'Let all the vanities arise from the earth !’” “ That is true,” was his reply ; “ but it is very convenient to govern the French through their vanity.”
He had other ways, too, of managing public opinion: at Gand. in one of his tours, he was received with evident coolness ; and, after thinking the matter over, he said to his wife, “These people are exceedingly religious, and under the influence of the priests; we must stay a long time at church to-morrow, secure the clergy by some little attention, and so we shall regain what we have lost;” and he was right.
Madame de Rémusat asked him one day why, if he set so little store by men’s opinion, he should undertake so much. “ Oh, one must be the creature of one’s fate. Whoever is called by her cannot resist her. And then human pride creates the public that it desires in that ideal world we call posterity. When one thinks that a hundred years hence a fine line will recall some great action, a painting will preserve the memory of it, one’s imagination is inflamed, the battle-field loses its terrors, the cannon roars in vain ; one hears only the sound that a thousand years hence will carry a hero’s name to our descendants.” “ I can never understand,” she said, “ how one can run risks for glory, while one despises the men of one’s own time.” But here he interrupted her: “ I do not despise them ; that is something you must never say; and I especially admire the French!”
“ I smiled at this sudden exclamation,” Madame de Remusat goes on; “ and as if he had guessed the cause of my amusement, coming near and pulling my ear, which was, as I have said, his usual gesture when in good humor, he repeated to me, 'Do you understand, madame ? You must never say that I despise the French.’ ”
In his private life he was constantly under the eye of Madame de Rémusat, who does not paint him as a model of domestic virtues. He was accustomed to meet his wife’s denunciations of his infidelities by pleading his genius, which, he said, raised him above the laws that served to control other men. Yet he returned to her, anxious for the pardon which he knew he could obtain. Family ties had but little weight with him. When the elder brother of Napoleon III. died, the boy whom he had chosen for his heir, the emperor was in Berlin, and seemed so little moved that Talleyrand reminded him, just before he was to appear in public, “ You forget that there has just been a bereavement in your family, and that you ought to look a little sad.” Bonaparte answered, “ Je ne m’amuse pas à penser aux morts.” The anecdote is interesting for what it shows of both men. There are other stories about Talleyrand, for which the reader must consult the book. Talleyrand’s memoirs, it may be said by the way, if they are ever published cannot fail to be amusing reading, and there can be but little doubt that what he says about Napoleon will but corroborate the testimony of Madame de Rémusat. He understood his man well, and once he satisfied his love of mischief by the following trick : Napoleon was willing enough to be emperor, but he detested the notion of becoming king. Berthier came in, and Talleyrand told him if he wanted to please Bonaparte to go to him and urge him to make himself king. Berthier was only too glad to have an agreeable subject of conversation, and he began his little speech. The moment he heard the word king, Napoleon’s eyes flashed ; he shook his fist in the face of his adviser, with, “Imbecile, who told you to come here and stir up my bile ? Another time you will be careful whose advice you take.”
When all the best stories are told, there is left enough of Madame de Rémusat’s intelligent discussion of the great man and of his policy to keep the reader entertained. Besides her own observation, she had the advantage of hearing Napoleon’s views concerning himself ; and he seems to have had as few delusions on that subject as on many others. He said, in speaking of his wife, “ She is always a great deal more anxious about me than is necessary. Josephine is always afraid lest I should fall seriously in love ; she does not know that love is not made for me. For, what is love? A passion which sets on one side the universe, in order to see nothing but the beloved object on the other. And, certainly, it is not my nature to give up myself to any such view of life.”
At another time, after a long account of his career, he went on as follows : “ In Egypt, I was free from the tiresome fetters of civilization ; I dreamed all sorts of things, and saw the way to put my dreams into action. I created a religion : I saw myself on the road to Asia, mounted on an elephant, a turban on my head, and in my hand a new Koran, of my own composition. In my undertaking I should have united the experiences of two worlds ; I should have attacked the English in East India, and by this conquest I should have again come into relation with Europe. The time I spent in Egypt was the happiest of my life, for it was the most ideal. But fate decided otherwise. My letters from France showed me that I had not a moment to waste. I came down to practical life, and returned to Paris, where the most important matters are settled in an entr'acte of the opera.”
In general, however, the ideal side of life — and in the case just mentioned it was only his ambition that was excited by his imagination —had but little meaning for him. Life was to him a game, in which people were hardly more than chessmen. Yet, with his low opinion of others, he had no delusions about himself. The murder of the Duke of Enghien was but a stroke of policy, and he strongly condemned unnecessary murders. He acknowledged to Talleyrand that he was essentially a coward ; that is to say, that he would not be averse to doing a disgraceful action under compulsion, as indeed the much-discussed fate of the unhappy duke clearly proves.
What makes this book valuable is, of course, Madame de Rémusat’s intelligent observation. Her acuteness was great, — as great as her opportunity of studying the hero whose unheroic side she clearly shows. What strikes one most about him in this book is his unlikeness to the French people. The enthusiasms that feed their imagination had no influence over him ; he observed them in the people he governed, and they served him as strings to pull, in order to produce certain actions. He was most distinctly a foreigner, who yet knew how to use the tools that lay under his hand. His intelligence and his energy were almost without limit. Madame de Rémusat in no way belittles his genius, but she sets his character before us in no attractive light. That part of him had no power of deceiving a quick-witted woman, who was above all things a lady. She treats him with generosity, but without flattery.
The second volume of Madame de Rémusat’s Mémoires carries the reader into the year 1806. One misses the charm of novelty that was so striking at the beginning of her chronicle, but this is more than made good by the general widening of her subject and the introduction of many new persons. Yet Napoleon is of course the first figure, and one gets fuller knowledge of the repulsive side of this remarkable man. His manners in the domestic circle —if that phrase can be applied to his court — seem to have been as unattractive as those he showed to his foes on the field of battle. It is almost fair to wonder whether some of his perpetual upsetting of Europe was not the consequence of his lack of peace at home.
At any rate, he found it easier to conquer kings and emperors than to preserve tranquillity in his own palace. His methods for accomplishing his purposes were alike in both cases. “He arranged matters of etiquette with all the severity of military discipline. Every ceremony was performed as if at the beat of a drum, everything was done at a quick step, so to speak : and this haste, the continual fear that it inspired, united to the unfamiliarity of half the courtiers with these methods, gave his court a dismal rather than a dignified appearance, and impressed on all faces the uneasiness which was to be observed amid all the pleasures and magnificence with which he ostentatiously surrounded himself.”
When he was supervising military preparations at the camp of Boulogne, he was also settling questions of precedence and the rank of various new officials. The empress, with the tact of her sex, filled her place very well ; but the emperor, we are told, treated his courtiers with severity, and Madame de Rémusat says that it was curious to witness the frequent discomfiture of those members of the old aristocracy who, under one pretext or another, had consented to wait upon the emperor. He would utter some angry word, and their fine phrases would seem idle. The position of a courtier, she says, was of no value; it led to nothing. “ It was dangerous to be a man in his presence, that is to say, to preserve the exercise of any intellectual faculties; it was simpler and easier for every one, or nearly every one, to adopt the air of servitude.”
His methods of keeping those about him in this condition were certainly well suited for their purpose. At one time, when, in the absence of the emperor, rumor had been busy with some of the ladies of the palace, connecting their names with more or less serious flirtations, it happened that Napoleon suddenly appeared at the table where a number were breakfasting together, and, after a few insignificant words, he began to make it clear that they had been the object of gossip. The empress, who knew his method of pleasantry, tried to interrupt him, but he persisted. “ Yes, ladies, you are keeping the people in the faubourg Saint-Germain very busy. They say, for instance, that you, Madame -have been falling in love with
Mr. So and So; that you, madame,” and so he went on. Madame de Rémusat thought he did this out of sheer love of mischief, but he assumed to be angry with those who sniffed at his court, and he threatened to exile any one who should gossip about a lady of the palace. The empress shortened the breakfast to put an end to the scene. When she upbraided him for his thoughtlessness, he said that the ladies ought to be obliged to him for his zeal in defending them when they were attacked.
His manners in society were ungracious ; his first remark to almost every one was, “What is your name?" There was a man, named Grétry, whom he was especially in the habit of forgetting ; so that when his name was asked once too often for the patience of its owner, he replied, “ Toujours Grétry.”
It was only when he was at his real work in life that the emperor was happy : thus when he was at Saint-Cloud preparing for the campaign of 1805, although he was as busy as possible, he was unwontedly serene and gracious. The empress, too, was not sorry when he proposed a new campaign, since she could " thus escape the gossip of Paris, which terrified her, the tediousness of the palace of Saint-Cloud, and the observation of her brothers-in-law. She looked upon a campaign as a journey.” What this lady suffered at the hands of the emperor’s family was indeed grievous. Madame de Rémusat tells us that at the coronation the empress, whose manner had been most dignified and striking, when she had to proceed from the altar to the throne, had a moment of altercation with her sisters-in-law, who were carrying her robe with such manifest aversion that I saw the time when the new empress could not step forward. The emperor, who perceived what was wrong, spoke a few dry, firm words to his sisters, and set everything in motion.
“ The Pope,” the chronicler goes on, " during the whole ceremony, had the air of a resigned victim ; but it was a dignified resignation which he had voluntarily assumed for a great object.”
It is unnecessary to give full accounts of the intrigues of the court; most of us would think in reading them that we had before us a record of the social warfare of some insignificant village. It is more interesting to turn to some of the many anecdotes that illustrate Napoleon’s character. Here is one : He was extremely proud of the campaign of 1805, which saw the victories of Ulm and Austerlitz, and the occupation of Vienna ; “ one thing alone occasionally aroused his ill-humor. He was astonished at the indifference with which the Viennese treated him, and at the difficulty he had in getting them about him, although he invited them to dinners and entertainments at the palace he was occupying. He was amazed at their devotion to a beaten sovereign who was inferior to him.” In his surprise he spoke about it to Monsieur de Rémusat. This gentleman told him that, while they acknowledged Napoleon’s greatness, they felt that their own emperor was great, and that they could not love any one else. But Napoleon was unable to comprehend these feelings, for he “ believed in nothing but success ; ” and after his return to Paris, when he heard of the touching reception the Viennese gave to their conquered emperor on his reentry into the city, he said, “ What a strange people ! I am sure that if I were to go back to Paris under such circumstances I should not be received in this way.”
The keenness of Madame de Rérnusat’s observation and the soundness of her judgment are to be seen on every page of her delightful book, and the final chapters of this second volume are full of acute analysis of Napoleon’s relations to the men who surrounded him. His jealousy of his marshals, his low opinion of humanity at large and of all individuals, his habit of controlling every one by brutality, — all of these habits were clearly seen by the keen-eyed woman who was in no way imposed upon by his grandeur. Her remarks, too, on Napoleon’s unfavorable influence upon literature are very intelligent. The editor quotes some criticism of her son’s upon this part of her book, but what she has to say will commend itself, at least, to the attention of her readers. In short, these two volumes are a perfect mine of information about what we may call the local color of the first empire; she has written a chapter of modern history without illusions and without prejudices.
- Memoires de Madame de Rémusat. 18021808. Publiés avec une Préface et des Notes par son petit-fils, PAUL DE RÉMUSAT, Sénateur de la Haute-Garonne. Tome 1er. Paris: C. Levy. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1880.↩