The Second Empire

by Philip Guedalla. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1922. 8vo. x+457 pp. $5.00.
THERE is no doubt about it; the historical pendulum is swinging back. The picturesque historians are coming into their own again. The brave days of Macaulay and Froude and Green, of Motley and Prescott and Parkman, seem likely to be revived, and men who write history are not afraid to be interesting. The work of Mr. Straehey and Mr. Wells, and now of Mr. Guedalla, is tempting thousands who never read history before to take up that branch of letters again. Yet with a difference. For such history as this is not the work of mere historians, of delvers after truth, of scholars in the sense in which Macaulay and Gibbon and Parkman were scholars. It, is distinctly the product of literary men who find in historical subjects material for their pens, and in the lalxirs of the investigators the information which they delight to arrange and adorn.
One hesitates to read a book so dithyrambically praised by the publisher’s jacket; yet Mr. Guedalla’s volume is better than its praises. It is not, indeed, precisely a history of the Second Empire. It is rather a biography of him who came to be called Napoleon III, or indeed of nineteenthcentury Bonapartism as expressed in him and his family. It reaches its apotheosis, it is true, in the years when he bore the title of Emperor of the French; and Mr. Guedalla has erected on the foundations laid by de la Gorce a literary edifice in the likeness of that great adventure in imperialism. But fundamentally his work is biography.
And, as a piece of literary workmanship, it is exceedingly brilliant. Mr. Guedalla has a gift of style, shown once in his Supers and Supermen, here chastened and refined from that earlier and almost too obvious straining after cleverness. He has an extraordinary quality of allusion — and illusion; of irony, which of all qualities is best fitted to the recording of the history of the Second Empire. He has the power of vivid narration, of picturesque description and penetrating phrase, of thumb-nail sketch of character, of dramatic presentation, of wide background and intimate foreground, of nature and its varied aspects as the scene of human activities.
And his book will be — and should be — a great popular success. It will be—and should be — read widely. If there is in it a little too much sureness, where sureness is not humanly, or historically, possible; if there is a little too much sunshine, and a little too much smart saying, as epigram, still left over from his earlier mode; if there is a shade too much ‘atmosphere’ at times, and not enough of the realities of life — all these will make for, rather than hinder, its acceptability to its readers. For the subject which the author has chosen is oue which lends itself peculiarly to the qualities of his style, since its principal character and his career transcend the limitations of mere truth aud sober history — at least in these pages. Yet whatever the volume may seem to serious scholars to lack, this history of the Second Empire and its creator, with its inevitableness of Greek tragedy against a background of musical comedy, the pageantry of its crowded stage and animated action, its varied scenes, its still more varied characters, affords a stimulating entertainment, not unlike, indeed, those theatrical representations to which the Second Empire inevitably provides its chroniclers with their great comparison and infinite parallelisms. For, whatever its scholarly shortcomings, it is infused with that appealing quality, constructive imagination.
C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas l’histovre.