Lifestyles of the Rich and Imperial
Fenton Bresler, Napoleon III: A Life (Carroll & Graf, 1999)
If you are a celebrity hound, and regard Napoleon Bonaparte's mediocre nephew as a celebrity, this book is for you. There is no slogging through politics, economics, diplomacy, ideology or other heavy matters. The author is more interested in how Louis Napoleon made love to Lizzie Howard than why he made war on Austria and Prussia.
As a kind of paparazzo on paper, Bresler is quite able. He can tell a good story well, and the first part of Louis' life - the period when he was an exiled soi disant prince contriving harebrained plots to replace the Bourbon dynasty with his own, and then stumbling into the presidency of the Second Republic - is a good story. While the narrative relies chiefly on secondary sources, there is original research on points (all personal rather than political) that interest the author, such as the truth about Louis' paternity and the identities of his illegitimate children. Also, the selection of illustrations is good, including both photographs and color reproductions of period paintings.
It is probably for the best that the book delves little into affairs of state, about which the author's ideas are generally sophomoric. At one point, he tries to divine why Napoleon intervened in Italy in 1859. He can think of only three possibilities: the enticements of an Italian paramour, nostalgia for a youthful fling at anti-Austrian insurrection and fear of assassination by the carbonari. The word "geopolitics" seems not to be part of his vocabulary.
Even for gapers at the rich and famous, interest must flag after Napoleon's ascension to power (which he cemented by staging a coup d'etat against his own government). The intrigues of his youth are exciting, the extravagances, illnesses and mistresses of his middle age less so. He was, after all, a politician; leaving the politics out of his life is like writing a biography of Bill Clinton that features Monica Lewinsky but not Newt Gingrich.
The Franco-Prussian War brought the Second Empire to an abrupt end. Captured at the disastrous Battle of Sedan, the Emperor abdicated and departed for England. Bresler thinks that he was plotting a comeback in imitation of his uncle's return from Elba. If any such plans existed, however, they never progressed, and the tale bogs down in a too-graphic account of Louis' kidney stones. Surgery to break them up led to a fatal infection, which the author blames on the "arrogance and incompetence" of English doctors, though his evidence scarcely justifies so severe a verdict.
Bresler insists that Napoleon "le Petit", as Victor Hugo called him, is an underrated figure whom the French have unreasonably relegated to obscurity. His own book suggests that the French are right, but the volume is worth a few hours' reading: Abundant style makes up for any deficiency of substance.