Sunday, December 5, 2010

Laure Part Trois

So this is part three to my little series of blurbs about Laure Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angely, and I found out some more, very intriguing facts about my lovely comtesse. 

So after Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1814, he was exiled to the island of Sainte Helene, or Helena in English. He would die there in 1821, but even though he was exiled once more (this time for good), he still had many supporters in France, obviously particularly amongst his former ministers, generals, and others who worked for him. It is amazing the type of loyalty this man commanded, despite his unbelievable ego, disastrous military campaign in Russia, and sheer moodiness (he was moody to the absolute 9th degree. Being married to him would have been like walking on permanent eggshells). Laure was one of those in that camp, having a husband who had worked for and with Napoleon since his campaign in Italy in 1796. She always fought for the Bonapartist side of politics, always. 

I think this is a fabulous portrait of Nappy-bone, as my friends teasingly call Napoleon. Obviously it was painted by Jacques Louis David and I swear it looks like a photograph, only better. Napoleon stands famously with his hand inside his white vest, his belly kind of pooched out. He's standing with his Code Napoleon off to the side, which he authored, and his huge imperial chair stands next to him. He looks worn-out but kindly here, I think.

But Napoleon was not always very nice to Laure, apparently, despite her loyalty. He loved her husband, thought him wise and intelligent, and loved to have Michel advise him on judicial matters. But Napoleon thought Laure was positively scandalous, and she probably repulsed that weird sense of old-fashioned propriety he had. She was far from his ideal demure, quiet woman. Her salon was a huge melting pot of every possible political stripe, as I mentioned before--diplomats, Royalists, immigrants, foreigners, spies, politicians for and against Napoleon, and women mingled freely in and amongst the men (this always scared Napoleon; he preferred to keep them knitting. You can't really blame him for thinking this when you look at his horrid sisters--greedy, selfish, miserable brats, ALL of them.) Plus, she had tons of liaisons. She slept with a good portion of the Parisian bourgeois elite, and had no qualms whatsoever about doing so (neither did Fortunee, who would turn her conquests over to the Minister of Police). This would have been a double threat, then. Napoleon wanted the women who came to his court to give the appearance, at least, of being virtuous. It got to the point where Napoleon had to tell Michel to reign in his wife, so to speak, or he would be forced to snub her publicly, basically socially ostracizing her. If Michel did so, it did nothing, because Laure never changed her ways (amen!). 

To give you an idea of what a salon would have looked like during Laure's time. This room is called the Green Room, and it's in the Hotel Beauharnais, currently the German ambassador's residence in Paris. Before the Germans moved in, it was owned by Eugene de Beauharnais, Josephine's son and Napoleon's adopted son. Everything had clean edges, was symmetrically perfect. In these rooms Laure and her guests would play card games, chat, drink wine or champagne, and flirt to their heart's content.

 Then there are two different stories of how Napoleon insulted Laure. Why would he do this, deliberately insult the wife of one of his most important ministers? Well Napoleon was quirky. He had this deep-seated fear of rejection (because in his earlier years, he had been rejected by lovely social dames of the Directory period, like Josephine's BFF Therese Tallien, who literally laughed in his face--love that girl) combined with a fear of women who held any political power and didn't do what he thought they should do--because he always knew everything and he was always right. Period. So sometimes he acted sort of nasty. And one day, according to Laure Junot, who wrote a highly entertaining set of memoirs on Napoleon's court, Napoleon sidled up to Laure and pops off with 'Do you know, Madame Regnault, that you are aging terribly?' How RUDE! Can you imagine? Whether or not he was in a bad mood, that was an extremely mean thing to say, and he knew it, because later on, when he was exiled on St. Helena, Napoleon even mentioned how 'unjust' he had been to Laure, and how rudely he had always treated her--for no apparent reason! She just ruffled his feathers. 

Laure's reply though, is pretty good: 'What your Majesty has done me the honor to observe might have been painful to hear, had I been old enough to be frightened by it.' In other words, I'm not that old, jackass, but I'll flatter you and say it in the nicest way possible so I can make you look stupid and you won't be able to respond with another insult. It worked. Napoleon just looked at Laure for a second, flabbergasted, then moved on to his next victim.

In another story, this one told second hand, (dug up from yet another set of memoirs from an obscure general) apparently one day Laure and Napoleon were standing right outside of a house somewhere (maybe Fontainebleau) when Napoleon looked at Laure and goes 'So, Madame Regnault, do you still love men as much as ever?' And she looked him straight in the eye and quips, 'Yes, sir, when they're polite.' Oh no she didn't! 

Actually, though, I think this story was mistaken, and that Napoleon reserved this barb for Fortunee, who was currently being paid to spy for him. I personally think it would have been his way of razzing her a little, even though he really liked her. Apparently he grinned at her reply and then walked off. Fortunee was incredibly witty, and less inclined to flatter Napoleon than Laure. Plus, her liaisons were all in the name of the Empire! So she would have passed the test.

Another very interesting tidbit I discovered was that Michel was one of the principal authors of Napoleon's divorce contract with Josephine. I wonder what that means? Did Michel like Josephine? He had to, everyone did. Or maybe his devotion to Napoleon just made him do whatever Napoleon wanted? Maybe he was looking at it from a judicial and legal standpoint, recognizing that Napoleon needed heirs, and if Josephine just couldn't have any more children, for whatever reason (early menopause, but they didn't know that), then time to break the ol'marriage bonds? If so, that sucks for both of them, because divorcing Josephine was the dumbest move Napoleon ever made, and his career spiraled downward immediately after they divorced. Josephine was hugely popular as an Empress, and her daughter Hortense, whom Napoleon had already adopted as his own daughter, had already given birth to two sons, one of whom could potentially be his heir (the other died, sadly). On top of this, the woman he chose to be his next Empress, Marie-Louise of Austria, was not exactly the brightest apple in the barrel. It was a crappy move on all sides. I wonder how this made relations between Laure and Josephine? Maybe they never saw each other. Maybe Josephine was too wrapped up in her own grief to care (she was devastated). But it's interesting nonetheless!

To give you an idea of what Josephine looked like, here's a sketch by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. She never showed her teeth when she smiled; she had constant tooth problems and didn't like her teeth at all. 

This portrait illustrates Napoleon and Josephine's divorce in 1809 (as seen from the point of view of Victorian-inspired France in the 1850's). Napoleon sits regally in his high-backed chair, irritable and stoic as ever, and Josephine signs the document with Hortense leaning on her shoulder. She's the picture of resigned anguish, sacrificing her happiness for the sake of potential future little Emperors.
 Anyway, barbs and divorces aside, after the Empire fell abruptly in 1814, Laure was forced into exile with Michel, who was by now very sick (he had some sort of awful brain cancer). They trouped all over northern Europe, going from Brussels, to Antwerp, to Mons, to wherever they were permitted to stay temporarily. Traveling like that would have been very difficult for someone so sick like Michel, and this is in an age loooong before airplanes, cars, and such. To ride in a bumpy carriage, crossing countries, while sick and in pain, would have seriously sucked. He died, sadly, on March 19th, 1819. They had no children, still, but at some point Laure was able to move back to France, and she settled outside of Paris in her country house in Saint-Leu-Taverny. The house she moved in to, the one she bought with Michel in 1806, was destroyed by a fire in 1869 and was subsequently rebuilt (it's now a school) so there's no real way to see what it looked like when Laure moved into it. Sad face. 

  The Chateau de la Chaumette in Saint-Leu-La Foret, today a school. It was probably much larger and far more decorated during Laure's time.

Hope you enjoyed this! Stay tuned for part four on Laure!