Rigaud and Louis Napoleon

October 29, 2008 at 10:00 am (Nineteenth-century novel) (, )

This will be my last post on Little Dorrit for a bit, I think (I must say I enjoyed the first episode of the BBC version last Sunday). But before I leave the topic: I mentioned in last week’s seminar that I’ve been doing a little work on representations of Napoleon III in the 1850s-70s.  Who he?  Napoleon Bonaparte‘s nephew, that’s who; an individual who took advantage of the political turmoil following the 1848 revolution to seize power in France by coup-d’état in 1851. He promised to restore ‘the family, the church and social order’, and a national plebiscite seemed to endorse his position (the name ‘Napoleon’ was politically a very useful one in France) and he ruled until 1870; but many were outraged by the violence of his rise to power.

Karl Marx wrote his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) about him, seeing the 1851 coup as a sympton of class struggle, and characterising it famously with the assertion: “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The tragic history of Napoleon Bonaparte was now being farcically aped by Napoleon III. Victor Hugo, perhaps the greatest French poet of the century, was particularly outraged by the way Louis Napoleon used the army to quell unrest in Paris, shooting and killing civilian men, women and children. He went into voluntary exile on the channel islands, vowing not to return to France until Napoleon III was dead or deposed (a vow he kept). He also wrote the first of his great epic masterpieces, a poem called Les Châtiments (1853) — the title means ‘The Chastisements’ or ‘The Punishments’. It’s an extraordinary piece, an immense satiric-epic of sustained vitriolic denunciation of Napoleon III and (presciently, I think) what Hugo considered he stood for: tyranny, military dictatorship, corruption, demagoguery, the scapegoating of vulnerable groups, propaganda. All lamentably familiar from dictatorships in the twentieth-century, of course; but I’d say Hugo was ahead of his time in identifying it as the political malaise of his age.

As I mentioned (I think) in the seminar, one of the things I’ve been doing — after being boggled to discover that Les Châtiments has never been fully translated into English — has been posting English versions of the poem in an on-going blog called Translating Hugo. Check it out, if you’re interested. I’m about a third of the way through, and hope to finish by next summer.

What has all this to do with Dickens? Well, because Napoleon III is buzzing around my head, I tend to see him everywhere; and there’s something very Napoleon-III-esque, I think, about Dickens’s descriptions of Rigaud:

His eyes, too close together, were not so nobly set in his head as those of the king of beasts are in his, and they were sharp rather than bright—pointed weapons with little surface to betray them. They had no depth or change; they glittered, and they opened and shut. So far, and waiving their use to himself, a clockmaker could have made a better pair. He had a hook nose, handsome after its kind, but too high between the eyes by probably just as much as his eyes were too near to one another. For the rest, he was large and tall in frame, had thin lips, where his thick moustache showed them at all, and a quantity of dry hair, of no definable colour, in its shaggy state, but shot with red. The hand with which he held the grating (seamed all over the back with ugly scratches newly healed), was unusually small and plump; would have been unusually white but for the prison grime. [LD I:i]

Here’s what the famously, and fastidiously, aristocratic mass-murderer (or, if you prefer, Saviour of Family, Church and Society) Louis Napoleon — a man who had spent a stretch of the 1840s in the prison of Ham, after an earlier coup attempt — looked like:

Contemporaries did comment on how narrow and close together Napoleon III’s eyes were (Hugo calls him ‘l’homme aux yeux étroits’). Here’s an official portrait, in all his bling:

Resemblance? What do you reckon? How does Rigaud describe himself (when going under the name Lagnier) in chapter 11? “I am sensitive and brave, and it is my character to govern.” Sinister fellow.

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