Fils et vice-roi de Napoléon. By Michel Kerautret
Editor: Tallandier (2021)
Paperback: 400 pages
Héros méconnu de l’épopée napoléonienne, Eugène de Beauharnais (1781-1824) est né du premier mariage de l’impératrice Joséphine avec le général de Beauharnais, guillotiné sous la Terreur. Fils adoptif de Napoléon, vice-roi d’Italie, chef d’armée, prince allemand, il occupe une place centrale et originale dans l’univers impérial. La rencontre de sa mère avec Bonaparte détermine son existence. Napoléon voue à Eugène une grande affection, l’éduque, le forme à la guerre et à la politique, le marie à la fille du roi de Bavière et l’adopte solennellement en 1806. Il le prépare à lui succéder en lui déléguant le gouvernement de l’Italie comme vice-roi et en lui confiant des armées. Eugène fait alors ses preuves et paraît appelé à gouverner un jour l’Empire ou à en assurer la régence pour le roi de Rome. Le destin en décida autrement après le divorce de Napoléon, son remariage avec Marie-Louise et la naissance de l’Aiglon. Eugène de Beauharnais fut le seul de la famille impériale à répondre parfaitement à l’idéal napoléonien de fusion sociale et d’intégration européenne. Très populaire, il laisse une image associant le sérieux de l’homme d’État en Italie et la bravoure du soldat français en Russie, à la gaieté, la jeunesse, l’amour aussi, très romanesque, avec sa jeune épouse. Sa descendance nombreuse a fait d’Eugène l’ancêtre de presque tous les souverains européens.
Translation: A little known hero of the Napoleonic saga, Eugène de Beauharnais (1781-1824) was born of Empress Josephine's first marriage to General de Beauharnais, who was guillotined during the Terror. Napoleon's adopted son, viceroy of Italy, army chief, German prince, he occupied a central and original place in the imperial world. His mother's meeting with Bonaparte determined his life. Napoleon developed a great affection for Eugène, educated him, trained him in war and politics, married him to the daughter of the King of Bavaria and solemnly adopted him in 1806. He prepared him as his successor by delegating to him the government of Italy as viceroy and by placing him in charge of the armies. Eugène then proved himself and seemed destined to one day govern the Empire or to assume the regency for the King of Rome. Fate decided otherwise after Napoleon's divorce, his remarriage to Marie-Louise and the birth of l'Aiglon. Eugène de Beauharnais was the only member of the imperial family to perfectly meet the Napoleonic ideal of social fusion and European integration. Very popular, he left an image linking the gravity of the Italian statesman and the bravery of the French soldier in Russia, to gaiety, youth, and even a very romantic love story with his young wife. His numerous descendants made Eugene the ancestor of almost all European sovereigns.
Before blabbering on endlessly about Eugène – the most likely outcome when I start talking about him – I thought I could start with something less conspicuous and introduce the latest biography of him. I believe it has not been mentioned here yet and I can highly recommend it.
For comparison, the other biographies of Eugène I have read are all quite old:
Eugen Beauharnais by Adalbert von Bayern: 1940 (still an excellent book though, particularly as far as Eugène’s relations with his Bavarian family are concerned)
Napoleon’s Viceroy by Carola Oman: 1966 (in big parts reiterating Adalbert)
Eugène de Beauharnais. Le fils adoptif de Napoléon by Françoise de Bernardy: 1973 (far more critical of Eugène than Adalbert)
Eugène de Beauharnais. L’Honneur à tout vent by René Blémus: 1993, but based mostly on Bernardy and other secondary sources and, as far as I could tell, not offering any new research or reevaluation
Not to mention Montagu or Schneidawind, let alone Darnay, Eugène’s secretary.
So, Michel Kerautret’s 2021 book is the first time in several decades somebody took a closer look at Eugène’s life and his role throughout the French First Empire.
The most important milestones in Eugène's life are probably well-known:
Highly erratic childhood before and during the Revolution: his parents separated, he stayed with his father, was sent to various boarding schools, briefly enjoyed his father's fame when the latter became president of the Constituent Assembly, then had to witness both parents being arrested. Only his mother returned, his father died on the guillotine. Eugène was twelve at the time. He then spent a couple of months under the tutelage of Lazare Hoche at the army of the Vendée.
The one event that would determine his future life: his mother’s second marriage to one general Bonaparte. From that moment on, Eugène was inevitably drawn into the maelstrom caused by Napoleon's rise, whether he wanted it or not. It seems that, as much as he benefited from and enjoyed much of it, deep down he never wanted it.
Future milestones: Egyptian campaign, 18th Brumaire, colonel of the guard, empire, viceroy of Italy (1805), marriage to the daughter of the Bavarian king (1806), official heir presumptive of the kingdom of Italy (1807, at least that’s when it was made public in Italy), War of the Fourth coalition 1809, Napoleon’s so-called divorce in the same year, Russian campaign 1812, commander-in-chief of what was left of the Grande Armée in 1813, desperate struggle to defend Italy, brief and rather timid attempt at taking over the kingdom that failed miserably, suspicion and humiliation at the Congress of Vienna, exile and depression in Bavaria, death at the age of 42.
All of this Kerautret relates in his book, but he focuses mostly on Eugène’s political role and his position within Napoleon’s makeshift empire. The importance of Eugène’s role ist often understimated: He never became king, unlike his all-time favourite rival Joachim Murat or Napoleon’s brothers, and older publications, including Adalbert, insisted on the traditional view that Napoleon decided everything by himself and that his stepson, in the words of Duroc's well-known letter, if Milan was on fire first had to ask in Paris for instructions before starting to extinguish the fire on his own. Combined with some other harsh and bossy letters by the master in Paris published in Napoleon’s correspondence during the 19th century (while similar and worse letters to Napoleon’s brothers were suppressed) this led to the assumption that Eugène’s position in Italy was mostly ceremonial and that his scope of decision-making was limited to the point of non-existence, making Eugène himself a figure of marginal importance within the empire.
That’s precisely what Kerautret questions. First of all, he stresses the important role that Eugène had played during the Consulate, when he – the closest thing to a son Napoleon had – must have been enormously popular, according to eye witness accounts. This popularity, despite Eugène being factually sidelined once he had been sent to Milan and removed from Napoleon’s Paris court, never seems to have faded away completely, which always made him a candidate as a possible successor – be it for France, be it for Italy – even when Napoleon’s plans with regard to this had long changed.
The second point on which Kerautret contradicts traditional assessments is Eugène's role in Italy. As Kerautret points out, although Eugène's official position was considerably inferior, he sometimes had even more influence and possibilities than the kings of Napoleon's grace. Napoleon valued Eugène's judgement, often asked for his opinion or listened to suggestions and discussed things with him before making a decision. Eugène was in fact Napoleon's head office for Italy, and the flow of information with Naples, Rome and Florence also ran through Eugène. Everything concerning Italy as a whole was first and foremost negotiated with him. He was even the penininsula’s main defender - despite the presence in Naples of one Joachim Murat, whose military reputation rightfully dwarfed Eugène’s.
Finally, something I enjoyed a lot because he very much echoed my own musings, Kerautret wonders why public perception among historians in the past has been so different and why there has been comparably little interest in this character of the Napoleonic saga. Which leads to the main thing abot Eugène’s character that makes him, at the same time, one of the most amiable figures, and one of the least significant: He never comes into his own. He always remains le fils, the boy. (That one episode of Game of Thrones when Jon Snow is told to "kill the boy"? Eugène totally missed that one.) Throughout his life, he will always attach himself to some father figure, be it Lazare Hoche, Napoleon Bonaparte, mon bon père Max Joseph of Bavaria – every only slightly older man will instinctively become all protective and paternal around him. And yes, as Kerautret notes, it would be rather tempting to attribute this to Eugène’s childhood. But this is history, not a psychological analysis.
I fear like most French books on the Napoleonic era, this will not be translated into other languages, be it German or English, but I would love to be proven wrong.
Thanks for all those information and musings, what I am quite interested in how was Eugène affected by the birth of a legimate son of Boney, he seemed to me a very hard working and loyal person - being adopted and sort of at least being in the position to be a succesor of Napoléon. That all seems to be dashed with the birth of Napoléon's son.