In this book, Joseph Vebret, novelist and specialist in the history of literature, invites us to examine the eventful life of the first son of Napoleon Bonaparte : Leon. Within the extended imperial family, the latter occupies a very special place, that of the black sheep, the failure, whose long descent into hell arouses both contempt and pity. To evoke this sad fate is also to dwell on this tormented 19th century France, of which Leon was more often the victim than the actor.
First son, last of the heirs
Leon, born December 13, 1806 (while the Emperor was campaigning in Poland), had for mother Eléonore Denuelle de la Plagne, 19 years old freshly divorced from the captain Dreaml, fake dragon officer but real crook. Eleanor, whose parents do not enjoy an excellent reputation (her father, a crooked businessman who married a woman of variable geometry morality), nevertheless reached the Emperor's bed thanks to her former pensioner comrade: Caroline, one of Napoleon's sisters, wife of Joachim Murat. Having become a reader of the latter, then Grand Duchess of Berg, Eleanor quickly seduced the Emperor with her great beauty. In the complex game of female rivalry and jealousy between the emperor's sisters and his wife Josephine, the young girl will quickly prove to be a major asset.
Indeed, Eleanor quickly becomes pregnant which tends to upset the game data of the Emperor's succession. Until then Napoleon had long believed himself sterile, which undermined his plan to further legitimize the Empire by establishing a dynasty. It is now certain that it is his wife Joséphine who cannot give him an heir, which will weigh heavily in his decision to divorce him. While waiting for her son, whom Caroline insisted on appointing Leon (half of Napoleon), receives a comfortable pension from the start and his mother receives a few welcome gifts.
Over the next few years, the emperor rarely saw the toddler who strongly resembled him. Leon grew up in ignorance of his illustrious ancestry, under the tutelage of baron of Mauvières, far more likely to secure his future than the frivolous and irresponsible Eleonore. In his will of Saint Helena, Napoleon does not forget little Leon, whom he would see making a career in the judiciary. It is very bad to know the teenager who quickly leaned in the wrong way ...
Despite the efforts of his tutor, Mr Vuillard A former artillery captain, Leon relentlessly enjoys his comfortable income hanging out with girls, gambling dens and gambling halls, starting a ruinous bad boy life. When he is finally made aware of his father's identity, his reaction shows as much indignation as pride. Inconstant, he is able to claim to be a Republican one day, a monarchist the next, to condemn the Emperor as a tyrant and then to praise him the next moment ...
His mother, since remarried in Earl of Luxburg, will eventually be remembered fondly, as with the approach of his majority it has become a major financial stake. She urges him to run away and join her in Germany, and he, happy to escape Vuillard's reproaches, complies. However, mother and son hardly get along and tear each other apart over dark money matters. At 20, Count Léon, as he likes to be called, prefers to return to Paris.
A true dandy, player and die-hard runner, capable of losing tens of thousands of francs in one night, Leon runs into trouble after a fatal duel against an English officer. Escaping conviction (certainly because of his illustrious ancestry), he found a new vocation by enlisting in 1834 in the National Guard of St Denis where he became battalion commander. He quickly revealed himself to be a mediocre officer, much more interested in his feminine conquests than in his responsibilities and his loyalty to the king (who knew so well how to use Napoleonic symbols) Louis Philippe is not the most certain.
At odds with his superior, Leon, who began to stir up the crowds using his status as the Emperor's son, was finally removed from the ranks of the National Guard. He then returns to a dissolute life and sees his debts take on astronomical proportions. Caught up by his creditors, he ended up in prison in Clichy, for a stay of two years. The son Napoleon would have liked to see become a magistrate is now a notorious criminal. On his release from prison and after a scandalous affair with a prostitute (with whom he shares a hotel room at the same time as the latter's husband ...), Leon tries to go up the slope by finding support from the family Bonaparte.
Claiming an amount of money that he says would never have been paid to him, contrary to his father's wishes, his demands are urgent. However, they find no echo with the Emperor's family if it is not perhaps with Lucien Bonaparte. Léon who in the meantime became a disciple of an entrepreneur, former friend of Saint-Simon and eccentric philosopher: Francois-Guillaume Coëssin, decides to go to London both to advance the business of his master thinker and friend, but also to meet several Bonaparte exiles across the Channel. This is one of the most troubled times in his life.
The author speculates that Earl Leon actually came to the United Kingdom as an agent of the monarchy. His goal: to provoke a duel Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, his cousin and ruin his reputation (or kill him). It is true that the imperial bastard copiously insults the future emperor who refuses to help him financially or even to receive him. The duel could very well have happened, if the participants had not been arrested by the police moments before the fight. If there was a mission for the King of the French, it ends in fiasco ...
Leon, who permanently alienated the Bonapartes, returned to France ruined. In the years that followed he saw scams, giving himself legitimacy by claiming to be radical and strange ideological inspired by the precepts of his friend Coëssin. He even comes to sue his mother and obtain an additional pension, which is quickly squandered. With the fall of the July monarchy and the increasingly probable advent of a personal regime under Louis Napoleon, Leon rediscovered himself as a Bonapartist and fed his cousin with letters so that he could be given a position commensurate with his ancestry. .
He who even cherished the dream of becoming President of the Republic (sic.) Or deputy will finally settle for a few subsidies, very little able to pay off his debts. It must be said that in the 1850s, Léon multiplied fanciful projects, investing indiscriminately. He is also determined to make the success of the Société Pacifique, a charitable foundation (the author even compares it to a distant ancestor of the Restaus du cœur) inspired by Coëssin's ideas. This is a strange company, supposedly devoted to philanthropy and which swallows up enormous sums every month, without the needy really benefiting from it ...
Living as a couple for several years with the daughter of a gardener who gave him two sons and a daughter, Leon will go from relative ease during the Second Empire to real misery after 1870. The fall of the imperial regime deprives him of all the subsidies which the Emperor grudgingly granted him. Having nothing more for him than his astonishing physical resemblance to Napoleon, Count Leon is forced to lead a nomadic life to escape his creditors. He will end his life in a dilapidated farm in Pontoise, struck down by stomach cancer on April 14, 1881. The ultimate symbol of his downfall, the town hall employee responsible for establishing his death certificate, will go so far as to make a mistake on his name and date of birth ...
Count Leon, Napoleon's infernal bastard, is a pleasant and easy to read work. The author with a spirited and approachable style, treats his subject with talent, in a way which is reminiscent of the great novelists of the 19th century (of whom Leon could have been an admirable character).
Nonetheless, this is a short story, where sex and tragicomic silver stories trump higher historical considerations. Moreover, the author is not doing here the work of a historian but more of a simple biographer of a person whose role is after all anecdotal.
While we can retain some very interesting thoughts on the challenges of the Emperor's succession and the rivalry between Napoleon's sisters and the Beauharnais, we regret that the bibliography was not more extensive in terms of academic studies. Some editing errors (Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1871?! Sic.) Have crept into these pages and this is very regrettable.
Nevertheless this biography is to be recommended to all lovers of the imperial family and of the 19th century, they will find there talentedly told the very cruel but richly instructive fate of Napoleon's first son.
J VEBRET, Count Léon infernal bastard of Napoleon, Editions du Moment, Paris, 2012.