Tuesday, 2 February 2010

William Thackeray and The Second Funeral of Napoleon

William Makepeace Thackeray ( 1811 – 1863)
satirist, novelist, author of Vanity Fair.

His mother sent him home to England to go to school in 1816. He could only have been five. That's how Empires were built.

On the way the ship stopped in St. Helena, and the very young Thackeray was taken to look at Napoleon:

my black servant took me a long walk over rocks and hills until we reached a garden, where we saw a man walking. "That is he," said the black man: "that is Bonaparte! He eats three sheep every day, ...

Thackeray lived in Paris for a number of years from the age of 21, and was an irreverent witness to the events at Les Invalides in December 1840.

His account of Napoleon's second funeral was written in the form of letters to "Miss Smith" from Michael Angelo Titmarsh!

For him "history is writen on fig leaves" - historians know little and write even less - and Napoleon's second funeral was sheer humbug!

men have, as it were, entered into a compact among themselves to pursue the fig leave-system a outrance, and to cry down all who oppose it. Humbug they will have. Humbugs themselves, they will respect humbugs.

Some magnificent religious ceremonies of this nature are at present taking place in France ..

He mocked the stories in the newspapers about the dangers to any English citizens in Paris:

It was said in the newspapers, that Lord Granville had despatched circulars to all the English residents in Paris, begging them to keep their homes. The French journals announced this news, and warned us charitably of the fate intended for us. Had Lord Grenville written? Certainly not to me. Or had he written to all except me? And was I the victim - the doomed one? - to be seized directly I showed my face in the Champs Elysees, and torn in pieces by French patriotism to the frantic chorus of the 'Marseillaise'?

Overall I found it an enjoyable read - amusing and well written, but a chauvinistic caricature of the French nation which probably went down well in England at the time and probably would still appeal to some for the same reason:

this great hot-headed, gallant, boasting, sublime, absurd French nation

the French hate us .. there never was such a hollow humbug in the world as the French alliance. Men get a character for patriotism in France merely by hating England.

the French propensity towards braggadocio ..

In support of his thesis Thackeray described the English woman who attended the ceremony in Les Invalides. He and everyone else knew she was English, she wore a plaid cloak with a rose-coloured plush bonnet; a bonnet was never made or worn so in any other country.

To the delight of the crowd the lady was moved from seat to seat, like a chicken escaping from a clown in a pantomime: a source of amusement and delight to onlookers, but probably not to the chicken or the clown.

Half an hour's delightful amusement did this lady give us all. I was glad, however, at the end of the day to see the old pink bonnet over a very comfortable seat ..

A metaphor for the Anglo-French alliance perhaps.

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