Book Review: Desmond Seward, Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 2004).

July 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Seward Eugenie BookThursday, 5 July 2012

Book Review: Desmond Seward, Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 2004).

One of the quirks of writing a doctoral thesis is the requirement to show your knowledge and awareness of recent publications within your area of study. This stipulation can be rather ironic, especially when older, primary sources are by far more detailed, knowledgeable and accurate compared to the subsequently produced works. This is also applicable to a number of biographies I read in conjunction with my thesis. For example, I am currently working on a chapter that examines a selection of portraits by Franz Xaver Winterhalter of Eugénie, Empress of the French, which has certainly necessitated a detailed study of the Empress’s biographies. Most of the illuminating accounts that provide invaluable insights to the understanding of the Empress’s portraits by Winterhalter come from Eugénie’s contemporaries. More recent accounts tend to rehash the stories from the primary sources, and, in my opinion, apart from an excellent account by Patrick Turnbull, a more insightful and analytical examination of Eugénie’s biography is yet to be found.

However, in order to avoid annoying remarks from the future examiners about the exclusion of more recent publications, I recently turned to the Empress’s biography by Desmond Seward. Published in 2004, it is perhaps among the most recent – and creditable – accounts of Eugénie’s life. The biographical account is rather broad and cursory, lasting for no more than 300 pages. The writer confesses in the prologue to the paucity of any new information on the Empress, and even states that as far as the Empress’s biography is concerned, “nothing significant remains to be found.” Although most of the materials utilised within his pages have been published and quoted elsewhere, I commend the author for organising the wealth of information on the Empress in thematic sub-chapters. It allows for a closer and deeper examination of multifarious aspects of Eugénie’s life, such as her interest in politics; passion for fashion; intense religiosity; interest in Marie-Antoinette, etc.

On the other hand, and it is perhaps the fault of the editorial board rather than the writer, the endnotes are presented at the back of the book in a rather jumbled way rather than in a proper, scholarly manner. As the result, many of the statements and quotes remain unreferenced and unsubstantiated, including a supposed response by Napoleon III to Winterhalter’s monumental portrait of the Empress with the ladies of her court of 1855: “Not a man in it.”

Speaking of whom, Winterhalter features prominently in the book – the striking portrait of 1864 adorns the jacket cover; black and white illustrations include the copy after the 1853 official portrait, the group portrait of 1855, and Napoleon III’s portrait of 1857. The artist is mentioned throughout the book, without major inaccuracies. I would only take umbrage to a passage on page 53, where in a broad statement Seward declares that ‘contemporaries say he never did justice to her beauty’. Such statement is clearly erroneous, for it counters testimonials by Auguste Filon and Amelie Carette among others (who are referenced elsewhere in the book and listed in the bibliography). He supports this statement by a quote from Lillie Moulton; but surely, to remain objective and relevant, one ought to consider a cross-section of opinions rather than a single point of view.

© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012

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You are currently reading Book Review: Desmond Seward, Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 2004). at The Winterhalter Catalogue.

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