Philip Mansel's previous book, Constantinople, City of the World's Desires, 1453-1924 (1992), was a history of Constantinople under the Ottoman sultans. This magnificent new book tells the story of Paris between the collapse of Napoleon's first empire in 1814 and the proclamation of the second empire by his nephew, Napoleon III, in 1852. In both, the protagonist of the drama is the city itself, a mysterious colossus in whose shadow history unfolds.
Mansel's deep scholarship, elegant prose, narrative pace and cohesion dazzle. He has culled many gems from hitherto-unpublished letters and diaries and memoirs of some of the city's leading French and foreign figures. He has an unerring ear for the mot juste and an acute eye for the telling detail. He seasons his tales with witty repartee, delicious anecdote and apt quotations. I was so enthralled that I wished the book were longer, that Mansel had gone on to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, the Commune uprising and the birth of the republic. This is serious history at its most enjoyable.
The story begins in March 1814 with the entry of the allied armies into Paris and the restoration of the Bourbon Louis XVIII, the younger brother of the guillotined Louis XVI. He forgave his enemies, accepted the ancien régime nobility and Napoleon's new aristocracy and integrated some of its members into his government. Chief among them was Talleyrand, created Prince de Benevent by Napoleon, and Josef Fouché, the emperor's former police chief. Mansel quotes from Chateaubriand's Memoirs : "Suddenly a door is opened: vice leaning on the arm of crime silently enters, M. de Talleyrand walking supported by M. Fouche."
Napoleon returned from Elba and retook Paris, ruled for 100 days before being beaten at Waterloo. The king, having escaped to Ghent, re-entered the city with the allied armies. Mansel's entertaining account of the dexterity with which generals, courtiers and intellectuals turned their coats according to which way the wind blew, intriguing and jockeying for position and money, makes today's politicians seem positively virtuous.
An admirer of the English political system - "O Torys! O Whigs! Où êtes-vous ?" he sighed to his prime minister, Decazes, in 1819 - Louis XVIII meant to rule with fairness and generosity. He established a two-chamber parliament, proclaimed a charter of civil rights and offered religious freedom. The old aristocrats returned from abroad and the countryside to occupy grand houses in the Faubourg Saint-Germain and opened their salons, while a wave of Anglophilia swept the city. The fascination was mutual - the English moved to Paris in their thousands, and Anglo-French liaisons and marriages multiplied. But behind the barrières around the city centre, the mass of Parisians were poor and disenfranchised. They hated the English, particularly Wellington, tactlessly appointed British ambassador, whom they called "Villainton", and they accused the government of being lackeys of the British. The blow to national pride at the loss of Rhenish territories, nostalgia for the gloire of the empire and resentment of the ostentatious rich festered. In July 1830, revolution broke out. Charles X, who succeeded Louis XVIII, was replaced by Louis Philippe, a descendant of Louis XIV's younger brother. He was called "citizen king" and his power was restricted by parliament. Though attractive and witty, Louis Philippe was ineffectual. His reign was characterised by the cult of money: "Enrichissez-vous," urged Guizot, his minister of interior. Unfortunately, the new riches did not trickle down to the people. In 1848, revolution erupted once more. Louis Philippe's prompt flight from Paris quelled public anger and won him the nickname "Louis Filevite" - Louis fast-foot. Louis Napoleon was elected president of the republic by universal suffrage. Three years later, following a coup, he abolished the republic and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III - or "Napoleon le petit", as Victor Hugo named him. When the theatres and salons reopened after the revolution, the journalist Alphonse Karr coined the phrase: " Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose ."
Yet in spite of political upheavals this was perhaps Paris's most glorious and fecund period. It was the capital of the civilised world, "the beautiful city of marvels which smiles with such grace on a young man", wrote Heinrich Heine who arrived in 1831 and stayed. It regained the hegemony it had lost in war through art and literature. "When Paris sneezes, Europe catches cold," complained Bismarck. Napoleon had spent some of the gains from his conquests embellishing his capital with bridges and monuments and triumphal arches. Works of art he had looted were displayed at the Louvre, and artists and intellectuals flocked from all over Europe in search of freedom and stimulation. French was the universal language of the educated elite, spoken at courts from St Petersburg to Constantinople. In the salons of Madame de Staël, the Duchesse de Duras, Madame Recamier - the Romantics' most celebrated muse - and the Princess Lieven, such giants as Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Balzac and Stendhal met and jousted with politics and ideas. Europe's art capital, with Ingres, Delacroix and hundreds of lesser figures living and working there, Paris was also a magnet for musicians and composers. Rossini revived the opera and wrote several works with French subjects, as did Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini. Chopin and Liszt were the stars of salons and Berlioz blazed a Romantic path in French music. For those who did not frequent the salons, there were the cafes. Some became the rendezvous of expatriates - Marx met Engels at the Cafe de la Regence in Palais Royal. Nationalism and socialism were articulated. It was not Marx but Louis Blanc, author of L'Organisation du Travail , who invented the phrase "from each according to their capacities, to each according to their need". The journalist Etienne Cabet invented the word communist, Pierre Leroux, a former print-worker, socialism. A new entity entered the political arena: le peuple , best embodied in Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables - fundamentally good, strong and generous, but betrayed by a corrupt political system.
Mansel is very good at describing the revolution, from its first ominous rumblings to the final eruption of the volcano that engulfed the city. There are wonderful set-pieces: the funeral of Louis XVIII, the procession of Napoleon's remains from the Triumphal Arch he had built to the Invalides in 1840, the death of the crown prince the Duc d'Orleans, and many more.
This was a period of imperialist expansion. Talleyrand recommended "a little conquest" to remedy popular discontent, much as a doctor prescribes aspirin. Expeditions to Spain and Algeria ensued. Another feature was the rise of bankers and financiers, above all the Rothschilds. James Rothschild lived more grandly than a duke; he backed peace and bankrolled the king who gave him the title of baron. But as Mansel demonstrates, for all the talk about "a European commonwealth" and "permanent peace in Europe", the events of this period sowed the seeds of future conflicts and the first world war. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for us today.
Shusha Guppy is London editor, Paris Review .
Paris Between Empires, 1814-1852
Author - Philip Mansel
ISBN - 0 7195 56 9
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 521