The Second Funeral of Napoleon, by William Makepeace Thackeray

II. — On the Voyage from St. Helena to Paris.

On the 18th October the French frigate quitted the island with its precious burden on board.

His Royal Highness the Captain acknowledged cordially the kindness and attention which he and his crew had received from the English authorities and the inhabitants of the Island of St. Helena; nay, promised a pension to an old soldier who had been for many years the guardian of the imperial tomb, and went so far as to take into consideration the petition of a certain lodging-house keeper, who prayed for a compensation for the loss which the removal of the Emperor’s body would occasion to her. And although it was not to be expected that the great French nation should forego its natural desire of recovering the remains of a hero so dear to it for the sake of the individual interest of the landlady in question, it must have been satisfactory to her to find, that the peculiarity of her position was so delicately appreciated by the august Prince who commanded the expedition, and carried away with him animae dimidium suae — the half of the genteel independence which she derived from the situation of her hotel. In a word, politeness and friendship could not be carried farther. The Prince’s realm and the landlady’s were bound together by the closest ties of amity. M. Thiers was Minister of France, the great patron of the English alliance. At London M. Guizot was the worthy representative of the French good-will towards the British people; and the remark frequently made by our orators at public dinners, that “France and England, while united, might defy the world,” was considered as likely to hold good for many years to come — the union that is. As for defying the world, that was neither here nor there; nor did English politicians ever dream of doing any such thing, except perhaps at the tenth glass of port at “Freemason’s Tavern.”

Little, however, did Mrs. Corbett, the St. Helena landlady, little did his Royal Highness Prince Ferdinand Philip Marie de Joinville know what was going on in Europe all this time (when I say in Europe, I mean in Turkey, Syria, and Egypt); how clouds, in fact, were gathering upon what you call the political horizon; and how tempests were rising that were to blow to pieces our Anglo–Gallic temple of friendship. Oh, but it is sad to think that a single wicked old Turk should be the means of setting our two Christian nations by the ears!

Yes, my love, this disreputable old man had been for some time past the object of the disinterested attention of the great sovereigns of Europe. The Emperor Nicolas (a moral character, though following the Greek superstition, and adored for his mildness and benevolence of disposition), the Emperor Ferdinand, the King of Prussia, and our own gracious Queen, had taken such just offence at his conduct and disobedience towards a young and interesting sovereign, whose authority he had disregarded, whose fleet he had kidnapped, whose fair provinces he had pounced upon, that they determined to come to the aid of Abdul Medjid the First, Emperor of the Turks, and bring his rebellious vassal to reason. In this project the French nation was invited to join; but they refused the invitation, saying, that it was necessary for the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe that his Highness Mehemet Ali should keep possession of what by hook or by crook he had gotten, and that they would have no hand in injuring him. But why continue this argument, which you have read in the newspapers for many months past? You, my dear, must know as well as I, that the balance of power in Europe could not possibly be maintained in any such way; and though, to be sure, for the last fifteen years, the progress of the old robber has not made much difference to us in the neighborhood of Russell Square, and the battle of Nezib did not in the least affect our taxes, our homes, our institutions, or the price of butcher’s meat, yet there is no knowing what MIGHT have happened had Mehemet Ali been allowed to remain quietly as he was: and the balance of power in Europe might have been — the deuce knows where.

Here, then, in a nutshell, you have the whole matter in dispute. While Mrs. Corbett and the Prince de Joinville were innocently interchanging compliments at St. Helena — bang! bang! Commodore Napier was pouring broadsides into Tyre and Sidon; our gallant navy was storming breaches and routing armies; Colonel Hodges had seized upon the green standard of Ibrahim Pacha; and the powder-magazine of St. John of Acre was blown up sky-high, with eighteen hundred Egyptian soldiers in company with it. The French said that l’or Anglais had achieved all these successes, and no doubt believed that the poor fellows at Acre were bribed to a man.

It must have been particularly unpleasant to a high-minded nation like the French — at the very moment when the Egyptian affair and the balance of Europe had been settled in this abrupt way — to find out all of a sudden that the Pasha of Egypt was their dearest friend and ally. They had suffered in the person of their friend; and though, seeing that the dispute was ended, and the territory out of his hand, they could not hope to get it back for him, or to aid him in any substantial way, yet Monsieur Thiers determined, just as a mark of politeness to the Pasha, to fight all Europe for maltreating him — all Europe, England included. He was bent on war, and an immense majority of the nation went with him. He called for a million of soldiers, and would have had them too, had not the King been against the project and delayed the completion of it at least for a time.

Of these great European disputes Captain Joinville received a notification while he was at sea on board his frigate: as we find by the official account which has been published of his mission.

“Some days after quitting St. Helena,” says that document, “the expedition fell in with a ship coming from Europe, and was thus made acquainted with the warlike rumors then afloat, by which a collision with the English marine was rendered possible. The Prince de Joinville immediately assembled the officers of the ‘Belle Poule,’ to deliberate on an event so unexpected and important.

“The council of war having expressed its opinion that it was necessary at all events to prepare for an energetic defence, preparations were made to place in battery all the guns that the frigate could bring to bear against the enemy. The provisional cabins that had been fitted up in the battery were demolished, the partitions removed, and, with all the elegant furniture of the cabins, flung into the sea. The Prince de Joinville was the first ‘to execute himself,’ and the frigate soon found itself armed with six or eight more guns.

“That part of the ship where these cabins had previously been, went by the name of Lacedaemon; everything luxurious being banished to make way for what was useful.

“Indeed, all persons who were on board agree in saying that Monseigneur the Prince de Joinville most worthily acquitted himself of the great and honorable mission which had been confided to him. All affirm not only that the commandant of the expedition did everything at St. Helena which as a Frenchman he was bound to do in order that the remains of the Emperor should receive all the honors due to them, but moreover that he accomplished his mission with all the measured solemnity, all the pious and severe dignity, that the son of the Emperor himself would have shown upon a like occasion. The commandant had also comprehended that the remains of the Emperor must never fall into the hands of the stranger, and being himself decided rather to sink his ship than to give up his precious deposit, he had inspired every one about him with the same energetic resolution that he had himself taken ‘AGAINST AN EXTREME EVENTUALITY.’”

Monseigneur, my dear, is really one of the finest young fellows it is possible to see. A tall, broad-chested, slim-waisted, brown-faced, dark-eyed young prince, with a great beard (and other martial qualities no doubt) beyond his years. As he strode into the Chapel of the Invalides on Tuesday at the head of his men, he made no small impression, I can tell you, upon the ladies assembled to witness the ceremony. Nor are the crew of the “Belle Poule” less agreeable to look at than their commander. A more clean, smart, active, well-limbed set of lads never “did dance” upon the deck of the famed “Belle Poule” in the days of her memorable combat with the “Saucy Arethusa.” “These five hundred sailors,” says a French newspaper, speaking of them in the proper French way, “sword in hand, in the severe costume of board-ship (la severe tenue du bord), seemed proud of the mission that they had just accomplished. Their blue jackets, their red cravats, the turned-down collars of blue shirts edged with white, ABOVE ALL their resolute appearance and martial air, gave a favorable specimen of the present state of our marine — a marine of which so much might be expected and from which so little has been required.”— Le Commerce: 16th December.

There they were, sure enough; a cutlass upon one hip, a pistol on the other — a gallant set of young men indeed. I doubt, to be sure, whether the severe tenue du bord requires that the seaman should be always furnished with those ferocious weapons, which in sundry maritime manoeuvers, such as going to sleep in your hammock for instance, or twinkling a binnacle, or luffing a marlinspike, or keelhauling a maintopgallant (all naval operations, my dear, which any seafaring novelist will explain to you)— I doubt, I say, whether these weapons are ALWAYS worn by sailors, and have heard that they are commonly and very sensibly too, locked up until they are wanted. Take another example: suppose artillerymen were incessantly compelled to walk about with a pyramid of twenty-four pound shot in one pocket, a lighted fuse and a few barrels of gunpowder in the other — these objects would, as you may imagine, greatly inconvenience the artilleryman in his peaceful state.

The newspaper writer is therefore most likely mistaken in saying that the seamen were in the severe tenue du bord, or by “bord” meaning “abordage”— which operation they were not, in a harmless church, hung round with velvet and wax-candles, and filled with ladies, surely called upon to perform. Nor indeed can it be reasonably supposed that the picked men of the crack frigate of the French navy are a “good specimen” of the rest of the French marine, any more than a cuirassed colossus at the gate of the Horse Guards can be considered a fair sample of the British soldier of the line. The sword and pistol, however, had no doubt their effect — the former was in its sheath, the latter not loaded, and I hear that the French ladies are quite in raptures with these charming loups-demer.

Let the warlike accoutrements then pass. It was necessary, perhaps, to strike the Parisians with awe, and therefore the crew was armed in this fierce fashion; but why should the captain begin to swagger as well as his men? and why did the Prince de Joinville lug out sword and pistol so early? or why, if he thought fit to make preparations, should the official journals brag of them afterwards as proofs of his extraordinary courage?

Here is the case. The English Government makes him a present of the bones of Napoleon: English workmen work for nine hours without ceasing, and dig the coffin out of the ground: the English Commissioner hands over the key of the box to the French representative, Monsieur Chabot: English horses carry the funeral car down to the sea-shore, accompanied by the English Governor, who has actually left his bed to walk in the procession and to do the French nation honor.

After receiving and acknowledging these politenesses, the French captain takes his charge on board, and the first thing we afterwards hear of him is the determination “qu’il a su faire passer” into all his crew, to sink rather than yield up the body of the Emperor aux mains de l’etranger — into the hands of the foreigner. My dear Monseigneur, is not this par trop fort? Suppose “the foreigner” had wanted the coffin, could he not have kept it? Why show this uncalled-for valor, this extraordinary alacrity at sinking? Sink or blow yourself up as much as you please, but your Royal Highness must see that the genteel thing would have been to wait until you were asked to do so, before you offended good-natured, honest people, who — heaven help them! — have never shown themselves at all murderously inclined towards you. A man knocks up his cabins forsooth, throws his tables and chairs overboard, runs guns into the portholes, and calls le quartier du bord ou existaient ces chambres, Lacedaemon. Lacedaemon! There is a province, O Prince, in your royal father’s dominions, a fruitful parent of heroes in its time, which would have given a much better nickname to your quartier du bord: you should have called it Gascony.

 “Sooner than strike we’ll all expi-er
 On board of the Bell-e Pou-le.”

Such fanfaronading is very well on the part of Tom Dibdin, but a person of your Royal Highness’s “pious and severe dignity” should have been above it. If you entertained an idea that war was imminent, would it not have been far better to have made your preparations in quiet, and when you found the war rumor blown over, to have said nothing about what you intended to do? Fie upon such cheap Lacedaemonianism! There is no poltroon in the world but can brag about what he WOULD have done: however, to do your Royal Highness’s nation justice, they brag and fight too.

This narrative, my dear Miss Smith, as you will have remarked, is not a simple tale merely, but is accompanied by many moral and pithy remarks which form its chief value, in the writer’s eyes at least, and the above account of the sham Lacedaemon on board the “Belle Poule” has a double-barrelled morality, as I conceive. Besides justly reprehending the French propensity towards braggadocio, it proves very strongly a point on which I am the only statesman in Europe who has strongly insisted. In the “Paris Sketch Book” it was stated that THE FRENCH HATE US. They hate us, my dear, profoundly and desperately, and 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. Directly they go into strong opposition (where, you know, people are always more patriotic than on the ministerial side), they appeal to the people, and have their hold on the people by hating England in common with them. Why? It is a long story, and the hatred may be accounted for by many reasons both political and social. Any time these eight hundred years this ill-will has been going on, and has been transmitted on the French side from father to son. On the French side, not on ours: we have had no, or few, defeats to complain of, no invasions to make us angry; but you see that to discuss such a period of time would demand a considerable number of pages, and for the present we will avoid the examination of the question.

But they hate us, that is the long and short of it; and you see how this hatred has exploded just now, not upon a serious cause of difference, but upon an argument: for what is the Pasha of Egypt to us or them but a mere abstract opinion? For the same reason the Little-endians in Lilliput abhorred the Big-endians; and I beg you to remark how his Royal Highness Prince Ferdinand Mary, upon hearing that this argument was in the course of debate between us, straightway flung his furniture overboard and expressed a preference for sinking his ship rather than yielding it to the etranger. Nothing came of this wish of his, to be sure; but the intention is everything. Unlucky circumstances denied him the power, but he had the will.

Well, beyond this disappointment, the Prince de Joinville had nothing to complain of during the voyage, which terminated happily by the arrival of the “Belle Poule” at Cherbourg, on the 30th of November, at five o’clock in the morning. A telegraph made the glad news known at Paris, where the Minister of the Interior, Tanneguy–Duchatel (you will read the name, Madam, in the old Anglo–French wars), had already made “immense preparations” for receiving the body of Napoleon.

The entry was fixed for the 15th of December.

On the 8th of December at Cherbourg the body was transferred from the “Belle Poule” frigate to the “Normandie” steamer. On which occasion the mayor of Cherbourg deposited, in the name of his town, a gold laurel branch upon the coffin — which was saluted by the forts and dykes of the place with ONE THOUSAND GUNS! There was a treat for the inhabitants.

There was on board the steamer a splendid receptacle for the coffin: “a temple with twelve pillars and a dome to cover it from the wet and moisture, surrounded with velvet hangings and silver fringes. At the head was a gold cross, at the foot a gold lamp: other lamps were kept constantly burning within, and vases of burning incense were hung around. An altar, hung with velvet and silver, was at the mizzen-mast of the vessel, AND FOUR SILVER EAGLES AT EACH CORNER OF THE ALTAR.” It was a compliment at once to Napoleon and — excuse me for saying so, but so the facts are — to Napoleon and to God Almighty.

Three steamers, the “Normandie,” the “Veloce,” and the “Courrier,” formed the expedition from Cherbourg to Havre, at which place they arrived on the evening of the 9th of December, and where the “Veloce” was replaced by the Seine steamer, having in tow one of the state-coasters, which was to fire the salute at the moment when the body was transferred into one of the vessels belonging to the Seine.

The expedition passed Havre the same night, and came to anchor at Val de la Haye on the Seine, three leagues below Rouen.

Here the next morning (10th), it was met by the flotilla of steamboats of the Upper Seine, consisting of the three “Dorades,” the three “Etoiles,” the “Elbeuvien,” the “Pansien,” the “Parisienne,” and the “Zampa.” The Prince de Joinville, and the persons of the expedition, embarked immediately in the flotilla, which arrived the same day at Rouen.

At Rouen salutes were fired, the National Guard on both sides of the river paid military honors to the body; and over the middle of the suspension-bridge a magnificent cenotaph was erected, decorated with flags, fasces, violet hangings, and the imperial arms. Before the cenotaph the expedition stopped, and the absolution was given by the archbishop and the clergy. After a couple of hours’ stay, the expedition proceeded to Pont de l’Arche. On the 11th it reached Vernon, on the 12th Mantes, on the 13th Maisons-sur-Seine.

“Everywhere,” says the official account from which the above particulars are borrowed, “the authorities, the National Guard, and the people flocked to the passage of the flotilla, desirous to render the honors due to his glory, which is the glory of France. In seeing its hero return, the nation seemed to have found its Palladium again — the sainted relics of victory.”

At length, on the 14th, the coffin was transferred from the “Dorade” steamer on board the imperial vessel arrived from Paris. In the evening, the imperial vessel arrived at Courbevoie, which was the last stage of the journey.

Here it was that M. Guizot went to examine the vessel, and was very nearly flung into the Seine, as report goes, by the patriots assembled there. It is now lying on the river, near the Invalides, amidst the drifting ice, whither the people of Paris are flocking out to see it.

The vessel is of a very elegant antique form, and I can give you on the Thames no better idea of it than by requesting you to fancy an immense wherry, of which the stern has been cut straight off, and on which a temple on steps has been elevated. At the figure-head is an immense gold eagle, and at the stern is a little terrace, filled with evergreens and a profusion of banners. Upon pedestals along the sides of the vessel are tripods in which incense was burned, and underneath them are garlands of flowers called here “immortals.” Four eagles surmount the temple, and a great scroll or garland, held in their beaks, surrounds it. It is hung with velvet and gold; four gold caryatides support the entry of it; and in the midst, upon a large platform hung with velvet, and bearing the imperial arms, stood the coffin. A steamboat, carrying two hundred musicians playing funereal marches and military symphonies, preceded this magnificent vessel to Courbevoie, where a funereal temple was erected, and “a statue of Notre Dame de Grace, before which the seamen of the ‘Belle Poule’ inclined themselves, in order to thank her for having granted them a noble and glorious voyage.”

Early on the morning of the 15th December, amidst clouds of incense, and thunder of cannon, and innumerable shouts of people, the coffin was transferred from the barge, and carried by the seamen of the “Belle Poule” to the Imperial Car.

And, now having conducted our hero almost to the gates of Paris, I must tell you what preparations were made in the capital to receive him.

Ten days before the arrival of the body, as you walked across the Deputies’ Bridge, or over the Esplanade of the Invalides, you saw on the bridge eight, on the esplanade thirty-two, mysterious boxes erected, wherein a couple of score of sculptors were at work night and day.

In the middle of the Invalid Avenue, there used to stand, on a kind of shabby fountain or pump, a bust of Lafayette, crowned with some dirty wreaths of “immortals,” and looking down at the little streamlet which occasionally dribbled below him. The spot of ground was now clear, and Lafayette and the pump had been consigned to some cellar, to make way for the mighty procession that was to pass over the place of their habitation.

Strange coincidence! If I had been Mr. Victor Hugo, my dear, or a poet of any note, I would, in a few hours, have made an impromptu concerning that Lafayette-crowned pump, and compared its lot now to the fortune of its patron some fifty years back. From him then issued, as from his fountain now, a feeble dribble of pure words; then, as now, some faint circles of disciples were willing to admire him. Certainly in the midst of the war and storm without, this pure fount of eloquence went dribbling, dribbling on, till of a sudden the revolutionary workmen knocked down statue and fountain, and the gorgeous imperial cavalcade trampled over the spot where they stood.

As for the Champs Elysees, there was no end to the preparations; the first day you saw a couple of hundred scaffoldings erected at intervals between the handsome gilded gas-lamps that at present ornament that avenue; next day, all these scaffoldings were filled with brick and mortar. Presently, over the bricks and mortar rose pediments of statues, legs of urns, legs of goddesses, legs and bodies of goddesses, legs, bodies, and busts of goddesses. Finally, on the 13th December, goddesses complete. On the 14th they were painted marble-color; and the basements of wood and canvas on which they stood were made to resemble the same costly material. The funereal urns were ready to receive the frankincense and precious odors which were to burn in them. A vast number of white columns stretched down the avenue, each bearing a bronze buckler on which was written, in gold letters, one of the victories of the Emperor, and each decorated with enormous imperial flags. On these columns golden eagles were placed; and the newspapers did not fail to remark the ingenious position in which the royal birds had been set: for while those on the right-hand side of the way had their heads turned TOWARDS the procession, as if to watch its coming, those on the left were looking exactly the other way, as if to regard its progress. Do not fancy I am joking: this point was gravely and emphatically urged in many newspapers; and I do believe no mortal Frenchman ever thought it anything but sublime.

Do not interrupt me, sweet Miss Smith. I feel that you are angry. I can see from here the pouting of your lips, and know what you are going to say. You are going to say, “I will read no more of this Mr. Titmarsh; there is no subject, however solemn, but he treats it with flippant irreverence, and no character, however great, at whom he does not sneer.”

Ah, my dear! you are young now and enthusiastic; and your Titmarsh is old, very old, sad, and gray-headed. I have seen a poor mother buy a halfpenny wreath at the gate of Montmartre burying-ground, and go with it to her little child’s grave, and hang it there over the little humble stone; and if ever you saw me scorn the mean offering of the poor shabby creature, I will give you leave to be as angry as you will. They say that on the passage of Napoleon’s coffin down the Seine, old soldiers and country people walked miles from their villages just to catch a sight of the boat which carried his body and to kneel down on the shore and pray for him. God forbid that we should quarrel with such prayers and sorrow, or question their sincerity. Something great and good must have been in this man, something loving and kindly, that has kept his name so cherished in the popular memory, and gained him such lasting reverence and affection.

But, Madam, one may respect the dead without feeling awe-stricken at the plumes of the hearse; and I see no reason why one should sympathize with the train of mutes and undertakers, however deep may be their mourning. Look, I pray you, at the manner in which the French nation has performed Napoleon’s funeral. Time out of mind, nations have raised, in memory of their heroes, august mausoleums, grand pyramids, splendid statues of gold or marble, sacrificing whatever they had that was most costly and rare, or that was most beautiful in art, as tokens of their respect and love for the dead person. What a fine example of this sort of sacrifice is that (recorded in a book of which Simplicity is the great characteristic) of the poor woman who brought her pot of precious ointment — her all, and laid it at the feet of the Object which, upon earth, she most loved and respected. “Economists and calculators” there were even in those days who quarrelled with the manner in which the poor woman lavished so much “capital;” but you will remember how nobly and generously the sacrifice was appreciated, and how the economists were put to shame.

With regard to the funeral ceremony that has just been performed here, it is said that a famous public personage and statesman, Monsieur Thiers indeed, spoke with the bitterest indignation of the general style of the preparations, and of their mean and tawdry character. He would have had a pomp as magnificent, he said, as that of Rome at the triumph of Aurelian: he would have decorated the bridges and avenues through which the procession was to pass, with the costliest marbles and the finest works of art, and have had them to remain there for ever as monuments of the great funeral.

The economists and calculators might here interpose with a great deal of reason; for, indeed, there was no reason why a nation should impoverish itself to do honor to the memory of an individual for whom, after all, it can feel but a qualified enthusiasm: but it surely might have employed the large sum voted for the purpose more wisely and generously, and recorded its respect for Napoleon by some worthy and lasting memorial, rather than have erected yonder thousand vain heaps of tinsel, paint, and plaster, that are already cracking and crumbling in the frost, at three days old.

Scarcely one of the statues, indeed, deserves to last a month: some are odious distortions and caricatures, which never should have been allowed to stand for a moment. On the very day of the fete, the wind was shaking the canvas pedestals, and the flimsy wood-work had begun to gape and give way. At a little distance, to be sure, you could not see the cracks; and pedestals and statues LOOKED like marble. At some distance, you could not tell but that the wreaths and eagles were gold embroidery, and not gilt paper — the great tricolor flags damask, and not striped calico. One would think that these sham splendors betokened sham respect, if one had not known that the name of Napoleon is held in real reverence, and observed somewhat of the character of the nation. Real feelings they have, but they distort them by exaggeration; real courage, which they render ludicrous by intolerable braggadocio; and I think the above official account of the Prince de Joinville’s proceedings, of the manner in which the Emperor’s remains have been treated in their voyage to the capital, and of the preparations made to receive him in it, will give my dear Miss Smith some means of understanding the social and moral condition of this worthy people of France.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00