Monday, January 14, 2013


Some suggest that history is best interpreted over a long arc, say a few centuries, or between certain markers that seem true “turns of events.”  As I read my current book about the Jerome sisters (“The Titled Americans: Three American Sisters and the British Aristocratic World into Which They Married”: by Elizabeth Kehoe), I think about this.  The theme I see is the braiding of power with genealogy and the lies and secrecy made necessary by this assumption that “blood” carries deservingness as well as the necessary separation of procreation from delightful romance.  That is, sometimes the children of the unacknowledged lovers were better heirs than their theoretical fathers.

Napoleon III, known as "Louis-Napoléon" prior to becoming Emperor, was the nephew of Napoleon I by his brother Louis Bonaparte, who married Hortense de Beauharnois , the daughter by the first marriage of Napoleon's wife Joséphine de Beauharnais.  At Napoleon’s request and Joséphine’s suggestion, Hortense married Napoleon I's brother and produced three sons:  Napoleon Louis Charles Bonaparte (10 October 1802 - 5 May 1807), Napoleon Louis Bonaparte (11 October 1804 - 17 March 1831) and Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III, Emperor of the French (20 april 1808 - January 1873.)  She had also an illegitimate son, Charles Auguste Louise Joseph, duc de Morny, by her lover Charles Joseph, comte de Flahaut, a sophisticated, handsome man rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Talleyrand

Got this?  Napoleon’s brother married Josephine’s daughter by her first marriage.  That baby became Napoleon III, insecure, over-achieving, extravagant, and disastrous.  In a court as elaborate, as suitable for predators, as that of the Napoleons, there were no secrets.  The women paid their way with pregnancies without ever being obligated to raise the children, a job for servants.  Hortense’s reward was being made Queen of Holland (at that time controlled by France) where the court was not nearly so fabulous as that in Paris, but at least the people liked her.  The poor scorned genetic father finally turned to writing as a compensation.  Writing has kept its reputation as an addiction of sorts, but honorable so long as one is relatively discrete.  (Indiscrete sells better.)

Napoleon III, after being rejected by higher born women, decided to "marry for love", choosing the Countess of Teba, Eugénie de Montijo, a Spanish noblewoman of partial Scottish ancestry who had been brought up in Paris. In 1856, Eugénie gave birth to a legitimate son and heir-apparent, Louis Napoleon, the Prince Impérial.

Napoleon III had plans for America, chiefly joining forces with the Confederacy because France needed cotton (chintz, chambray, denim).  Two major cultural movements overwhelmed him:  industrialization of the Western World and the consolidation of Germany, which until then had been little more than tribes.  Both Victor Hugo and Karl Marx mocked and belittled Napoleon III, though he occasionally made gestures that helped the poor.

Meanwhile, indigenous tribes on the American continent were being overwhelmed by industrialization and gold strikes.  The big treaty of the Plains Indians was signed in 1850 in the midst of all this global turmoil.  While the Siege of Paris caused deaths by starvation of sixty thousand people, the Siege of the Blackfeet caused death by starvation of six hundred people.  One could rework those numbers as percentages, which would show the comparative proportion of the whole who died.  One should also keep in mind the Irish Famine about the same time which drove thousands of desperate people into the ghettoes, armies and homesteads of the United States and Mexico.

The landed gentry, now too few families owning too much property, could no longer muster up the incomes that supported their lives.  Primogeniture, meaning that only the oldest son could inherit estates, and entailment, meaning that no part of the estate could be sold, trapped underpowered sons under huge financial burdens.  The obvious remedy was to import the daughters of the monied Americans.  This is what sucked the Jerome sisters into the European landed gentry.  Unfortunately, the girls (not their mothers) lost the point of the exercise, so they tended to marry for love: younger sons -- charming but penniless.  In addition, the American fortunes tended to rise and fall drastically.  At least the whirlwind produced Winston Churchill.  And some bitingly sumptuous Edith Wharton novels.  I recommend in particular “The Buccaneers,” which has a happy ending because Wharton died before finishing it and the second writer made the plot movie-ready, which is to say, “cheerful.”  Of course, you all know that this is the background to “Downton Abbey.

Wikipedia:  Marxist sociologist Goran Therborn has characterized the reign of Napoleon III as the "first modern bourgeois regime", one which combined a movement of mass support with bourgeois rule, albeit through authoritarian statist means. According to Therborn, such a form of rule, ossified upon the point of crisis, proves fatal to such regimes once major external crises emerge.

Who can fail to see the parallels to the present?  Once again the gender-relations and marriage-conventions are in uproar, wealth is piled-up on too few, national boundaries and the constant struggle between the powerful and the desperate are soaking up resources, and the digital revolution is playing the role of industrialization.  In the same way that Clare Sheridan was both curious and confrontive in her visits to Russia, our young people go to the Middle East and Afghanistan.  Instead of taking their sculpture tools, they take video cameras.  Genealogical ties still pull weaklings into positions of power while “surrogate sons” and ambitious mistresses slip in and out at night.  Then there was VD.  Winston Churchill’s father, Randolph, died of syphillis.  We don’t know which of our “mighty leaders” have succumbed from AIDS so far, because they can hide it.  Are all these “cancer” cases (Chavez, Castro) really cancer?

Back to the Jerome sisters.  Their mother, Clarissa Hall, was an orphaned heiress from an old New York family, rumored to be Iroquois, Mohawk, or Black.  (She could easily have been a little bit of all three, since on the outside of the sheets they mixed freely.)  In the 1860’s she took her three daughters (Clara, Jennie, and Leonie) to the Paris court of Napoleon III.  It was a marketing ploy.  They were beautiful, talented (especially as equestrians and concert-level pianists), but -- unfortunately -- hopelessly romantic.  Their father occasionally had a huge fortune and occasionally was stony-broke.  The men they married were pretty much the same, but all three girls married for love. Generally the love lasted a few years, then succumbed to series of extramarital lovers.  And yet loyalty persisted alongside the debts.  Down the generations, this was a family pattern, and either caused or resulted in an enormous amount of cross-Atlantic travel.  Not quite trafficking.
Leonie, the youngest but not the prettiest, the steadiest and luckiest, married Jack Leslie, an Anglo-Irishman, and had four sons -- all of them excellent writers, all of them embroiled in the partition of Ireland.  Jennie had two sons, one being Winston (also an excellent writer), and the other, Jacky, probably not with her husband whose devotion by then was distant because of his syphillis.  This is an affliction that ends fertility.  In those days there was no cure and it led to madness.  Clara, named for her mother, married Moreton Frewen, also a writer, and was the mother of Hugh, Clare, and Oswald, all authors.  Clare Sheridan, of course, was also a sculptor.

Moreton Frewen was part of a cattle venture on the open range of the American high prairie along the east slope of the Rockies.  He was the sort of Englishman who didn’t think of the prairie as a kind of Switzerland so much as a sort of Kenya.   He was in Wyoming, where he built a two-story log cabin known as “Frewen Castle.”  (Google it.  Not very impressive in photos, but remember that most cabins in those days were 8x10.  Still, it’s not as elegant as the Medora chateau in North Dakota, which is only one story tall but has a fine atrium.)  Of course, the end of the open range destroyed his fortune.  Clare, who dearly loved her father, was in part revisiting the past when she came to the Blackfeet Reservation in 1937 and learned to make religious figures from whole tree trunks.

What happens in one part of the world, affects every other part of the world, though history -- as it has been presented -- seems to be populated only by men.  The women are the enablers, carriers and victims right along with everyone else.  Now we recover their stories from their writing. This book enfolds three of these intrepid women and does it admirably.

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