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to be feared that Napoleon was no very apt pupil,
since sound tradition has it that he was the least
graceful or imposing of princes in respect of
presence and courtly bearing. Nor can it be said
that Napoleon derived much benefit from Talma's
lessons in elocution, for, to the end, the great
soldier, whatever he may have been in private,
or in the council chamber, was a failure as a public
speaker — except on the eve of conflict. That the
Corsican really took lessons in deportment and
elocution from his great contemporary is, how-
ever, our own fixed belief, and we see no reason
either for refusing to believe the fact or for
holding Napoleon up to ridicule on this account.
We have noted that, like the admirably thorough
being he ever was, Bonaparte had studied out the
essential character and personality of princes ;
and it is more than likely that he did not confine
his study to learning only the half of his role.

On his own side, Napoleon was very free with
instructions to the great tragedian. For example,
after seeing Talma in the Death of Pompey in
1805, the Emperor — ^^vho had really been an
emperor since 1800 and cannot be accused of too
much anxiety to show his sense of the new honour


— addressed the actor as to his role in the
following terms : —

" You ^vork your arms too freely and are too
full of gesture. The head of an empire is more
economical of his movements ; he is fully aware
that a sign is an order, that a look means death,
and is therefore sparing of both. There is also
in the play a verse the meaning of which escapes
you, Talma, who seem to be too convinced, too
sincere when you declaim the line :

" ' For me, who think a throne to be an infamy . . .'

" Caesar, when he speaks these words, does not
mean the least of them, and talks in this strain
only because he is surrounded by Romans to
whom he wishes to convey the idea that he has
a horror of kings. He is, however, far from
thinking the throne contemptible. On the con-
trary, it is the first object of his whole life. You
must not make a Caesar talk as a Brutus would

Again, after witnessing Britannicus, Napoleon
criticises Talma in the following words : —

" Your acting of Nero does not quite satisfy
me, and in that role I should like to see more of
the conflict between a bad character and a good
education. You should make fewer gestures ; a
nature like Nero's has little external show, being
too self-centred. Nevertheless, I like the simple
and natural forms which you have restored to
tragedy. When men of exalted rank are moved
by passion, their language becomes more energetic


without being less natural. For example, you
and I are now conversing in an ordinary way ;
nevertheless we are making history."

When the First Consul becomes FiUiperor, Talma
fears to present himself at the Imperial Court
until the new sovereign, noticing his continued
absence, asks if the great actor is angry with him
for any reason. After which Talma presents him-
self and pleases Napoleon because he dresses in
appropriate good taste for his courtly role. So
Napoleon takes the opportunity of continuing his
instructions to Talma, and we get the following
monologue : —

" Talma, you often visit me, and you can see
things as they are : Princesses deprived of their
lovers, Princes who have lost their States, Kings
degraded by war from their sovereign rank,
Generals who aspire to and beg for thrones.
Around me you can see fallen ambitions, never-
ceasing intrigues and rivalries, sorrows and afflic-
tion — all covered with courtier-like maskery.
Here, assuredly, is Tragedy enough for anyone ;
my Palace is full of it, and even I am myself the
most tragical figure in this big cast of tragedy.
Well now ! Do you see any of us strike attitudes,
or affect the airs and poses of grandeur, or hear
us cry out in our triumphs or in our anguish ?
No, indeed ! We are all perfectly natural and
speak just as ordinary men speak when moved
by interest or by passion. And it was in just the
same way that the great makers of history acted
in their own day and in the process of their own


tragedies. There, now, you have something on

which to meditate ! "

4 All of which makes the reader rather sorry for

f ^ the actor to whom Napoleon thought it necessary

.^ to address so crude a sermon of banalities — if he

^ ' ever did ; and we very much doubt it.

Talma once pretended to discern in the profile of
Alexander the Great, as shown by a rare cameo,
some resemblance to Napoleon — a likeness which
certainly did not exist, if ancient coins tell the
truth. The Emperor professed to be pleased and
presented Talma with the cameo. Napoleon
many times paid the great actor's debts — to a
total amount, according to the Imperial account-
books, of half-a-milhon francs, or £20,000. Cer-
tainly Talma was never guilty of ingratitude to
the Corsican. In view of the number of knight-
hoods which have been distributed within later
times to the various prominent actors and singers
of our own age, by European sovereigns, it is
interesting to learn from the Memoirs of Las Cases
that Napoleon once declared it had been his
intention to decorate Talma with the Legion of
Honour, and that only the fear of a public outcry
against such an official distinguishing of a mere
actor caused him to alter his decision. It was
from Talma that Bonaparte on his return from
Italy to Paris purchased the hotel in the rue de
la Victoire — formerly rue Chantereine — and it
was in this house that the actor made up a list
of entertainers whom, he suggested the General
should take with him to Egypt : Rigel, a pianist of

THE R6LE ;0F the critic 81

note ; Grandmaison, a poet ; Villoteau, a baritone
— the type of male voice which Napoleon most
favoured, we may state — and Arnault, a dramatic
poet and author of Les Venetiens, who admitted
that the Corsican had collaborated with him in
the composition of that play.

It was also to Talma, who had just presented
his friend the poet Lemercier, that Bonaparte
declared that criticism which was not con-
structive was of no value whatsoever, since, as he
said, a valet-de-chambre can find words for simple
or gratuitous criticism. One of the visitors
objected that the matter of good taste might
possibly be beyond the intelligence of a menial,
and Napoleon answered :

" That is just another conventional term —
good taste ! What can the matter of good ~^
taste mean to a man who works on original lines \
as apart from novelty and the bizarre ? To me
it is of the last concern what another person
thinks, especially in accidentals. Give me sound '1
argument and sound thought and I am with you.
I have tried to read Virgil, but he bored me, and
Ossian I read simply because, like the waves of the
sea and the winds of the forest, he represented
rough Nature to me. French dramatists and
authors attach too much importance to what the
critics are likely to say of them, and the result is,
they are handicapped by the fact that, on starting
to write, their own natural expression is already
suffocated. A great author must write to please / .
himself and without regard to standr.rds which


are only conventions set up by mediocrities who,
possessing no bel essor, cannot get beyond the
art-Hmitations by which they seek to fetter
loftier spirits. That is why I place Corneille
first among all French poetic dramatists ; he
had seen nothing of the great world and worked
far away from the madding crowd. Yet who can
approach him when he excogitates the heart of a
prince, or the soul of a leader of men and presents
him on the stage ? Truth — the discovery of new
truth — is originality, not novelty, not new affec-
tations, not the setting-up of standards which
come to-day and pass to-morrow. Human nature
always remains the same ; there were no
conventions in the Garden of Eden."

To Constant, the great man's body servant, we
owe the recollection that a volume of Corneille
was always placed on the Emperor's table when
a visit was paid by Talma, and Napoleon would
open the tome at Cinna and frequently quote
from that masterpiece the lines :

"Cesar, tu vas regner. Voici le jour auguste
Ou le peuple romain pour toi toujours injuste."

On another occasion Lemercier presented him
with a copy of his play Agamemnon, which the
Corsican criticised with great severity, declaring
that it was entirely lacking in courtly sense.

" Strophus has no business to reprove Clytem-
nestra," he says. " Strophus is only a valet."

Lemercier objects : " Strophus is a friend of
Agamemnon ; he is a dethroned king."


" Psha ! " returns the Imperial upstart ; " at
Court only the King counts. The rest are but so
much valetry."

In Voltaire's Merope, he objects also to the line :

"The first of all kings was a victorious soldier,"

and forbids Chaptal to allow that piece to be
produced because, as he declared, the people had
not intelligence sufficient to apprehend the real
meaning latent in that truism. Said he :

" For me the man who raises himself to a throne
from nothing, is the first man of his age. It is
no question of luck, but only merit, on the one
hand and recognition of merit on the other."

The relations of Napoleon with the two sisters
called Mars are not very well established, though
it is accepted as historical that on one occasion
while in the company of the younger and more
famous sister, Napoleon, at three o'clock in the
morning, had his first epileptic stroke, the whole
household, including the Imperial consort, being
awakened to attend at the Emperor's bedside,
where Josephine pretended to go into an hysterical
fit at the sight of her hated rival, chasing the
latter half-naked down the stairs to the entresol
and threatening, according to the record, with
much shrill vituperation, to " scratch her face,"
to "pull her hair," to "slit her nose"— all in
the accepted style of the perfect lady who toils
beneath the moon and sleeps beneath the sun.

Mademoiselle Bourgoin was another who passed
under the notice of Napoleon. This damsel


was the paid mistress of Chaptal, who acted as
Minister of the Interior at the time and was an
intimate and frequent collaborant of the Emperor.
Bourgoin once received — very unexpectedly —
her summons to attend on Caesar's pleasure,
and on presenting herself near midnight at the
Palace was shown direct to Napoleon's bed-
room, where, to her consternation, she found
Chaptal deep in statistical business with his
Imperial master. Poor little Bourgoin, who
misjudged the occasion, thought well to attempt
a little coquetry on her own account, all the more
so since Napoleon had not even turned his head
to look at her. As she sought to attract his
attention, the Emperor, without raising his head
from the table, ordered her to — undress ! The
chorus-woman set about divesting and laid her-
self on the Imperial couch. Napoleon then made
*, some pretence at finishing up for the night and
retiring, whereat (says the chronicler) old Chaptal,
small wonder, began to sweat at every pore of
his body. The Emperor changed his mind,
however, and with his Minister started on some
new task which lasted a couple of hours. In the
meantime the actress lay blinking in bed, much
mystified by proceedings in Avhich she was entirely
counted out, considerably hurt in her woman's
pride, and wondering where on earth she was
to come in — and when, and how. At last the
girl attempted a remark, but had hardly opened
her mouth when Napoleon interrupted her
brusquely :


"Get up and go home," he said. "I do not
want you." And the seance closed.

The authority for this story is Chaptal himself
in his Memoirs ; nor does he fail to inform us
that he sent in his resignation on the day following
this studied and indeed cowardly outrage on the
part of the Corsican, since the Minister was not in a
position to defend himself. It is of Mademoiselle
Bourgoin, by the way, that Napoleon at Erfurt
made the remark to the Emperor Alexander :

" Visit that woman and to-morrow all Europe
will know what your physical proportions are
from the ground up. Besides, I am concerned
about your health " — an exquisite remark which
carries its own commentary with it.

When Mademoiselle Chameroi, a well-known
dancing-woman at the Opera, passed to her
reward, the Vicar of Saint-Roch refused to receive
her coffin in his church or to celebrate Mass for
the repose of her soul. Napoleon immediately
instructed the Archbishop of Paris to suspend
the Vicar for three months in order, as he said,
to give him time to meditate on the fact that
Jesus Christ had taught men to pray for poor
sinners, and to cultivate the divine attribute of
charity to all.


Standards of Beauty — Lessiiig's View — George an
Amazonian Type — Her Attraction for Bonaparte —
Their First Meeting at Saint-Cloud — Affected Nervous-
ness of the Actress — Napoleon as a Lover — Espionage
of Talleyrand — Bonaparte criticises the Actress — His
Generosity to George — A Visit to the Tuileries —
Josephine' s Fit of Jealousy — Napoleon's Coronation —
George visits an Emperor — Napoleon and His Bonnes
Fortunes — Where George disappointed her Lover —
Her Veneration for Napoleon — A Costly Rendezvous

IF the author of the Laocoon was right,
then we may readily agree that there are
certain subjects that do not altogether
lend themselves to the painter's art. Wlien
Helen raised her veil and thought that act a
sufficient answer to the angry Senators who
accused her of having brought calamity and de-
vastation upon Troy, the lady showed thnt the
opinion she entertained about her own beauty
was not a poor one. But could the first of
painters present the most easily satisfied among
us with the picture of a Helen who might be
admitted to be worth a ten-year war, or show us
a beauty the very absoluteness of which must
appeal to all tastes ? Assuredly not ; and we
should ourselves prefer the poet to tell us of this
miracle of loveliness, leaving it to the reader's
imagination to conjure up the ideal of so fair
a creature — although Lessing teaches otherwise.
Portraiture has of course dealt, though not
generously, with Mademoiselle George — correctly
so spelled — a favourite mistress of Napoleon, and
on contemplating various pictures which represent
this actress, we are led to believe either that the
Corsican's taste was poor, or else that the por-
traitists of that time were weak in reproducing
their sitters. As represented by the various
artists whom we have seen, George would seem
to have resembled one of those handsome but
hard-faced Irishwomen of the larger size, and the
reader may not require to be told that certain
profound experts in the anthropological science



have seriously questioned the absolute femininity
of the woman of Ireland, the theory being that she
suffers from an excess of m.asculine temperament.
Like the majority of women who have attained
to lofty rank in the dramatic and singing pro-
fession, Mademoiselle George was born of actors
and made her first appearance on the stage at
five years old — about 1790. At the opening of
the Consulate she was in her twenty-second year,
and already possessed an important prestige
among contemporary actresses — a prestige which
was mainly due then, as it is now and ever was,
to cleverly organised reclame or press-agency
work. Her vogue among the stage-door brother-
hood was great — much greater than she admits
in her Me7noirs — and it is to be feared, alas ! that
Marguerite-Josephine, to name her, had dropped
the pitcher very early in life. When Bonaparte
first met her she was the mistress-in-chief
of a certain Prince Sapieha, and although she
emphasises the fact that a maiden aunt used
to look very carefully after her morals, there is
valid ground for the presumption that this old
virgin was herself really no better than she
should have been. The First Consul first saw
George as Clytemnestra in Iphigenia, and so
pleased was he with the personality and perform-
ance of the young actress that he sent Constant
— his valet ! — to her house, after the play, with
instructions to solicit her to call at Saint-Cloud on
the following night — a fair sample of the Corsican's
diplomacy in delicate matters of the kind,


George, at this point in her MemoirSy goes into
a ridiculous description of her " emotions " on
hearing from the body servant that the First
Consul wished to meet her. We must respect
the intelligence of the actress, however, when she
tells us that her curiosity in regard to the young
Conqueror overcame all other sentiments ; for the
feeble brain of an ordinary stage-woman could
not have thought out this little bit of soul-
analysis if she had not really felt it. She informs
Constant of her willingness to wait on the Consul
at the hour indicated. Then, she says, the whole
night preceding her visit was one long misery.
What could the First Consul want with her, she
wondered. And besides, could he not come
to her ? Perhaps it would be better, after all,
to write and decline, and then she tries to think
what she ought to wear — white or pink ; a
confection or something muslin and simple ? Oh,
these dictators — ^what dreadful men they must
be ! And at last she drops off to sleep. About
eight o'clock her maid awakes her, and noting
Mademoiselle's bad humour, assures her that other
rivals on the stage — Volnais, Bourgoin, Mars —
would much envy her when they heard of her
good fortune. George, somewhat consoled, orders
her carriage for the Bois, visits her coiffeur^ her
tailor and goes on to the theatre, where she
meets Talma — mon hon Talma. The actor and
the manager, Fleury, both congratulate her, the
latter with some narquoiserie^ assuring her that
she wears an air of conquest.


The actress goes home and arrays herself in
what she describes as a white musHn neglige,
a lace veil and a cachemire, and on arriving at the
theatre, to wile the intervening hours away,
meets the actress Volnais, who is also out for a

" Do you intend to see the whole play out ? "
says the latter, referring to the fashionable piece
then being acted.

" No — ^will you ? " asks George.

" Nor I," replies Volnais, " I have something
on about nine o'clock " — meaning presumably
that she was to meet General Junot, for the
rendezvous was with him.

The Consular carriage called for George at
eight o'clock, with Constant, the valet, in attend-
ance, and the coachman was the famous Cesar,
about whom so many obvious jokes used to be
made. It is a long journey to Saint-Cloud —
four miles ? — and Constant, under no illusions,
presumably, as to the quality of this hardened
actress's " trepidation," laughed when she told
him that she felt very much humiliated — *' which
I thought somewhat impertinent on his part,"
writes the lady. On arrival at the Palace,
Roustan shows her into — a large bedroom. As
she nurses her nervousness, the First Consul makes
his appearance — in white breeches, black socks,
green uniform with red facings and the famous hat
crushed under his arm. His first act was to tear
her veil away and tell her that he had sent her
£120 after hearing her in some recent play.



" I thought," said he, " that you might have
come in person to thank me. But e\'idently
you are proud as you are fair."

At this point the actress complains that the
Hghts are too many for her, and Bonaparte
summons Roustan to put most of them out, after
which, as is usual A\nth him, he wants to know
all about her. George tells the story and does
not conceal her relations with Prince Sapieha.
The First Consul extracts a promise that she will
visit himself occasionally.

" He certainly w^as pleased with me," writes
George, "if he was not quite in love," adding
simply : "I begged off on this occasion, but
promised faithfully that I would return. He put
on my veil for me and then kissed me on the
forehead, at which I began to laugh, telling him
he had kissed a present given me by Sapieha,
wiiereupon he tore the veil into a thousand
shreds and trampled on my shawl, took the ring
from my finger, crushing it beneath his heel and
even pulling off a little chain I wore. Then he
summoned Roustan, ordering him to fetch a new
veil and a shawl and telling me I was to wear only
what he gave me."

This was the first interview with the First
Consul, and Constant took the actress home
again. In the course of the next day. Talma
called on her and, in answer to her hesitations,
told the actress that she must be very foolish
not to take advantage of her good fortune. Like
the good Frenchman he was, moreover, the actor


advised George, if she feared any embarrassments
as a result of her Uaison with Bonaparte, to get
married right away. He persuaded her, in any
case, to pay her promised visit to Bonaparte, and
accordingly George returned to Saint-Cloud that

On this occasion Bonaparte, according to the
actress, took great pains to spare her all shock
to her sense of what Avas proper, and indulged
in sentimental comedy to the extent of asking
the young actress if she was not conscious of the
electricity of love ; finally putting the question :
" Do you not love me a little ? " George assures
the chief of the State that she loves him not a
little, but that his role in life is so large that she
can only count for a small item in its evolution,
and that although he is First Consul, she cannot
allow him to trifle with her. She reminds him
that they are playing Cinna on the next day, and
that consequently she must be home betimes
in order to get a full night's rest. Bonaparte
reluctantly consents to her departure before (as
he says) she has given him a proof of her willing-
ness to be his friend, and insists that, Cinna
over, his carriage shall take her back to Saint-
Cloud, when he will expect her to sacrifice to

" He dried my tears," says Georgina, who
promised to keep the appointment for the next
day and again returned home.

Cinna was duly acted on the succeeding night,
and Bonaparte was present. At the rendering of


the famous line, declaimed by ^Emilia, the part
taken by Mademoiselle George :

" I have seduced Cinna and can seduce others,"

the actress came in for some enthusiastic applause,
at which, she says, she became purple, fearing
that the Consul might accuse her of having
been indiscreet. He was, on the contrary, very
kind when they met at Saint-Cloud, where Bona-
parte kept her till seven in the morning, himself
acting as her servant when it was time for the
actress to go — even to the extent of helping to
rearrange the bed in which they had lain. The
lady did not see her lover for some days, and then
they met by arrangement in the woods of Saint-
Cloud, when Bonaparte complimented her on
looking so well by daylight, at the same time con-
fessing naively enough that so many women had
deceived him by candle-light. For a considerable
period, the actress deserted her Prince for the
First Consul, and it does not appear that the
former became disconsolate, for during the first
fortnight of their liaison he made no particular
inquiries about his fair Georgina. In the honey-
moon of their connection, Bonaparte, the actress
tells, showed the greatest delicacy in his dealings
with her. He was at once "violent and tender"
— to quote the hetaira — never omitted to make
their bed in the morning, helping her even with
her toilet, putting on her shoes, and "as I
wore silver garters which buckled and were


difficult to fix on, he had special garters ordered
for me — of the elastic style."

About this time, too, the ex-Bishop of Autun,
Monsieur de Talleyrand, began to be somewhat
troublesome to her, Mademoiselle George tells us,
and used to advise her to receive twice a week
a la grande mondaine. The actress assured her
diplomatic mentor that she was quite satisfied
with the society of artists and had no ambition
to shine in a circle so much above her own.
Monsieur de Talleyrand, according to Georgina,
was a meddlesome person {tripotier), and it was
very hard to penetrate his motives, which, in this

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Online LibraryHamil GrantThe soul of Napoleon → online text (page 5 of 17)