Friday, 12 March 2010

Two Bonaparte Princes and the Actress: Whatever Happened on the Train to Manchester?

It is August 1847.

The celebrated French tragédienne Rachel ( Elisabeth Rachel Félix,1821-1858) has just finished four highly acclaimed performances at the St. James Theatre in London.

Everybody who is anybody has seen her - including Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and Prince Louis Napoleon. The latter, one of her numerous lovers, is soon to return to France and assume the title of Napoleon III.

So, after her London success, Rachel is now headed on the train to Manchester to make her debut in the English provinces.

Accompanying her are Louis Napoleon and his cousin Prince Napoléon.

Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, 1822-1891

- who according to some bears a physical resemblance to his more famous uncle

- but is to acquire during the Crimean War the rather unflattering nickname for a Bonaparte of "Plon Plon" (derived from Craint-plon - fear of bullets).

Picture the scene in the carriage.

Rachel and Louis Napoleon begin the journey sitting together. Prince Napoléon sits opposite. The three have the carriage to themselves.

Louis Napoleon apparently falls asleep, so what else is Rachel to do but go and sit beside his cousin?

Unfortunately Louis Napoleon is not asleep.

For some time, through half shut eyes, he watches Rachel and his cousin kiss and cuddle.

He then begins to simulate the process of awakening.

By the time he is fully "awake" Rachel is back sitting beside him, and Prince Napoléon is examining the English countryside through the carriage window as avidly as if he has never seen trees before.

Louis Napoleon says nothing, but he is irritated by the duplicity. He stays in Manchester one night only, and returns to London the following day. That appears to have been the end of that particular affair (1)

Rachel at the Theatre Royal

Rachel's destination was Manchester's new Theatre Royal, with its white marble sculpture of Shakespeare on the facade. (2)

The theatre still stands, although it has lost its former glory.

In recent decades it has been variously cinema, bingo hall and night club.

Hopefully better times await it again.

A refurbishment costing £150 million has been announced, and when completed it will be the new home of the Manchester Library Theatre Company.

Presumably 160 years of grime will be removed from the Shakespeare sculpture and the marble will be revealed again.

Back to August 1847.

Rachel appeared on four nights in four different plays: Les Horaces, Phèdre,Virginie and Jeanne d'Arc .

In those days two or even three plays were performed on the same night, and on occasion Rachel would be taking her final curtain call not much before midnight.

On her final benefit night her sister, Mademoiselle Dinah Felix, made an appearance, reciting "Le Chene et le Roseau" and "La Belete". One wonders what the good merchants of Manchester made of that.

Rachel's performances were a resounding artistic success.

The Observer said there was no mistaking here the presence of the highest histrionic genius.

The Examiner noted the
enthusiasm of the audience, both during the course and at the close of the performance, when Rachel was called for and received with showers of bouquets.

The Manchester Guardian contrasted French actors favourably with English actors:
English actors think it sufficient to know what to say on the stage, French actors learn what to say and what to do.

Those attending were apparently able to buy scripts of the plays being performed with French and English in parallel lines, but despite this the size of the audiences was a disappointment. The Courier noted that for one performance the dress circle (10/6) the pit stalls (5/-) and the pit (3/-) were full, but the upper circle (5/-) gallery (2/-) and upper gallery (1/-) contained no more than 50 people.

The Manchester Times , with characteristic Victorian optimism, had expected that
our Athenæum, our Mechanics' Institute, and other educational institutions, would have been preparing, through their language classes, large numbers who could have understood and enjoyed a performance of this nature.
One wonders how many today would turn out to watch a play performed in French. I don't think it would need a very large theatre!

Rachel was followed by Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale". Miss Lind commanded an enormous fee for her appearances at the Theatre Royal, and had no trouble filling it. For her the best seats were priced at £1-11s-6d - three times the cost of seats for the French plays. (3)

On one night she was indisposed and the performance was postponed twenty four hours. The news was communicated to various stations on the line of railway by means of the electric telegraph. (4)

As always Manchester was at the cutting edge of technology.

Update 25/11/2010

I understand that plans to house the Library Theatre in the old Theatre Royal building have had to be shelved because of the high cost of renovation. A pity, but I can't say that I am surprised. I wonder what will happen to the building now.

1. Roman Golicz The English Life of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte: The Life of Napoleon III in the context of Anglo-French Relations - available online.

2. This was the third Theatre Royal - the previous two were burnt down - a common occurrence given the dependence on candle light. The insurers insisted that the new Theatre Royal had a huge tank containing thousands of gallons of water installed over the stage. My thanks to Roy Rogers for this and other insights into the surprising history of Manchester Theatre

3. Rachel should have learned lessons from her and Jenny Lind's differing receptions in Manchester. Hearing that Jenny Lind had made 2 million francs on an American visit, Rachel followed her there, with predictably poor results. "Music is enjoyed by human beings everywhere, while French classical plays, even though acted by a genius like Rachel, could be rightly understood only by a French- speaking people." Famous Affinities of History by Lyndon Orr, The Story of Rachel

4. Manchester Theatre Royal Playbills, May-Sept 1847. Arts Library, Manchester Central Library. Unfortunately this excellent collection, which contains press cuttings as well as playbills, will soon be unavailable to researchers for three or four years while the library is being renovated.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Taking Guard for my Second Century: Retrospective Mood

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet - J.M.W. Turner. (1)

Exhibited in 1842 - painted in the aftermath of the return of Napoleon's body from St. Helena.

A curious picture by the famous romantic landscape painter - and arguably Britain's finest artist.

An exiled Napoleon with elongated legs, guarded by a British soldier, gazing on a limpet. The land he inhabits bears no resemblance to St. Helena. It is perhaps a state of mind.

Turner incidentally was a friend of Sir John Soane, who has appeared previously in this blog.

Anyway it seemed a suitably reflective picture to begin the second century. Excuse the cricketing reference in the title - but Wellington did I think at one point say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton! As to whether I shall complete the second century, perhaps the only wise comment is that cricketers rarely do.

Some Questions to Myself

Why do I do it? The hardest question to answer. I guess the simplest answer is that I enjoy it.

Which post do I think is the best? Perhaps the one on Capel Lofft - it certainly took me a long while to assemble. I personally like to look back on my very earliest posts, which evoke a wonderful holiday which my wife and I hope to repeat sometime.

Which post has been the most visited? Possibly the ones on Maldivia for a time - they certainly got a number of comments.

The Rev Boys and Napoleon's chair also seemed to excite a lot of interest.

The post about the Two Saints in Manchester seems to be very frequently visited via google images. I don't know why, I have a feeling it is something to do with Manchester United and Old Trafford (the football not the cricket ground of the same name). Posts on Betsy Balcombe and the Exhumation of Napoleon also seem popular.

There are also a surprising number of people who ask google what language is spoken on St. Helena and so end up on my blog, and likewise those looking for the St Helena Independent.

What have you enjoyed the most? Meeting with the Manchester Maldivian Community, emails from blog readers and chats with other bloggers.

What is your opinion of Napoleon? I haven't made up my mind, maybe I never will. He seeems to me to have been extraordinarily complex and multi-talented - and probably the most remarkable man to emerge in a thousand years of European history.

What has surprised you the most? The interest my blog aroused in the Maldive Islands. Also, over a longer period, the discovery of the unique place which Napoleon held in the British imagination. Like most people I was unaware of the respect and some times support which many in Britain had for him from his own time right up until the first world war - most memorably when Queen Victoria visited Les Invalides and bade the young Prince of Wales kneel down before "the Great Napoleon." Many of my posts have reflected this.

To go back to the question of why I do it, perhaps I should end with a few comments by A.J.P.Taylor made 40 years ago in a review of books by George Lefebvre, Gilbert Martineau and others:
There are more books about Napoleon than about any other human being (a phrase carefully chosen in order to rule out Jesus Christ). More than 100,000 titles appeared by the end of the nineteenth century, and no one has made the count of those which have appeared since. Probably the total has by now reached a quarter of a million, and more are added every year. It is odd enough that readers should want to go on reading such books. It is even odder that writers should want to go on writing them. Can there really be anything fresh to be said on the subject, any new gold to be found in this well-dug field? It seems so. Napoleon not only remains a profitable market. He actually provides pleasure for those who write about him. It is very rare to pick up a book about Napoleon which has the air of being a hack job. Nearly every author seems to be in the game for the love of the thing.(2)

Love of the game - a very English/British idea - although perhaps not how others see us!

1. Part of Turner's bequest to the nation. It is in the Tate Gallery.
2. "The Emperor Industry", New York Review of Books, Volume 13, Number 11 · December 18, 1969

Thursday, 4 March 2010

100th Post: A Gripping Blog?

"A Gripping Blog" by Laurence Brown.

An important milestone perhaps. Certainly one I did not expect to reach when I started out over two years ago. It has been an interesting experience. My thanks to Napoleon's representative on earth, who I gather is now somewhere in the South Atlantic on the R.M.S. St Helena. Without him I would never have started blogging. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is another matter entirely.

Anyway, in a kind of celebration I thought I would do something totally different - invite my grandsons to contribute a suitable picture. I have also added a picture from fellow blogger Miss Elisabeth (the Emperor and I).

The one below by James Brown depicts, with characteristic detail, Napoleon between a French and a British soldier. The one on the right (British I am told because of his red waistcoat) looks pleased with himself, and the sun is shining on him.

My other two grandsons, Angus and Edward, who live in Devon have not yet completed theirs, but the youngest Edward did tell me that his was going to be about Nelson! James and Laurence have more time on their hands: like the children at Longwood in Napoleon's time they are enjoying the benefits of home education and autonomous learning - but without a famous man to sit and talk with them and spoil them with expensive gifts.

Finally then, the pièce de résistance, Napoleon frightened of a cat, by the multi-talented Miss Elisabeth, who the last I heard was somewhere in the south of England.

"Scary Kittens" by Miss Elisabeth