‘I set out from Compiegne, delighted with the idea of such a pleasant journey. I had never before travelled without sadness, but now felt the undertaking would be delightful and am certain I shall love travelling to distraction. . . In every place the Emperor was received by the inhabitants with ringing of bells and firing of salutes, expressions of a devotion as simple as it was touching. Everywhere the young ladies presented us with flowers and poems, most of the latter were very poor.’ Thus wrote Napoleon’s second wife, the 19 year-old Marie Louise, in a diary exactly 200 years ago today, at the very start of her first royal visit, and only weeks after she had married Emperor Napoleon.
Marie Louise was born in 1791 at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, the daughter of Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor, and of his second wife, Maria Teresa. In March 1810, she was married by proxy to the French Emperor Napoleon, a further ceremony taking place in the chapel of the Louvre on 1 April 1810. For Napoleon, this his second marriage was both an attempt to father a legitimate heir and to validate his Empire by marrying a member of the House of Habsburg, one of the oldest ruling families of Europe. Napoleon and Marie Louise had one son, in 1911, given the title King of Rome (and the future Napoleon II).
For short periods when Napoleon was absent, Marie Louise acted as Regent of France. But when Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, she returned to Austria, and, under the terms of Treaty of Fontainebleau, became the Duchess of Parma (and other territories). In 1821, four months after Napoleon’s death, Marie Louise married her lover, Count Adam Albert von Neipperg (having already borne him two children; another one would follow). Together they governed their duchies more liberally than did most other princes in Italy. After Neipperg’s death she married again, to Charles-René, Count of Bombelles in 1834; and she died in 1847. For more biographical information see Wikipedia or an entry at Authorama
A first edition of Marie Louise’s diaries was edited by Frédéric Masson and published in 1922 by John Murray, London, with the title The Private Diaries of the Empress Marie-Louise. Masson explains, in his introduction, how he found the diaries:
‘In 1918 I received a communication from London in which Lady Thompson invited me to consider a Diary of the Journeys of the Empress Marie-Louise, which had been bequeathed to her, with a view to its publication. I accepted this proposal with much pleasure, and shortly after received the manuscript, the contents of which convinced me of its authenticity. This manuscript, the size of note-paper, is bound into a red morocco volume, the covers and fly-leaves being lined with green satin. The script is contemporaneous with the early years of last century, being regular and well-formed. At first it did not appear to me to be the handwriting of the Empress; the perusal of the text, however, removed all doubt as to its origin.
In answer to my inquiries as to how this manuscript had come into her possession, Lady Thompson forwarded me a letter from her grandmother, Mrs Smijth Windham, which runs as follows: ‘In the year 1836 I became acquainted with a Swiss governess, called Mdlle Muller, who lived many years with Lady Jane Peel. She was very intimate with a governess I had for my children, and I came into the room one day as she was reading these Memoirs to her friend. I stopped to listen, and then borrowed the book, which amused us much. Some months after this I proposed to her to let me purchase it, and after some hesitation she agreed. All she knew of it was, her brother Monsieur Mullier was tutor to one of Marie-Louise’s pages who was in waiting when she escaped from the Tuileries; he picked it up from the floor and gave it to his tutor some time afterwards. The page’s name is written in small characters on the first leaf of the book - Vicomte de . . . - I forget the name. This is all I know. Kath. Smijth Windham.’
Nevertheless, there are cogent proofs to demonstrate the authenticity of the manuscript. It is divided into three parts; the first records the Imperial journey in the departments of Northern France and Belgium, between April 27 and May 13, 1810; the second comprises the journey of Marie-Louise to Mayence from July 23 to August 9, 1813; the third, her journey to Cherbourg from August 23 to September 5, 1813. These three journeys mark important epochs in the Emperor’s history; the first was made in the full enjoyment and splendour of a destiny fulfilled; the second and the third were undertaken when sinister rumours were in the air, when treason was breeding, when the very basis of the system, the Austrian Alliance, had been destroyed. . . The Diary commences on April 27, 1810, the journey during which Marie-Louise jotted down the first pages. . .
And here are the first entries in that diary from exactly two centuries ago today (taken from the etext of The Private Diaries of the Empress Marie-Louise which is freely available at Internet Archive).
27 April 1810
‘I set out from Compiegne, delighted with the idea of such a pleasant journey. I had never before travelled without sadness, but now felt the undertaking would be delightful and am certain I shall love travelling to distraction. The Queen of Naples and the Grand Duke of Wurtzburg accompanied us. It was a particular pleasure to have the latter with me, he is so kind and vivacious.
We left Compiegne on April 27 at nine in the morning. The country as far as St Quentin is very pretty, even beautiful, also very fertile. All along the road are little hills covered with fruit trees now in full bloom, and fields of the most fascinating green intersected by small streams bordered with willows. There are many hamlets and villages, but what struck me most was the quantity of wind-mills.
In every place the Emperor was received by the inhabitants with ringing of bells and firing of salutes, expressions of a devotion as simple as it was touching. Everywhere the young ladies presented us with flowers and poems, most of the latter were very poor.
We arrive at St Quentin at midday and were lodged in the Préfecture where everything was uncomfortable and dirty, and what was worse was the fact that I was a quarter of a league away from the Emperor. He took luncheon at once and rode off to visit the fortifications and the source of the St Quentin canal, which had just been finished from a plan provided by the Emperor himself. I went to bed with lumbago, not yet being accustomed to continuous travelling over paved roads.
The Emperor made me get up at four o’clock to visit a cotton-mill belonging to the prefect, which is remarkable, the machines are wonderful inventions.
On our return we received the chief officials. The Emperor conversed with them for over two hours. These audiences are enough to kill one, for it is necessary to stand all the time! Afterwards young ladies presented me with specimens from their factories.
The Emperor was much amused while telling me of an accident which happened to M Joan [Jouan, knight of the Legion of Honour, surgeon-major] who, while galloping without looking where he was going, was caught on the branch of a tree; the horse went on and after a few minutes he fell to the ground without hurting himself in the least. Malicious tongues say that for more than an hour he thought himself dead, which is very like him!
After dinner there was a ball at the town hall and a cantata was sung which contained the most fulsome compliments. The Queen opened the ball by dancing a Contredance francaise with Chamberlain de Metternich.
The town of St Quentin has about 12,000 inhabitants. It is very old and badly built, but commercially flourishing. The local manufactures are longcloth, linen, cambric, leather, and morocco; the trade in cotton brings in over 3 millions annually.
The next day
We left St Quentin at seven in the morning, and after passing through the whole of the city, which is not very large, we arrived at the canal, where we found two gondolas awaiting us. The canal begins at St Quentin and terminates at Cambrai, where it joins the Scheldt. It is over 22 leagues in length having 23 locks, and is very wide and deep. We went on board and continued our way beneath a blazing sun which gave us terrible headaches. We reached the first tunnel into which the water had not yet been admitted and entered carriages in order to pass through it. The length is a quarter of a league, entirely cut out of the rock. The vault is very high and was illuminated by two rows of lamps which made a magnificent effect. It is a masterpiece, unique of its kind. We continued our journey by carriage as far as the entrance to the second tunnel, where tents had been pitched for lunch, which we welcomed like famished travellers. We went through this tunnel, which is a league and a half long, in a boat rowed by men, which was not very serviceable, for it let in two inches of water, which wetted our feet, but as there was no means of remedying it, one had to bear up gaily, which for me was not difficult as I have an iron constitution which nothing injures. In addition we narrowly escaped capsizing because the fat Prince Schwarzenberg was continually leaning out of the boat and his weight threw it all on one side. This second tunnel was illuminated like the first, and at the end of every hundred toises (about 650 feet) there was a shaft to let in daylight. After an hour and a half we reached the mouth of the canal and got into the carriages again.
We saw the source of the Scheldt, that majestic river, which 40 leagues farther on is so wide and deep that the largest battleships can navigate it, but is here so narrow that one can easily cross it by a standing jump. It passes twice under the canal, which is carried over it by means of an aqueduct; the bridge is so narrow that we were obliged to leave the carriages which were then lifted over by men. This affair delayed us more than an hour and put the Queen of Naples into such a bad temper that no one could speak to her for the rest of the day. I cannot understand how people when travelling can grumble and get impatient over such trifling accidents! To me they were very insignificant in comparison with all I had had to put up with in other journeys, of which I had never complained.
We went on board again half a league from Cambrai, and at half-past three entered the basin at the end of the canal, where a number of trading vessels, laden with coal, were waiting to enter the canal to carry their cargoes to Paris.
On reaching the Hotel de Ville I went to bed, for the sun had given me a shocking headache. I was, however, quite pleased with myself at not having grumbled once during the journey. Truly the bad temper of several of the ladies was enough to prevent me from fault finding.’