Eugénie was now married to one of the most powerful rulers in the world, and she was determined to help her husband. The Second Empire happily coincided with an economic boom and France prospered. One of her roles would be to create a splendid court, and for that, she was certainly the best choice. “She is no longer the young married woman, the new consort whose timidity added to her natural appeal; this is someone who knows that she is the mistress of the house, making it plain by the way she carries herself, by how she gives orders to her ladies, by a slightly disdainful air, a bit blasé but always watchful, with which she passes through the drawing-rooms, nothing escapes her eye.”1 Splendour and elegance once again reigned in Paris. Despite this, Eugénie felt trapped. She wrote to her sister, “I am the chief slave in my realm, isolated in the midst of everybody, without a single friend. Often I am so tired when I arrive at a city that the very thought of a ball or a dinner makes me want to cry.”2
Half the year was spent away from Paris, and they often spent time at the Chateau de Saint-Cloud. Eugénie and her husband both enjoyed the country life. Eugénie did not give to an heir until 1856, and it probably didn’t help that she found sex disgusting. “Physical love, what a filthy business! Why do men think of nothing else?”, she once complained.3 She had suffered two miscarriages before finding herself pregnant once more in 1855. After a labour lasting 22 hours, she gave birth to a son in the early morning of 16 March 1856. Forceps had to be used, and Eugénie nearly died. She was unable to walk or even stand until the end of May and doctors warned her that having another child might kill her. Her son was named Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph, and he more informally went by Louis. Eugénie did not mind not sleeping with her husband, and he soon found his fun elsewhere.
Though Eugénie never enjoyed dressing up, she soon became the leader of fashion. She never wore a formal gown more than once and began to change her clothes several times during the day. She also many diamonds reset and liked to set them in a naturalist style. She particularly liked wearing rare black pearls from Mexico.
The death of her sister in 1860 shook Eugénie, especially after her husband delayed telling her the news for a week as not to spoil their cruise. She found it quite hard to forgive him. Despite their troubles, Eugénie acted as regent for him several times. Not everyone was fond of a woman running the country, though she proved to be quite capable. After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Eugénie once again acted as regent while her husband and son travelled to the front. The army was defeated, and her husband gave himself up the Prussians. Eugénie was enraged, “A Napoleon never surrenders!”4 Eugénie was encouraged to leave the capital, but she initially refused.
Soon the city began to revolt and Eugénie, who had always feared enduring the same fate as her predecessor Marie-Antoinette, was finally convinced by courtiers to flee. She managed to slip from the Tuileries through the Louvre, and she found safety with her American dentist. He took her to Deauville from where she would cross the channel. Once in England, she learned that her son had also escaped to England and their dramatic reunion took place in Hastings. At the end of October, Eugénie was allowed to visit her husband in his imprisonment, and she stayed for four days before returning to England. In November, Eugénie wrote to her mother, “The events through which we are living haven broken my heart. I cannot get used to the idea of France being in ruins and miserable, even less to the idea that in her day of trial I am not there.”5 In March 1871, her husband was released, and he too arrived in England. Luckily, Eugénie still had plenty of money, so they lived quite comfortably. Eugénie became quite close to Queen Victoria, and she wrote, “You would never believe all the delicate attentions she lavished upon us in those first cruel days of our exile. She always treated us as sovereigns, just as in the days we were allies of England.”6
In early 1873, Eugénie’s husband died after three operations for gallstones. Eugénie was there when he died and flung herself across his bed. Perhaps her largest tragedy came in 1879 when her son was killed fighting the Zulus. Eugénie did not cry upon hearing the news and stared into space. When his body finally made it home, she embraced the coffin and stayed with it until dawn. She would wear black for the rest of her life. “I am alone now”, she wrote to her mother. Two months later, her mother would die as well. In 1880, Eugénie went to the place where her son died and spent the night kneeling in prayer by a cross that had been placed there. The following year, she moved to Farnborough Hill, and she set about creating a suitable monument to her husband and son. She established St Michael’s Abbey where her husband and son were buried in the Imperial Crypt.
Eugénie was able to travel and spent many winters at Cap Martin. She continued to watch the events in France but took no part in them. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, she wrote, “I feel even more than ever a foreigner, alone in this land!”7 Her health was quite good for a long time and during the First World War, she even set up a hospital in a wing of her home. In 1920 – she was 94 years old – she travelled to Spain to undergo a cataract operation. It was successful and she was very happy with the results. However, on 10 July she suddenly felt exhausted and was put to bed without undressing. She received the last sacraments and died peacefully the following morning in her sister’s old room. Her last words were, “I’m tired- it is time that I went on my way.”8
On 20 July, she was interred next to her husband and son at Farnborough Hill.
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.48
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.55
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.81
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.231
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.248
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.251-252
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.271
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.27