Despite her joy at being in Paris, it was clear that her marriage was a disaster. They quarrelled violently and then made up, sometimes in public. It became a series of scenes. Mathilde accepted his affair with Princess Schouwaloff, but when Valentine de Dino also came into the picture, she was done. Anatole proposed that she too could take lovers if she wanted to. He tried to force a lover on her when she refused. She even caught him, “one day making love to another man.” She found her escape in painting and she was introduced an art student named Ernest Hébert, and he became her lover. It did not last long. She then met Alfred-Émilien, Comte de Nieuwerkerke.
Mathilde wrote a letter to the Tsar and Anatole was summoned to Russia. She travelled to the Netherlands to be with her friend Sophie as she awaited the Emperor’s response. No answer came and so returned to Paris where Nieuwerkerke was waiting for her. She was then advised to leave Paris and await the decision in a convent. She had no money of her own, and so she had little choice. She wrote from the convent, “As you see, I have made a grave decision. Until the situation changes, I’ve taken refuge here, away from the intrigues and observations of the world.” In October 1846, the Tsar finally granted Mathilde her freedom. She was to keep her jewels and was granted an annuity of 200,000 francs. Anatole was banned from entering Paris, and so now Mathilde was free to welcome Nieuwerkerke in her Parisian home.
In 1848, her cousin Louis-Napoleon was back and elected President. She insisted on some recognition of Nieuwerkerke, and it finally came the following year when he was appointed Directeur-Général des Musées. On 1 March 1851, Madame de Reding suddenly died, leaving Mathilde devastated. “The loss I have suffered is all the more cruel because it is irreparable. I never dared to think of it, I knew it would hurt too much.” In 1852, Louis-Napoleon went from President to Emperor as Napoleon III. Mathilde was suddenly catapulted to the first lady of the land, as her cousin was still unmarried. He told her, “My dear cousin until there is an Empress you are the first lady and you will always be on my right hand.” It was Mathilde who presented Eugénie de Montijo to the new Emperor, and she would become his wife. Meanwhile, her relationship with Nieuwerkerke had cooled, and he was not faithful to her.
On 24 June 1860, Mathilde’s father died at the age of 75. He had greatly favoured her younger brother in his will and Mathilde was outraged, especially as her father had lived off a pension she had given him from his annuity. Her cousin the Emperor granted her an additional 300,000 francs per year, and the 1860s became a great decade for Mathilde’s salon, and she hosted many intellectuals. In 1869, her relationship with Nieuwerkerke finally came to an end, and she bitterly wrote, “From 1846 to 1869, God knows I was deceived. And finally, I was abandoned.”
Then as quickly as Nieuwerkerke had gone, a new man presented himself. His name was Claudius Popelin, and he was 44 years old and a poet. Mathilde herself was now 49 years old. Popelin’s wife had died in early 1869, and he wrote to Mathilde, “I am left almost alone in this world, with a poor little child, and my grief is beyond expression.” Then the Second Empire came crashing to a halt. Mathilde left Paris on 3 September 1870 at the insistence of her friends. Popelin followed her to Belgium where several trunks of money were seized from Mathilde. The Princess born in exile was now again in exile. She wrote to her niece, “I feel so overwhelmed in every way that I haven’t the courage or the desire to make any plans…”
Mathilde was eventually allowed to return to her beloved home at Saint-Gratien but as she returned part of it still housed German soldiers. She received the staff from the German headquarters dressed in all black. She was now able to settle into a routine with Popelin visiting often. She began to dread having to travel away from her home, as she feared that she would not be allowed back. In July 1890, Mathilde appeared to have broken with Popelin after he became infatuated with another woman but she allowed him back into her life. The following year, Mathilde’s younger brother died in Rome at the age of 68 and then came more tragedy. Nieuwerkerke died on 19 January 1892, followed by Popelin in May. She was devastated and said, “I’ll end by blowing my brains out!” As her friends aged and died, Mathilde lived on and became more and more lonely. She wrote, “At my age, every loss you suffer hurts you more deeply – but it doesn’t make you insensible to those who hold out their hands.”
Well into her eighties, she refused to be idle and supervised her own household accounts. Nevertheless, she felt lonely and “sad at heart.” In July 1903, she fractured her femur after her foot caught in her skirt. She had already lost the will to live and became emaciated. In October she was moved to Paris, and she blew a kiss to the Arc de Triomphe as they passed it. She grew weaker by the day. She was given morphine to alleviate her pain and on 2 January 1904, she was administered the last sacrament. She fell into a coma shortly after. She died at 7 o’clock that evening. She was buried with a carnation, a rose, a crucifix and a medallion of the Emperor. 1