PARIS—The fabulously rich and unforgettably beautiful English courtesan Harriet Howard bet just about everything she had on her French lover, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte.
Since the defeat of his uncle at Waterloo in 1815, Bonaparte had spent most of his life in prison or in exile with a certain fame but no fortune. Then, as we wrote in the first chapter of this saga, he met Howard at a party in London and it seems she was smitten. She left the wealthy English major who had fathered her child and who had settled an enormous fortune on her, and she had Louis Napoleon move in with her. She was still only 23, he was 38. But he thought of himself as a man of destiny, and so did she.
Their story, long forgotten even in academic circles, opens a door onto the complex morals of high society and low politics in Europe in the midst of enormous economic, political, and cultural upheaval from the 1840s through the 1860s.
This was an era when the United States annexed parts of Mexico, discovered gold in California, and was sliding toward Civil War, the event that defines the period in the minds of Americans. But that conflict got scant attention in the drawing rooms of Europe. So much else was going on.
These were the times of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray in England, Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert in France. Courbet, Manet and Cézanne were creating aesthetic revolutions on their canvases. Rossini and Verdi were presenting their operas. Wars of national liberation raged in Italy and Poland. And in the middle of it all, Charles Darwin upended man’s notion of his place in the cosmos.
Amid the early days of this tumult in 1848, Harriet Howard and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte saw the opportunity to test their shared belief in his destiny. Uprisings had broken out all over the continent. In February, mobs toppled King Louis-Philippe in Paris and a new French republic was established. With elections due to be held in a few months, Harriet and Louis moved from the London house where they had lived together, to Paris where many people still remembered the empire of Napoleon I as a great moment of French glory.
Then as now name recognition counted for a lot. “He is not a prince, but an idea,” wrote Victor Hugo. And then as now, when people suddenly find themselves beset by chaos, real or imagined, they look for someone to impose order. Louis Napoleon insinuated himself as the man who could do that.
The morals of the time did not demand much of men when it came to appearances, and their mistresses often were accepted in the polite society of gentlemen, if not of ladies. Harriet and Louis opted for discretion in their Paris living arrangements. He moved into apartments on Place Vendôme, across the square from what is now the Ritz. She moved into the Hotel Meurice, a model of opulence that still sits around the corner and a few blocks down the Rue de Rivoli.
That summer, Louis was elected to the new parliament, where he proved a miserable, mumbling orator, and rival politicians confidently declared he had no future, calling him “unintelligent,” “a fool,” and “an idiot.” But as we know much can be done in politics when you combine name recognition with a lot of money, and thanks to Harriet a lot of the latter was available.
“When the prince interviewed his political agents, Miss Howard was at his side, but without ostentatious familiarity,” writes Simone André Maurois in her highly romantic and but often demeaning 1956 biography of this courtesan supposedly “intoxicated with self-abnegation.” At these meetings she was “always beautifully dressed, content to belong to the decorative species of ‘fair listeners,’” and “she never even asked a question.”
Maurois notes that Howard’s French was not very good. But she could have been absolutely fluent and it would have been unseemly for a foreign-born woman—and an Englishwoman at that—to impose herself on such conversations. What is remarkable is that she was included so often and as conspicuously as she was. We don’t know what advice she gave Louis in private, but presumably she was watching out for her investments.
In December 1848, some 5.4 million French voters elected Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte president of the republic and he moved into the Elysée Palace. Still discreet, Harriet moved into a small house at 14 rue du Cirque, one block away, with a back door just across the street from the entrance to the Elysée garden. Everybody who knew “the Prince-President” knew she was there, and she often received his friends at her home, as well as him, of course.
(I can’t help but pause here to mention that the same street gained fame once again in 2014 when President François Hollande was photographed looking very silly on the back of a motor scooter as he tried to sneak away from the woman he was living with in the Elysée Palace to meet his new mistress at 20 rue du Cirque. Traditions die hard in this country.)
The first years of the Louis Napoleon presidency were glorious for Harriet as well as Louis. She was known and widely accepted as his “official mistress” even the “princess mistress.” They often went riding together in the forests outside Paris for all the world to see, leading one gentleman to remark famously, “Who said that Prince Louis Napoleon lacked intelligence? He has brought from London the most beautiful woman and the most beautiful horse in the world!”
When Louis traveled—he ran what amounted to a permanent political campaign visiting every corner of France—Harriet went with him. And when a moralizing old man in the provinces wrote a letter regretting he had allowed a woman of ill repute to stay in his house, Louis defended her passionately as “the love my heart needs.”
In the Second Republic there was a one-term limit for any president, and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s time was up in 1852, so he began maneuvering at least as early as 1850 to continue his rule. He was the first elected president of France, and he wanted to make sure he was the last.
A small group of plotters came together, led by Louis’ illegitimate half brother, the Duc de Morny. “To put their plans into operation,” writes Maurois, “they had to shackle the army, maintain secret agents wherever public opinion was created, in drawing-rooms, cafés, clubs, and newspaper offices ... and send spies into the provinces. The cost of conspiracy would be high.” Harriet Howard threw “everything she had into the fray… with her passion for conspiracy she mortgaged her London houses, sold her saddle-horses and pawned all her jewels.” A few days before the planned coup d’état, as the plot started to run short, she produced another 200,000 gold francs in cash.
On December 2, 1851, members of the National Assembly were arrested in their beds and imprisoned, the assembly was dissolved, and those who rebelled against the coup were jailed or deported or went into voluntary exile. Among them was Victor Hugo. Louis moved out of the presidential mansion, the Elysée, and into the royal residence, the Tuileries Palace. Exactly one year later, basing his legitimacy on a referendum, he declared a new empire, naming himself Napoleon III.
With this, her greatest triumph, Harriet Howard’s tragedy began.
An emperor needs an empress, and whatever hopes Howard had cherished in that respect, she was not going to get that title.
Through 1852, Louis Napoleon was looking for a royal wife, only to be turned down by his first choice, a Swede, and his second, a niece of Queen Victoria.
Harriet kept a relatively low profile as these negotiations went on, then reappeared at a ball that summer, where it was clear to anyone with eyes that she was still his favorite sexual partner. One participant at the ball noted in his journal that around 10:30 that night, the prince “retired with her to rest” [emphasis is in the original] then reappeared and did not finally leave the party until one in the morning.
At times, Harriet grew philosophical about the course of events. “The Rue du Cirque, so close to the Élysée, does not lead to the Tuileries,” she said, and her biographer tells us that she “resigned herself to losing the Emperor in order to keep the lover.” But, still in her twenties, she wanted to keep her position as the ranking mistress at court.
Then Louis was introduced by his cousin (who hated Harriet) to the beautiful Eugenie de Montijo. She was three years younger than Harriet, a grandee of Spain, and a very Catholic virgin who made, as Maurois puts it, “a virtue of frigidity.”
Louis tried to seduce Eugenie but failed, then decided to marry her anyway in a grand ceremony reported around the world. A few months later, her virginity gone but her frigidity intact—she said often that she found the act of sex “disgusting”—Eugenie was furious to discover the emperor was once again visiting Harriet.
The monarch’s favored mistress was staying out at Versailles in those days and often was seen “walking by the lake, like the goddess Calypso after the departure of Ulysses.”
There had been talk of lawsuits against the emperor, demands that she be repaid at least five million gold francs, and negotiations about what title she might be given, finally settling on the Comtesse de Beauregard. Much of the process was as acrimonious as any palimony suit today. But the emperor still loved to make love to her.
For a time, he would go out to Versailles, ostensibly to visit troops garrisoned nearby, but would shed his military tunic and change into civilian garb to visit the woman people still referred to as Miss Howard.
Finally in 1854, at the emperor’s urging, Howard married Clarence Trelawny, a younger son of a noble family from Cornwall. It was a terrible match. He told people he found it degrading, and hoped to exploit her fortune. She hoped to continue, as many a married royal mistress has done, to enjoy the favors of the crown. But the fury of Eugenie and the increasing availability of other mistresses for the emperor eventually pushed Harriet into the background and an increasingly isolated life in the Beauregard chateau she had bought.
Her one son from her liaison with the lover who’d given her her fortune was by then a French diplomat with an imperial title, through the grace of Napoleon III, and although she doted on him his interest in her was mainly pecuniary. The two children that Louis had sired while in prison, whom she had adopted informally and raised as her own, were taken away by their biological mother once the father was the emperor. They, too, were given titles. But they no longer visited Harriet.
Over the years, Napoleon III accumulated a long list of mistresses, among them the gorgeous, scheming teenaged Comtesse de Castiglione; Marie-Anne Walewska, wife of the emperor’s foreign minister; and eventually in the 1860s a prostitute named Marguerite Bellanger whose vulgarity and notoriety were such that Eugenie supposedly told people she wished Miss Howard were back on the scene.
By then, however, Harriet was dying of cancer. It had progressed slowly at first, over the course of more than two years, and then began to spread very quickly. Always strong willed, she did not intend to fade away in anonymity. She started to make the kinds of public appearances she had avoided previously. She could be seen driving her carriage through the Bois de Boulogne behind a superb pair of bay horses. One night she reserved a box at the Théâtre Italien, knowing the emperor and empress would be there.
Harriet spent the entire performance looking at them through her opera glasses. She was 41 and he was now 57. It had been years since she saw him, and he seemed so old. “His hair and face were dirty white, his eyelids swollen, and his back bowed,” she wrote. The weight of his responsibilities had taken their toll on him, she imagined, and as her biographer put it, he was also a man “exhausted by debauchery.”
In 1870, lured into a foolish war by Prussia’s Count Bismarck, the emperor’s armies were defeated at Sedan, he was captured, and Eugenie had to flee Paris on her own. But Miss Howard saw none of the disgrace that has led Napoleon III to be treated in many histories of France almost as a footnote.
Harriet Howard, born Elizabeth Ann Harryett, the daughter of a boot maker in provincial England, died in August 1865 as the Countess of Beauregard, and if her last years were sad, most of her life had been an extraordinary romance. Without her, there is no doubt French history would be very different.
But apart from the huge amount of money she contributed to the rise of Napoleon III, what other influence did she have? We are told she was imbued with a “passion for conspiracy.” But how that manifested itself we don't know. She was just a woman, and in the eyes of his enemies, and hers, she was just a whore.
In Miss Howard’s obituaries there was no mention of her place in the politics of her lover and the history of her adopted country. More than one noted, however, that in her last days on earth, “She was still quite beautiful.”