BEHIND THE THRONE
The British Courtesan Who Created an Emperor of France
Given a large fortune by one lover, Harriet Howard ditched him and used it to help her new lover return to France, get elected president, and fund the coup that made him emperor.
PARIS—There are several different ways to look at Harriet Howard, who was born in 1823 as Elizabeth Ann Haryett, a boot maker’s daughter in England, and died in 1865 as the Comtesse de Beauregard in France.
“Looking at her” was something people could not help but do. She was, according to the tastes of the time, beautiful almost beyond description, with dark hair, hazel eyes, porcelain skin, a fine nose and full but finely shaped lips, her face one to rival any Aphrodite sculpted by the ancients. Objectification thy name was “Miss Howard.” And even her French biographer concluded, a century after the height of her influence and fame, that hers was “an exotic, eccentric and wasted life.”
Harriet Howard may have been looked at as a courtesan, a mistress, a dazzling hostess, even a fallen woman, but one of her lovers made her fabulously rich, and with her money she made another lover the Emperor of France.
She was one of those people who stood out from her early surroundings as brilliantly as a pink diamond on green baize. Her parents were comfortable, puritanical provincials in Norfolk, England, who wanted her to read the Bible and stitch embroidery. But from an early age “Little Bess” became a very accomplished equestrian (and this at a time when women rode sidesaddle so as not to compromise their certifiable virtue). She was also a voracious reader, especially of poetry, and particularly of Shakespeare. As a girl she wanted desperately to go on stage, and at the age of 15 ran away to London with that in mind.
Alas, her theatrical talents were limited, and the same biographer suggests she was, as a gorgeous ingénue, too beautiful for the limelight: “She suffered the misfortune of a new actress who attracts attention without later being able to justify it.”
But she must have known, even in her middle teens, she had enormous powers of attraction. She was becoming that rare “kept woman” who kept her men, at least as long as she wanted them.
We have no direct account of Howard’s skills in bed, but in the mid-19th century, when many a lady was afflicted with the vapors and shrank from physical activities of any kind, Howard was remarkably fit and energetic. She was a passionate devotee not only of riding but of hunting, and the first man she lived with, who kept her in considerable opulence from the time she was 15, was a famous jockey who had once won the Grand National, England’s most famous steeplechase.
I cannot read about Howard’s equestrian prowess without thinking of Bette Davis in the movie Jezebel, which is set in antebellum New Orleans at just this time and in a similar culture. Davis makes her first appearance on a hot-blooded horse and hooks up her long dress with her whip as she enters a formal house party in her riding habit. “Terribly sorry to be late, I had trouble with the colt,” she tells her shocked guests. “So sorry, but you know when a colt gets high-headed it’s teach him his manners right now or ruin him.”
Given the course of Harriet Howard’s career, it’s hard to imagine her as the very passive character, and sometimes the scheming but ignorant lady of low virtue, sketched in numerous histories. It seems more likely she knew how to teach her high-headed colts their manners. But there’s only one more or less authoritative account of her life, and while it tries to be corrective, it’s not, or at least not quite.
Histories need to be read in the context of the times when they were written. Miss Howard and the Emperor by Simone André Maurois was published in 1956 in French and English, and probably directed at the American market. In the United States at the time, serious literature with raw truths and sharp edges was contending with a growing TV-driven popular culture that was saccharin and moralizing: the world of “Father Knows Best,” “Ozzie and Harriet,” and “Leave It To Beaver.”
Books about daring women who enjoyed their lovers and shattered norms were potential bestsellers, but had to squeeze into the space between prurience and prudery. The best known was 1954’s The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch, which tells the stories of several adventurous women in the Victorian era, including the beautiful and scandalous courtesan Lady Jane Digby, whose lovers included many of the great names of Europe and eventually an Arab sheikh.
These real-life heroines inspired shelves full of paperback romances known as “bodice rippers.” But reading the biographies more than 60 years after their publication, we’re able to extract a rather different interpretation of the women they portray, and Harriet Howard may have been the most misunderstood of all.
When Howard was 18 she left the Grand National winner for a Major Mountjoy Martyn of the Life Guards (part of the Queen’s Household Cavalry). He was in his thirties and married, but his wife was the very model of a barren, frigid Victorian lady afflicted with illnesses real and imagined. He had inherited an enormous fortune, and when the still-teenage Howard bore him a son, he signed a contract with her that included wise financial trustees and made her extremely wealthy for life. She had the boy baptized with her last name, telling the church he was her younger brother.
Perhaps an enormous fortune—equivalent to many tens of millions of dollars—was something that this adolescent English Aphrodite simply accepted as her due. But it is more likely that she helped steer the course of Martyn’s decisions, playing on his paternal instincts toward the child and very likely toward her as well, conflicted as those might have been.
There was nothing clandestine about their relationship. They lived together in London and she was a very popular hostess when he entertained the cream of British society. “Her elegance was a byword,” Maurois tells us, “her carriages created a sensation; a well-drilled staff were in charge of Rockingham House,” and she was barely 21. “Never was precocious immorality more sumptuously embowered.”
Such arrangements were not as unusual as one might think in Victorian England, and those who enjoyed them tended to enjoy each other’s company. While attending an opulent reception in 1846 at the home of Lord Blessington, who had married his mistress, who had then taken another lover, the Count d’Orsay—a happy ménage à trois—Howard was introduced to the guest of honor. Some called him “Son Altesse Imperial”—His Imperial Highness—but he was a pretender to a throne that no longer existed, that of his uncle, Napoleon I. He styled himself Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, grandson of Josephine, Empress of the French, and had only recently escaped from prison.
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, 38 years old in the summer of 1846, was a veteran of many conspiracies, most of them disasters. But he had uncanny, unshakeable self-assurance. Twice he had tried to mount armed expeditions to overthrow Louis-Philippe, who styled himself “king of the French and the Tricolor” as if he were of the people, and twice Louis Napoleon had failed. The first time he was exiled to America. The second he was sent to serve out a life sentence in the dreary Château de Ham, in the windblown fields of northern France. Yet over the course of six years he managed to write a well-received book about the best Napoleonic ways to govern, and fathered two sons with the jailer’s daughter. He made his escape, finally, disguised as a house painter and went to England, where he had been exiled before.
As Maurois tells the tale, women found Louis Napoleon attractive, despite the fact that he was quite short with a head too big for his body. “If he had rather longer legs, he would be Prince Charming!” opined one English lady. And it seems that the beautiful, wealthy 23-year-old Harriet Howard was completely smitten by his “sort of majestic shyness.” Soon after that first encounter, she told Major Martyn she was leaving him, but would raise their child and keep the money. It seems her freedom was written into their contract and her trustees were very protective of her. She moved into a relatively small but charming house that they approved, offering the impecunious prince room and board, and more.
Howard’s biographer dismisses the idea that she was “an intriguer, greedy for honors and wealth,” and that she bet on her lover the way she might have bet on her horses. Maurois argues this was all about love: “A millionairess, she was prepared to offer her whole fortune to the Napoleonic cause. Never was a woman more utterly devoted. Partisan, intoxicated with self-abnegation, she was prepared to sacrifice… to the last jewel to assure the success of the the enterprise. She prayed the eternal conspirator to allow her to share risks, even if it entailed mortal danger.” And so on.
It would be simpler to say that she loved him and that she had faith in him, and she thought he’d be a good bet, too.
For a while, he certainly was.
Most Americans have very little idea how often there have been revolutions in France. Everyone learns about the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the hiss of the guillotine during The Terror in 1793, when the revolution decapitated monarchs and aristocrats and then devoured its own. Most people know at least the name and some caricatures of Napoleon I and his empire. But after his defeat at Waterloo and the restoration of the monarchy, how many people are familiar with the three-day uprising in July 1830 that overthrew the Bourbon King Charles X and brought in the pseudo-populist King Louis-Philippe? Then in 1848 uprisings swept through Europe, building on enormous social discontent, and the French toppled Louis-Philippe.
That was when Louis Napoleon and Harriet Howard saw their moment.
Look for the second part of the series on Monday