Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Victorians, Paris, and Europe

As I’ve written in previous posts, the Victorians often used Paris as a synecdoche for Europe as a whole, and specifically for a European approach to politics and culture that was the opposite of Britishness (which they often identified, narrowly and exclusively, with Englishness). But as the examples below hopefully show, even those Victorians who tried to impose a firm boundary between British and European culture also recognised how closely their national identities were shaped by understandings of and responses to Europe. It’s hard to be nostalgic for Victorian models of Englishness (primarily, of course, because of their ideological dependence on imperialism), but, living in a post-Brexit world, I think it’s sobering to consider that the Victorian stance towards Europe was, in some ways, more open and cosmopolitan than current British attitudes.

In 1851, three years after the revolution that created the Second French Republic, the president of the republic and nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, dissolved the National Assembly and arrested his political opponents (a year later, after the establishment of the Second Empire, he renamed himself Napoleon III). Two Victorian poets who witnessed the coup d’état while staying in Paris in December 1851 strongly disagreed with each other in their assessments of it. Napoleon III was one of two things that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning argued about (the other was spiritualism): ‘Robert & I’, wrote Elizabeth, ‘have had some domestic émeutes on this question.’ While Robert interpreted the coup as the repressive act of an autocratic executive, Elizabeth, emphasising the support for Bonaparte in Paris, characterised it as an expression of popular sovereignty, another manifestation of the revolutionary tradition of 1789. The speaker of her 1856 verse-novel Aurora Leigh summarised her view of the new imperial regime: ‘This Head has all the people for a heart; / This purple’s lined with the democracy.’

Barrett Browning agreed with Tennyson that the dramatic upheavals of recent Parisian history were at odds with the conventions of English political culture, but her preference (as is clear throughout her poetry) was for a European rather than an English model of literary and political identity. Writing a week after the coup, she dismissed criticisms that the action was illegal: ‘Constitutional forms & essential principles of liberty are so associated in England that they are apt to be confounded & are, in fact, constantly confounded.’ Later, it’s worth noting, Napoleon III’s suppression of the republic and resurrection of the empire were ratified through the ‘constitutional forms’ of two plebiscites, the preferred tools of Bonapartist autocracy throughout the nineteenth century (not that I’m casting any aspersions on the democratic legitimacy of plebiscites and referenda).

Barrett Browning’s confidence that Bonaparte was a champion of liberty enabled her to enjoy his coup as a kind of triumphant parade or tourist spectacle: ‘We have had magnificent advantages of situation here, & I have scarcely left the window these two days, watching the pouring in of the troops, to music, trumpets, & shouting.’ But her letters also register the usual Victorian ambivalence towards Paris. As the army systematically suppressed the limited opposition to the coup throughout the city, she was troubled by the tangible proximity of political violence: ‘one shrank from going quietly to sleep while human beings were dying in heaps, perhaps within ear-shot.’

 

Paris, 1851

Cavalry on the streets of Paris, 2 December 1851

In the 1850s Napoleon III, working with his Prefect of the Seine Georges-Eugène Haussmann, launched a wholesale remodelling of central Paris, demolishing several working-class neighbourhoods and replacing them with wider and less easily barricaded boulevards. As Elisabeth Jay argues, this redesign of the city, intended both to modernise the imperial capital and to hamper any future insurrections, was a source of alienation for British writers, who were often ‘bowled over’ by ‘the French state’s powers to bring about rapid, visible change in Paris.’ The history of the city was being obliterated with dizzying enthusiasm, in a way that contrasted sharply with the slower pace of change in Victorian Britain. Dickens, however, who had started visiting Paris shortly before 1848, was impressed with the changes made by Napoleon III. In 1853 he wrote that the city was ‘wonderfully improving. Thousands of houses must have been pulled down for the construction of an immense street’ which when finished, he thought, ‘will be the finest thing in Europe. The quays are Macademized and as clean as Regent Street.’ For him, Paris in the 1850s was improving because it was starting to resemble Victorian London.

He suggests something similar in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). This novel seems to be structured around an opposition between London and the alien and volatile Paris of the 1780s and 90s, but it attends as much to the similarities as to the differences between the two. It famously ends with Sydney Carton, in the seconds before he is guillotined during the Terror, prophesying a bright future for Paris: ‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.’ Carton’s peroration represents a peculiarly Victorian effort to make sense of Parisian history, to subsume the city’s bewildering cycles of violent transformation within a safely liberal narrative of cumulative progress. Yet the novel’s conclusion is at odds with its considerable imaginative investment in sustained descriptions not just of the ‘wild beasts’ of the revolutionary Parisian mob but of a London mob that is also capable of furious violence. Dickens’s interpretation of Paris hovers nervously between admiration and fear, between a sense of its disconcerting foreignness and a conviction of its worrying similarity to home. For him, as for other Victorian writers, the city is an emblem of the contradictions inherent in Britain’s relation to Europe.

Those contradictions are summed up, aptly, in Queen Victoria’s responses to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the collapse of Napoleon III’s regime, and the insurrection of the Paris Commune. In April 1871, as troops loyal to the recently formed Third Republic besieged the Commune, the queen wrote to her daughter Vicky, crown princess of Germany, to share her satisfaction: ‘How dreadful the state of Paris is! Surely that Sodom and Gomorrah as Papa called it deserves to be crushed.’ Months earlier, though, when it had been German forces surrounding Paris, she had been more circumspect. She warned Vicky that the feelings of the British public, which had been solidly pro-German at the start of the war, were changing in response to the scale of the French defeat and the danger posed to the capital: ‘The fact is people are so fond of Paris – so accustomed to go there that the threatened ruin of it makes them furious and unreasonable.’ For all her chauvinism, Victoria recognised that the exchange of people and ideas inescapably linked Britain to Paris, and to Europe more generally. It’s worrying, to say the least, that so many people in Britain today don’t agree with her.