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Book review: Les Cent-jours ou la tentation de l'impossible

(Article by BRANDA Pierre )

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"Les Cent-jours" won't go away. For some, that's the way it should be. For others, it is a topic that has been done to death. Such reactions are understandable; all the books on the subject tell the story in the same way. For most historians, "Les Cent-jours" is the tale of the bells ringing out as the Eagle soars through France, finally coming to rest on the towers of Notre-Dame, before being wounded at Waterloo and surrendering its sceptre in the "spirit of self-sacrifice".
 
After reading the first few pages of Les Cent-jours ou la tentation de l'impossible, our fears depart. Waresquiel's alert pen takes us elsewhere, into the ranks of History's "forgotten" or, if you prefer, "defeated" figures. Here, much to the reader's surprise, the saga unfolds differently. We thought we knew all there was to know; how wrong we were. As each page is turned, an altogether-different story unfolds. Be it previously unpublished correspondence, newspaper extracts, biting satire, rumours, scientific studies or forgotten memoires, Waresquiel leaves out nothing.
 
The author is accomplished in the art of the 24-hour historical vignette, and with consummate skill he plunges the reader straight into the storming of the Tuileries of 20 March 1815. We begin the day in the company of the king's last few partisans before being joined by the 'Messieurs de la girouette' and finally the 'demi-soldes'. By describing the episode from different viewpoints, Emmanuel de Waresquiel paints a rich and complete picture, brimming with anecdotes. During this timeless interregnum, comical situations abound. The touching, the ridiculous and the sublime all combine and conflict in a whirlpool of history. No-one and nothing is spared. Waresquiel treats everything, however, with a great affection, passionate as he is about the period and its protagonists.
 
Before the collapse, the king's twenty days resemble "shadow-theatre". Here again the author delivers a juicy portrait gallery of "unlikely defenders" of a monarchy on the point of sinking. By delicately dissecting this episode, Waresquiel captivates the reader from beginning to end. The flight to Belgium right in the middle of "la semaine sainte", which would go on to inspire the historical novel by Louis Aragon, is equally mouth-watering. We delight in reading the portrait of a king who enjoys fine food, and in discovering the "maison militaire du roi" in all its mediocrity (or indeed inutility). But appearances are deceiving. History is not just about he who shouts loudest wins. Waresquiel knows how to put things in perspective. Under his guidance, the legend is peeled away and the portrait of France in 1815 becomes more nuanced and, in turn, enriched.
 
The French people were not yearning for Napoleon's return and the royalists were not just an army of sometimes farcical revenants. A royalist movement did exist, particularly in the French Midi, and elsewhere too. The First Restoration experienced a number of successes, notably in the economic sector, which improved its political influence. But the Bonapartist wave that swept up through France from the Golfe-Juan was too strong and the troops' desire for their "little corporal" too great. And so the regime's belated attempts to reverse the trend, described in detail in the book, were all in vain.
 
The empire was back, but its support was weaker than believed. Were there really that many behind the emperor, besides his army veterans? Waresquiel notes in particular how reserved, not to say hostile, the important figures of the time were in the face of the Eagle's return. The chapter that deals with the elections in April and May 1815 is very enlightening on this point. And if indeed Napoleon was no longer seen as the future, then the Second Restoration was also in a bad way too.
 
The dissension that brought about the fall of the Second Restoration was already evident at the king's court in Gand, Belgium, between April and June 1815. The parties, liberals to ultras, fought and connived as an impassive Louis XVIII became less and less sure of himself. The king's favourite, Blacas, was the first to go, victim of these hushed court conspiracies.
 
The "Cent-jours" would finish with a large bang: Waterloo. Wellington, Talleyrand and Fouché would all come to the forefront. And it is the latter, a regicide, who would become the king-maker, presenting the crown to Louis XVIII. Had everything come full-circle? Was France reconciled with itself? Not a chance! Indeed to the contrary. This book demonstrates how the "Cent-jours" inflamed French passions, rather than calming them. The demon of national division, between parties but also within parties, was still young in 1815. It may have even been at death's door on 19 March. But by the next day, it was revitalised, stronger than ever and, despite its age, it is still here. Everything we hear, read and see in politics today confirms this.
 
This splendid narrative, delivered with brio by Waresquiel, holds up a mirror to the French people, and in doing so, has attempted the impossible. He is right to do so; for once we see ourselves as we really were then and as we really are now.
 
(Tr. H.D.W.)



 
     
 
 

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BRANDA Pierre

 

 
 

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