Sunday, June 21, 2020

Working for an Empress

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

Cropped image of L'Evasion de Rochefort [Rochefort's Escape], 1881, oil on canvas by French artist Edouard Manet (1832–1883). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As a young man, Victor Henri Rochefort, Marquis de Rochefort-Luçay, dabbled in various careers, including a lengthy spin as a writer of highly successful vaudevilles, before he was hired by the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro in 1863. His acid pen soon ran afoul of the monarchy and the editors were compelled to terminate his column. He founded La Lanterne in 1868, which quickly reached a readership of over 100,000, but not even a dozen issues were published before his vitriolic attacks on Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie earned him a year in prison. He avoided his sentence by fleeing to Belgium, where he met the novelist Victor Hugo, also in exile, and together they continued the publication of La Lanterne. His election to the French legislature in 1869 enabled him to return to Paris but, after the imperial government collapsed, Rochefort’s public support of the Communard radicals resulted in another prison sentence—this time for life. In August 1873 he was transferred to the Pacific island penal colony of New Caledonia, but he escaped on an American ship after only a few months and arrived in San Francisco in May 1874.

It is at this point that readers might expect Rochefort’s path to intersect with the career of Ambrose Bierce, who had been working as a writer in San Francisco since 1867. As it happens, however, Bierce and his family had moved two years earlier to England, where he was busy writing humor pieces for the magazine Fun, columns for the semi-weekly London Figaro, and letters from England for the Alta California back home. Bierce seemed to enjoy the cerebral atmosphere of his new Fleet Street social circle. “I have not elsewhere heard such brilliant talk as among the artists and writers of London,” he later wrote. “I found those men agreeable, hospitable, intelligent, amusing.” Yet, as he wrote to a friend who was on his way to England, “London—literary London—is divided into innumerable cliques . . . if you fall into the hands of one clique, all the others will give you the cold shoulder.”

Bierce visited Paris with his wife and mother-in-law in the autumn of 1873, arriving just weeks after Rochefort left France on the four-month journey that would take him to New Caledonia. When the family returned to England, Bierce’s chronic asthma forced him to move to Bristol, then to Bath, and then to Leamington Spa, where he felt sadly isolated from the “cliques” of London and where he lived when the following story took place.

Captured during the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III was deposed in September 1870 and lived in exile with the Empress and their entourage at Camden Place, a palatial country house in Kent, until his death in January 1873. James Mortimer, an American who served in France as an imperial private secretary, followed Louis-Napoleon and Eugénie to England and, with their financial support, established the London Figaro, the semi-weekly that hired Bierce to write a column. In the spring of 1874, when Bierce had been in England for two years, Mortimer wrote him with a strange proposal: to edit and write a new publication called The Lantern, which was to be modeled after the seditious French journal published years earlier by Rochefort. Because Mortimer’s patron and friend, the Empress Eugénie, regarded the just-escaped Rochefort as “a menace and a terror,” Bierce was puzzled and discomfited by the offer. But his qualms were mostly overcome when was also told that the new magazine, like its predecessor, should be “irritatingly disrespectful of existing institutions and exalted personages”—a prospect that “delighted” Bierce. Still, the purpose of the new enterprise mystified him.

Thus, like Rochefort, Bierce went from writing columns for (Le) Figaro to being the editor and writer of The Lantern. He produced two generously funded and lavishly printed issues of the magazine, and then Mortimer abruptly shut it down. It was only later that Bierce learned the raison d’être for the English version of Rochefort’s magazine—a truth that most everyone other than the publication’s editor seemed to have grasped. Originally published in 1882 and later collected as one of the episodes in his memoir Bits of Autobiography, “Working for an Empress” explains the mystery and reveals the information Mortimer kept from him.

Note: The reference in Bierce’s opening sentence is to Sir Walter Scott’s romance novel Kenilworth (1821).

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In the spring of 1874 I was living in the pretty English town of Leamington, a place that will be remembered by most Americans who have visited the grave of Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon, or by personal inspection of the ruins of Kenilworth Castle have verified their knowledge of English history derived from Scott’s incomparable romance. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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