The Revolution, by breaking down political and parental authority, and dismissing religious belief, had let loose the individualistic instincts of the French people—moderately in the provinces, catastrophically in the capital; the center of law found itself struggling within the center of chaos and crime. Napoleon, himself lawless, determined to restore stability to morals and manners as vital to the regeneration of France, the sanity and contentment of its people, and the success of his rule. He made it clear that he would keep a stern eye on all business relations in or with the government, and would punish severely all detected dishonesty. He set his face against immodest dress in society or on the stage; he reprimanded his brother Lucien and his sister Elisa for displaying too much of their flesh in private theatricals; and when, at a soiree, he found himself confronted by Mme. de Staël in low and ample décolleté, he remarked pointedly, “I presume that you nurse your children yourself?”45 He insisted that Talleyrand marry his mistress. Mme. Tallien, who had directed Directory morals by the curve of her hips, disappeared into the provinces; Josephine said goodbye to adultery, and her frightened milliners cut their bills in half. The new Code gave the husband almost Roman powers over his wife and children; the family resumed its function of turning animals into citizens, at whatever cost to personal freedom.
The mood of the age suffered some darkening as part price of the new discipline. The reckless gaiety of the sexes and the classes under the Revolution yielded to bourgeois propriety and proletarian fatigue. The class barriers that had graded and steadied the population in Bourbon days gave way to a restless fever of competition as “career open to talents” built stairs between all tiers,46 and set rootless youths climbing the slippery pyramids to power. Such deductions made, Napoleon was justified in feeling that under his rule morality returned to France, and manners regained some of the courtesy that had eased and graced prerevolutionary life in literate France.
He felt that despite all efforts to equalize opportunity some form of class distinction would inevitably develop from the natural diversity of abilities and environments. To keep this result from being merely an aristocracy of wealth, he established in 1802 the Legion of Honor, to be composed of men, chosen by the government, who had distinguished themselves by special excellence in their fields—war, law, religion, science, scholarship, art … It was to be half as democratic as life: all men were eligible, but no women. The members swore, on admission, to support the principles of liberty and equality; but they were soon graded into classes according to their merit or influence or tenure. Each received from the French government an annual stipend: 5,000 francs for a “grand officer,” 2,000 to a “commander,” 1,000 to an “officer,” 250 to a “chevalier.”47 To distinguish them, the members were to wear a ribbon or a cross. When some councilors smiled at such “baubles,” Napoleon replied that men are more easily led by decorations than by authority or force; “one obtains everything from men by appealing to their sense of honor.”48
The Emperor took another step toward a new aristocracy by creating (1807) the “Imperial Nobility,” conferring titles upon his relatives, his marshals, certain administrative officers, and outstanding savants; so, in the next seven years, he made 31 dukes, 452 counts, 1,500 barons, 1,474 chevaliers. Talleyrand became prince of Benevento, Fouché became Duc d’Otrante (Otranto); Joseph Bonaparte was suddenly grand elector, Louis Bonaparte was grand constable; Murat, cavalry leader, was surprised to find himself grand admiral; Marshal Davout was christened Due d’Auerstedt; Lannes, Duc de Montebello; Savary, Duc de Rovigo; Lefebvre, Duc de Dantzig. Laplace and Volney became counts, and Napoleon’s sisters blossomed into princesses. With each title went a colorful and distinctive uniform, an annual revenue, sometimes a substantial estate. Moreover—and here Napoleon frankly turned his back upon the republic—most of these titles were made hereditary. Only with transmissible property, in Napoleon’s view, could his new aristocrats maintain their position and authority, and thereby serve as a support to the ruler. The Emperor himself, to keep a step or two ahead of the new aristocracy—which soon flaunted its titles, uniforms, and powers-guarded himself with chamberlains, equerries, prefects of the palace, and a hundred other servitors; and Josephine was equipped with ladies-in-waiting whose titles came from the Bourbons or beyond.
Still unsated, he turned to the survivors of the old nobility, and used every lure to draw them to his court. He had called many of them back to France as a foil to the still revolutionary Jacobins, and in the hope of establishing continuity between the old France and the new. This seemed impossible, for the returning émigrés scorned Napoleon as a parvenu usurper, denounced his policies, satirized his manners, looks, and speech, and made fun of his new aristocracy. Gradually, however, as his prestige mounted with his victories, and as France rose to such power and wealth as not even Louis XIV had won for her, this lofty attitude bent: the younger sons of the émigrés gladly accepted appointments in the Upstart’s service;49 grandes dames came to attend Josephine; and at last some nobles of ancient vintage—Montmorencys, Montesquious, Ségurs, Gramonts, Noailles, Turennes—added their aura to the imperial court, and were rewarded with partial restoration of their confiscated estates. After the marriage with Marie Louise the reconciliation seemed complete. But much of it was superficial; the newer sons and daughters of the Revolution did not relish the superior manners and prestige of the pedigreed; the Army, still fond of its revolutionary ideals, grumbled to see its idol exchanging bows with ancient foes; these looked down upon the tall generals, the nervous savants, and the ambitious Bonapartes, who had presumed to replace them.
To keep this den of lions from open war with words or swords, Napoleon insisted upon a code of etiquette. He commissioned some specialists to draw up, from the best Bourbon models, a manual of manners designed to meet every situation courteously; they did, to a bulk of eight hundred pages;50 philosophers and grenadiers studied it; and the imperial court became a model of brilliant dress and empty speech. The courtiers played cards, but, as Napoleon forbade playing for money, the cards lost their value. Plays were performed, concerts were given, there were stately ceremonies and massive balls. When the excitement of comparing costumes and matching wit declined, the more intimate members of the court moved with Emperor and Empress to St.-Cloud, or Rambouillet, or Trianon, or, most happily, to Fontainebleau, where formality loosened its stays, and hunting warmed the blood.
No one was so irked by this regal ritual as Napoleon, and he avoided it as much as he could. “Etiquette,” he said, “is the prison of kings.”51 And to Las Cases: “Necessity compelled me to observe a degree of state, to adopt a certain system of solemnity—in a word, to establish etiquette. Otherwise I should have been every day liable to be slapped on the shoulder.”52 As for ceremonies, they too had their rationale. “A newly established government must dazzle and astonish. The moment it ceases to glitter it falls.”53“Display is to power what ceremony is to religion.”54 “Is it not a fact that the Catholic religion appeals more strongly to the imagination by the pomp of its ceremonies than by the sublimity of its doctrines? When you want to arouse enthusiasm in the masses you must appeal to their eyes.”55
As usual in history, the manners of the court passed down, tapering, to the literate population. “It took only ten or twelve years,” said the learned “Bibliophile Jacob” (Paul Lacroix) “to make of the grand monde of the Directory a decent, polished, and well-brought-up society.”56 This was especially true of Lyons and Bordeaux, not to speak of Paris where, said Mme. de Staël, “so many persons of intellect came together, … and so many were accustomed to employ that intellect in adding to the pleasures of conversation.”57 Napoleon, reported Las Cases, “rendered justice to the delicate tact which distinguished the inhabitants of the French capital; nowhere, he said, could be found so much wit, or more taste.”58 A hundred cafés gathered a gregarious people to sit and sip, to exchange news and repartees, while before them the mobile world passed in unwilling parade, each animalcule centering the world around itself. Fine restaurants had disappeared during the Terror, had reopened under the Directory, and began now their reignover the tastes and purses of the French people. It was during the Consulate and the Empire that Anthelme Brillat-Savarin accumulated the facts and legends that swelled his classic of gastronomy, La Physiologie du goût, which reached print only a year (1826) before his death.
Styles of speech and dress were changing. Citoyen and Citoyenne were being replaced by the prerevolutionary Monsieur and Madame. Men of fashion reverted to knee breeches and silk stockings, but pantaloons regained supremacy as the Empire waned. The ladies, abandoning the style grecque of the Directory, returned to skirts and bodices. Décolleté remained generous, with bare shoulders and arms; Napoleon opposed the fashion, Josephine approved of it; her pretty arms and shoulders and buttressed bosom won.59
The Emperor gave his approval to masked balls, for he was glad to see social life revive. He did not care for the salons that were flourishing in Paris. They were becoming a refuge of politicians, authors, and “ideologues” critical of his increasingly dictatorial regime. His brothers Joseph and Lucien organized frequent receptions where the talk was necessarily favorable to the Emperor and generally hostile to Josephine; Fouché and Talleyrand held their own courts, where criticism was polite; the returnedémigrésexcoriated all the Bonapartes in somber soirees in the Faubourg St.-Germain; and Mme. de Staël maintained her famous salon as part of her fifteen years’ war against Napoleon. Mme. de Genlis, returning to France after seven years as an émigrée, devoted her salon and her writings to defending the Emperor against Bourbons, Jacobins, Mme. de Staël, and Mme. Récamier.