Do you find the Empress Eugenie a sympathetic character? I never know quite what to make of her; I find her hard to get close to. Her numerous portraits are theatrical and glamorous to a degree, especially the glorious set pieces by Winterhalter with their sensual and tactile treatment of his sitter’s luxurious garments and draperies. Romantic, too, are the circumstances of Eugenie’s long life: the exotically mixed and mysterious ancestry; her Scottish blood; her wooing by Napoleon III – “the only way to my bed is through a well-lit chapel”; her role in creating the concept of haute couture and making Paris the fashion centre of the world. And then there are the frivolous but delicious legacies left by Eugenie to the world: a mauve passion flower; an amethyst tiara in the Louvre: a rakish style of hat, re-introduced to fashion by Garbo and even more popular the second time around. Above all, the crinoline is forever associated with her and with her pet designer Worth – the nice boy from Lincolnshire who spoke with a strong Northern accent in a “low deep voice” and was unable to draw faces or limbs: he cut them out from photos and lithographs and stuck them on to his sumptuous designs.
Then, too, Eugenie was fabulously lovely: or so Worth and Winterhalter made her. She was slim and of middling height ( 5’5″) with cascades of red gold hair put up in chignons and ringlets. She had violet eyes, perfect skin and the most extraordinary eyebrows which she made her signature. You can recognise her in any likeness by these quizzically raised butterfly brows which lift like antennae from the outer corner of the eye. They give her a somewhat affected look, very distinctive. The Empress kept them pencilled dramatically black to contrast with the dazzling brilliance of her complexion. Her teeth were good: like many of her Imperial contemporaries she had a state-of-the-art American dentist, Mr Thomas Evans, who was destined to save more than the Empress’s teeth when the Second Empire collapsed in 1870. He whisked her into a cab and off to a 50 year exile in England before the Paris mob could subject her to the fate of Marie Antoinette: a circumstance of which she had always a superstitious dread.
We think of Eugenie when we use her preferred Roger & Gallet soap, and Guerlain’s blissful Eau Imperiale. The latter is supposed to have been commissioned for her, but then her unattractive husband (“a very awkward shape”) liked it so well that he made off with it for his own use ( as Samuel Pepys often did with his wife’s accessories). Above all Eugenie’s aura can still be smelled in Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie, for which Creed devised the original formula just as the Second Empire collapsed. If ever there was a scent to be smelled against a background of ermine, sable, violet velvet and pink silk this is the one. Jasmin is soft but penetrating, headily warm, all-embracing; somnolent and sleepily erotic, well-laced with iris and aphrodisiac vanilla. Maybe the scent is in fact too sexy for the eponymous wearer; or perhaps it is ironically piquant that a woman said to be so prudish and uninterested in sex should apparently have sprinkled such a slow-burning scorcher about her person.
Whether Creed kept up with the ex-Empress in her retirement at Farnborough is unknown. Mabell Airlie who visited the 77 year old Eugenie at home in 1902 was horrified at “the way …she had let herself go – like any old French peasant woman”. The famous brows, now white, were clumsily and only partially blacked in and the Empress’s once formidable sense of decorum seems to have slipped: ” There were some other English guests at tea, but when the Empress told – in English – an impossibly indelicate story about two swans they were so shocked that they rose hastily and took their leave”. In photographs of this period and later Eugenie is appallingly changed and aged, even frightening, and always in the same huge and terrible hat: the sort of old lady who scares little children.
By the age of 53 she had lost her crown, her sister, husband and only child, the Prince Imperial. Her son fell in the Zulu Wars and his body was brought home to be buried at Windsor. When I went to pay my respects I found his tomb in the centre of the St George’s Chapel souvenir shop: tourists wrote their post cards on his chest. But despite Eugenie’s tragic circumstances she didn’t lack for admirers: Queen Victoria (“ma chere soeur”) always adored her, with the passion of a homely person for a beauty. Even in her 70’s Eugenie attracted a passionate suitor in the suffragette and composer Ethel Smyth who wrote that the Empress was more brilliantly lovely than ever. It was to Ethel that Eugenie once revealed her snow white naked leg,”in extenso”, a curious episode which Miss Smyth vividly described in a letter to the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury.* Meanwhile Eugenie herself nurtured a sort of schoolgirl crush on the aged and (in this case) baffled Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, begging in vain for a meeting.
Eugenie lived to be 94 and died in Madrid in 1920, while on a visit to her native Spain. I find her elusive and I suspect her biographers do likewise. No life of her seems really to capture the woman. Perhaps this was part of her charm to contemporaries; maybe too she was a mystery to herself, one of those strange sphinxes without a secret. People who knew her said she was highly emotional, prone to fuss and easily bored; nervous and a martyr to migraine. But she was a survivor – as is her perfume. Come and smell it chez nous.
*For the whole bizarre story see the incomparably marvellous biography “As Good As God, As Clever As The Devil: the impossible life of Mary Benson” by Rodney Bolt, Atlantic Books 2011.