Regency Bicentennial:   Naughty Nappy Hits the Press

In the autumn of 1815, the news had reached Europe that the British Royal Navy ship, HMS Northumberland, had dropped anchor in the harbor of the island of St. Helena, on 15 October 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte and his small retinue had disembarked and were safely ensconced on the tiny, remote island. The Continent breathed a collective sigh of relief, finally certain that there was no hope that Bonaparte would ever again hold power in France. There were a few who were emboldened by that knowledge to capitalize on the continuing public interest in the deposed French Emperor.

The publication of Napoleon’s "Amours Secrettes . . . "

The nearly constant warfare in which France was involved since the outbreak of the French Revolution took a heavy toll on the country’s economy. Napoleon’s attempt to restore himself to power after his escape from Elba put an even more severe financial strain on an already distressed population. Once it was certain that Napoleon and his family would never again hold power in France, there were a number of people who sought to take advantage of the ongoing public interest in the Bonapartes to try to rebuild their finances, by publishing spurious books about Napoleon and his family. And, of course, just as it does today, in 1815, sex sold, very well.

One of the first of these supposed amorous memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, and one of the most successful, was Amours Secrettes de Napoléon Buonaparte. The first two volumes of Napoleon’s fictitious sexual escapades were published in Paris, in the autumn of 1815. The book is represented as having been edited from the manuscript of a private diary which Napoleon himself had kept. It was also stated that it was published at his request. The editor/author of these tales was given as "M. Le Baron de B***," whom most people assumed to be Louis de Bourienne, Napoleon’s private secretary during the Egyptian campaign, and one-time chief of the Paris police. Bourienne was known to have taken copious notes during his time with the erstwhile French Emperor, with the intention of eventually publishing a memoir.

Despite the fact that "M. Le Baron de B***" was cited as the editor or author of Amours Secrettes de Napoléon Buonaparte, many people came to believe that it was actually written by the French author, Charles Doris de Bourges. In 1812, Doris had published a biography of Napoleon which sold fairly well in France. In 1815, Doris’s biography of Napoleon was reprinted and it was translated into English, for sale in Britain. His earlier biography may have led people to believe that he had also written Amours Secrettes. However, Doris wrote several imaginative, if fictional, biographies and supposed "autobiographies" which were derogatory of Napoleon and/or his associates at about this same time. Doris is believed to have been an agent of the French police during Napoleon’s reign and he may have known Bourienne when the latter was the head of the Paris police. He may have drawn on these experiences when he went on to write a number of novels through the Regency and into the middle of the nineteenth century.

These Amours Secrettes . . . were printed by Mme. V. Perronneau, for the bookseller, Chez Germain Mathiot, both of whom had premises along the Quai des Augustins, on the banks of the Seine River. During her career, Madame Perronneau printed a wide array of popular books and pamphlets, including a great many plays and the music from light opera and other crowd-pleasing entertainments. Germain Mathiot, the bookseller, apparently sold the bulk of Mme. Perronneau’s output in his shop. Among those publications were the works of Charles Doris de Bourges. Therefore, it would have been perfectly natural for this printer and bookseller to collaborate with an author they knew on the publication of the Amours Secrettes de Napoléon Buonaparte, knowing such titillating stories would appeal to the majority of their regular customers. And, of course, with the Bonapartes truly out of power, they need not fear any political repercussions. The restored government of Louis XVIII would have had no objections to any publications which defamed Napoleon or any members of his family.

The first volume of Amours Secrettes de Napoléon Buonaparte, which was published in the fall of 1815, appears to have been intended as single volume. However, within a few weeks, a second volume was published, which can probably be ascribed to brisk sales. Unlike novels and other books which were being published in two, three or more volumes at that time, each volume of Amours Secrettes . . . was a stand-alone anthology of loosely linked short, risqué anecdotes about Napoleon’s imagined sex life. There was no continuous story, and the volumes could be read in any order. Two more volumes were published, in 1816 and in 1817, which completed the series.

The illustration which serves as the frontispiece to the second volume shows Napoleon in full uniform carrying a beautiful young woman in a nightgown down a fight of stairs with the flames of a fire licking at the railings on both sides. Beneath the illustration is a paragraph which directs the reader to page 22, for the full story. That story is told in the first person, revealing how the young Napoleon rushed into a building he saw on fire. He is shocked to find a young woman wearing only her nightgown, lying unconscious on the floor. Gathering her into his arms, the brave soldier begins to carry her down the stairs. But as he descends, the fire becomes a whirlwind of flame and he is forced to retreat back up the stairs. Unwilling to resign himself to his fate, Napoleon breaks through the common wall of an adjoining building. He has escaped the flames, but finds himself in a locked room.

Inside the locked room, Bonaparte then looks more closely at the young lady he has rescued, whom he estimates to be about eighteen years of age. He has not enjoyed the pleasures of a woman for sometime, and realizes he cannot be interrupted in the locked room he has just entered. Therefore, he ravishes the barely conscious woman, despite her feeble protests, until he has slaked his lust. Once he has satisfied himself, Bonaparte breaks down the locked door and finally, carries the young woman down the stairs and out to the street. The story ends with his fellow soldiers cheering his "victory."

Amours Secrettes de Napoléon Buonaparte was originally published only in French. The four-volume set was not translated into English until 1850. Nevertheless, the French editions sold well in Britain during the Regency, since most educated people could read French. Charles Doris de Bourges went on to write other tales of secret romance in the Bonaparte family, including, Amours Secrettes des Quatre Frères de Napoléon, about the sexual escapades of Napoleon’s brothers, published in 1816. This title went to two volumes and was also sold in Britain. Though none of these Amours Secrettes . . . were as graphic as are modern-day erotic stories, they were still considered quite racy and titillating for their time. They do not appear to have been advertised in Britain, but word of mouth probably made potential readers aware of them. It is unlikely they would have been available from lending libraries, nor would they have been sold openly in British book shops, but those who wanted them would have been able to find them. [Author’s Note: Digital editions of all four volumes of Amours Secrettes de Napoléon Buonaparte can be found at the Internet Archive.]

The strong sales for these naughty tales appear to have inspired other writers. Within a few months, several other French authors added their own versions of the love lives of Napoleon and his family to the flourishing trade in racy, spurious stories about the Bonapartes. A few of these authors did not confine themselves to the male Bonapartes, but also created stories about Napoleon’s sisters, while a few even wrote about one or both of his wives. Just about anyone with even the most tenuous link to Napoleon Bonaparte might become a target of these specious stories for the next few years.

Eventually, a copy of Amours Secrettes de Napoléon Buonaparte made its way to St. Helena. According to the memoirs of some of the members of his retinue there, the former French Emperor found these stories very entertaining and amusing. He particularly enjoyed reading them aloud to his male aides after dinner. He told them he did not recognize the names of any of the women with whom he was supposed to have dallied, but he seemed very pleased by the sexual feats with which he was credited. "They make a Hercules of me!" he is reported to have exclaimed in delight, after reading one especially flagrant passage.

Though these specious stories were written and published in France, many of them circulated around the Continent and across the English Channel. But due to the nature of their subject matter, despite little, if any, advertising, word of mouth made them known to many prospective readers and buyers. Might one of these Amours Secrettes . . . find a place in a Regency novel? Could it be that the heroine, a governess, slips into the family library one evening, seeking a new book to read, and comes across one of these volumes? Since she reads French very well, will she be put to the blush as she scan the pages, to be interrupted by the hero? What will happen next? Or, might the hero be tracking a particularly malicious writer in France whom he has learned in targeting former Bonapartists who are trying to forget the past and live in peace, out of the limelight? Is that writer the villain, trying to blackmail those people to stop him from writing about them? Mayhap the target of the villain is the father of the heroine. How else might one or more of these naughty books find a place in a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Naughty Nappy Hits the Press

  1. the discovery of such a book in the possession of someone who is representing herself as very innocent is a good clue to a lie….
    I am glad they entertained Bonaparte himself, if it had angered him he would have been very difficult to live with

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Unless, of course, she does not read French. Though most girls who had a governess or who were sent to a young ladies’ academy would have been taught French, the daughters of impoverished gentry might not have the benefit of such an education. So, it is possible that a few young ladies were deficient in French. But that could also make for an interesting plot bunny. Perhaps an uneducated young woman is trying to pass herself off as a sophisticated lady, maybe even a French lady. So she has gathered a collection of French books, to give people the impression she reads them. But how unfortunate if someone should notice that she has a copy of Amours Secrettes de Napoléon Buonaparte in her collection of books.

      From what I understand, Napoleon was rather difficult to live with much of the time he was on St. Helena. But he was also ill, suffering from stomach cancer and hemorrhoids. That is enough to make anyone irritable. But I find it rather ironic that he was amused by these stories, since they were all published once he went into his final exile. It it interesting to speculate on how he might have reacted if such tales had been published while he was still in power.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Now that’s a thought; a pretend sophisticate looking more sophisticated than she really is. Will the hero be disgusted and treat her like a woman of the demi-monde? or will he guess her secret and catch her out with the use of a French aphorism which she agrees with, and he has really asked her if she prefers onions or garlic?

        I suspect when he was in power he would have been less amused…

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  3. Pingback: 1815:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

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