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Antoine and Camille, Male Love in Napoleon’s Time

by Caspar Wintermans in History & Politics , 02 januari 2016

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Length: 16 minutes

One does not make the emperor wait, especially if he is the first in the Bonaparte house. His arch chancellor humbly apologized this way when he arrived late in the halls where the Council of State was gathering. “My apologies, Sire,” he said, “I was attending to a lady.” He was lying, and Napoleon knew it. “Next time, tell him,” he snapped at the latecomer, “get your walking stick and hat and leave.”

A reference to the homosexuality of his subordinate, which must have made the other councillors laugh. Jean-Régis de Cambacérès, duke of Parma, was used to such teasing and apparently was not very annoyed. Couldn’t he just be proud of what he had accomplished? He was the empire’s second in command and in charge when the head of state was absent. And Napoleon was often abroad waging wars.

His admiration of and loyalty to the emperor were sincere and lasting. Cambacérès never forgot meeting General Bonaparte in 1794, who visited him at home. As so many others, he especially remembered his “charming mouth, especially when it had a benign and mocking smile. And then his eyes... oh, such eyes, like of a lion or an eagle...

From the first moment he spoke, I was captured by his spell.” Napoleon appreciated the brilliant qualities of the duke, one of the greatest jurists of his generation. After the revolt of Brumaire (November 9, 1799) he appointed the duke co-consul, and after his elevation to emperor, he became arch-chancellor, a post comparable to that of Prime Minister. Cambacérès played an active part in the realization of the Civil Code, the “Code Napoléon”; in 1813 he became president of the Regency Council and acted as Minister of Justice and chairman of the Senate during the Hundred Days in the spring of 1815, when Napoleon, having returned from his exile on Elba, made a fruitless attempt to reconquer his thrown.
An impressive career! Would a notorious homosexual climb so high on the social ladder in the ancien régime? Probably not. Louis XVI was a pious man. When the archbishop of Paris died, he stipulated that his successor at least had to believe in God. He had put a stop to the domination of mistresses with his predecessors; a monogamous family man who had no empathy for “sodomites,” of which some ended on the stake during his reign.

A Blot on Our Time

Yellowed files in Parisian archives revealed how the police handled men loving men in the years before the revolution. Commissioner Pierre-Louis Foucault, who died in 1783, noted in a register he shortly made available to his friends, the names of the “pederasts” who had come into contact with the authorities in the capital; the total number of homosexuals was estimated by him at 40,000. His administration showed that at the time, there was a subculture with favorite cruising spots: the boulevards, the Tuileries, the Palais-Royal, and the Champs-Élysées. Some bars ran solely on homosexual clientele, and “La Lune éclatante” presumably even organized “orgies.” Heavy petting sessions behind closed doors were usually tolerated - the police did not know about most -, but who was caught in the greens of a park had a problem. The inspectors often used to fill their own pockets. While male prostitutes were sent to prison, their customers received a large fine that did not go to the treasury, but was considered an addition to their own salary. No one dared to complain about this.

In an age without Grindr and Facebook, they were at their most vulnerable when making advances on the streets or on squares. Some were unlucky more than once: a shopkeeper in ribbons and yarn, who was brought to the station because he had put his hand in the trousers of a tiler, had been arrested six weeks earlier when making the same gesture to show his interest for a hairdresser’s assistant who was attending a public execution on Place de Grève.

That this particular lad did not appreciate the gesture is remarkable, as the statistics showed that there were many homosexual hairdressers. Wig makers, room servants and jockeys were amply represented. These homosexuals were not popular. Foucault recorded that two “pederasts,” of which one was recognizable by his costume, were chased by “the people” and abused on the Champs-Élysées, something that also happened to seventeen-year-old Joseph Prainguet when people also considered his clothes to be “indecent” and “too eye-catching.”

Such expressions of homophobia were not limited to the lower classes. In the circles in which Alexandre de Tilly moved, people felt uneasiness about the presumed increase, “even in the provinces,” of lesbian passion, “a blot on our time.” Tilly, a former page of Marie-Antoinette and famous womanizer, could only smile about ladies with a preference for other ladies. A moral indignation about gay sex also lacks in the reports by Foucault. He was a common-sensical civil servant who was difficult to surprise. But occasionally, he was confronted by men who dared to question the legitimacy of their arrest. A certain Beaufils, questioned because of his flashy attire, posed that everyone can dress the way they see fit, and mister Souchet declared that he was just amusing himself whenever the opportunity knocked, just like everybody else. The commissioner was also told on occasion that they did nothing bad, nor did they intend to. This points to a certain degree of self-awareness; “sodomites” also claimed self-determination and privacy.

Decriminalized but not Respected

Enlightenment supporters thought that this desire was justified. The Italian Cesare Beccaria argued in “On Crimes and Punishments” (1764) that practicing homosexuals should be exempt from prosecution. His notion, which the French had been introduced to through a translation that was published in 1766 (with a foreword by Voltaire), certainly influenced those who compiled a new Criminal Law after the French revolution, and was ratified by the National Assembly in 1791. The included decriminalization of homosexual contact in the private domain cannot be contributed to Cambacérès, as he still was in the fringe of politics, but as mentioned before, the “Code Napoléon” did contribute by giving homosexuals some elbow room they would be without for a long time in the rest of Europe.
But naturally this did not mean that homosexuals in France were widely treated with respect in the 1790s. When Cambacérès became the chairman of the Council of Five Hundred after the downfall of Robespierre, he was lectured about his single status in a pamphlet, the reason being known: “Such isolation is inappropriate for a member of legislative body, because it implies principled selfishness that makes us blind for the misfortune of our fellow man. Get married, Cambacérès!”

This criticism still was somewhat covert. The cartoons that were made by royalist exiles in England, among others, and which were illegally circulating in France, openly mocked the sexual orientation of “the arch idiot.” He, for instance, was depicted in a theater box showing his enthusiasm for a handsome actor. Cheekier is a cartoon in which two ladies are told by the guard that they cannot speak with His Excellence for a while: he is engaged in a private audience. What happens in Cambacérès office in the meantime can be seen on the next picture: he is doing a soldier. The pleasure obviously is mutual.
Napoleon ordered Cambacérès to show himself in public with a fake girlfriend, and he chose an actress who liked to dress up like a man, but obviously did not do so when she had to appear in front of dignitaries at the palace. Shortly after the onset of this alleged affair, the woman turned out to be “blessed with child.” “Ah! Monseigneur!” a courtier shouted when he ran into Cambacérès, “this pregnancy credits you!” With coldness and wit, the duke answered: “Please congratulate the father. As far as I’m concerned, je n’ai connu mademoiselle Guizot que postérieurement.”
It is good to know that Cambacérès found a discrete lover and friend in Olivier Lavollée, who had been working as his secretary since 1795. He was much younger, extremely handsome and loyal; when Louis XVII sent Cambacérès in exile after the Hundred Days, Lavollée accompanied him to Brussels. He did not have to stay there very long, as Cambacérès was pardoned in 1818. He spent his autumn years in Paris, and was buried with ceremony at Père Lachaise in 1824.

Shameless Candor
There, the remains of another Bonapartist whose “Greek principles” raised eyebrows can also be found, Joseph Fiévée. He was a journalist and writer - his novel “La Dot de Suzette” appeared in 1798 and was also translated into Dutch - before getting a seat on the Council of State in 1813, when the empire was already falling apart, and was appointed the prefect of Nevers. At official receptions there was no wife by his side to greet the guests, but his partner Theodore Leclerq, a person of independent means who was also committed to literature. Even Talleyrand, who was certainly not one of the most prudish of Napoleon’s members of staff, was shocked by the “shamelessness” of this couple. The Mister of Internal Affairs wrote Fiévée that he was worried about the “rumors” that reached him about his lifestyle, to which the prefect very decisively answered him that he despised chatterboxes and did not pay any attention to slander. Such nerve was not appreciated by the reactionary rule of Louis XVIII. Napoleon’s downfall meant the end of Fiévée’s career in government.
Baron Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon also received a notice after the restoration of the Bourbons. Robbed of his income as the sub-prefect of Carcassonne, he was forced to live off his pen. Year after year, he was in front of his desk between three and four in the morning, producing one book after the other. He was very successful, also abroad. In our country, people read translations of “L’Hermite de la tombe mystérieuse, ou le Fantôme du vieux château” (1816) and “Les Mystères de la Tour Saint-Jean, ou les Chevaliers du Temple” (1818), presented by him as Frenchified versions of posthumous work by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis, the most famous exponents of the immensely popular Gothic Novel.

In reality, they were written by Lamothe-Langon himself, who, unfortunately, was not of the same level as his British colleagues. It therefore seems unlikely that the average reader was fooled by this deception, but even renowned scholars considered his “Histoire de l’Inquisition en France” (1829) a serious historical work - until it was discovered in the previous century that these “secret archives” he supposedly had access to with special permission of the archbishop of Toulouse were a figment of his imagination.

‘As If He Was His Mistress’

Doubts about the reliability of the “Mémoires tirés des archives de la police de Paris,” published by Lamothe-Langon in 1838 under a pseudonym, therefore seem justified; but recent investigations into this mass of paperwork by Jean-Claude Féray revealed a surprising fact, a fact that escaped his biographer Richard Switzer. The latter copiously quoted from the diary the young Étienne-Léon had kept in 1809. In the diary, one keeps falling over the names of girls he was seeing.

He received so many visitors that his servants struggled to prevent the amorous damsels running into each other on the stairs or in the vestibule. In 1814, the writer married Élise de Gourc, who gave him two children and divorced him when she found him in the arms of a female friend in 1836. This, one would think, would be enough for a certificate of sexual conformism. Nevertheless, Féray found some records mentioning the baron in several registers from 1852 in which the police made a note of the names of “pederasts.”

It was said about Lamothe-Langon that he was sweet on Victor-Huguet Doré, an employee of an assurance office, whom he pampered “as if he was his mistress.” Féray wondered if Lamothe-Langon wrote about authentic adventures with girls, or used female names for the boys he was making love to for security reasons. Notes about various wedding plans undermine this theory, at least partly; but the fact that Lamothe-Langon - perhaps not exclusively - was attracted to men, may shed a different light on the following passage from one of his novels: “He felt how disastrous his situation was; he saw himself as a child that had been abandoned by nature, cast off by his parents, doomed to live and die without the joy of domestic intimacy he was entitled to.”

Is a homosexual describing his own frustrations here? And why was his private secretary Auguste insulted and beaten until he bled by Mister de Rochetin, and in the house of the baron of all places? Did he (Rochetin) suspect that this not too plucky lad was providing his employer sexual favors?

Different from Others
The end of the author was extremely sad. Overworked, rheumatic and addicted to opium, he died in bitter poverty in 1864. His body of work - in which according to Switzer a forerunner to Edgar Allan Poe and Honoré de Balzac can be seen - is forgotten, contrary to the works of another homosexual contemporary, marquis Astolphe de Custine. Even the revolutionaries found him too young to be decapitated; a punishment that befell his father and grandfather (nicknamed “general Moustache”). “To the scaffold! To the scaffold!” the masses roared when his grandfather climbed into the cart that would bring him to the guillotine. “We’re going, we’re going,” he spoke stoical...
That Astolphe was different from others, that he was suffering from a huge psychological burden, was revealed through his fluctuating moods and his migraine attacks. A doctor who was friends with his mother and had traveled to Italy with the family in 1812, knew the truth of the matter. At an inn, Astolphe was overwhelmed by the beauty and the “antique simplicity” of the owner’s son. At night he did not sleep at all, and the next day he didn’t get into the carriage, but followed it, unable to stop crying. Afterwards, his emotions found a release in writing love poems. Bauble verses, in the opinion of the doctor, who urged Astolphe to take cold baths.

Those however did not cool his passion for his own sex. Five years later and despite of his religious objections, he was ready to surrender himself to homosexual contacts. His servants often acted as middle man. The duchess Claire de Duras and her daughter Clara did not know about this when Astolphe got engaged to Clara. However, the wedding was cancelled by the marquis without reasons in 1818. Claire deeply reflected on Astolphe’s decision and wrote a subtle novel about it. This novel was not meant for publication, even though she read passages from the novel in intimate circles, as happened frequently in those days. “Olivier, ou le Secret” - finally printed in 1971 - dealt with a theme that actually should not have been discussed: she hinted that the protagonist does not go through with the marriage because he is impotent. She thought this also applied to Custine.

General Indignation

She was wrong, as he married Léontine Saint-Simon de Courtomer in 1821 and begot a son with her. Directly after the birth, however, the young father traveled to England and was accompanied by Edward de Sainte-Barbe, an Englishman with a French surname he had met in the gay milieu in Paris. The sophisticated, but destitute Edward was living on money his like-minded had given him, perhaps for something in return. Léontine had to put up with Edward moving in with her and her husband, which must have been difficult for her. After her death in 1823, Astolphe again was the ideal son-in-law, and many a mother tried to pair him off to her daughter. Until that traumatic October 28, 1824, a day that would always be remembered by the marquis.
Astolphe came home half-naked, bleeding, and covered in bruises. He was going to visit the basilica of Saint-Denis where Louis XVIII had recently been buried, but had left the carriage in Épinay already, despite the pouring rain. There, he had been beaten up by some men. He did not want to give a reason for it. The investigating judge got the impression that the victim reported the incident reluctantly and was shortly after visited by the perpetrators.

They told him that they wanted to teach him a lesson because Custine had made a sex date with one of the recruits. Astolphe withdrew his statement, but it was too late. The newspapers reported the incident, and his reputation was shot. “In all the salons in Paris, they only talk about that hideous affair,” Madame De La Grange said, while a friend remarked: “Never before have I experienced such general indignation, so much indignation with such verbiage. Society as a whole is livid, as if it is a personal affront.” “Behold,” an aristocrat wrote, “a man completely ruined and dishonored, marked with the sign of the beast. Never before was such a pure reputation blackened with such intensity.”

Older ladies were only happy to give Astolphe some good advice: Become a monk in a strict order. Emigrate. Join the army and get quickly killed in action. But Custine did not listen. As people now knew the truth, he might as well make the best of things. He retreated to his castle in Normandy with his lover, and welcomed a Polish bisexual man in 1834, Ignace Gurowski, once again in a ménage à trois. Custine received high praise on his report of his journey to Russia, published in 1843, which found new readership in the twentieth century because of the remarkable similarities between the slave state of Tsar Nicolas I and the communist paradise. The Russians, however, regretted their hospitality towards Custine because of his criticism. “We should have turned our backs on him,” Alexander Turgenjev muttered, “because that’s what he likes.”

At the time Astolphe died in 1857, the second Bonaparte was on the French throne, Napoleon the Third; but now we will return again to the empire of Napoleon the First.

(To be continued)



published Nov 2017       

published Mar 2016        Length: 13 minutes


In the New Issue of Gay News, 332, April 2019

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