By Rachel Mesch (Guest Contributor)
News sites from around the globe have been consumed this month with photos of the newest member of the British royal family—Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It’s perhaps not surprising that images of the proud parents beaming over their baby’s puckered new face are nearly identical to the on es that circled the internet when Charlotte’s big brother George was born two years ago—but what about their striking similarity to images that consumed an international public over a hundred years ago?
In fact, royals were among the first celebrities in the nineteenth century, and this was especially so in France, where photography and mass culture interacted early and often in what was a highly productive (and profitable) synergy. By the turn of the century, you could collect images of your favorite international icons through postcards, posters, or the shiny new photographic magazines that were flying out of Parisian kiosks and into the homes of hungry readers by the thousands. In addition to performers like Sarah Bernhardt and Cléo de Mérode, favorite early celebs included the exotic Spanish-born Empress Eugénie (the wife of Napoleon III), who was often pictured with her beloved only son, and the lovely long-haired Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
The rapid and widespread circulation of celebrity images, and the narrative arc that these early magazines now supplied around them, created a new sense of intimacy with the happy few, inviting readers into their homes, and into the illusion of sharing, in some small way, in their lives. As a result, after admiring these dazzling figures, as one early French women’s magazine described, you might return temporarily comforted to your own more modest existence.
Royal motherhood played a special role in the psychological process that fed the burgeoning of celebrity culture: seeing monarchs engaged in intimate family moments brought readers closer to an alluring world they could never hope to inhabit, while mitigating that potentially alienating distance through the shared experience of motherhood. That we know the feel of a baby in our own arms helps us to forget how far we are in truth from a certain princess’s fame and fortune. This is what Richard Shickel calls “intimate strangers” in his history of celebrity in the US, but the phenomenon goes farther and deeper than mid-twentieth century America.
A story from the September 1907 issue of La Vie Heureuse (literally, the happy life), a precursor to Vogue, Elle and People all rolled up in one, assembles royal babies from across a tumultuous globe—Spain, England, Norway, and Russia—and notes how much they have in common when domesticity is on display rather than foreign policy. Next to their babies, writes the author, and far from politics, “queens are only young women, watching tenderly over those frail, sacred heads.” Members of the royal court are just mothers, who admire their little ones “like the most simple of their subjects.”
So why are we still unable to tear our eyes away from those pictures of the impeccable Kate Middleton with her darling new addition, just as Belle Epoque readers devoured images of baby czars and their mothers? Perhaps because they allow us to momentarily forget the less-than-glamorous aspects of motherhood, and to believe that the Duchess of Cambridge, in her generic human way, is someone we might resemble: the royal mommy celebrity as our best self.
Rachel Mesch is the author of Having it All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman and The Hysteric’s Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siècle. She serves as an associate editor of Nineteenth-Century French Studies and teaches French literature, history, and culture at Yeshiva University in New York.