The era of the Second Empire, stretching from 1851-70, is approached by Williams with an historical technique that might be called ""biographic indirection"". In selecting ten leaders in political, cultural and scientific affairs, he seeks to exemplify in their riotous lives the rioting discords of France, and Nepoleon III's struggle to bring about some kind of national self-reconciliation. The leaders:- Duc de Persigny and Duc de Morny, leading Buonapartists; Comte de Montslembert, a liberal Catholic crying in the wilderness of anti-clericalism and Church support of the Emperor; Countess of Castiglione, an Aphrodite by repute, whose beauty was in the service of Italian intrigue; Ollivier, whose tempered republicanism brought Frances closer to resolution as a democracy; Saint-Beuve, Offenbach, Courbet, Pasteur -- each distinctive in his field -- these and others provide the panel. Their lives cut across each other, illuminating one another, and Napoleon III, who himself dominates every facet, and needs no individual chapter. As pure history, the book is too rambling and inconsequential; it fails to present the basic themes of the Second Empire. But there is color and sweep to the narrative, and the text is extraordinarily good reading. Considered scholarship has gone into the preparation; perception in a fragmentary way emerges.