«9781846140273_NapoleonTheGreat_TXT_1-269.indd 1 12/09/14 1:40 PM 9781846140273_NapoleonTheGreat_TXT_1-269.indd 2 12/09/14 1:40 PM Corsica ‘The hero ...»
Napoleon was a writer manqué, penning around sixty essays, novellas, philosophical pieces, histories, treatises, pamphlets and open letters before the age of twenty-six.72 Taken together they display his intellectual and political development, tracing the way he moved from a committed Corsican nationalist in the 1780s to an avowed anti-Paolist French officer who by 1793 wanted the Corsican revolt to be crushed by Jacobin France. Late in life, Napoleon called Paoli ‘a fine character who neither betrayed England nor France but was always for Corsica’, and a ‘great friend of the family’ who had ‘urged me to enter into the English service, he then had the power of procuring me a commission ... but I preferred the French because I spoke the language, was of their religion, understood and liked their manners, and I thought the start of the Revolution as a fine time for an enterprising young man’.73 He also claimed, with perhaps less truth, that Paoli had paid him the ‘great compliment’ of saying: ‘That young man will be one of Plutarch’s ancients.’74 In early May 1786, aged sixteen, Napoleon wrote a two-page essay entitled ‘On Suicide’ which mixed the anguished cry of a romantic nationalist with an exercise in classical oratory. ‘Always alone and in the midst of men, I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy,’ he wrote.
Napoleon’s next surviving piece of prose is only one page long. Dated Thursday, November 22, 1787 and written from the Hôtel de Cherbourg, on what is today the rue Vauvilliers off the rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, which he was visiting to pursue the pépinière affair, it was entitled ‘A Meeting at the Palais-Royal’. The private note, written for himself, chronicles his encounter with a prostitute he picked up in that notoriously louche area of central Paris, a neighbourhood of gambling houses,
restaurants and bijouterie shops:
He walked with her into the gardens of the Palais-Royal and asked her if there wasn’t ‘an occupation more suited to your health’, to which she replied, ‘No, sir; one must live.’ ‘I was charmed; I saw that she at least gave me an answer, a success which I had never met with before.’ He asked her where she was from (Nantes), how she lost her virginity (‘An officer ruined me’), whether she was sorry for it (‘Yes, very’), how she’d got to Paris, and finally, after a further barrage of questions, whether she would go back with him to her rooms, so that ‘we will warm ourselves, and you can satisfy your desire’.82 He ends by writing: ‘I had no intention of becoming over-scrupulous at this stage. I had already tempted her, so that she would not consider running away when pressed by the argument I had prepared for her, and I did not want her to start feigning an honesty that I wished to prove she did not possess.’83 He was not originally looking for such an encounter, but the fact that he thought it worthy of chronicling suggests that this was probably the occasion on which he lost his virginity. The conversational method of quick-fire questions was pure Napoleon.
The School of Artillery was commanded by General Baron Jean-Pierre du Teil, a pioneer in the latest artillery techniques. Napoleon had classes in military theory for up to nine hours a week, as well as advanced mathematics every Tuesday. Artillery was recognized as increasingly important now that advances in metallurgy meant that cannon could be just as effective at half the weight as previously; once big guns became mobile on a battlefield without losing firepower or accuracy, they could be battle-winners. Napoleon’s favourites – his ‘pretty girls’ as he later called them – were the relatively mobile 12-pounders.87 ‘I believe every officer ought to serve in the artillery,’ he was to say, ‘which is the arm that can produce most of the good generals.’88 This was not merely self-serving: French artillery commanders of his day were to include the fine generals Jean-Baptiste Éblé, Alexandre-Antoine Sénarmont, Antoine Drouot, Jean de Lariboisière, Auguste de Marmont and Charles-Étienne Ruty.
‘There is nothing in the military profession I cannot do for myself,’ Napoleon was to boast. ‘If there is no-one to make gunpowder, I know how to make it; gun carriages, I know how to construct them; if it is founding a cannon, I know that; or if the details of tactics must be taught, I can teach them.’89 For all this, he had the Auxonne school to thank. That August saw him in charge of two hundred men testing the feasibility of firing explosive shells from heavy cannon instead of just from mortars. His report was praised for its clarity of expression. His military memoranda from those days were terse and informative, and emphasized the importance of taking the offensive.
A few days after the successful conclusion of the shell-testing project, Napoleon wrote the first paragraph of his ‘Dissertation sur l’Autorité Royale’, which argued that military rule was a better system of government than tyranny and concluded, unambiguously: ‘There are very few kings who would not deserve to be dethroned.’90 His views were authoritarian but also subversive, and would have got their author into trouble if published under his name, even in the increasingly chaotic political situation in which France found herself in the months preceding the fall of the Bastille. Luckily, just as he was about to send his ‘Dissertation’ to a publisher, the news arrived that Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne, Louis XVI’s finance minister, to whom the essay was dedicated, had been dismissed. Napoleon quickly rescinded publication.
His writing mania extended to drafting the regulations for his
Britain. Other protests over low wages and food shortages besides those in Seurre were put down violently in April 1789, with twentyfive deaths. ‘Napoleon often said that nations had their illnesses just as individuals did, and that their history would be no less interesting to describe than the maladies of the human body,’ recorded one of his ministers in later years. ‘The French people were wounded in their dearest interests. The nobility and the clergy humiliated them with their pride and privileges. The people suffered under this weight for a long time, but finally wanted to shake off the yoke, and the Revolution began.’94 By the time the Estates-General of France was called on May 5, for the first time since 1614, it seemed that the king might be forced to share at least some of his power with the representatives of the Third Estate. But thereafter events moved swiftly and unpredictably. On June 20 the deputies of the Third Estate, who were by then calling themselves the National Assembly, took an oath not to dissolve itself until a new constitution was established. Three days later two companies of royal guards mutinied sooner than put down public unrest. The news that Louis XVI was recruiting foreign mercenaries to suppress what had by then become an insurrection led the radical journalist Camille Desmoulins to call for the storming of the Bastille, which resulted in the deaths of the governor of Paris, its mayor and the secretary of state.
On August 26 the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and on October 6 the Palace of Versailles was stormed by the mob.
For a man who was to exhibit such acute political sharpness later in his career, Napoleon completely misread the Revolution’s opening stages. ‘I repeat what I have said to you,’ he wrote to Joseph on July 22, a week after the fall of the Bastille, ‘calm will return. In a month, there will no longer be a question of anything. So, if you send me 300 livres [7,500 francs] I will go to Paris to terminate our business.’95 At the time, Napoleon was more concerned with the pépinière saga than with the greatest political eruption in Europe since the Reformation. He returned to writing his history of Corsica, and summoned up the courage to write to his hero Paoli, who was still in exile in London. ‘I was born when the country was perishing,’ he declared with a flourish. ‘Thirty thousand Frenchmen vomited onto our coasts, drowning the thrones of liberty in seas of blood, such was the odious spectacle which first met my eye. The cries of the dying, the groans of the oppressed, the tears of