The New York Times Book Review
Napoleon Bonaparte: A Lifeby Alan Schom
A definitive biography of Bonaparte from his birth in Corsica to his death in exile on St Helena, this book examines all aspects of Bonaparte's spectacular rise to power and his dizzying fall. It offers close examination of battlefield victories, personal torments, military genius, Bonaparte's titanic ego and his relationships with the French
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A definitive biography of Bonaparte from his birth in Corsica to his death in exile on St Helena, this book examines all aspects of Bonaparte's spectacular rise to power and his dizzying fall. It offers close examination of battlefield victories, personal torments, military genius, Bonaparte's titanic ego and his relationships with the French government, Talleyrand, Wellington and Josephine. A consummate biography of a complex man.
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I was born even as my country was perisbing.
On December 17, 1778, thirty-two-year-old Carlo Maria (or Charles, as he now called himself) Buonaparte boarded a coastal vessel in the Corsican port of Ajaccio. At his side, Joseph, ten, his eldest son; Napoleone, or "Nabulio," nine, the second surviving son; and Charles's brother-in-law, Joseph Fesch, waved to their brothers, sisters, and friends. They had just left their weatherbeaten four-story stone house in the Strada Malerba (Weedy Street), where Joseph and Nabulio had kissed their mother good-bye. They were bound for France, where Joseph would enter the College d'Autun, preparatory to a career in the church. Nabulio would continue on to the Royal Military School of Brienne-le-Chateau, where he would learn what to many Corsicans was still an elusive language, French, along with history, geography, mathematics, and the other courses required prior to entering the Ecole Militaire of Paris. The boys' amiable and mild young Uncle Fesch, their mother's half-brother, was off to the seminary at Aix-en-Provence to prepare for the priesthood. Such was the end of Napoleon's brief childhood.
Rushed home from high mass in the cathedral of Ajaccio on August 15, 1769, Letizia Buonaparte had barely reached the house when she gave birth to Napoleon, in the sparsely furnished drawing room. She had timed it too closely, as she did everything. Letizia Ramolino, the daughter of a state inspector of roads and bridges, and the stepdaughter of her mother's second husband, a banker named Fesch, was fourteen on June z, 1764,when she married eighteen-year-old Carlo Maria di Buonaparte.
Originally from Lombardy, her family had gradually moved across much of Italy, including Florence and Naples, before setting out from Genoa for Corsica in the fifteenth century. Letizia was a slender, dark, not very tall girl who rarely smiled. Life was a serious, if not grim, affair for a female with no formal education, intended only to marry and bear children-as indeed she would-of whom eight ultimately survived. Her Corsican dialect of Italian was not flawless, and her grammar and writing were adequate at best; French was to remain a great mystery to her. As for books, she never read them in any language. But because France had purchased Corsica from the Genoese Republic on May r s, 1767-though conquering the defiant Corsicans, led by Pasquale Paoli, only the following year-she was destined to hear a lot of French spoken, in spite of her own antipathy to it and its people. She had brought a dowry of approximately seven thousand livres (considered quite respectable at the time) and a little land. She was a hard woman, a survivor of the rigors of tumultuous Corsican history, and was to prove a severe mother, reflected by her house with few furnishings, not even a single rug in the two lower stories the family occupied. The Buonaparte residence was hardly a welcoming place, and her brood found little kindness there. Although she attended mass when required-her husband's uncle, Lucien, was the archdeacon of Ajaccio--she was not "religious" by nature. She limited her world to her husband, who was rarely there; her children, who were always there; and the responsibilities involved in managing the family's income and affairs.
Charles Buonaparte's family had originally come from Florence to Ajaccio in 1520, where they were members of the small ruling "noble" (though titleless) class. Charles's first, and last, eminent ancestor, one Guglielmo di Buonaparte, had, as a nobleman, been a member of the municipal council of Florence in the thirteenth century, then under the control of the Ghibellines. But with the return of the Guelphs, he and his entire family were forced to flee the Tuscan capital and retire to Sarzana in Liguria and San Miniato, where they grew more and more impoverished, finally forcing Francesco di Buonaparte to sail to Corsica in the sixteenthth century for a fresh start.
Alas, the Buonaparti were not the best of businessmen, and although always educated, frequently serving in the law in one capacity or other, they left no fortunes behind. Indeed, when Charles had married Letizia in 1764, he was almost penniless. His law degree from Pisa enabled him to become "royal assessor" for the judicial region around Ajaccio. Though granted the title of equerry, his salary was only nine hundred francs a year.` But he had "expectations"--the ailing Uncle Lucien, a priest with no family, promised to leave the good-natured if rather chaotic Charles his entire estate. And thus they now had the large house in Ajaccio, where the portrait of the island's French governor, Monsieur de Marbeuf, proudly hung in the otherwise dingy and unused drawing room.
Although a good Corsican patriot, Charles Buonaparte (the family never used the aristocratic particle, for which there was no title in any event), following Paoli's defeat by the French, had adapted quickly to the new political scene. He was one of those individuals who, although lazy by nature, are constantly devising new projects and schemes for the government to develop, in the hope of improving their own positions. But apart from getting himself elected one of the twelve members of the ruling municipal council of Ajaccio, most of Charles's schemes went awry. Nevertheless, at least his position in society was grounded in four generations of noble birth, and that opened many a door for him. Because of his ever growing number of progeny-now including Maria Anna (Elisa), Lucien, Louis, Maria Annunziata (Caroline), Paoletta (Pauline), and Jerome-- Buonaparte needed all the help he could get, and thus, after dropping off the boys at Autun, he hastened on to Versailles, where he managed to secure a full scholarship for Napoleon at Brienne in January 1779.
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Alan Schom is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution and has lectured on French History at Oxford University. He lives in California and France.
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