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Ever since his untimely death at age fifty-one on the forlorn and windswept island of St. Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte has been depicted as either demi-god or devil incarnate. Now, in The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the first volume of a magisterial two-volume biography, we at last get Napoleon the man. Robert Asprey tells this fascinating, tragic tale in lush narrative detail. He invites the reader to look over Napoleon's shoulder as he dictates decrees and orders; deals with his ungrateful, greedy, unprincipled ...
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Ever since his untimely death at age fifty-one on the forlorn and windswept island of St. Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte has been depicted as either demi-god or devil incarnate. Now, in The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the first volume of a magisterial two-volume biography, we at last get Napoleon the man. Robert Asprey tells this fascinating, tragic tale in lush narrative detail. He invites the reader to look over Napoleon's shoulder as he dictates decrees and orders; deals with his ungrateful, greedy, unprincipled family; comes into conflict with the royalty of Europe; mingles with the intellectuals, writers, musicians, and actors of the day; leads and inspires his officers and men; and falls in love and fathers children with Josephine, Marie Louise, and various mistresses. The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte becomes an exciting, reckless thrill ride as Asprey charts Napoleon's vertiginous ascent to fame and the height of power. Here is Napoleon as he was-not saint, not sinner, but a man dedicated to and ultimately devoured by his vision of himself, his empire, and his world.
Impressions received in childhood cannot be
erased from the soul.
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia
The child arrived at an awkward time in the young and almost penniless couple's life. Despite or perhaps because of French clemency to the surrendered rebels Corsica remained dangerously divided, the patriot clans of poor country peasants waiting only for the return of Pasquale Paoli and the day of revenge, the generally moderate and relatively well-off town patricians only too willing to accept the perquisites promised by French rule.
Charles Buonaparte, motivated as much by economic necessity as by political preference, enthusiastically accepted the French overlords and in return was appointed a juge-assesseur or court assistant in the Ajaccio jurisdiction at a meager salary of 900 livres a year. He and Letitia sorely needed the small income. The Buonaparte clan, originally from Tuscany, had lived in Ajaccio since the late sixteenth century. The successive families, although enjoying a comfortable existence as benefited an Italian patrician heritage, had not amassed a great or even considerable fortune. Charles' father had died when the boy was 17 years old. What should have been a helpful inheritance had been largely dissipated by the father in an expensive series of unsuccessful legal actions, the Process Odone, undertaken to recover the father-in-law's estate which hadfallen into the hands of wily Jesuit priests. Charles would unwisely continue the legal battle which he could ill afford and which possibly contributed to his early death. Meanwhile he had to content himself with a house in Ajaccio and some small country holdings. His grand-uncle, Archdeacon Lucien, was quite well off but was extremely careful with his money, particularly since he frowned on Charles' prodigal ways.
Despite bleak prospects Charles had married when he was 18, his bride the 14-year-old Letitia Romalino, a strikingly forceful and attractive girl whose father had left her a small house and vineyard outside of Ajaccio. Letitia's background differed considerably from that of her husband. Raised in the country with almost no formal education, she had early matured as an attractive, hard-working, naturally shrewd and intelligent woman with a deep knowledge of Corsican manners and mores, including the all-too-frequent vendetta or revenge killings practiced through the centuries by disparate clans.
Their first two children died in infancy. Their third child, Joseph, was born in 1768. Charles had subsequently moved the family to join General Paoli in Corte. Working in the local administration, he had been rapidly caught up in Paoli's rebellion and claimed to have written the stirring proclamation that called the montagnards to arms before himself taking to the hills with his young wife.
Charles was now 23 years of age, tall, good-looking, easy-going, something of a clothes-horse, elegant in appearance and manner but generally of an empty purse (and too often an empty head despite a rude education in the law). Forever the opportunist, Charles wasted no time in exploiting his newly-found allegiance, petitioning the authorities to grant him the title of nobility formerly held by his father, an achievement finally accomplished with the support of the French governor of Corsica, General Comte de Marbeuf. Three years later, supported by the same protector, he was appointed to the Commission of Twelve, a group of prominent Ajaccians which was to advise the French intendant but was rarely called upon. Marbeuf's altruism may have arisen from a seamy motivation — at least some biographers believe that he enjoyed Letitia's charms — and there is some evidence that on one occasion Napoleon wondered aloud as to the identity of his real father.
Charles' prospects suddenly brightened when the Jesuits were expelled from French lands. Surely, he believed, the property stolen from his father would revert to make him (by Corsican standards) a rich man. He was mistaken. The title reverted to the state, whose guardians had no intention of returning it to Charles. He could not afford to take the case to court, but he would never cease trying to win a favorable decision for Process Odone by buttering-up one official after another, both in Corsica and in Paris, all to no effect.
Failure to recover the property was a great blow to the young Buonapartes whose family continued to increase. Lucien was born when Napoleon was six, Marie Anne was soon on the way (and four more would follow). Charles was far too caught up in various enterprises to pay much attention to the ménage which in any event was not a Corsican man's role. This was Letitia's job and, aided by a charwoman, a wet-nurse and an elderly aunt, she performed it well. The problem child was Nabolione who by his own admission was a self-centered brat whose family nickname was Rabulioni (the Disturber). "I was a little handful," he recalled many years later. "Except my mother, nothing and no one could impose the slightest restraint on me." A small boy, he was skinny, pale and unkempt, given to fearful temper tantrums, his shrill voice and flashing eyes dominating his siblings. "I feared no one," he went on, "I would thrash one, scratch the other; I made myself redoubtable to all." To all except his mother who frequently gave him a good spanking, but who also took quiet pride in the exceedingly bright and ever curious boy.
The children were not well educated, largely the fault of an inadequate teaching system. Nabolione learned only a smattering of church history and the catechism — this from Archdeacon Lucien — and he was taught a rudimentary knowledge of the alphabet. He spoke the Corsican dialect of Italian but remained totally ignorant of the French language.
Unlike older brother Joseph he was extremely gregarious, running off to the docks to listen to Corsican sailors relive past battles, and sometimes he was taken out on fishing boats. He also became a great favorite of French garrison soldiers who made him a uniform and cut him a toy sword. He led a street gang which frequently fought other gangs in sometimes bloody combats.
But Nabolione also loved solitude. He enjoyed long horseback rides in a countryside redolent of the natural perfumes of maquis and myrtle and a dozen other fragrances awakened by blue sky and bright sun shining on hills of heather and groves of lemons and oranges, olive and chestnut trees. This was Paoli country, a land of bleating sheep and frisky goats, of barking foxes and rooting wild pigs. From the mountainfolk he learned of the rebellion and became a passionate admirer of the exiled general. Not everyone had succumbed to the French whose soldiers continued to hunt down the fugitives — "bandits" as they were called — who defied the French flag and, if caught, paid with their lives.
The total experience should not be understated, not so much because of family quarrels and bellicose brawls as from an unconscious osmosis of peculiarly Corsican traits — an intense family loyalty, an inner toughness that shielded one against adversity, an imagination fired by a thousand myths and beliefs, a temper quick to avenge an insult real or imagined, an inability to forgive a wrong until it was avenged (the Corsican vendetta) and, finally, an independent spirit as wild and free as the wind that pounded waves onto 300 miles of coast.
Those who remembered him as a boy recorded his intense curiosity, his never-ending and often mature flow of questions, his impatient movements and his long, brooding silences. From their diverse words emerge the portrait of a tough little boy wise beyond his years.
This was just as well. Nabolione's father can be criticized for many shortcomings, but Charles was determined to place his children favorably. This required a good education, which was impossible in Corsica, and he could not afford to send them to school in Italy or France. But he could and did petition the French king to educate them at the throne's expense, a laborious process that required several years to accomplish mainly because Charles had to obtain legal proof of his four quarters of nobility in order for his sons to be eligible for appointment. Finally all was in order for father and sons to depart for France. Joseph and Nabolione were to enter school at Autun in Bourgogne, their way opened by Comte Marbeuf's brother, the Bishop of Autun. The little party included Letitia's half-brother, 15-year-old Joseph Fesch, who would enter the prestigious seminary of Aixeh-Provence, while hopefully father Charles persuaded the French king to allow his sons to be further educated at the crown's expense, Joseph for the church, Nabolione for the army.
On 15 December 1778, the group sailed from Corsica. The future Napoleon Bonaparte was nine years old.
Autun, Brienne and the
... reserved and studious, he prefers study to any type of
Amusement, finding pleasure in the reading of good authors;
very applied [to the study of] abstract sciences, little curious as
to the others, [having] a thorough knowledge of mathematics
and geography; quiet, loving solitude, capricious, arrogant,
extremely inclined to egoism, speaking little, spirited in his
answers, quick and harsh in his replies, having much pride and
boundless ambition, this young man deserves to be encouraged.
Report of Napoleon's examiner, École Militaire, Paris,
The Buonaparte boys were soon installed in the secular school at Autun where Catholic monks taught a curriculum largely devoted to the humanities. One of Napoleon's teachers, Abbé Chardon, recalled years later his student's "grave and pensive character," describing him as a lonely boy who learned his lessons easily and quickly. The good father taught him for three months during which Napoleon learned conversational French (which he spoke with a strong Corsican-Italian accent that he would never lose). Joseph was of a different set, as gregarious, soft and timid as his younger brother was cold, hard and aggressive. As a result Napoleon soon became a natural target for school bullies with whom he sometimes came to blows. On one occasion, when someone accused the vanquished Corsicans of having been cowards, Napoleon, according to Abbé Chardon, calmly and cooly replied that the French would never have seized Corsica had they been four to one, but that they had been ten to one. When the priest remarked that Paoli was a good general Napoleon responded, "Yes, sir, I would wish to be like him."
Meanwhile father Charles' importunate stay in Paris had paid off, and in March Napoleon entered the royal military college of Brienne.
The school loomed high over the plains of the northern province of Champagne. It was a product of intended military reform, one of ten regional military colleges created only three years earlier to replace the educational decadence and innate snobbishness of the two traditional military academies of Paris and La Flèche. The theory was to democratize (within the day's context) the education of aspirant officers, or at least to moderate the arrogance of these young nobles. This effort had fallen flat, the new colleges quickly reverting to the role of preparatory school full of young aristocrats, rich and poor, desirous of entering the famed École Militaire in Paris.
Napoleon was one of sixty court-appointed scholars. The crown paid 700 livres a year for the support of each; another sixty boys were private students whose families had to pay a hefty tuition fee. Students wore a blue jacket with red cuffs and collar and blue serge breeches. Teaching was in the hands of the Minimes monks of the Order of St. Benoit. The standard of teaching was poor — Napoleon easily passed his French entrance examination after only three months of tutelage at Autun. The curriculum covered ancient literature, the Latin classics — though it is difficult to believe in the depth claimed by Arthur Chuquet — ancient and modern history, geography, mathematics, voice, dancing, playing musical instruments and religious studies — Napoleon received his first communion at Brienne.
His character did not immediately change. He easily accepted the spartan existence, a tiny room, a bed of straps holding a straw mattress and a single blanket even in winter, wholesome but tiresome meals, the usual punishments for infraction of regulations. Lacking Joseph's soft company he became even more isolated, gloomy and resentful. A fellow cadet, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, later wrote that Napoleon's "ardent wish to acquire knowledge was evident from the commencement of his studies ... his conversation [with teachers and comrades] almost always bore the appearance of ill-humor, and he was certainly not very amiable. This I attribute to the misfortunes his family had sustained and the impression made on him by the conquest of his country."
Owing to his father's various commercial failures, he remained very poor and resentful. He continued to be bullied, his tiny frame the butt of jokes, his pronunciation and his strange first name — now Napolliene — mimicked, his ancestry insulted. He continued to fight back and more or less held his own, but he would carry the mental scars for life. He may also have carried other scars. The "nymphs" of Brienne were famous in other military schools for homosexual practices. Napoleon might well have been fair game for older and stronger boys; he later said that "brought up among the monks he had experienced the vices and the dissoluteness of the monastries."
In spring of 1781 — he was 12 — he wrote miserably to his father asking to be removed from Brienne if he could not have an allowance. He did not wish to spend the money on weekly treats, but only to show his fellows that he could afford them had he wished. The appeal did not succeed. Poor Charles was in no position to send him even a few livres, nor did he have any intention of withdrawing his son from the school. The archives offer no more such letters, and it seems probable that Napoleon's concentrated studies taken with daydreams of Corsican independence helped him to submit to or even rise above such social and economic vicissitudes; judging from later correspondence he may also have received some financial support from his Uncle Fesch.
His attitude seemed to improve during the next two years, probably because he was maturing and doing well academically. Bourrienne recalled Napoleon making a snow fort in the great courtyard and leading the attack on the besieged "soldiers." The artillery, snowballs packed around stones, was sufficiently dangerous for the monks to pronounce a permanent ceasefire.
Napoleon was weak in Latin and refused to learn German, but he worked hard on French under the firm but kind tutelage of Abbé Dupuy. He excelled in mathematics, progressing to algebra, geometry and trigonometry. He enjoyed geography but his passion was history, particularly the lives of great men so dramatically presented by Plutarch (in translation). Possibly influenced by his protector, Comte Marbeuf, at some point he opted for a naval career. That he continued his arduous studies is confirmed by a report from an official inspector of schools who examined him in autumn of 1783. Monsieur de Kéralio described him as "slightly above four feet ten inches in height, well built, and in excellent health, obedient, polite and respectful; very correct conduct and has always distinguished himself in mathematics; his knowledge of history and geography is passable; he is rather weak in social conversation and in Latin." The examiner concluded that he "will make an excellent naval officer," should he be accepted in the École Militaire of Paris.
Our next intimate glance of the boy comes from his father who was not only in severe financial straits but who had been suffering from a stomach complaint for some time. His efforts to regain the Odone inheritance were in bureaucratic limbo. One hopeful project, a mulberry nursery, designed for cultivation of silk worms, would not mature for another few years. Meanwhile he had to pay Louis and Lucien's tuitions at Autun while providing for three infants at home. He had managed to get seven-year-old Marie Anne admitted by royal warrant to the exclusive convent of St. Cyr at Versailles, which not only guaranteed her eight years of formal education but also a dowry for what undoubtedly would lead to an advantageous marriage. Countering this gain was Joseph Buonaparte's sudden decision to go into the army rather than the church, thus presenting Charles with another problem. In spring of 1784, having borrowed 500 livres from the governor of Ajaccio, he departed for France to escort Marie Anne to her new school, stopping at Autun to see Joseph and to pick up Lucien who would enter school at Brienne. Once free of these tasks he intended to consult specialists about his own deteriorating health.
Charles had not seen Napoleon for six years. He found a pubescent boy whose skin was tinged yellow, the result he decided "of the irregular functions of his organs and the preoccupations of his impatient mind. The extreme vivacity of his expression and the nervous contraction of his thin lips denoted the rapid flow of ideas which bubbled in this adolescent brain."
The father respected this young brain sufficiently to discuss Joseph's decision to reject the offer from the Bishop of Autun of a profitable church benefice in favor of becoming a soldier. Napoleon agreed that this would be a foolhardy act. As he explained in a long letter to Uncle Fesch, Joseph possessed neither the requisite physical strength and health nor the necessary academic drive to become an army or a naval officer. He would need at least two years of mathematics to train for the navy, four or five years of study for the engineers (and then he would still be only a student) and three years to become an artillery officer (the infantry was too tiresome and unproductive to be considered). Contrarily he could enjoy a brilliant and lucrative career in the Church — as a bishop he could easily support the entire Buonaparte family. He hoped that Uncle Fesch would persuade Joseph to reconsider. If not, Joseph should return to Corsica and become a lawyer.
In this same letter he informed his uncle that the nine-year-old Lucien had been enrolled in the college of Brienne, a tall boy of almost four feet who was studying Latin and other subjects. "He knows French very well and has entirely forgotten Italian." He assured Uncle Fesch that Lucien would write to him more often. No doubt with his older brother standing over him, Lucien added a paragraph in somewhat uneven French, thanking his uncle for all the kindnesses of the past and promising to work harder in the hope they would continue.
Excerpted from The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte by Robert B. Asprey. Copyright © 2000 by Robert Asprey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted January 12, 2002
The story of Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the truly great stories of history and could be told well by virtually anyone. Robert Asprey is no exception. The tale and the book are both gripping and compelling. However, Asprey dallies a bit much on numbers of 'cannon' and 'biscut' and not enough time on the great historical ripples Napoleon caused, or the great aura and the great essence of one of the most influential and genius men history has seen. Also, there are surprisingly few anecdotes (the book written afterall by a former Marine captain) of Napoleon's actions which so endeared him to his men. Still, the book is a great read; those interested in Napoleon should enjoy it with no small degree of zeal. To get the slightest atom of feeling as though one is living in the mind of a great man like Napoleon or Churchill is always wonderful beyond words.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 12, 2001
In what is perhaps the first full-length biography of Napoleon in English of the twenty-first century, Robert Asprey turns to the nineteenth century for his inspiration. Asprey, a former U.S. Marine captain, has previously written on military topics. The present volume covers Napoleon's life up to his stunning victory at Austerlitz. Primarily a military history, in spite of Asprey's apparent aspirations as revealed in his 'Note to the Reader,' Asprey glosses over lightly Napoleon's political achievements. Asprey points out Napoleon's egoism, his ambition, his quick temper, all of his faults, but does not dwell on them unduly. The events of Napoleon's life are given precedence over moralizing about or psychoanalyzing that life. Written in forty-eight short chapters, the book is based entirely on secondary sources, both in English and in French. Asprey relies largely on the classic work of historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for his sources, though he does make extensive use of research done by modern historians in journals and in papers presented to the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe. And Asprey often lets Napoleon speak for himself through liberal use of the Emperor's voluminous correspondence. Asprey has taken a fresh, if somewhat superficial, look at Napoleon's life. The prose is straightforward, factual and unadorned. It lacks the élan that the subject lends itself to and there are no literary flourishes or vivid descriptions of battles. I get no feeling of an 'old soldier' writing of another old soldier as I do when reading John Elting's books on the era. The book is factual and informative and can be recommended especially to those new to Napoleon and his life. It would make a fine companion to Vincent Cronin's Napoleon Bonaparte which, while laudatory, does give a much better picture of the non-military side of Napoleon's life. I look forward to the second volume.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.