Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIX, chapter 5
Bonaparte’s Corsica

Benson, in his Sketches of Corsica, speaks of the country house which Bonaparte’s family occupied:

‘Going along the sea-shore from Ajaccio towards the Isle Sanguiniere, about a mile from the town, occur two stone pillars, the remains of a doorway, leading up to a dilapidated villa, once the residence of Madame Bonaparte’s half-brother on the mother’s side, whom Napoleon created Cardinal Fesch….The remains of a small summer-house are visible beneath the rock, the entrance to which is nearly closed by a luxuriant fig-tree. This was Bonaparte’s frequent retreat, when the vacations of the school at which he studied permitted him to visit home.’

Love of his native land accompanied Napoleon on his everyday walks. Bonaparte, in 1788, wrote, a propos of Monsieur de Sussy, that Corsica offers a perpetual springtime; he no longer spoke of his island when he was happy; he even had an antipathy towards it; it recalled too narrow a cradle. But at St Helena his homeland was recalled to memory: ‘Corsica held a thousand charms for Napoleon, it explained his finest traits, the bold vessel that was his physical make-up. Everything was better there, he would say; there was nothing like the smell of its soil even: that was enough for him to distinguish the place with his eyes closed; he had seen no part of it again. He saw himself there in his childhood, among his first loves; he found himself there in youth among a thousand precipices, travelling the high summits, the deep valleys.’

Napoleon found romance in his cradle; that romance began with Vannina, executed by her husband Sampietro. Baron Neuhof, that is King Theodore, had visited every shore, demanding help from England, the Pope, the Grand Turk, and the Bey of Tunis, after having been crowned King of the Corsicans, who did not know whom to give themselves to: Voltaire laughed at it all. The two Paoli, Giacinto and above all Pasquale, had filled Europe with the sound of their names. Buttafuoco begged Rousseau to act as legislator for Corsica; the philosopher from Geneva thought of establishing himself in the country of one who, in troubling the Alps, took Geneva under his wing. ‘There is still one country in Europe,’ wrote Rousseau, ‘capable of legislation: that is the island of Corsica. The courage and constancy with which this brave people has regained and defended its liberty well merits a wise man teaching them how to preserve it. I have a presentiment that one day that little island will astonish Europe.’

Brought up in Corsican society, Bonaparte was raised in that primary school for revolutionaries; he brings us on his debut neither the calm nor the feelings of youth, but a spirit already stamped with political passion. That alters the conception one has of Napoleon.

When a man becomes famous, antecedents are invented for him: predestined children, according to the biographers, are fiery, loud, and untameable; they learn everything, or nothing; more often than not they are also gloomy children, who do not take part in their companions’ games, who dream in solitude and are already haunted by the threat of fame. Behold how some enthusiast has dug up the exceedingly ordinary letters (Italian ones for sure) from Napoleon to his grand-parents; we are forced to swallow these puerile inanities. Prophecies of future characteristics are in vain; we are what circumstances make us; let a child be happy or sad, silent or noisy, let him show or not show an aptitude for work, no oracle has inspired him. Halt the development of a schoolboy at sixteen; let him be as intelligent as you choose to make him, that infant prodigy, frozen in adolescence, will remain an idiot; the child lacks even the loveliest of the graces, a smile: he laughs, and fails to smile.

Napoleon then was a little boy neither more or less distinguished than his peers: ‘I was merely,’ he declares, ‘an obstinate and curious child.’ He liked buttercups and ate cherries with Mademoiselle du Colombier. When he left home, he only knew Italian. His ignorance of the language of Turenne was almost total; like the German Marshal Saxe, Bonaparte, the Italian, could not spell a single word correctly; Henri IV, Louis XIV and Marshal Richelieu, less excusably, were hardly any better. It was obviously to conceal the deficiencies of his education that Napoleon rendered his signature indecipherable. Leaving Corsica at the age of nine, he did not see the island again until eight years later. At the college in Brienne, there was nothing extraordinary about him, either in his manner of studying, or in his appearance. His comrades made jokes about his name Napoleon and his country; he said to his friend Bourrienne: ‘I will do you Frenchmen all the harm I can.’ In a report to the king in 1784, Monsieur de Kéralio affirmed that the young Bonaparte would make an excellent sailor; the phrase is suspect, since his report was only discovered when Napoleon was inspecting the flotilla at Boulogne.

Leaving Brienne on the 14th of October 1784, Bonaparte went to the École Militaire in Paris. The civil list paid his board and lodgings; he was distressed at receiving a grant. That payment to him was continued, witness this sample receipt found in Fesch’s box (Monsieur Libri’s box).

‘I the undersigned acknowledge receipt from Monsieur Biercourt of the sum of 200 provided from the grant which the king afforded me from the funds of the MilitaryCollege in my position as a former cadet of the college in Paris.’

Mademoiselle de Comnène (Madame d’Abrantès), residing in turn, with her mother, at Montpellier, Toulouse and Paris, lost no opportunity of seeing her compatriot Bonaparte: ‘When I pass the Quai de Conti these days,’ she wrote, ‘I cannot prevent myself glancing at the upper room, on the left side of the house, on the third storey; that is where Napoleon stayed, each time he came to my parent’s home.’

Bonaparte was not liked at his new college: morose and rebellious, he failed to please his masters; he criticised everything indiscriminately. He addressed a note to the vice-principal on the shortcomings of the education he was receiving. ‘Would it not be better to force them (the students) to be self-sufficient, that is to say, instead of their fiddly cooking which they could do without, make them eat military rations or something approaching them, to accustom them to scavenge, brush their clothes, clean their boots and shoes?’ That is what he later demanded at Fontainebleau and Saint-Germain.

Having snubbed the college, he relieved it of his presence, being named as sub-lieutenant of artillery in the Regiment de La Fère.

Napoleon’s literary career extended from 1784 to 1793: a short space of time, but lengthy in terms of effort. Wandering, with the artillery corps to which he belonged, to Auxonne, Dôle, Seurres, and Lyons, Bonaparte was attracted to famous places like a bird drawn to a mirror or lured by a decoy. Alert to academic questions, he would respond to them; he addressed himself confidently to powerful people he did not know: he made himself the equal of everyone before becoming their master. Sometimes he would write under an assumed name; sometimes he would sign his own name which made no difference to his anonymity. He wrote to the Abbé Raynal, and to Monsieur Necker; he sent notes to the Ministry on the management of Corisca, on projects for the defence of Saint-Florent, Mortella Point, and the Gulf of Ajaccio, on the manner of placing canon when firing shells. He was listened to as little as Mirabeau was listened to when he drafted projects in Berlin regarding Prussia and Holland. He studied geography. It has been remarked that in speaking of St Helena he indicated it by these words alone: ‘A little island’. He was interested in China, the Indies, and the Arabs. He laboured over the historians, philosophers, economists, Herodotus, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Filangieri, Mably, Smith; he refuted the Discourse on the origin and fundamental principles of the equality of men and wrote: ‘I do not believe in it; I do not believe in it at all.’ Lucien Bonaparte relates that he, Lucien, had made two copies of a history that Napoleon had sketched out. Part of the manuscript original of the sketch was discovered in Cardinal Fesch’s box: his research is not very interesting, the style is commonplace, and the story of Vannina is re-told ineffectually. Sampietro’s words to the great nobles of Henri II’s court after his execution of Vannina are worth all Napoleon’s narrative: ‘What do the problems of Sampietro and his wife matter to the King of France!’

At the start of his career Bonaparte had not the slightest presentiment of his future; it was only when he attained rank that he had the idea of climbing higher: but if he did not aspire to raise himself, he had no wish to descend; one could not tear him from the place he had once reached. Three manuscript notebooks (Fesch’s box) are dedicated to research regarding the Sorbonne, and Gallican liberty; there is correspondence with Paoli, Salicetti, and especially with Père Dupuis, a Minim, Vice-principal of Brienne College, a man of religion and good sense who counselled his young pupil and called Napoleon his dear friend.

Bonaparte mixed imaginative pages among these thankless tasks; he spoke of women; he wrote Le Masque prophète, Le Roman corse, and an English novel, The Earl of Essex; he writes dialogues about love which he treats with scorn, and yet he addresses a passionate letter in draft to an unknown beloved; he takes little account of glory, placing love of country alone in the first rank, and that country was Corsica.

In Geneva, anyone can see a request he made of a bookseller: the romantic sub-lieutenant enquired about the Memoirs of Madame de Warens. Napoleon was also a poet, as were Caesar and Frederick: he preferred Ariosto’s works to Tasso’s; he found portraits of his future generals there, and a horse ready bridled for his journey to the stars. The following madrigal addressed to Madame Saint-Huberty playing the role of Dido, is attributed to Bonaparte; the content may have been the Emperor’s, the form is from a more skilful hand than his:

                    ‘Romans, who pride yourself on your fair origin,
                       See what your Empire’s birth depended on!
                              Dido has no attraction half as strong
                    With which to stop her lover taking wing.
                      But if that other Dido, who graced this haven,
                              Had been true queen of Carthage,
                    He, to serve her, his gods would have forsaken,
                      And left your land fit only for the savage.’

Around this time Bonaparte seems to have been tempted towards suicide. A thousand fledglings are obsessed with the idea of suicide, which they consider proof of their superiority. This manuscript note appears among those papers sent on by Monsieur Libri: ‘Always alone among a crowd of men, I return home to dream by myself, and deliver myself to all the power of melancholy. In which direction does it wander today? Towards death…If I was sixty, I would respect the prejudices of my contemporaries, and I would wait patiently for nature to take her course; but since I begin to feel distress, so that nothing delights me, why should I endure these days where nothing goes well for me?’

These are the reveries of all Romantics. The beginning and end of such ideas is found in Rousseau, whose text Bonaparte will alter with several phrases of his own.

Here is an essay of another kind; I reproduce it letter for letter: education and blood ought not to make princes too disdainful of it: let them recall their eagerness to wait in line for a man who has chased them at will from the ante-chambers of kings.

Manner of requesting leave.
When one is in mid-semester and wants to obtain summer leave because of illness, there is a certificate to be drawn up by a doctor in town and a surgeon, that before the period you designate, your illness does not allow you to rejoin the garrison. You will observe that this certificate is to be on stamped paper, it must be stamped by the judge and commandant of the place.
Then you will draw up your memoir to the Minister of War in the manner and phrases as follows:

                                        Ajaccio, the 21st April 1787.

                              ‘MEMOIR REQUESTING LEAVE.

ROYAL CORPS                                                         REGIMENT   
    of artillery                                                     La Fère    

Monsieur Napoleon de                                  Request, of Monseigneur
Buonaparte, second-lieutenant,                      le maréchal de Ségur, to be
Regiment, La Fère, artillery                            so kind as to grant him leave
                                                                      for five and a half months from
                                                                      the 16th of May next which he
                                                                      requires to resttore his health in
                                                                      accord with the certificate of the
                                                                      doctor and surgeon enclosed.
                                                                      In view of my limited means and
                                                                      the cost of treatment, I ask that
                                                                      paid leave may be granted me.


Send all this to the colonel of the regiment, Monsieur de Lance whom one can write to care of Monsieur Sauquier, Military Paymaster-General at Court, addressed to the Minister or the Paymaster-General.’

What a detailed way of teaching oneself how to make mistakes! One visualises the Emperor labouring to legitimise the seizure of kingdoms, his office cluttered with illegal paperwork.

The young Napoleon’s style is declamatory; the only thing worthy of note is the energy of a pioneer shifting sand. The sight of these precious works recalls my juvenile hotchpotch, my Essais historiques, my manuscript of Les Natchez, four thousand pages in folio, fastened together with string; but I did not draw the little houses, childish sketches, and schoolboy scribbles, in the margin, that one sees in the margins of Bonaparte’s rough papers; among my juvenilities there was no stone ball that may have served as the model for a prototype cannonball.

Such then is my introduction to the Emperor’s life; the concept of Bonaparte arrived in the world before he did himself: it troubled the earth, secretly; in 1789, one felt, at the moment when Bonaparte appeared, something formidable, a disquiet one could not account for. When the globe is threatened by some catastrophe, one is warned of it by underlying disturbances; one is afraid; one lies awake listening during the night; one gazes at the sky without knowing why one does so, or what may happen.