Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Of France

Life Of Napoleon Bonaparte With A Sketch Of Josephine

Book: Life Of Napoleon

Author: Tarbell, Ida

Chapter I

Napoleon's Youth And Early Surroundings - His School Days At Brienne

"If I were not convinced that his family is as old and as good as my

own," said the Emperor of Austria when he married Marie Louise to Napoleon

Bonaparte, "I would not give him my daughter." The remark is sufficient

recognition of the nobility of the father of Napoleon, Charles Marie de

Bonaparte, a gentleman of Ajaccio, Corsica, whose family, of Tuscan

origin, had settled there in the sixteenth century, and who, in 1765, had

married a young girl of the island, Laetitia Ramolino.

Monsieur Bonaparte gave his wife a noble name, but little else. He

was an indolent, pleasure-loving, chimerical man, who had inherited a

lawsuit, and whose time was absorbed in the hopeless task of recovering an

estate of which the Church had taken possession. Madame Bonaparte brought

her husband no great name, but she did bring him health, beauty, and

remarkable qualities. Tall and imposing, Mademoiselle Laetitia Ramolino

had a superb carriage, which she never lost, and a face which attracted

attention particularly by the accentuation and perfection of its features.

She was reserved, but of ceaseless energy and will, and though but fifteen

when married, she conducted her family affairs with such good sense and

firmness that she was able to bring up decently the eight children spared

her from the thirteen she bore. The habits of order and economy formed in

her years of struggle became so firmly rooted in her character that later,

when she became mater regum, the "Madame Mere" of an imperial court, she

could not put them aside, but saved from the generous income at her

disposal, "for those of my children who are not yet settled," she said.

Throughout her life she showed the truth of her son's characterization: "A

man's head on a woman's body."

The first years after their marriage were stormy ones for the

Bonapartes. The Corsicans, led by the patriot Pascal Paoli, were in

revolt against the French, at that time masters of the island. Among

Paoli's followers was Charles Bonaparte. He shared the fortunes of his

chief to the end of the struggle of 1769, and when, finally, Paoli was

hopelessly defeated, took to the mountains. In all the dangers and

miseries of this war and flight, Charles Bonaparte was accompanied by his

wife, who, vigorous of body and brave of heart, suffered privations,

dangers, and fatigue without complaint. When the Corsicans submitted, the

Bonapartes went back to Ajaccio. Six weeks later Madame Bonaparte gave

birth to her fourth child, Napoleon.

"I was born," said Napoleon, "when my country was perishing. Thirty

thousand Frenchmen were vomited upon our soil. Cries of the wounded,

sighs of the oppressed, and tears of despair surrounded my cradle at my


Young Bonaparte learned to hate with the fierceness peculiar to

Corsican blood the idea of oppression, to revere Paoli, and, with a boy's

contempt of necessity, even to despise his father's submission. It was

not strange. His mother had little time for her children's training. His

father gave them no attention; and Napoleon, "obstinate and curious,"

domineering over his brothers and companions, fearing no one, ran wild on

the beach with the sailors or over the mountains with the herdsmen,

listening to their tales of the Corsican rebellion and of fights, on sea

and land, imbibing their contempt for submission, their love for liberty.

At nine years of age he was a shy, proud, wilful child, unkempt and

untrained, little, pale, and nervous, almost without instruction, and yet

already enamored of a soldier's life and conscious of a certain

superiority over his comrades. Then it was that he was suddenly

transplanted from his free life to an environment foreign in its language,

artificial in its etiquette, and severe in its regulations.

It was as a dependent, a species of charity pupil, that he went into

this new atmosphere. Charles Bonaparte had become, in the nine years

since he had abandoned the cause of Paoli, a thorough parasite. Like all

the poor nobility of the country to which he had attached himself, and

even like many of the rich in that day, he begged favors of every

description from the government in return for his support. To aid in

securing them, he humbled himself before the French Governor-General of

Corsica, the Count de Marboeuf, and made frequent trips, which he could

ill afford, back and forth to Versailles. The free education of his

children, a good office with its salary and honors, the maintenance of his

claims against the Jesuits, were among the favors which he sought.

By dint of solicitation he had secured a place among the free pupils

of the college at Autun for his son Joseph, the oldest of the family, and

one for Napoleon at the military school at Brienne.

To enter the school at Brienne, it was necessary to be able to read

and write French, and to pass a preliminary examination in that language.

This young Napoleon could not do; indeed, he could scarcely have done as

much in his native Italian. A preparatory school was necessary, then, for

a time. The place settled on was Autun, where Joseph was to enter

college, and there in January, 1779, Charles Bonaparte arrived with the

two boys.

Napoleon was nine and a half years old when he entered the school at

Autun. He remained three months, and in that time made sufficient

progress to fulfil the requirements at Brienne. The principal record of

the boy's conduct at Autun comes from Abbe Chardon, who was at the head of

the primary department. He says of his pupil:

"Napoleon brought to Autun a sombre, thoughtful character. He was

interested in no one, and found his amusements by himself. He rarely had

a companion in his walks. He was quick to learn, and quick of

apprehension in all ways. When I gave him a lesson, he fixed his eyes

upon me with parted lips; but if I recapitulated anything I had said, his

interest was gone, as he plainly showed by his manner. When reproved for

this, he would answer coldly, I might almost say with an imperious air, 'I

know it already, sir.'"

When he went to Brienne, Napoleon left his brother Joseph behind at

Autun. The boy had not now one familiar feature in his life. The school

at Brienne was made up of about one hundred and twenty pupils, half of

whom were supported by the government. They were sons of nobles, who,

generally, had little but their great names, and whose rule for getting on

in the world was the rule of the old regime - secure a powerful patron,

and, by flattery and servile attentions, continue in his train. Young

Bonaparte heard little but boasting, and saw little but vanity. His first

lessons in French society were the doubtful ones of the parasite and

courtier. The motto which he saw everywhere practised was, "The end

justifies the means." His teachers were not strong enough men to

counteract this influence. The military schools of France were at this

time in the hands of religious orders, and the Minim Brothers, who had

charge of Brienne, were principally celebrated for their ignorance. They

certainly could not change the arrogant and false notions of their

aristocratic young pupils.

It was a dangerous experiment to place in such surroundings a boy

like the young Napoleon, proud, ambitious, jealous; lacking any healthful

moral training; possessing an Italian indifference to truth and the rights

of others; already conscious that he had his own way to make in the world,

and inspired by a determination to do it.

From the first the atmosphere at Brienne was hateful to the boy. His

comrades were French, and it was the French who had subdued Corsica. They

taunted him with it sometimes, and he told them that had there been but

four to one, Corsica would never have been conquered, but that the French

came ten to one. When they said: "But your father submitted," he said

bitterly: "I shall never forgive him for it." As for Paoli, he told them,

proudly, "He is a good man. I wish I could be like him."

He had trouble with the new language. They jeered at him because of

it. His name was strange; la paille au nez was the nickname they made

from Napoleon.

He was poor; they were rich. The contemptuous treatment he received

because of his poverty was such that he begged to be taken home.

"My father [he wrote], if you or my protectors cannot give me the

means of sustaining myself more honorably in the house where I am, please

let me return home as soon as possible. I am tired of poverty and of the

jeers of insolent scholars who are superior to me only in their fortune,

for there is not one among them who feels one hundredth part of the noble

sentiment which animates me. Must your son, sir, continually be the butt

of these boobies, who, vain of the luxuries which they enjoy, insult me by

their laughter at the privations which I am forced to endure? No, father,

no! If fortune refuses to smile upon me, take me from Brienne, and make

me, if you will, a mechanic. From these words you may judge of my

despair. This letter, sir, please believe, is not dictated by a vain

desire to enjoy extravagant amusements. I have no such wish. I feel

simply that it is necessary to show my companions that I can procure them

as well as they, if I wish to do so.

"Your respectful and affectionate son,


Charles Bonaparte, always in pursuit of pleasure and his inheritance,

could not help his son. Napoleon made other attempts to escape, even

offering himself, it is said, to the British Admiralty as a sailor, and

once, at least, begging Monsieur de Marboeuf, the Governor-General of

Corsica, who had aided Charles Bonaparte in securing places for both boys,

to withdraw his protection. The incident which led to this was

characteristic of the school. The supercilious young nobles taunted him

with his father's position; it was nothing but that of a poor tipstaff,

they said. Young Bonaparte, stung by what he thought an insult, attacked

his tormentors, and, being caught in the act, was shut up. He immediately

wrote to the Count de Marboeuf a letter of remarkable qualities in so

young a boy and in such circumstances. After explaining the incident he


"Now, Monsieur le Comte, if I am guilty, if my liberty has been taken

from me justly, have the goodness to add to the kindnesses which you have

shown me one thing more - take me from Brienne and withdraw your

protection: it would be robbery on my part to keep it any longer from one

who deserves it more than I do. I shall never, sir, be worthier of it

than I am now. I shall never cure myself of an impetuosity which is all

the more dangerous because I believe its motive is sacred. Whatever idea

of self-interest influences me, I shall never have control enough to see

my father, an honorable man, dragged in the mud. I shall always, Monsieur

le Comte, feel too deeply in these circumstances to limit myself to

complaining to my superior. I shall always feel that a good son ought not

to allow another to avenge such an outrage. As for the benefits which you

have rained upon me, they will never be forgotten. I shall say I had

gained an honorable protection, but Heaven denied me the virtues which

were necessary in order to profit by it."

In the end Napoleon saw that there was no way for him but to remain

at Brienne, galled by poverty and formalism.

It would be unreasonable to suppose that there was no relief to this

sombre life. The boy won recognition more than once from his companions

by his bravery and skill in defending his rights. He was not only

valorous; he was generous, and, "preferred going to prison himself to

denouncing his comrades who had done wrong." Young Napoleon found, soon,

that if there were things for which he was ridiculed, there were others

for which he was applauded.

He made friends, particularly among his teachers; and to one of his

comrades, Bourrienne, he remained attached for years. "You never laugh at

me; you like me," he said to his friend. Those who found him morose and

surly, did not realize that beneath the reserved, sullen exterior of the

little Corsican boy there was a proud and passionate heart aching for love

and recognition; that it was sensitiveness rather than arrogance which

drove him away from his mates.

At the end of five and one-half years Napoleon was promoted to the

military school at Paris. The choice of pupils for this school was made

by an inspector, at this time one Chevalier de Keralio, an amiable old

man, who was fond of mingling with the boys as well as examining them. He

was particularly pleased with Napoleon, and named him for promotion in

spite of his being strong in nothing but mathematics, and not yet being of

the age required by the regulations. The teachers protested, but De

Keralio insisted.

"I know what I am doing," he said. "If I put the rules aside in this

case, it is not to do his family a favor - I do not know them. It is

because of the child himself. I have seen a spark here which cannot be

too carefully cultivated."

De Keralio died before the nominations were made, but his wishes in

regard to young Bonaparte were carried out. The recommendation which sent

him up is curious. The notes read:

"Monsieur de Bonaparte; height four feet, ten inches and ten lines;

he has passed his fourth examination; good constitution, excellent health;

submissive character, frank and grateful; regular in conduct; has

distinguished himself by his application to mathematics; is passably well

up in history and geography; is behindhand in his Latin. Will make an

excellent sailor. Deserves to be sent to the school in Paris."

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