Reviews: Biographical Books


Napoleon and His Parents: on the Threshold of History

By Dorothy Carrington

Carrington, Dorothy. Napoleon and His Parents: on the Threshold of History. London, Penguin Books Lid., 1988. ISBN#0-525-24833-1. 289 pages. Hardcover. Out of Print.

It would seem appropriate first of all to express surprise at how a book so recently published can now be out of print. Can it really have sold so poorly? However, I would argue that although this state of affairs is unfortunate it nonetheless enhances the reputation of this unique and valuable work. Indeed, I consider myself a very lucky individual to own a copy.

One is immediately struck by the quality of the prose and, while some may expect nothing less from an Oxford graduate in English Literature, there are undoubtedly numerous books of this type, which lose their way as a result of a convoluted style. Clearly this is not a subject that lends itself to fluency and accessibility thus all the more reason to commend the author for doing so. Carrington's expert knowledge shines throughout, reminding the reader that this is someone passionate about her writing.

To her credit, Carrington structured the book well. It is divided into eight chapters of invariably equal length, making the book suitably concise. There is also an appendix containing some useful documents, mostly letters written by Carlo Bonaparte, Napoleon's father. More importantly the notes and bibliography provide essential material for scholars.

Naturally a book on Napoleon's youth and his parents will discuss Corsican history in the mid-eighteenth century; the declaration of independence and formation of a constitution (1755), twenty-one years before the Americans, the subsequent fight for survival against the Genoese and French (once the island had been sold to them in 1768) and finally the civil war which was still raging when the Bonapartes were exiled in 1793. One can't help feeling that the only reason we have come to know so much about the history of this small island is because it gave birth to Europe's most famous individual and we believe that through such knowledge we come to a better understanding of Napoleon the man. This is simply not true and, as Carrington makes clear in the book's latter chapters, the moulding of Napoleon's character owed more to his experiences as a pupil and soldier in France during the 1780s than the time spent in Corsica beforehand. Having said that, when Napoleon returned to Corsica in the early 1790s, he immediately and enthusiastically embroiled himself in several political disputes involving his family. Carrington does not adequately explore the true significance of this phase in the young man's life. The intensely family-orientated, violent and corrupt culture of 18th century Corsica was the political cauldron in which Napoleon acquired his first political experiences. Therefore its significance lies in what it can potentially tell us about Napoleon's character, values, style of rule and political philosophy.

Carlo Bonaparte's life eventually became inextricably linked with the history of Corsica. He was an assistant to the nationalist Paoli before his collaboration with the French reaped huge benefits in the form of ennoblement and lucrative political placements. Letizia Bonaparte, the pretty, taciturn and reserved teenager who married the ambitious Carlo is shown in her true colours. More has been written about her than Carlo if only because Napoleon in later life attributed his success to her qualities as a mother. One notable episode tells of how Letizia dealt with Napoleon's misbehaviour on the way back from church. Rather than shout at him immediately she waited until they returned home and hid in Napoleon's bedroom where, upon his entering, she launched a rocket on the unsuspecting child. Napoleon understandably never forgot that day.

There are a number of striking and controversial issues raised in this book; the Bonapartes' dubious claims to nobility, the validity of Carlo and Letizia's marriage and Louis' paternity. Carlo was ever the social climber and the fallacy of his claims to have descended from the patrician Bonapartes of Tuscany is exposed. However, through Carlo's astute manufacturing of certain documents purporting to verify his blue-blooded origins he was granted one of many consents to nobility distributed after the French victory in 1769, though it wasn't until 1771 that he finally received official recognition. All this information puts paid to the argument that Napoleon was noble. When he was born, his father was still struggling to achieve such a distinction. From the information provided in the book we discover how empty the claims of the Bonapartes to an aristocratic heritage were. Carlo was just one of many ambitious middle-class patriarchs trying to further his family's social position who eventually succeeded.

When the Comte de Marbeuf became Governor of Corsica he was enchanted by the beauty of Letizia and an affair soon began, encouraged by Carlo who instantly recognised the unlimited opportunities such a liaison would afford him and his family. There is convincing evidence presented to support the idea that Marbeuf fathered Louis and perhaps one of Napoleon's sisters. However, it still remains a controversial subject. Most interesting was the evidence, which suggested Carlo avoided the religious part of the ceremony when marrying Letizia. The church has a record of the marriage but Carlo registered it and, rather suspiciously, signed the entry 'di Bonaparte' - something he was not entitled to do until 1771, seven years after they were wed. Did he go back years after the marriage and falsely record a religious ceremony that never happened? Carrington thinks so and in light of the evidence she provides it would be hard to disagree.

For me the second half of the book was where it really sparkled because it concentrated on Napoleon, not his parents. This was the main motivation for reading the book. However, historians must continue to scrutinise the stories surrounding Napoleon's youth since many were written retrospectively once he'd earned his formidable place in history. In essence therefore they become distorted through the lens of his triumphs. The claim that Napoleon led his fellow pupils in a snowball fight while at Brienne exemplifies this. When measured against the historical reality (i.e.) Napoleon's insularity and introspective nature while at school, it soon becomes nothing more than an anecdotal addendum to the Napoleonic legend. There is no doubt that Napoleon was a precocious child who from early adolescence onwards displayed visible signs of genius. He was egotistical, aggressive, though also intensely studious and bookish while capable of showing affection. He excelled at maths, geography and history because these subjects interested him. Carrington writes of the well-known incident, in which at the prize-giving ceremony at Brienne in 1783 Napoleon was chosen to show off his mathematical talents to the guest of honour who was so impressed that he wrote a laudatory note to the school authorities. No one can deny that the stories of Napoleon's youth, whether true or not, are terribly fascinating. Carrington mentions them all and the book is worth reading if only to revel in the colourful description of a person at the beginning of his journey toward greatness.

Perhaps the book could have contained more on Napoleon and less on the history of Corsica before his birth. Perhaps it could have gone on further in time and included a more detailed analysis of Napoleon's involvement in Corsican politics in the early 1790s rather than ending at his arrival in Valence. This may seem pedantic but the book would have been more comprehensive had it dealt with this period.

Yet it rightly deserves the epithet 'classic'. There had been no comprehensive work covering the early life of Napoleon Bonaparte in English beforehand and, regrettably, there has not been one since. Therein lies its prominence in the annals of Napoleonic scholarship. It is quoted in just about every bibliography of every subsequent book written on Napoleon, a fitting testament to a highly prized work.

Whether because they feel she has left no room for improvement or because they do not want to approach a tenebrous period of Napoleon's life, historians have not produced much about Napoleon's primitive years. And yet despite the standard set by Carrington, it is high time we had an updated tome on the young life of history's greatest figure, especially one that will examine the major significance of his involvement in Corsica, before he crossed the threshold of history.

 

Reviewed by Tom Miller

Place on the Napoleon Series: October 2005

 

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