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Napoleon the Reader: The Final Years

By Ira Grossman

Now that Napoleon is no longer Emperor of the French, he can finally catch up with his reading. We are now at the final episode of this fascinating discussion of the kinds of books Napoleon liked to read. This final installment will concentrate on what he actually read during his last years at Saint Helena (1815-1821).

Before discussing what he read, it is interesting to note that historians tell us that boredom and monotony were some of the problems Napoleon had to face during his many idle moments at Longwood, his home in Saint Helena. In other words, he just did not have enough activities to keep himself busy during his daily life. This was, of course, true but for the purpose of this story, we can say that, at least he spent a good part of his spare time reading.

When he arrived at Saint Helena in 1815, he brought four hundred books with him from France. He read several hours a day, according to historian Will Durant. He read his old favorites like the dramas of Racine and Corneille as well as the classics of Ancient Greece and Rome. In order to understand why Napoleon once again turned to these same books, during his spare time in exile, it would be useful to quote a passage from Emil Ludwig’s popular biography of Napoleon:

“He searches the poets, and especially relishes those passages from the poets which apply to his own case. An epic lies behind him; in the epics of others, he tried to find his prototype.”

As Ludwig explained, Napoleon once again turned to his old favorites, to seek comfort in his exile by comparing the imprisonment of famous individuals in history with his own.

To have a clearer picture of what Napoleon read, I will now describe a representative selection of the books that he especially enjoyed. Ludwig, first of all, mentions that he liked reading The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan Wars. An interesting fact which Ludwig points out is that he finds solace in reading Homer and sometimes looks through The Iliad until midnight.

In an 1816 conversation recorded in the memoirs of Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases, one his companions at Saint Helena, Napoleon gave an interesting philosophical observation of The Iliad and Homer. He compared The Iliad to the Bible and the Book of Genesis as “the symbol and token of its age.” “In composing it,” Napoleon said, ‘”Homer was poet, orator, historian, lawgiver, geographer, theologian: he was the encyclopedist of his era.” This observation is quoted in J. Christopher Herold’s The Mind of Napoleon.

As he reread The Iliad, he was especially struck by the coarse manners of the heroes of the story since they were shown slaughtering cattle for food and cooking it with their hands.. Despite their coarse manners, Napoleon observed that these same heroes displayed eloquence of speech.

Ludwig observed that Napoleon did not like The Odyssey as he did The Iliad since it was nothing more than the story of an adventurer. In all he did during his career as soldier and statesman, Napoleon felt that he was more than just a mere adventurer.

To sample a few other books he liked, he read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a tragedy of banishment; Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon; John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, the Bible, Beaumarchais’ two famous comedies, The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville, comedies by Moliere, and Ossian, a Scottish epic poem. He also liked to read all the latest publications, whether memoirs or pamphlets, and preferably, anything against himself, Ludwig explained. It is important to note that Napoleon liked reading the dramas of Corneille and Racine since they depict, in the French style, the heroes of antiquity who served as his role model for thirty years.

Besides reading drama and the classics, Napoleon enjoyed reading old newspapers with yellowing edges which were halfway to being history, according to biographer Vincent Cronin. He also liked reading about his campaigns, and thrilled to stories of his early battles. “‘He read as usual much history and found in the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots certain analogies with his own ill fortune,” Cronin explained. Cronin observed that Napoleon made an interesting observation on what history should be.

“He said that it should explain motives, and he criticized the Roman historian Tacitus for portraying Nero as a motiveless malignity,” wrote Cronin. “I don’t believe Nero set fire to Rome. Why should he have done so? What pleasure would it have given him? Rome caught fire, and meanwhile it is possible that Nero inadvertently picked up a flute. But he certainly didn’t pick up the flute because he felt happy about the fire,” Napoleon said as quoted by Cronin.

Of all the books he read during his last years, one book stood out as his favorite. This was Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s popular 18th century novel Paul and Virginia to which Napoleon turned to often. His biographer, Vincent Cronin, best describes what the book is about:

“It is a novel about a boy and a girl, children of impecunious French colonists, who grow up in the island of Mauritius, fall in love, are separated when the girl goes to finish her education in France, and finally are parted forever when, returning to Mauritius, the girl is drowned in a shipwreck. Napoleon had read the novel as a young man, but now he had it read to him whole or in part several times, and said it spoke to his soul.”

Even though it was his favorite book, Napoleon still found flaws in the story. He knew that these so-called children of nature possessed a little property and guessed that Virginia’s mother lived off of an annual income of 3,000 francs, according to Cronin. Despite the flaws in the plot, he still loved the book for a special reason. In the story he could visualize how he and Josephine spent their early lives in their places of birth. The island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, where the story is set, was described in the book as lush, beautiful and blessed with a healthy climate. In the novel, he saw the character Paul planting papayas as a happier version of himself planting mulberries in his birthplace of Ajaccio, Corsica. In the same way, saw the character Virginia as Josephine spending her early life on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, her birthplace.

As he read the novel, Napoleon found that all the main characters were humane, warm, and generous. In making a comparison with his own early life, love played an important central role in the lives of the main characters. Interestingly, compared to his own life, love ended tragically. Napoleon loved this novel for yet another reason. In the words of Vincent Cronin, “it epitomized some of the main themes of his own life, and raised them, in a gentler far-away island, to the level of an idyll, Paul et Virginie was Napoleon’s favorite book in Saint Helena.”

To pass the many idle moments at Longwood, Napoleon put his love for reading to good purpose. One of his favorite past times during his exile was to read dramas out loud after dinner. He usually distributed the parts to his companions. Cronin describes a typical scene of one of Napoleon’s after dinner drama reading sessions:

“Vigorously but with little feeling for rhythm, Napoleon would read aloud from Corneille, Racine, or Moliere, according to the company’s wishes. Occasionally, he paused to comment on a line that pleased or interested him…”

We have now reached the end of this fascinating series. This has been a fascinating journey into the discovery of what Napoleon read. We have come to know a Napoleon we seldom if ever talk about. We picture him sitting in his study enjoying a good book, not leading his armies into battle. In observing what he read, we can judge him by what he read.

For Further Reading:

Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon London : HarperCollins Publishers; 1994.

Durant, Will & Ariel. The Age of Napoleon New York : Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Guerard, Albert. Napoleon I New York : Alfred A Knopf;1969.

Herold, J. Christopher. The Age of Napoleon Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company; 1987.

Ludwig, Emil. Napoleon Garden City : Garden City Publishing Company; 1926.

Richardson, Hubert. A Dictionary of Napoleon New York : Funk and Wagnalls Company; No publication date.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2000