It has been often said, very truly, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary. — G. K. Chesterton

Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler




Napoleon the Boy


(1769-1778)


Whenever we hear the name of Napoleon mentioned, or see it printed in a book, it is usually in connection with a hard-fought victory on the battlefield. He certainly spent most of his life in the camp, and enjoyed the society of soldiers more than that of courtiers. The thunder of guns, the charge of cavalry, and the flash of bayonets as they glittered in the sun, appealed to him with much the same force as music to more ordinary folk. Indeed, he himself tells us that "the cries of the dying, the tears of the hopeless, surrounded my cradle from the moment of my birth."

We are apt to forget that this mighty conqueror, whom Carlyle calls "our last great man," had a childhood at all. He was born nearly a century and a half ago, on the 15th August 1769 to be exact, in the little town of Ajaccio; the capital of picturesque Corsica This miniature island rises a bold tree-covered rock in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, fifty miles west of the coast of Italy. It had been sold to France by the Republic of Genoa the previous year, but the inhabitants had fought for their independence with praiseworthy determination. Then civil war broke out, and the struggle finally ended three months before the birth of the boy who was to become the ruler of the conquering nation. The Corsicans had their revenge in time, although in a way very different from what they could have expected.

Letizia Bonaparte, Napoleon's mother, was as beautiful as she was energetic, and her famous son never allowed anyone to speak ill of her. "My excellent mother," said he, not long before his death, "is a woman of courage and of great talent . . . she is capable of doing everything for me," and he added that the high position which he attained was due largely to the careful way in which she brought him up.

"It is to my mother, to her good precepts and upright example, that I owe my success and any great thing I have accomplished," he averred, while to a general he remarked, "My mother was a superb woman, a woman of ability and courage." A truly great man always speaks well of his mother.

Napoleon was Letizia's fourth child, two having died in infancy, while Joseph, the surviving son, was still unable to toddle when the latest addition to the family was in his cradle. His father was a happy-go-lucky kind of man of good ancestry, a lawyer by profession, who on the landing of the French had resigned the pen for the sword. He enlisted in the army raised by Pascal Paoli to defend the island, for the Corsicans were then a very warlike people and much sought after as soldiers, and it is supposed by some that he acted as Paoli's secretary. It is certain that the patriot showed him marked favour, which was never repaid.

When Paoli and his loyal band were forced to make their escape to the hospitable shores of England, Charles Bonaparte meekly accepted the pardon offered to those who would lay down their arms and acknowledge Louis XV. of France as their King. After events proved the wisdom of his choice, but scarcely justified his action.

The house in which the Bonaparte family lived at Ajaccio is still standing, but has been patched up and repaired so frequently that probably little of the original fabric remains. It now belongs to the ex-Empress Eugenie, the consort of Napoleon's ill-fated nephew who is known to history as Napoleon III. You would not call it a mansion, and yet it contains a spacious ballroom, a large square drawing-room, Charles Bonaparte's study, a dining-room, a nursery, several bedrooms, and a dressing-room. Some of the old furniture is left, namely the Chippendale sofa on which the future Emperor was born, his mother's spinet, and his father's desk. There is also a little etching of Napoleon on horseback by the late Prince Imperial, and one or two statuettes and portraits. In the Town Hall near by is a picture of Letizia which testifies to her good looks—she was known as "the beauty of Ajaccio!"

As a child Napoleon was impetuous, self-confident, and apt to be bad-tempered. If a playmate did something which displeased him the culprit was rewarded with kicks, bites and scratches. Letizia did her best to break him of this bad habit, with little success, for he resented interference to the end of his days. When he was Emperor he used to tell an anecdote of his early life which proves that his mother did more than scold him when he got into mischief.

There were some fig-trees in the garden attached to his home, and Napoleon was very fond of climbing them. Letizia, fearing an accident, forbade him to do so. "One day, however," he relates, "when I was idle, and at a loss for something to do, I took it in my head to long for some of those figs. They were ripe; no one saw me, or could know anything of the matter. I made my escape, ran to the tree, and gathered the whole. My appetite being satisfied, I was providing for the future by filling my pockets, when an unlucky gardener came in sight. I was half-dead with fear, and remained fixed on the branch of the tree, where he had surprised me. He wished to seize me and take me to my mother. Despair made me eloquent; I represented my distress, promised to keep away from the figs in future, and he seemed satisfied. I congratulated myself on having come off so well, and fancied that the adventure would never be known; but the traitor told all. The next day my mother wanted to go and gather some figs. I had not left any, there was none to be found: the gardener came, great reproaches followed, and an exposure." The result was a thrashing

Probably the busy housewife taught Napoleon his letters, assisted by his uncle Joseph Fesch, who was but six years his senior, while from his great uncle, Archdeacon Lucien Bonaparte, he learned a little Bible history. The three "R.'s" were drilled into him by nuns, and as the establishment admitted girls as well as boys, Napoleon took a fancy to one of the former, thereby incurring the ridicule of some of his schoolfellows. They were never tired of jeering at him with a little rhyme, specially composed for the occasion, to the effect that "Napoleon with his stockings half off makes love to Giacommetta." The translation, of course, does not jingle as in the Corsican patois. It must not be inferred that he was a good-looking or attractive boy. On the contrary, he had a sallow complexion, was invariably untidy, and inclined to be moody.

Later, he went to a more advanced school, and from thence to the seminary of the Abbe Recco. If he was not a brilliant scholar he was certainly more interested in mathematics than is the modern boy in locomotives, and that is admitting a good deal. He also excelled in geography. Both studies proved useful aides-de-camp when Napoleon began to master the intricate arts of strategy and tactics. It is on record that when Napoleon was very young he rode on a high-spirited pony to a neighbouring windmill, and after persuading the miller to tell him how much corn it ground in an hour, quietly sat down and worked out the quantity used per day and week. The tyrant then returned to his panic-stricken mother, who had convinced herself that the boy had probably fallen off his fiery steed and been trampled to death.

When opportunity occurred, the youthful Napoleon scribbled sums on the nursery walls and drew crude outlines of soldiers marching in regimental order. A fondness for the open air early manifested itself, and the earnest student would remain out-of-doors for hours at a stretch, provided he was allowed to follow his favourite pursuits without being disturbed. Should his brother dare to interfere when he was working in the little wooden shanty which his thoughtful mother had caused to be erected for him, Napoleon's hasty temper would get the upper hand, and the intruder would be forced to beat a hasty retreat, perhaps in a shower of sticks and stones.

"My brother Joseph," he tells us, "was the one with whom I was oftenest in trouble; he was beaten, bitten, abused. I went to complain before he had time to recover from his confusion. I had need to be on the alert; our mother would have repressed my warlike humour, she would not have put up with my caprices. Her tenderness was allied with severity: she punished, rewarded all alike; the good, the bad, nothing escaped her. My father, a man of sense, but too fond of pleasure to pay much attention to our infancy, sometimes attempted to excuse our faults: 'Let them alone,' she replied, 'it is not your business, it is I who must look after them.' She did, indeed, watch over us with a solicitude unexampled. Every low sentiment, every ungenerous affection was discouraged: she suffered nothing but what was good and elevated to take root in our youthful understandings. She abhorred falsehood, was provoked by disobedience: she passed over none of our faults."

Napoleon's father had no difficulty in deciding what profession to choose for his second son. As for Joseph, he determined that he should enter the priesthood. Napoleon was positive his brother would make a good bishop, and said so.

In this matter of settling the life-work of his boys Charles Bonaparte was helped by the kindly-disposed Marboeuf, one of the two French commissioners appointed by the King to govern Corsica, who frequently visited the house in the Rue St Charles. Napoleon, although only nine years old was now about to enter a larger world, to have an opportunity to appreciate the benefits of education on sounder lines, and to tread the soil of the country which received him as a humble pensioner of the King, and elevated him twenty-five years later to the Imperial throne.