The Napoleonic Renaissance

[This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]

Napoleon Bonaparte


If I had begun collecting Napoleonana in my youth I should now have on hand a priceless collection.  This reminds me that when I first came to Chicago suburban property along the North Shore could be bought for five hundred dollars an acre which now sells for two hundred dollars a front foot; if I had purchased real estate in that locality when I had the opportunity forty years ago I should be a millionaire at the present time.

I think I am more regretful of having neglected the Napoleonana than of having missed the real-estate chances, for since my library contains fewer than two hundred volumes relating to Bonaparte and his times I feel that I have been strangely remiss in the pursuit of one of the most interesting and most instructive of bibliomaniac fads.  When I behold the remarkable collections of Napoleonana made by certain friends of mine I am filled with conflicting emotions of delight and envy, and Judge Methuen and I are wont to contemplate with regret the opportunities we once had of throwing all these modern collections in the shade.

When I speak of Napoleonana I refer exclusively to literature relating to Napoleon; the term, however, is generally used in a broader sense, and includes every variety of object, from the snuff-boxes used by the emperor at Malmaison to the slippers he wore at St. Helena.  My friend, Mr. Redding, of California, has a silver knife and fork that once belonged to Bonaparte, and Mr.  Mills, another friend of mine, has the neckerchief which Napoleon wore on the field of Waterloo.  In Le Blanc’s little treatise upon the art of tying the cravat it is recorded that Napoleon generally wore a black silk cravat, as was remarked at Wagram, Lodi, Marengo and Austerlitz.  “But at Waterloo,” says Le Blanc, “it was observed that, contrary to his usual custom, he wore a white handkerchief with a flowing bow, although  the day previous he appeared in his black cravat.”

I remember to have seen in the collection of Mr. Melville E.  Stone a finger-ring, which, having been brought by an old French soldier to New Orleans, ultimately found its way to a pawn-shop.  This bauble was of gold, and at two opposite points upon its outer surface appeared a Napoleonic “N,” done in black enamel: by pressing upon one of these Ns a secret spring was operated, the top of the ring flew back, and a tiny gold figure of the Little Corporal stood up, to the astonishment and admiration of the beholder.

Another curious Napoleonic souvenir in Mr. Stone’s motley collection is a cotton print handkerchief, upon which are recorded scenes from the career of the emperor; the thing must have been of English manufacture, for only an Englishman (inspired by that fear and that hatred of Bonaparte which only Englishmen had) could have devised this atrocious libel.  One has to read the literature current in the earlier part of this century in order to get a correct idea of the terror with which Bonaparte filled his enemies, and this literature is so extensive that it seems an impossibility that anything like a complete collection should be got together; to say nothing of the histories, the biographies, the volumes of reminiscence and the books of criticism which the career of the Corsican inspired, there are Napoleon dream-books, Napoleon song-books, Napoleon chap-books, etc., etc., beyond the capability of enumeration.

The English were particularly active in disseminating libels upon Napoleon; they charged him in their books and pamphlets with murder, arson, incest, treason, treachery, cowardice, seduction, hypocrisy, avarice, robbery, ingratitude, and jealousy; they said that he poisoned his sick soldiers, that he was the father of Hortense’s child, that he committed the most atrocious cruelties in Egypt and Italy, that he married Barras’ discarded mistress, that he was afflicted with a loathsome disease, that he murdered the Duc d’Enghien and officers in his own army of whom he was jealous, that he was criminally intimate with his own sisters—in short, there was no crime, however revolting, with  which these calumniators were not hasty to charge the emperor.

This same vindictive hatred was visited also upon all associated with Bonaparte in the conduct of affairs at that time.  Murat was “a brute and a thief”; Josephine, Hortense, Pauline, and Mme.  Letitia were courtesans; Berthier was a shuffling, time-serving lackey and tool; Augereau was a bastard, a spy, a robber, and a murderer; Fouche was the incarnation of every vice; Lucien Bonaparte was a roue and a marplot; Cambaceres was a debauchee; Lannes was a thief, brigand, and a poisoner; Talleyrand and Barras were—well, what evil was told of them has yet to be disproved.  But you would gather from contemporaneous English publications that Bonaparte and his associates were veritable fiends from hell sent to scourge civilization.  These books are so strangely curious that we find it hard to classify them: we cannot call them history, and they are too truculent to pass for humor; yet they occupy a distinct and important place among Napoleonana.

Until William Hazlitt’s life of Bonaparte appeared we had no English treatment of Bonaparte that was in any sense fair, and, by the way, Hazlitt’s work is the only one in English I know of which gives the will of Bonaparte, an exceedingly interesting document.

For a good many years I held the character of Napoleon in light esteem, for the reason that he had but small regard for books.  Recent revelations, however, made to me by Dr. O’Rell (grandnephew of “Tom Burke of Ours”), have served to dissipate that prejudice, and I question not that I shall duly become as ardent a worshipper of the Corsican as my doctor himself is.  Dr.  O’Rell tells me—and his declarations are corroborated by Frederic Masson and other authorities—that Bonaparte was a lover and a collector of books, and that he contributed largely to the dignity and the glorification of literature by publishing a large number of volumes in the highest style of the art.

The one department of literature for which he seems to have had no liking was fiction.  Novels of all kinds he was in the habit of tossing into the fire.  He was a prodigious buyer of books, and those which he read  were invariably stamped on the outer cover with the imperial arms; at St. Helena his library stamp was merely a seal upon which ink was smeared.

Napoleon cared little for fine bindings, yet he knew their value, and whenever a presentation copy was to be bound he required that it be bound handsomely.  The books in his own library were invariably bound “in calf of indifferent quality,” and he was wont, while reading a book, to fill the margin with comments in pencil.  Wherever he went he took a library of books with him, and these volumes he had deprived of all superfluous margin, so as to save weight and space.  Not infrequently when hampered by the rapid growth of this traveling library he would toss the “overflow” of books out of his carriage window, and it was his custom (I shudder to record it!) to separate the leaves of pamphlets, magazines, and volumes by running his finger between them, thereby invariably tearing the pages in shocking wise.

In the arrangement of his library Napoleon observed that exacting method which was characteristic of him in other employments  and avocations.  Each book had its particular place in a special case, and Napoleon knew his library so well that he could at any moment place his hand upon any volume he desired.  The libraries at his palaces he had arranged exactly as the library at Malmaison was, and never was one book borrowed from one to serve in another.  It is narrated of him that if ever a volume was missing Napoleon would describe its size and the color of its binding to the librarian, and would point out the place where it might have been wrongly put and the case where it properly belonged.

If any one question the greatness of this man let him explain if he can why civilization’s interest in Napoleon increases as time rolls on.  Why is it that we are curious to know all about him—that we have gratification in hearing tell of his minutest habits, his moods, his whims, his practices, his prejudices?  Why is it that even those who hated him and who denied his genius have felt called upon to record in ponderous tomes their reminiscences of him and his deeds?  Princes, generals, lords, courtiers, poets, painters, priests, plebeians—all have vied with one another in answering humanity’s demand for more and more and ever more about Napoleon Bonaparte.

I think that the supply will, like the demand, never be exhausted.  The women of the court have supplied us with their memoirs; so have the diplomats of that period; so have the wives of his generals; so have the Tom-Dick-and-Harry spectators of those kaleidoscopic scenes; so have his keepers in exile; so has his barber.  The chambermaids will be heard from in good time, and the hostlers, and the scullions.  Already there are rumors that we are soon to be regaled with Memoirs of the Emperor Napoleon by the Lady who knew the Tailor who Once Sewed a Button on the Emperor’s Coat, edited by her loving grandson, the Duc de Bunco.

Without doubt many of those who read these lines will live to see the time when memoirs of Napoleon will be offered by “a gentleman who purchased a collection of Napoleon spoons in 1899”; doubtless, too, the book will be hailed with satisfaction, for this Napoleonic enthusiasm increases as time wears on.

Curious, is it not, that no calm, judicial study of this man’s character and exploits is received with favor?  He who treats of the subject must be either a hater or an adorer of Napoleon; his blood must be hot with the enthusiasm of rage or of love.

To the human eye there appears in space a luminous sphere that in its appointed path goes on unceasingly.  The wise men are not agreed whether this apparition is merely of gaseous composition or is a solid body supplied extraneously with heat and luminosity, inexhaustibly; some argue that its existence will be limited to the period of one thousand, or five hundred thousand, or one million years; others declare that it will roll on until the end of time.  Perhaps the nature of that luminous sphere will never be truly known to mankind; yet with calm dignity it moves in its appointed path among the planets and the stars of the universe, its fires unabated, its luminosity undimmed.

Even so the great Corsican, scrutinized of all human eyes, passes along the aisle of Time enveloped in the impenetrable mystery of enthusiasm, genius, and splendor.



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