Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Plymouth Remembers Napoleon's 1815 Visit

"Napoleon on HMS Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound" by Jules Girardet (1)

"It was known that he always appeared on deck towards five o'clock. A short time before this hour, all the boats collected along-side of each other; there were thousands, and so closely connected, that the water could no longer be seen between them; they looked more like a multitude assembled in a public square than anything else." (2)

I find, to my surprise that it is almost seven years since I wrote about Napoleon on the Bellerophon and the reaction of the crowds who turned out to try and catch a glimpse of him in Torquay and Plymouth. This bicentenary year I have largely ignored these events, instead focusing on the background to the Government decision to exile Napoleon to St. Helena.

The City of Plymouth is currently mounting an exhibition Napoleon in Plymouth Sound, 1815, the centre piece is the romantic Girardet painting of the crowds that surrounded the "Bellerophon". A member of the Bonaparte family has even been to see the exhibition. In its description of the exhibition the Museum says Napoleon was a folk-hero to the lower classes of all nations, even those he fought against. An interesting judgement, which even I find rather sweeping.

Apparently the City intends to build some kind of memorial commemorating its Napoleonic association. The structure will incorporate a stone that came originally from Longwood House on St. Helena, and will bear a plaque relating the circumstances of Napoleon's arrival.(3) The idea of the French Consul, designed to be a celebration of two centuries of Anglo-French amity, the proposal has raised the ire of a few patriotic Englishmen who have complained that there is no memorial of Nelson in the city. I am cynical enough to imagine that Plymouth is happy to cash in on its Napoleonic association!
1. Jules Girardet(1856 to 1938), a French historical painter, produced a number of pictures of Napoleon, often showing him in a domestic setting. The picture of him on the Bellerophon is in the possession of the Plymouth City Council. It was of course painted long after the events it depicts.
2. Memorial de Sainte Helene - Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by the Count de las Cases, Volume 1 page 29
3. The Plymouth Herald is wrong to claim that Napoleon was held in Plymouth Hoe whilst his fate was decided: the Government had decided to send him to St Helena before the Bellerophon had even arrived in Torquay. It was the implementation of the policy, and the readying of the Northumberland , which had just returned from a long voyage, which took the time.

Friday, 17 July 2015

not only one, but two or three Buonapartes

Richard Whately(1787-1863),Professor of Political Economy at Oxford and Archbishop of Dublin

Napoleon's career divided contemporaries as it still divides scholars.(1) Perhaps the first to recognise, or at least to write about conflicting Napoleon narratives was Richard Whately, an Oxford academic, later to become Archbishop of Dublin.

A defender of a literal reading of the Bible, the aim of his Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte, first published anonymously in 1819, was to demonstrate that if one applied the critical methods used by David Hume to challenge the probability of biblical miracles one would come to doubt Napoleon's very existence.

.. those on whose testimony the existence and actions of Buonaparte are generally believed, fail in ALL the most essential points on which the credibility of witnesses depends: first, we have no assurance that they have access to correct information; secondly, they have an apparent interest in propagating falsehood; and, thirdly, they palpably contradict each other in the most important points.

To Whately it was doubtful whether any history (exclusive of such as is confessedly fabulous) ever attributed to its hero such a series of wonderful achievements compressed into so small a space of time, and even the scale of his defeats stretched the bounds of improbability:

Another peculiar circumstance in the history of this extraordinary personage is, that when it Is found convenient to represent him as defeated, though he is by no means defeated by halves, but involved in much more sudden and total ruin than the personages of real history usually meet with; yet, if it is thought fit he should be restored, it is done as quickly and completely as if Merlin's rod had been employed.

As an example of the contradiction of the accounts of Napoleon's career Whately highlighted the battle of Borodino,represented as one of the greatest ever fought and unequivocally claimed as a victory by both parties:

We have official accounts on both sides, circumstantially detailed, in the names of supposed respectable persons, professing to have been present on the spot; yet totally irreconcilable. Both these accounts may be false; but since one of them must be false, that one (it is no matter which we suppose) proves incontrovertibly this important maxim: that it is possible for a narrative—however circumstantial—however steadily maintained—however public, and however important, the events it relates—however grave the authority on which it is published—to be nevertheless an entire fabrication!

Whateley then moved on to conflicting views of Napoleon himself:

According to some, he was a wise, humane, magnanimous hero; others paint him as a monster of cruelty, meanness, and perfidy: some, even of those who are most inveterate against him, speak very highly of his political and military ability: others place him on the very verge of insanity. But allowing that all this may be the colouring of party-prejudice, (which surely is allowing a great deal,) there is one point to which such a solution will hardly apply: if there be anything that can be clearly ascertained in history, one would think it must be the personal courage of a military man; yet here we are as much at a loss as ever; at the very same times, and on the same occasions, he is described by different writers as a man of undaunted intrepidity, and as an absolute poltroon.

So Whateley suggested, tongue firmly in cheek,

What, then, are we to believe? If we are disposed to credit all that is told us, we must believe in the existence not only of one, but of two or three Buonapartes; if we admit nothing but what is well authenticated, we shall be compelled to doubt of the existence of any.

1. One recent academic reviewer admitted to his loathing of the little corporal and his review brought an apt rejoinder from one of the authors he was reviewing: Every Napoleonic scholar is familiar with Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against ... In many respects .. Geyl did the field an enormous disservice. The subtitle stuck. Ever since scholars of the period (and especially biographers of Napoleon) have been categorised as either being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the man. As a biographer of Napoleon, I struggled with this concept for a long time. I am at pains, moreover, to find another historical figure whose biographers fall so neatly into that black and white dichotomy. Personalities like Alexander, Caesar, Hitler, or Mao continue to fascinate because they are larger than life, powerful characters that resonate with modern readers. And yet biographers of those individuals are not conveniently divided into ‘for’ or ‘against’. Philip Dwyer, Reviews in History.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Guest Blog: Visit to the Isle d'Aix by Margaret Dyson

Napoleon 1st Clock in Napoleon Museum, l'île d'Aix

Napoleon Who? Margaret Dyson reports on a visit to the Isle D’Aix where Napoleon last set foot on French soil

On arriving on the Isle d'Aix (located off Rochefort) after a short ferry trip from the mainland, we were expecting a splash of publicity about the Emperor but there is none. The only sign of historic significance was a dedication to the Acadians (after whom the quay was named “Quai de l’Acadie”), descendants of early French settlers of North America.

Rue Napoleon, l'île d'Aix

As we left the ferry a replica of the 18 century frigate Hermione, which took 17 years to build, could be seen anchored off the coast, causing some excitement.

We followed the footpath to the nearby village and did the tourist "thing", looking round the shops, before taking the coastal footpath. This led us to Fort Liédot (completed in 1812) built on the orders of Napoleon as a defence against an English invasion This is now a museum depicting all periods of French history.

Fort Liédot, l'île d'Aix

Returning to the village it would be easy to miss the Musée Napoléon - the house that, in 1808, on a visit to the Isle, Napoleon ordered to be built for the island's Governor, little knowing that this was where his terminal incarceration was to begin ten years hence. Careful observers might notice two nearby street names "Rue de Marengo " (Napoleon's horse) and "Rue de Napoleon" (the Emperor himself).

Napoleon Museum, l'île d'Aix

The house is at the end of "Rue de Napoleon". Above the front door, close to the roof, is carved "a la mémoire de notre immortel Empereur Napoléon Ier, 15 juillet 1815. Tout fut sublime en lui : sa gloire, ses revers. Et son nom respecté plane sur l’univers" {to the memory of our immortal Emperor Napoleon 1st, 15 July 1815. Everything was sublime in him - his glories, his setbacks, and his name hovers throughout the universe}.

Front door of Napoleon Museum, l'île d'Aix

Close to the front door is a plaque indicating that Napoleon stayed in the house from 12th to 15th July 1815 before embarking on the Bellerophon for England. We entered the house via the small back garden.

Rue Marengo, l'île d'Aix

A notice ("Aux Visiteurs") inside the front door describes the events which brought Napoleon to this house. It states that he had wanted to go to America but was unable to do so because the English government refused to allow it, so he decided to surrender, adding that these were the most tragic moments of his life. The names of those who also stayed here with him are listed. A copy of the surrender document is displayed in Napoleon's bedroom. Also, in his bedroom, is a copy of the letter that Napoleon wrote to the Prince Regent (later King George IV) on 13th July, 1815 The bedroom is sparsely furnished now, with just a table, chairs, his bed and a few mementos.

The Bed which Gourgaud slept in on St Helena, 1815-1817 l'île d'Aix

There are many artefacts in other rooms, some of which were brought from Malmaison, the house that Napoleon built for his first wife, Josephine. There is a large bust and paintings of her and of his second wife (Marie Louise), hung either side of a large window. Also present is the bed that Gourgaud (Napoleon's Maréchale de Camp) used whilst on St Helena and in another room Bagetti's painting of "The Entrance of French Troops into Rome" plus busts of the Emperor, Josephine and others.

There are magnificent clocks one of which was made of gold and marble in the reign of Louis-Philippe. It has an adjoining statue of the Emperor with a ball symbolising the world surrounded by laurel leaves. Unfortunately most of the displays are under glass which does not make for good photography.

The bed in which Napoleon spent his last night on French soil, l'île d'Aix

In 1928 the house opened as a museum having been bought in 1926 by Baron Napoleon Gourgaud, the great grandson of Gaspard Gourgaud. Apart from Napoleon's residence the museum holds items from all parts of his life - his coronation, his battles (lost and won), through to his death on St Helena in May 1821.

We left on the evening ferry with some regret as the isle is now, largely, a weekend retreat with little acknowledgement of its most famous "visitor".
From St Helena Connection No 18, publication of the Friends of St Helena. Reproduced with the permission of the author and the Editor of the St. Helena Connection.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Exhibition in Manchester: Anthony Burgess and Napoleon

A return visit to the International Anthony Burgess Centre in Manchester to look at their exhibition about Burgess and Napoleon. Included in the exhibition are five prints by Jean Charles Pellerin (1756-1836), of various episodes in Napoleon's life.

Entry of Napoleon into Grenoble

Apparently these hung in Burgess's home in Italy in the 1970's, perhaps a result of the influence of his Italian wife, to whom Napoleon Symphony was dedicated:

"a Buonapartista, who, in her extreme youth, could never understand why the British had named a great railway terminus after a military defeat."

Battle of Esling - Death of Montebello

Also there is the letter to Burgess from Stanley Kubrick, dated June 15th 1972,

informing Burgess that his script was not suitable for the film about Napoleon that Kubrick still planned to make.

"I shall start off by saying that I really don't know how to write this letter, and that it is a task which is as awful for me to perform as it may be for you to read."
Debarkation of Napoleon (from Elba)

In the event Napoleon Symphony, published two years after the letter, was also dedicated, perhaps in a rather backhanded, ironic way to Kubrick as well as to Burgess's wife: Also to Stanley J. Kubrick, maestro di color...".


Napoleon at the Siege of Toulon

As well as a list of some of the sources Burgess used to research his novel, there is a quotation, new to me, written prior to writing it:

My preparatory reading for the novel has taught me that I had really been bludgeoned by the ruling classes into hating Boney, since the common man saw him as a liberator. So he was, of course, for a time. The novelist's attitude to him will only make itself apparent in the course of writing the novel. The question I must ask myself now is: is the novel to be comic or tragic?I do not see how it can be tragic: what was the flaw, where was the sin? He took the Revolution, purged of its extreme features, to countries that needed it. He wanted a united Europe. England having chopped down her forests and exhausted her iron to defeat him, is now entering the Napoleonic dream. It is, in a way, comic, but not meant for laughs. I suppose my Napoleon novel will have to be comic in that way too.
Battle of Rivoli

Not in the exhibition, and this is not intended as a criticism, is the file held by the Anthony Burgess Centre of contemporary reviews of Napoleon Symphony. Some time I intend to write about this and my own reaction to what I think is an underrated novel, albeit one that is far from complimentary about its hero.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Andrew Roberts: BBC TV Series on Napoleon

At least three of my friends have told me about the start of this series by Andrew Roberts (tonight 9.30 BST) which will also be available on Iplayer. So in case there is anybody who hasn't heard about it I felt I ought to pass on the information.

I am of course particularly looking forward to the final episode, some of which was filmed at Longwood in 2013.