Thursday 4 June 2015

Napoleon, His Girlfriend, and the Little Red Man

     Now that the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo is coming up, it might be time to ask: how much do we know about the real Napoleon? The French right now are ambivalent about him. The fact that he was a national hero who gave them a string of glorious victories does not hide the fact that he trampled underfoot what liberty they had and drove them into ultimately disastrous wars, which cost them at least a million dead, possibly two million - as well as an equal number from other nations. Yet a glamour surrounds him which eludes other despots and warmongers.
     I have already told the story of how he was forced to retreat from a horde of hungry rabbits. Now I am pleased to expose a serious of personal quirks which I found in Frank McLynn's excellent 1998 tome, Napoleon, a biography.
     For a start, he effectively demolished the myth, which Napoleon himself invented, that it was the winter which defeated him in Russia. The winter of 1812 had been especially mild, and only at the very end of the retreat did it strike with a vengeance. In fact, the Grande Armée lost more men on the advance to Moscow than on the retreat - from enemy action, especially the Pyrrhic victory at Borodino, the bloodiest single day battle in history, from starvation and disease, and from desertion. And all of the tens of thousands of deserters were tortured - yes, tortured! - to death by the Russian peasants. Indeed, McLynn suggests that here Napoleon illustrated the Peter Principle that people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. In the handling of armies of less than 100,000 men, as in the original battles in Italy, and in the 1814 retreat through France, he was absolutely brilliant. He also had some spectacular victories with larger numbers, particularly at Austrerlitz. However, the gigantic armies involved in the Russian campaign and at Leipzig ("The Battle of the Nations") were too huge for him to manage effectively.
     Post-revolutionary French society was decadent, with the sexual morals of a barnyard. Napoleon's own sister, Pauline would bed anyone with trousers. But even she raised eyebrows with her custom of being carried to her bath, stark naked, in the arms of a muscular black servant called Paul. On being remonstrated, she replied: "A negro is not a man."
     Napoleon himself outperformed even her in the promiscuity stakes, and there were lots of husbands only too happy to have him bed their wives, for it usually meant money or other favours. (I shall refrain from using the terms usually applied to such behaviour.) He was also a lousy lover, belonging to the wham-bang-thank-you-ma'am school. Just the same, it is only fair to point out that his second wife, the Princess Marie-Louise volunteered to join him in exile, and was only prevented from doing so by her father.
     All of this makes his relationship with his first love all the more interesting. He may have lost his virginity to a prostitute, but Bernadine Eugénie Clary, better known as Désirée, was the first one to whom he lost his heart. They were engaged to be married, but then he was called away to Paris, where he dumped her for Josephine. Nevertheless, she always held a warm place in his affectons. She may have later married his bitter enemy, Marshal Bernadotte, but Napoleon always forgave the many times he let him down and betrayed him, and even supported his elevation to the Swedish throne (where he eventually joined the coalition against him) because, as he confessed in his memoires, he liked the idea of a French general being king of Sweden, and also because of his affection for Bernadotte's wife.
    The interesting thing is, despite his many adulteries, Napoleon never attempted to re-ignite his affaire with Désirée. One suspects he would have succeeded had he tried, but probably that was a bridge too far even for the great conqueror. It is likely that his conscience nettled him for the shabby way he had treated her. Sex with an experienced woman is one thing, but to take a young woman's virginity and then abandon her was definitely contrary to the macho Corsican code of honour. Also, a man never forgets his first love, especially if his own marriage is unsatisfactory, as was Napoleon's union with Josephine.
     But it was his superstitions that is the most astonishing thing about Napoleon. It recalss Chesterton's adage that, when men cease to believe in God, they don't necessarily believe in nothing; the believe in anything. He believed in portents and omens, and avoided Fridays and the number 13. Other people might talk loosely about their lucky stars, but Napoleon took it deadly seriously. He had a specific star which he used to look for in the sky as evidence that he would be blessed with good fortune.
    Even more extraordinary was the deal he made with a jinni (genie) called the Little Red Man in Egypt shortly before the Battle of the Nile. No, he did not sell his soul to the devil; the bargain he made was more complex. It was a ten year contract, renewed again in 1809, in which the genie agreed to advise and protect him, provided he ushered in the Brotherhood of Man and the Universal Republic. If he did not, the Little Red Man would give him three warnings before abandoning him to his enemies. According to legend, the Little Red Man appeared at the time of his coronation, warned him against invading Moscow, and turned up again at Moscow in 1812, Fontainebleau in 1814, when he was forced to abdicate, and again at Waterloo. (Yes, I know this is more than three times; the genie was especially patient.)
    What on earth was this mysterious being? I once met a saintly lady called, appropriately, Miss Toogood whose conscience really was a "still, small voice" in her head, and Socrates was known to have had a daemon who advised and warned him. McLynn suggests that, like these, the Little Red Man was an internal voice, an external manifestation of his conscience.
     No doubt his conscience reminded him that he was using his gifts inappropriately. Although the brotherhood of man is beyond the power of any leader, he had been placed in a position where he could lead the fledgling republic into a more advance liberty. He could have been a man of destiny; instead, he wasted his gifts on a relentless and ruthless pursuit of power and glory. It was only a matter of justice that his life ended, not with the firing squad, but in lonely exile on an oceanic island, gnawing himself with memories of lost glories. As Maxwell Smart used to say: "If only he had used his genius for good, and not for evil!"

More about the Little Red Man here.

1 comment:

  1. My God, you quote Maxwell Smart, my hero! I'm impressed.

    Great story.