Napoleon - A Biography by Frank McLynn, chapter name CHAPTER ONE


Napoleon Bonaparte was born at Ajaccio, Corsica, on 15 August 1769. Such a bald, even banal statement is necessary when we consider that every aspect of the man's life has been turned into the stuff of legend. In 1919 Archbishop Whateley tried to push beyond legend into myth by suggesting, tongue-in-cheek, in his Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonoparte, that Napoleon had never existed, that his was a proper name falsely attributed to the French people collectively. The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, while accepting the reality of Napoleon's existence, argued that his significance was wholly collective and not individual: that he represented the resurgence from the depths of the French unconscious of the savage and irrational forces the Revolution had tried to suppress through the cult of Reason (Deesse Raison).

Even those who accepted the importance of Napoleon the individual argued about his origins and his date of birth. There has in some quarters been a curious reluctance to accept that he was a Corsican at all, even though born on the island. Some have asserted that he was descended from the Greeks, the Carthaginians or the Bretons. Others, remarking his 'Oriental complex' (of which more later), and noting that in the ninth century the Arab invaders of Europe reached Corsica, claim an Arab, Berber or Moorish strain in his provenance; hence (on this view) his excessive superstition, his belief in ghosts, Destiny and his own star, and his preference for Islam over Christianity. The historian and critic Taine traced his descent to an Italian condottiere, while Disraeli, on the grounds that Corsica had once been peopled by African Semites, claimed Napoleon as a Jew (presumably, given Napoleon's later antipathy to the Jews, an anti-semitic one). Kings of England, the Comneni, the Paleologues, and even the Julian tribe have been pressed into service as Napoleon's forebears. The prize for the most absurd candidate as Napoleonic ancestor must go to the Man in the Iron Mask and for the most unlikely parents to the footman and goat girl, proposed by his most scurrilous enemies.

At another level of mythmaking, Napoleon's champions claimed that he emerged from his mother's womb a born warrior because she gave birth to him immediately after a hazardous 'flight in the heather' - retreating through the maquis with Corsican forces after being defeated by the French. And the French writer Chateaubriand, who knew Napoleon well and worked for him as a diplomat, argued that the true date of his birth was 5 February I768; according to this theory, it was Napoleon's brother Joseph who was born on IS August I769 and Napoleon was the eldest son.

The sober facts are less sensational. On 2 June I764 Carlo Buonaparte of Ajaccio, an eighteen-year-old law student, married the fourteen-year­ old Marie-Letizia Ramolino, also of Ajaccio. Both families were descended from Italian mercenaries in Genoese pay who settled in Corsica at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Buonapartes came originally from Tuscany and could trace their lineage to the soldier of fortune Ugo Buonaparte, documented as a henchman of the Duke of Swabia in I I22. Ugo was a veteran of the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines and a devoted supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor in his conflict with the Pope. The loser in a Florentine power struggle, Ugo spent his last days in the seaport of Sarzana, and it was from there in the early sixteenth century that his descendant Francesco Buonaparte emigrated to Corsica.

Such at any rate was the Buonaparte family tradition; their surname was said to denote Ugo's Imperialist affiliations. The earliest unimpeach­ able record shows a member of the Buonaparte family, a lawyer, as a member of the Council of Ancients in Ajaccio in I6 I6; several more Buonaparte lawyers served on this council in the eighteenth century. The Buonapartes like the Ramolinos were part of the Corsican nobility, but it must be remembered that Corsican 'nobles' were as common as 'princes' in Czarist Russia. Carlo Buonaparte, born on 27 March I746, had been studying law at Pisa University but left to marry Letizia without taking his degree. The romancers have seized on this fact to build up a coup de foudre love affair between Carlo and Letizia, but the match was certainly dynastic, even though some sections of the Ramolino clan objected to the marnage.


The Ramolinos were a cadet branch of the distinguished Collalto family, well entrenched in Lombardy since the fourteenth century; the Ramolinos themselves had been established in Corsica for 250 years. Where the Buonapartes were a family of lawyers, with the Ramolinos the tradition was military: Letizia's father was an army officer with expertise in civil engineering, who commanded the Ajaccio garrison and held the sinecure office of Inspector-General of Roads and Bridges. Both the Buonapartes and the Ramolinos specialized in intermarriage with ancient families of Italian origin, so a dynastic match made sense. There was just one peculiarity: both the newly-weds' fathers had died young. Carlo's father, a lawyer, died in 176o when his son was fourteen, which meant that Carlo could bring into the marriage the family house in the Via Malerba, two of the best vineyards in Ajaccio, some pasture and arable land, and also his claims to another estate.

Marie-Letizia Ramolino (born either in late 1749 or early 1750) was in a more complicated situation. Her father died when she was five, after which her mother Angela Maria turned for consolation to Franl):ois (or Franz) Fesch, a Swiss captain in the French garrison forces at Ajaccio. Angela Maria married Fesch in 1757 and persuaded him to convert to Catholicism, but his father, a banker in Basle, responded by disinheriting him. From the union of Fesch and Letizia's mother came Joseph (born 1763), the future cardinal and Napoleon's uncle, though only six years his senior. The unfortunate Fesch, who died in 1770, gave Letizia away; her dowry comprised thirty-one acres of land, a mill, and an oven for baking bread.

The marriage of Carlo and Letizia was a solid, down-to-earth marriage of convenience. There is even reason to believe that Carlo hedged his bets by not marrying in the Church in 1764, or ever. It was well known that Corsicans took an idiosyncratic, eclectic attitude to the Catholic Church, which was why legal marriage on the island consisted in the agreement of the two male heads of families, the signature of a dotal contract, and the act of consummation. The likelihood is that Carlo simply refused to go through with a religious ceremony, and for reasons of pride and saving face the two clans kept quiet about it.

Again, contrary to the mythmaking, it is untrue that some of the Ramolinos opposed the match for political reasons, allegedly on the grounds that they supported the Genoese masters of the island while the Buonapartes backed the independence movement under Pasquale Paoli. Almost certainly, they simply had doubts that this was the very best dynastic bargain they could strike while, as for political ideology, both the Buonapartes and Ramolinos were notorious trimmers who made obei­ sance to whichever party in Corsica had the most power.

Carlo, a tall young man with a prominent nose, sensual lips and almond-shaped eyes, was a hedonist and sensualist. Cunning, self­ regarding, unrefined, unscrupulous, he made it clear that his marriage was no love match by declaring a preference for a girl of the Forcioli family. The romancers claim that he was bowled over by Letizia's beauty, but portraits reveal a woman whose mouth was too small, whose nose was too long and whose face was too austere for a claim to real beauty to be advanced. It was true that she was petite (s'r"), with rich dark-brown hair and slender white hands; and what she had, incontestably and by common consent, were large, lustrous, deep-set eyes. As was normal at the time, Letizia was wholly uneducated and trained in nothing but domestic skills.

Letizia fulfilled the essential requirement of women of the time, which was to be an efficient childbearer. She gave birth to thirteen children in all, of whom eight survived. A son, named Napoleon, was born and died in 1765. Pregnant again almost immediately, Letizia next brought forth a girl who also died. Then came a mysterious interlude of about two years. Allegedly Paoli sent the twenty-year-old Carlo as his envoy to Rome, to appease the Pope when he launched his planned attack on the Genoese island of Capraia (Capraia and Genoa had originally been deeded to Genoa by papal gift), but the best evidence shows Carlo becoming a Paolista while he was in Italy. Carlo's time in Rome seems to have been spent in cohabitation with a married woman. His own story was that he returned from Rome after running out of funds, but a stronger tradition has it that he seduced a virgin and was run out of town. On his return to Corsica he again impregnated Letizia, who this time bore him a lusty son in the shape of Joseph (originally named Giuseppe), who was born on 7 July 1768.

Another prevalent myth about Napoleon's background was that he was born into indigence. The property brought into the marriage by Carlo and Letizia seems to have been nicely calculated, since Letizia's dowry was valued at 6,750 livres and Carlo's assets at about 7,000 livres. The joint capital generated an annual income of about 670 livres or about

£9,000 a year in today's money. In addition, there was the money earned by Carlo. Pasquale Paoli employed the young man as his secretary on account of his unusually neat and clear handwriting. Carlo also worked as a procureur - approximately equivalent to a British solicitor. Letizia employed two servants and a wet-nurse - hardly badges of poverty.

What Carlo and Letizia suffered from was not poverty but relative deprivation. The Buonapartes and their great rivals, the Pozzo di Borgos, were among the richest families in Ajaccio, but they were aware that they were big fish in a very small pond. Across the water, in mainland France, their wealth would have counted for nothing and their pretensions to nobility would have been laughed at. The Buonapartes wanted to be as rich as the richest nobles in France and, since they could not be, they created a compensatory myth of dire poverty. Economic conditions in Corsica and their own pretensions worked against them. A sharecropping economy based on vineyards and a primitive barter system meant there were few opportunities for generating a surplus, hence no possibility for profits and making money. Even if there had been, Carlo Buonaparte's aspirations to noble status stood in the way, for to a noble the Church, the Law and the Army were the only acceptable professions, and even the lower reaches of the Law, such as Carlo's position as procureur, were essentially beyond the aristocratic pale.

Napoleon was often, to his fury, called 'the Corsican'. He always denied that his birthplace had any significance, but no human being can slough off early environmental and geographical influences just by say-so. The restlessness in Napoleon's later character must owe something to the confused and chaotic politics of the island, which he imbibed with his mother's milk, or rather that of his wet-nurse. As Dorothy Carrington has written: 'defeat, resistance, betrayal, heroism, torture, execution and conspiracy were the topics of the first conversations he overheard. Conversations that left a permanent imprint on his mind.'

After 1729 a Corsican independence movement gathered momentum against the Genoese overlords. In 1755 this took a more serious turn when the twenty-nine-year-old Pasquale Paoli put himself at the head of the Corsican guerrillas. Taking advantage of Corsica's mountainous terrain (a chain of high granite sierras runs down Corsica from the north­ west to the south-east and the highest peaks are always snowcapped), the Paolistas drove the Genoese out of central Corsica, confining them to the coastal towns of Ajaccio, Bastia and Calvi. Regarding himself as the true ruler of Corsica, Paoli brought in a series of much-needed land reforms, which confirmed the ancient customs of the land in defiance of Genoese exploitation. In an early form of mixed economy, Paoli divided land into two categories: in the lowlands there was the piage or public land used for pasture and growing crops; but in the highlands, the vineyards, olive groves, sweet chestnut and other trees were in private hands. Paoli's power base was· always the widespread support he enjoyed among the peasantry.

Paoli attracted admirers throughout Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought Corsica, with its tiny population, was the ideal laboratory for the political experiment he outlined in his Social Contract. An early exponent of 'small is beautiful', Rousseau thought that the 'General Will' could emerge in Corsica as the city state. The island was ideal, with a total population of no more than 130,000 and its cities were glorified villages; in the census of 1770 Bastia had 5,286 inhabitants and Ajaccio 3,907. Rousseau actually sketched a constitution for Corsica and announced: 'I have a presentiment that one day this small island will astonish Europe.'


Another admirer who actually visited Corsica and met Paoli was James Boswell, Dr Johnson's faithful companion and biographer. Boswell in his Account of Corsica (1768) famously compared the Corsicans, with their clans and martial traditions, with the Scottish Highlanders before the 1745 Jacobite Rising. The thought had occurred to others: at one time Bonnie Prince Charlie himself was proposed as a possible King of Corsica. So enthusiastic for Paoli was Boswell that Dr Johnson accused him of being a bore on the subject.

But Paoli had scarcely completed the conquest of the interior and introduced his reforms when Corsica once again became a pawn on the international diplomatic chessboard. Just before the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, by treaty arrangement the French poured their troops into Calvi, Ajaccio and St-Florent. They pulled them out again

when war broke out, but reintroduced them in 1764. French encroach­ ment reached its apogee the year before Napoleon's birth, in 1768, when Genoa formally ceded the island to France; Paoli and his men learned that they had fought the Genoese only to be delivered to the suzerainty of Louis XV. In fury the Paolistas rose in revolt against the French. They scored a string of minor military successes but were decisively crushed on 8 May 1769 at the battle of Ponte Novo. Among those who fled with Paoli from this disaster were Carlo Buonaparte and his nineteen-year-old wife, now six months pregnant with the future Napoleon.

Napoleonic legend credited the embryonic conqueror with having been present in foetal form at Ponte Novo. What happened was dramatic enough, for Carlo and Letizia fled with the other rebels into the mountains towards Corte; it is therefore true to say that the embryonic Napoleon was literally on the march. When Paoli recognized the inevitable and accepted French surrender terms, Carlo and Letizia returned to Ajaccio by the mountain route; to the end of her life Letizia always remembered carrying Joseph in her arms while staggering and slipping along precipitous paths.

Back in Ajaccio Letizia came to full term. On the feast of the Assumption she was at mass in the cathedral when the labour pains started. Fortunately she was only a minute's walk away from the three­ storey Buonaparte family home, and her sister-in-law Geltruda Paravicini helped her to walk the few yards. A curmudgeonly maidservant named Caterina acted as the midwife and laid the newborn infant on a carpet, on which were woven scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey. The child was weak, with spindly legs and a large head, but sea air and the abundant milk from wet-nurse Camilla Ilari, a sailor's wife, saw him through the perilous early days. Tradition says that a priest came from the cathedral on the day of birth to carry out a perfunctory baptism, but sober history must be content to record that the formal baptism did not take place until 21 July 1771, when it was performed in Ajaccio cathedral by Napoleon's great-uncle Lucien; the records show Lorenzo Giubeca of Calvi, procureur du roi, as the child's godfather. The little boy was christened Napoleone. It was an odd name, and its origin, predictably, is shrouded in controversy. Some claimed it was a name deriving from the Greek and meaning 'lion of the desert'. More plausibly, a Greek saint who suffered martyrdom in Alexandria under Diocletian is cited, but the most likely explanation is the simple and banal one that one of Letizia's uncles, a Paolista who had recently died, bore that name.

There is little hard evidence for the events of Napoleon's early boyhood. There is a strong tradition that he was sent in 1773 to a school for girls run by nuns and that he was the terror of the playground. The story goes that, when the children were taken for their afternoon walk, Napoleon liked to hold hands with a girl called Giacominetta. Noting also that Napoleon was sloppy with his appearance and often had his socks around his ankles, some juvenile wag composed the couplet:

Napoleone di mezza calzetta Fa l'amore a Giacominetta.

If this provocative line was uttered, the sequel would have been predictable, which was doubtless where the boy Napoleon got his early reputation for fisticuffs.

It is certain that at about the age of seven he was sent to a Jesuit school, where he learned to read and write, to do sums and take in the rudiments of Latin and ancient history. But stories of tantrums and of a systematically destructive boy who pulled the stuffing out of chairs, wrecked plants and deliberately cut grooves in tables were later accretions bruited about by his enemies and are fairly obvious attempts to read back into his childhood authenticated adult traits.

Three items of anecdotal evidence relating to these early years seem to be genuinely grounded in fact, not least because Letizia and Joseph vouched for them in old age. Letizia recalled that when she gave her children paints to use on the wall of their playroom, all the other children painted puppets but Napoleon alone painted soldiers. Joseph recalled that at school, when they played Romans and Carthaginians, Napoleon was chosen by the teacher to be a Carthaginian while Joseph was a Roman. Wanting to be on the winning side, Napoleon nagged and wheedled at the teacher until the roles were reversed and he could play the Roman. This would square with the tradition, which seems solidly grounded, that Napoleon picked on Joseph, fought with him at every opportunity and generally tried to browbeat and bully him. Joseph was quiet and mild, but Napoleon was rumbustious and belligerent.

Finally, there is Letizia's testimony that she was a stickler for the truth while Napoleon showed early signs of being a pathological liar. This was part of a general clash of wills between mother and son which saw Letizia frequently having recourse to the whip. Carlo spoiled his children, but Letizia was a fearsome martinet with a rather masculine nature and a natural love of power. A stern taskmistress who always punished for the slightest fault, Letizia laid about her with gusto when her second son misbehaved. She drove him to Mass with slaps and blows, whipped him when he stole fruit, misbehaved in church or - on one notorious occasion

- laughed at a crippled grandmother. Letizia was also cunning and devious. When her son was eight and an altar boy, she vowed to mete out punishment for his less than reverent behaviour on the altar, but faced the problem that she would find it hard to lay hands on the agile and fully-clothed Napoleon. To lull his suspicions, she told him she would not beat him for his offence. But when he took his clothes off she pounced on him with the whip.

Napoleon never cried out under the lash, but fear and respect for his mother replaced genuine love. Napoleon resented her doctrinaire principles and her sacrifice of reality for appearances. A true Latin, Letizia believed that outward show was the most important thing and that it was better to go without food so as to be able to wear a smart suit. Naturally austere and penny-pinching, she had no qualms about sending her children to bed hungry, both because she thought such hardship was good for them and because she genuinely preferred to spend the money on furnishing the house and keeping up appearances. Superficially, at least, the challenge and response between mother and son worked out well, since Napoleon did learn the value of discipline; his siblings, by contrast, were notorious for the lack of it. Napoleon's testimony to his mother on St Helena is the truth, but it is not the whole truth: 'I owe her a great deal. She instilled into me pride and taught me good sense.'

But it was on Carlo that Napoleon's future prospects depended. Despite his later claims to have been at the heart of Paolista councils, Carlo was always held at arm's length by Paoli, who never admitted him to the inner circles. Perhaps Paoli sensed that his young secretary was a political opportunist pure and simple. After the retreat to Corte in May 1769, following the rout at Ponte Nuovo, Paoli and 340 of his most devoted followers continued on to Bastia and took ship for England rather than remain under the French heel. Significantly, not only did Carlo not go with them but he immediately threw in his lot with the new French overlords. In February 1771 he was appointed assessor of the Royal Jurisdiction of Ajaccio, one of eleven on the island. Certainly not coincidentally, in the same year, on 13 September 177 1 , Carlo obtained patents from the authorities declaring the Buonaparte family noble. Corsican nobility did not confer many advantages: there were no feudal privileges, no exemption from taxes, not even any particular deference from other classes; but the advantages of the declaration of nobility for the Buonapartes were significant in the long term.

Two aspects of Carlo's career in the 1770s are particularly noteworthy: his litigiousness and his truckling to the French Commissioners who ruled the island. In the eighteenth century modern notions of privacy were still largely unknown, and Carlo was quite content to have his cousins living on the top floor of Casa Buonaparte. He drew the line, however, at their emptying the slop-bucket over Letizia's washing and brought suit against them. He then petitioned for the ownership of the Mitelli estate. This had belonged to Paolo Odone, the brother of Carlo's great-great-grandmother, who had died childless and in a fit of piety bequeathed the property to the Jesuits. When the Jesuits were suppressed in 1767-69 throughout the Bourbon kingdoms and colonies, Carlo saw his chance. The incoming French tried to expropriate the Mitelli estate as a state asset, but Carlo brought an action to have it returned to his family. The protracted legal wrangling occupied the rest of Carlo's life, with the lack of clear documentary title and unimpeachable genealogical lines telling against him.

Carlo also turned his legal guns against the Ramolinos. A clause in the act of dowry that formed part of Letizia's marriage settlement expressly stipulated that if the value of Letizia's property ever slipped below 7,000 livres, the Ramolinos had to make up the difference. Pressing the letter of the law, Carlo in 1775 began proceedings against Letizia's grandfather, the eighty-four-year-old Giovanni Ramolino. His suit was successful, but then it turned out that Giovanni could not pay the amount owed. The old man's meagre belongings - two good barrels, two crates, two wooden jars, a washing bowl, a tub, five casks, six low-quality barrels, etc - were sold at auction in Ajaccio marketplace. It is probable that Letizia, already less than enamoured by Carlo and his conduct, was deeply angered by the public humiliation of her impoverished grandfather; she was, after all, a woman who believed deeply in 'face' and appearances.

Ironically, Carlo's litigiousness, which alienated Letizia, made her more vulnerable to the charms of Carlo's protector and patron, the Comte de Marbeuf. French rule in Corsica essentially came down to the military governor and a civil intendant supported by a docile conseil superieur (a president, six French councillors, four Corsican) sitting at Bastia. From 1772-86 the military governor was Charles Rene, Comte de Marbeuf, a favourite of Louis XV's, while the Intendant from 1775-85 was M. de Boucheporn. Marbeuf, from an old Breton family, was sixty when he took up his appointment as the virtual ruler of Corsica and soon showed himself an enlightened reformer and improver, interested in crop rotation and presiding in Cartesian benevolence over a strict administra­ tive hierarchy of paese (village), pieve (canton), province and central government.

Marbeuf surrounded himself with male proteges and sycophants on the one hand and pretty women on the other. Having contracted a marriage of convenience in France, he also conveniently left his wife behind when he went out to Corsica as governor. A man whose virility belied his years, he at first kept Madame de Varesnes, the 'Cleopatra of Corsica', as his mistress. To his male proteges he distributed largesse, and one of the principal beneficiaries was Carlo. In 1777 Marbeuf secured his election as a deputy for the nobility, to represent Corsica at Versailles. Carlo was away for two years.

Marbeuf meanwhile turned his attention to Letizia. It was well known that he was besotted with her, but only in 1776, when he dropped Madame de Varesnes, did he begin the pursuit. There is very strong circumstantial evidence that Marbeuf and Letizia were lovers while Carlo was in Versailles; unfortunately, zealots for the theory that Letizia was habitually unfaithful to Carlo have tried to backdate the liaison to 1768 in order to sustain the thesis that Marbeuf was Napoleon's father. It can be stated categorically that he was not: at the probable date of Napoleon's conception, around November 1 768, Marbeuf was with French troops in winter quarters and had no connection whatever with Letizia. Yet those who have refuted the 'straw man' theory that Marbeuf was Napoleon's father have made the unwarranted further assumption that he could not have fathered any of her other children. He certainly did not beget the third son, Lucien, who was born in 1775, nor the first daughter, Maria Anna Elisa (born 1777), but it is highly likely that the fourth Buonaparte son, Louis, was really the son of Marbeuf. The calendar favours Marbeuf as father far more than Carlo; additionally Louis was quite unlike his siblings in looks, character and temperament, and shared Marbeufs brusque irascibility. Many biographers have asserted on no grounds whatever that Marbeufs relationship with Letizia was platonic and that 'she had eyes only for Carlo'. Such writers fly in the face of probability and reveal themselves as poor judges of human nature.

Marbeuf repaid Letizia in an eminently practical and concrete way. Knowing of Carlo's parlous finances, he alerted him to a little-known procedure whereby the children of distressed French nobility could receive a free education. In theory, Joseph could be trained for the priesthood at the seminary at Aix, Napoleon could be sent to military school, while the eldest girl might secure a place at Madame de Maintenon's school at St-Cyr. There was just one snag: parental applicants had to submit both a certificate of nobility and of indigence, and competition for the free places was ferocious, only 6oo being available in the whole of France. Nevertheless, with his contacts and patronage Marbeuf was confident of success. In 1778, while Carlo was still out of Corsica, Marbeuf solicited  the Minister of War, Prince de Montbarrey for free places for Joseph and Napoleon, enclosing the certificates of poverty and of four generations of nobility. Montbarrey replied provisionally on 19 July 1778, granting Napoleon a place at the military academy at Brienne and Joseph his indentures at the Aix seminary. However, there were conditions: the two Buonaparte sons had to be clear that they could not both be trained for the same profession; they had to pass the entrance examinations; and final confirmation had to await a new certificate of nobility from the royal heraldist in Versailles. Final confirmation of Napoleon's place at a military school was not received from the Minister of War until 31  December 1 778.

Marbeuf again pulled strings. The preliminary education, so necessary

after the fragmentary instruction in Corsica, would be given at the school at Autun, run by his nephew the Bishop; Marbeuf guaranteed payment of Napoleon and Joseph's fees. Carlo gushed with gratitude and wrote a sonnet in praise of his benefactor, who does not seem to have reciprocated by ending the affair with Letizia. Such was the complex family situation as Napoleon, at the age of nine, prepared to depart for Autun. What was the impact of those first nine years, in which all the essential 'formation' of his personality was done?

The Corsican legacy may partly account for the ruthless pragmatism in Napoleon's personality, the impatience with abstract theory and the conviction that, ultimately, human problems are solved by main force. There is also the 'primitive' aspect of the adult Napoleon, frequently noticed by memorialists and biographers. The psychoanalyst A. A. Brill wrote: 'There is no doubt that Napoleon represents the very acme of primitivity,' and went on to argue that his universal fascination lies in his embodiment of those primitive qualities we can scarcely acknowledge consciously in 'civilized' society. This is not so very strange when we consider the backward and primitive nature of eighteenth-century Corsican life, where even the everyday sights, smells and sounds were primordial. Contemporary accounts speak of the streets of Ajaccio as suffused with the stench of animals slaughtered outside butchers' shops and the animal hides stretched out to tan in the sun. The noisome foetor in the streets was exacerbated by the clouds of flies, the stifling summer climate, and the acute shortage of water. There are grounds for believing that Napoleon's later addiction to lying in hot baths was compensation for a childhood marked by water shortage.

The other quintessentially primitive aspect of Corsica, noted by all travellers and visitors to the island, was the vendetta. The tradition of blood vengeance was handed down to the seventh generation, and a girl had the number of her cousins reckoned as part of her dowry so that wrongs done to the clan would never be forgotten; the males in the clan refused to shave and went about bearded until the affront to the family honour was avenged. It was this aspect of the Corsicans that ancien regime statesmen like the due de Choiseul particularly hated. Rousseau, Boswell and other admirers might praise the Corsicans as shrewd, verbose, voluble, highly intelligent and as interested in politics as the inhabitants of an ancient Greek city-state. But against this, said the critics, was the fact that the Corsicans were also proud, prickly, arrogant, vindictive, unforgiving, implacable, vengeful and alarmingly quick to take offence or construe words and actions as insults.

The institution of vendetta knew no boundaries of class or status, only of family and clan. Napoleon himself clearly surmounted the tradition of vendetta, as he always killed his enemies for reasons of state not out of personal grievance; indeed he can be faulted for being absurdly tolerant of inveterate personal enemies. His enemies in Corsica, however, did not have his forbearance: the rival family of Pozzo di Borgo pursued the Buonapartes with vendetta to Napoleon's grave and beyond. They intrigued with his enemies, manipulated Czar Alexander and were among the first to suggest St Helena as a place of exile. Only after the fall of Louis-Napoleon in 1 870 and the death of the Prince Imperial in the Zulu War of 1 879 did the Pozzo di Borgos relax and build the castle of LaPunta as a monument to their final victory.


Far more important than the influence of Corsica on Napoleon was the impact of his family. It is quite clear from his later career, as indeed from the tenuous record of his first nine years, that Napoleon was obsessed by rivalry with Joseph and yearned to supplant him. The later political history of Napoleon the emperor is sometimes inexplicable without taking into account his 'Joseph complex'. In later years Napoleon indulged his elder brother shamelessly, leading one to conclude that the childhood hatred must have been compensated and the original aggression visited on others. It was this consideration that led Freud to write: 'To push Joseph aside, to take his place, to become Joseph himself, must have been the little Napoleon's strongest emotion. . . . Hundreds of thousands of strangers had to pay the penalty of this little fiend's having spared his first enemy.' The early feelings of hostility towards his brother may well have been compounded, in Napoleon's unconscious, by the idea that he was a 'replacement child' for the first Napoleon, who died in 1 765; Joseph, therefore, had a clear identity and a clear focus in his parents' affections which he, as a 'substitute', did not have.

Towards his father Napoleon always evinced an character­ ized by contempt for the real man coupled with idolization of Carlo or a Platonic form of Carlo; this maybe found expression ultimately in Napoleon's desire to be a second great French Emperor, the first being Charlemagne who, bearing the same Christian name as his father, was the ideal-type. Consciously, Napoleon disliked his father's extravagance and addiction to pleasure, but was proud of him as a patriot and Paolista. Yet it is universally conceded that during Napoleon's early life Carlo was a shadowy figure. The really important early parental influence came from his mother.


Some of the mistakes attributed to Letizia probably did not have the consequences ascribed to them. Wilhelm Reich speculated, from the mixture of great energy and passive tendencies, that Napoleon might have been a 'phallic-narcissistic' character, as a result of an 'overfemini­ zed' early socialization, with the nuns at school and the overbearing Letizia at home. It is, however, unlikely that his brief attendance at the nuns' school had any significant role in his formation, and it is surely far­ fetched to imagine Letizia's beatings as the genesis of sado-masochistic tendencies. However, the general thesis of an unconscious desire for revenge against the opposite sex seems well grounded in the evidence of his later life. In particular, he always thought of women as being totally without honour, duplicitous, deceivers, liars.

In later life Napoleon always showered lavish praise on his mother in public or when talking to inferiors. To intimates and confidantes it was a different story, for then he allowed himself to express his darker feelings about Letizia. In theory her meanness with money should have balanced

Carlo's extravagance but the adult Napoleon felt, though he would obviously not have used the term, that both his parents were neurotic in countervailing and fissiparous ways. He hated the way his mother got him to spy on Carlo when he was drinking and gambling in the Ajaccio saloons. There were also more sinister suspicions about Letizia and Marbeuf that he dared not express consciously. But it is important to be clear that Napoleon's ambivalence about his mother was part of a general obsession with Letizia, and we would therefore be justified in adding 'mother fixation' to the other 'complexes' already noted.

All human beings struggle in vain against the determinism of the parental legacy, both biological and psychological. The curious paradox of being a charismatic workaholic, which was the character of the adult Napoleon, surely results from the very different and centrifugal qualities of his two ill-matched parents. From Carlo he would appear to have derived the histrionic and magnetic qualities, the self-dramatization and the ability to win men; from Letizia came the self-discipline and the fanatical devotion to work. It was the Letizia-derived qualities that would be most valuable to him during his virtual orphancy at Brienne.