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


On I 5 December 1779 a veritable cohort of Buonapartes left Corsica, all ultimately headed in different directions. Carlo, once again named deputy for the nobility of the Estates-General of Corsica, was on his way to Versailles. In his charge were the young Fesch, who was beginning his studies at the seminary at Aix-en-Provence, Napoleon, who was to spend four months learning French before being assigned to a military school, and Joseph, likewise going to the school at Autun to learn French before beginning to study for the priesthood. The other adult in the party was Letizia's cousin, the Abbe Varese, who had been appointed subdeacon at Autun Cathedral.

In his memoirs Joseph states categorically that the party crossed to La Spezia and visited Florence before proceeding to France, but the calendar tells against him, for he and Napoleon were definitely enrolled at the school at Autun in Burgundy on New Year's Day I779· Carlo dropped off Fesch at the Aix seminary and then proceeded north with Varese to Autun. Three weeks after his sons had started school, Carlo was notified by the War Ministry that Napoleon had, in principle, been assigned to the military school at Tiron, but that some final formalities concerning the title to nobility had still to be cleared up. However on 28 March 1779 Montbarrey informed Carlo that Napoleon was actually being sent to the military school at Brienne in Champagne. Since Carlo was by now in Versailles and detained on business, he asked Mgr Marbeuf, the Bishop of Autun, to take Napoleon up to Brienne to begin his education proper. Serendipity intervened, so that Napoleon did not actually commence his schooling at Brienne on 23 April, official school records notwithstand­ ing. A certain captain Champeaux, on leave from his regiment in Nice, arrived in Autun to convey his son from the school to Brienne. Learning that the Champeaux boy was going to the same place as the young Buonaparte,  Mgr  Marbeuf decided  to  save  himself a  journey  and prevailed on Champeaux to take Napoleon with him. Joseph described the parting from his brother: he Ooseph) was red-eyed from weeping but Napoleon shed just a single tear. On 22 April the Champeaux family took


Napoleon with them for a three-week holiday at the family chateau in Thoisy-le-Desert. But Mgr Marbeuf, who had squared this arrangement with the school at Brienne, had not quite calculated all the odds, for at the end of the holiday the young Jean-Baptiste Champeaux was found to be too ill to continue to Brienne; Marbeuf thus had to send his vicar, the Abbe Harney, to take Napoleon over to Brienne - something he could have done three weeks earlier.

Napoleon arrived in Brienne on 1 5 May 1 779. The military 'college' there, originally a monastery, stood at the foot of a hill dominated by the chateau. A religious academy from 1 730, it had become a military school in 1 776, one of ten (later twelve) such schools set up to replace the Ecole


Royale Militaire in Paris, which had been wound up that year on grounds of cost. It was still run by monks and the religious ethos was dominant, but the Minimes of the Order of St Benedict were poor and ignorant, the Brienne school was underfunded so could not afford to engage top-class teachers, was the lowest-ranked of all ten military colleges and had the lowest student enrolment (around 1 50) as against a top military school like La FU:che (with nearly 500). Its aim was to prepare the sons of the nobility for eventual cadetships in the armed services but, apart from a course in fortification in the final year, the education was not remotely military, but rather a variant of the standard training of the eighteenth­ century gentleman. The theory was that the best pupils would be selected for the artillery, the engineers and the navy, and the mediocre ones for the infantry; only those too stupid even for the cavalry would be sent back in disgrace to their families.


In this sleepy town on the vast open plains of Champagne Napoleon spent five years. He often professed an admiration for Sparta, but here he had to live like a Spartan of old. There were two corridors, both of which contained seventy cells, each six feet square, furnished with a strap bed, a water jug and a basin. Students were locked into their cells at 10 p. m., in a vain attempt to stamp out homosexual practices which were rampant at the Brienne school. In an emergency a pupil could press a bell which communicated with the corridor where a servant slept. At 6 a.m. reveille sounded. After a breakfast of bread and water and some fruit in a common dining-hall which seated 1 80 persons, lessons began. The morning was given over to Latin, history, mathematics, geography, drawing and some German. A two-hour lunch break followed, where the standard of food improved. A typical menu contained soup, bouilli, roast meat, salad and dessert. Teaching in the afternoon concentrated on fencing, dancing, music and handwriting. There was a brief break for 'tea' which was a repeat of breakfast, and later there was a dinner which repeated the lunch menu. Only on feast days did the monotonous fare vary: one Epiphany Napoleon noted down that the boys had been served chicken, cauliflower, beetroot salad, cake, chestnuts and hot dessert.


There was a strict dress code. Pupils wore a blue coat with red facings and white metal buttons; the waistcoat was blue faced with white; the breeches were blue or black and an overcoat was allowed in winter. No servants were permitted. Linen was changed twice a week, but only one rug was permitted on the bed, except in cases of illness. Up to the age of twelve the boys had to have their hair cut short but after that a pigtail was to be worn; powder could be worn only on Sundays and saints' days. The regime was austere in other ways. Boys were not allowed to visit home except in the case of death or severe illness of a parent, parental visits were discouraged, and there were no real holidays. During the short annual break between zr A�gust and 8 September classes were cancelled and the boys taken on long walks, though the Champagne countryside hardly inspired Romantic feelings: Brienne was situated in flat, agricul­ tural and often flooded or waterlogged terrain, where the monotony was broken only by wretched, poverty-stricken villages, dilapidated cottages, smoking bothies and thatched hovels.

The  teachers  at the  school  were  of poor  calibre  and  sometimes downright incompetent. The Berton brothers, who had started life in the Army and now acted as Principal and Vice-Principal, did not run a tight ship and were even cavalier about religion: the younger Berton brother, Jean-Baptiste, used to race through Mass in nine or ten minutes. Vulgar yet pretentious, tough yet incompetent, cynical, worldly and faineant, the Berton brothers, as their name suggests, would have been better running a circus than a military school. Official inspections of the school in 1785 and 1 787 found laziness and carelessness in both staff and students, and the r 787 report recorded outright indiscipline. The Bertons' career was hardly a glittering success. Napoleon, in one of those flashes of genuine generosity his critics never acknowledge, rescued Louis Berton, the Principal, from poverty in later years and gave him a sinecure in educational administration, but the man died insane. The brother proved that his record-breaking time for saying Mass was no fluke by getting himself released from his vows after the Revolution.

The approach to teaching was as pragmatic as the brothers' general attitude. Latin was studied for moral example, not so as to provide models for rhetoric; the elements of logic were instilled by detaching them from their metaphysical and Aristotelian roots; German was taught because it might be useful in a future war; history, geography and mathematics for their use in topography and fortification, and so on.


Plenty of Latin authors were picked over- Virgil, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Cicero, Horace, Cornelius Nepos - but Napoleon could never master Latin inflections (strangely for one with such mathematical talents). In any case, his favourite classical author was Plutarch, who wrote in Greek. What Napoleon liked most about the ancient world was the study of its military leaders such as Caesar. From the story of his assassination boys were meant to draw the moral that Caesar was a tyrant and Brutus the champion of liberty; but Napoleon concluded that Caesar was a great man and Brutus a traitor.

There were twenty teachers instructing six classes, but the only ones remembered by Napoleon with any affection were Father Patrault, the head of mathematics, and Father Dupuy, the head of French. He was unmusical, sang out of tune, hated dancing, fencing and deportment and was hopeless at all of them but evinced a flair for ancient history and was brilliant at mathematics. He liked geography but his actual knowledge was always shaky: in later life he confused the river Elbe with the Ebro and Smolensk with Salamanca. He never mastered the rules of spelling and always spoke French with an Italian accent, pronouncing certain words as if they obeyed Italian rules of phonetics.

No Greek was taught at Brienne and only the most elementary Latin; Napoleon read the classical authors in translation. He read omnivorously if erratically and was soon recognized as one of the more able pupils. In August and September each year the school opened its doors to the public for exercices publics, in which the cleverest boys answered questions put to them by the masters in the presence of Church and State dignitaries. After 1 780 Napoleon was a prize exhibit each year at these sessions. In 1 781 he was awarded a prize for mathematics by the due d'Orleans; in 1 782 he answered on mathematics and ancient history; and in 1783 he answered mathematical problems that were as difficult as his teachers could make them. Despite his brilliance, he never got his teeth into higher mathematics, simply because there was no one at Brienne with the talent to teach him.

If Napoleon's academic progress at Brienne was fair, his social and personal formation was disastrous. Three things combined to turn him into a misanthropic recluse when not yet in his teens: brutality, social snobbery and racial prejudice. Brutality was visited on him by both boys and masters. Corporal punishment was officially outlawed at Brienne as damaging to body and soul, but this proscription was honoured more in the breach than the observance. On one occasion Napoleon was punished by having to eat his dinner kneeling down in the refectory, wearing coarse brown homespun and a dunce's cap. This brought on hysteria and an attack of vomiting. Father Patrault, the head of mathematics, a tall, red­ faced man who was the only one at Brienne to discern Napoleon's true intellectual potential, intervened and reproved the master who had inflicted the punishment.

Napoleon's initial problem with the other boys was that he would not consent to be a 'nymph', as the catamites in the school, well known to be honeycombed with homosexuality, were called. This inevitably led to beatings-up and fights. His sallow skin, his nationality and even his name set him apart. His schoolmates converted 'Napoleone' into paille au nez ('straw nose') - an insult he still remembered at the end of his life. Great mirth was occasioned by Napoleon's first encounter with ice, in his water jug. 'Who's put glass in my water jug?' he cried, to hoots of laughter. Napoleon's response to such humiliations was to insult his fellow-pupils in turn, which led to further fisticuffs. But he won grudging respect from his peers by not 'peaching' to the masters.

Yet the major source of tension was Napoleon's virulent Corsican nationalism and his worship of Paoli. His schoolmates scoffed at Paoli; he expressed his hatred for Choiseul; they jeered that the Corsicans were a defeated people and were natural cowards; he replied that they were the bravest of the brave and could easily have handled odds of four to one but not the ten to one they actually faced; moreover, he would one day make good his words by leading Corsica to independence. There is also this highly significant outburst to one of his teachers: 'Paoli was a great man: he loved his fatherland, and I shall never forgive my father, who was his adjutant, for helping to unite Corsica to France. He should have followed his fortunes and succumbed with him.'

The spiral of taunt, counter-taunt, playground fight and return match between Napoleon and schoolmates continued. The arrival in 1 782 of another student from Corsica, Elie-Charles de Bragelonne, might conceivably have been a source of relief, but Bragelonne was the son of the French military commander in Bastia, and the strong anti-Napoleon schoolboy faction twisted this to its own advantage. Knowing that Corsicans hated Genoese even more than the French, they put Bragelonne up to pretending he was Genoese. The sequel was predictable: Napoleon flew at the boy and pulled out his hair in tufts, leading to another fight. But there is a tradition that Bragelonne later joined in Napoleon's anti-schoolmaster baiting and troublemaking and even aspired to inherit his mantle in this regard, for he was expelled in 1786. There must have been some kind of rapport, for Napoleon later made him one of his generals.

There  are  many  accounts  of  Napoleon  at  Brienne  by  alleged contemporaries but only four of them seem authentic, and even these have often been doctored or suffused with the 'wisdom' of retrospection. Hence the surfeit of apocrypha from these years - the plaintive pleas from Napoleon to his parents for pocket-money, the alleged visit to Brittany, etc. Napoleon himself, in his St Helena memoirs, doubtless exaggerated the misery at school, the violence and the loneliness. Yet all the evidence dovetails to underline the inescapable conclusion that he did not fit in, did not make friends easily, was unpopular and a lone wolf. Two of the best authenticated stories show him in the two moods he habitually demonstrated at Brienne: either a reserved, meditative loner who would turn to violence if provoked; or an aggressive gang-leader. As part of the ethos of 'robust bodies, enlightened minds, honest hearts' so falteringly applied by the Berton brothers, all students were encouraged to take up outdoor recreations. Napoleon and three of his schoolmates opted for gardening, but Napoleon quickly bribed the others to give up their rights in the patch of garden and then enclosed his plot with a 'palisade'. He liked to retire inside this redoubt to be alone, private and au dessus de Ia melee, to work on an algebraic problem or read his favourite books- Plutarch, Macpherson's Ossian and Marshal Saxe on military campaigning. On the feast of St Louis the other boys let off fireworks, but Napoleon, as a pointed demonstration of his Corsican patriotism, held aloof. One of the fireworks exploded a fresh box of firecrackers, at which the boys panicked and stampeded through the gardens, trampling down Napoleon's stockade. In a fury he emerged with a spade and laid about him, as a retaliation for which he was later ambushed and beaten up. His peers took the line that Napoleon should have been able to see that the whole affair was a genuine accident and been rational about it. But to Napoleon, obsessed as he was with notions of defending  Corsica  against  the  French  invader,  the  incident  was  a microcosm of all the events that caused him greatest grief.

The most famous event featuring Napoleon at Brienne comes from late in his years at the school, in the winter of 1783-84. There had been heavy snowfall and Napoleon, now fourteen, suggested to his bored fellow pupils that they build a snow fortress in the courtyard, and then divide into two groups, besiegers and besieged, for a massive snowfight. The idea was at first a huge success, with Napoleon commanding both sides, but things took an ugly turn when the boys began to cover large stones in an outer casing of snow; serious wounds were sustained as a result. Needless to say, this incident was always cited later as prefiguring Napoleon's military genius. A better index of his Promethean ambitions is his well-authenticated remark to the Inspector-General M. de Keralio in 1782, when Napoleon announced he wanted to devote his life to science - either producing a general theory of electricity or inventing a model of the cosmos to replace the Newtonian system.

By 1782 Napoleon had decided that he wanted to join the Navy. It was conceivable that, the following year, he could have been sent either to the naval training school in Paris or to the Ecole Militaire in Paris, but the

royal Inspector-General decided he had not yet spent enough time at Brienne to be transferred . In 1 783 the Inspector-General, M. de Keralio, kept the boy's options open. 'M. de Bonaparte (Napoleon), born 1 5 August 1 769 . Height 5'3". Constitution: excellent health, docile expres­ sion, mild, straightforward, thoughtful. Conduct most satisfactory; has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics. He is fairly well     acquainted             with  history       and           geography.   He  is weak in all accomplishments - drawing, dancing, music and the like. This boy would make an excellent sailor; deserves to be admitted to the school in Paris.' What decided Napoleon's fate was a downturn in his family's fortunes.

Since Napoleon last saw his father, Carlo had not fared well. Once in Paris in 1 779, he tried to press to have the Odone estate returned to him or at least to be compensated for it, but in vain. With a letter of introduction from Marbeuf he was granted audience with Louis XVI who, impressed by the Governor of Corsica's patronage of the supplicant, granted him his secondary request: a subsidy for the planting of mulberry trees which, it was hoped, would eventually make Corsica a silk­ producing centre. But Carlo claimed all this money was absorbed by his expenses in Paris and the costs of lobbying. In his accounts book he noted: 'In Paris I received 4,000 francs from the King and a fee of r,ooo crowns from the government, but I came back without a penny.'

Meanwhile his family continued to grow. When Napoleon went to Brienne he was already the second child in a family of five but by the time he next saw his father there had been two additions to the brood (Marie Pauline, born in 1 780 and Maria Annunciata Caroline in 1782). At the same time Carlo had declined in health and lost weight - clearly the first signs of the stomach cancer that would carry him off in 1 785 . This reduced his earning power at the very time his financial resources were declining, for in 1 784 Marbeuf ceased to be the generous patron of old. A man of exceptional sexual vigour, he married an eighteen-year-old and began keeping Letizia at arm's length. Carlo had hoped Napoleon would be promoted either to Toulon or Paris in 1783 and, with this in mind, had had Lucien brought over from Corsica to slot into Napoleon's vacant cadetship.  Keralio's  report  ended  his  hopes,  but  he decided  to visit


Brienne anyway, in hopes of getting the Bertons to take on the eight­ year-old Lucien.

The farewell act of patronage Marbeuf had performed for Carlo was getting Elisa placed with the nuns at St-Cyr in Paris. Hoping to kill two birds with one stone, Carlo arrived at Brienne on 2 1 June 1 784 en route to Paris with Elisa. Also in tow was Lucien, who had been with Joseph at Autun since the year before. Apart from generally gloomy news about the family's finances, Carlo had three further items of bad news to impart to Napoleon: Letizia was not in the best of health, having contracted puerperal fever after the birth of Caroline; Lucien was coming to stay at Brienne for some months; and Joseph had decided he had no vocation, so wanted to quit his studies as a seminarist.

Sullenly Napoleon accepted the custodianship of the now nine-year­ old Lucien. The notoriously bad later relationship between the two brothers seems to have had its origin here, for Lucien reported that Napoleon was broody and withdrawn, greeted him without affection and showed him no tenderness or kindness. Lucien deeply resented this and always said it was because of Napoleon's attitude that he (Lucien) felt the greatest repugnance in bowing to him when Emperor.

Carlo's visit is described in some detail in the first authentic letter written by Napoleon, on 25 June 1784, to his uncle Nicolo Paravicini. Napoleon was outraged by Joseph's ambition to join the artillery after leaving the seminary, for the notorious inter-service rivalry meant that was probably the end of his own ambitions to enter the Navy. Although, therefore, we must realize that Napoleon had his own reasons for the unflattering portrait he painted of Joseph, the analysis still shows very shrewd insight into his elder brother's failings. The lucid, cold, pragmatic adult Napoleon is essentially on display here. He pointed out that Joseph had poor health and lacked physical courage, that he had not faced the reality of Army life but thought only of the social side of garrison existence. What a pity that Joseph was abandoning a career where, with Bishop Marbeufs patronage, he too could soon have a bishopric. And how was Joseph going to make the grade, he who had shown no aptitude for mathematics? Even if he were not congenitally lazy, had he fully realized that he would have to spend five years learning his putative profession as an engineer?

At some stage Letizia also visited Napoleon at Brienne and was appalled at how thin and cadaverous he was. This must have been on a visit distinct from Carlo's, though careless historians have run the two together. But one visit Napoleon looked forward to with more trepidation was the arrival in September of M.  Reynaud des Monts,  the sub-inspector of military schools. On 22 September Des Monts examined Napoleon and found him qualified to enter the military school in Paris. The only question now remaining was whether a place would be found. Napoleon did not rate his chances highly, as he thought his lack of the classical  languages  would  stand  between  him  and  the  Ecole Royale Militaire in Paris. Fortunately, at this very juncture the Ministry of War authorized a special intake of candidates outstanding in mathematics. Early in October word came through that Napoleon and three schoolfellows had been selected for the school in Paris; Lucien could have the Brienne berth after all.

This was the end of Napoleon's naval ambitions, once so intense that he actually thought of applying to the Royal Navy in England for a cadetship. To this unlikely historical might-have-been can be added a more sombre possibility. In expressing his continuing enthusiasm for the Navy in 1 784, Napoleon mentioned his ambition of sailing with the great French navigator La Perouse, then preparing for a Pacific expedition to rival those of Captain Cook. La Perouse sailed in 1785 but three years later was shipwrecked with the loss of all hands at Vanikoro Island in the south-west Pacific, between the Solomons and the New Hebrides. But for an administrative decision in Paris, the great European conqueror could easily have died in obscurity in an oceanic grave.

Napoleon and his three schoolfellows, whose names have been preserved for history (Montarby de Dampierre, Castries de Vaux, Laugier de Bellecour) accompanied by a monk (possibly Berton himself), left Brienne on 1 7 October by water coach and, after joining the Seine at Pont Marie, began to enter the suburbs at 4 p. m. on the 19th. The cadets were allowed to linger until nightfall before entering the military school, so Napoleon bought a novel from one of the quayside bookstalls, allowing his comrade Castries de Vaux to pay. The choice of book was surely significant: Gil Bias was the story of an impoverished Spanish boy who rose to high political office. Then their religious chaperon insisted they say a prayer in the church of St-Germain-des-Pres before entering the Ecole Royale Militaire.

Built by the architect Gabriel thirteen years before, the Ecole Royale was a marvel of Corinthian columns and Doric colonnades looking out on to the Champ de Mars and already hailed as one of the sights of Paris. Inside the building, carved, sculpted, painted and gilded walls, ceilings, doors and chimney-pieces were picked out with a plethora of statues and portraits of military heroes. The classrooms were papered in blue with gold ornamentation; there were curtains at the windows and doors. Students slept in a large dormitory warmed by earthenware stoves, and each boy had a separate cubicle, with an iron bedstead, linen drapery to go over the bed, a chair and shelves, a pewter jug and wash basin. Everything was on a lavish scale. There were 2 1 5 cadets in Napoleon's time but staff outnumbered students for, apart from the thirty professors and a librarian, there were priests, sacristans, riding instructors, grooms, stable hands, armourers, a medical staff, concierges, guardians of the prison, doorkeepers, lamplighters, shoemakers, wigmakers, gardeners, kitchen staff and no less than 1 50 servants. When Napoleon's name was formally entered on the rolls as a gentleman cadet on 22 October, he was given a splendid blue uniform, with red collar, splashes of yellow and scarlet on the cuffs, silver braid and white gloves. Linen was changed three times a week and the entire uniform replaced every April and October.

The luxury at the military school rather shocked Napoleon, and when he came to power he insisted on Spartan austerity at military academies. On St Helena Napoleon told Las Cases of three delicious meals every day, with choice of desserts at dinner and said: 'We were magnificently fed and served, treated in every way like officers possessed of great wealth, certainly greater than that of most of our families and far above what many of us would enjoy later on.'

His memory was selective, for the daily routine was gruelling enough. Cadets began their studies at 7 a.m. and finished at 7 p.m. - an eight­ hour day with breaks. Each lesson lasted two hours, each class contained twenty to twenty-five students, and each branch of study was taught by a single teacher and his deputy. Accordingly, there were sixteen instructors for the eight subjects on the curriculum: mathematics, geography, history, French grammar, fortification, drawing, fencing and dancing. Three days a week were spent on the first four subjects and three days on the second four, so there were six hours' instruction in each discipline. On Sundays and feastdays the cadets spent four hours in the classroom, writing letters or reading improving books. In addition, there was drill every day as well as, on Thursdays and Sundays, shooting practice and military exercises. Punishment for infraction of the rules was severe: arrest and imprisonment with or without water. The most common misdemeanours committed were leaving the building without official permission (almost never granted) and receiving unauthorized pocket­ money from parents.

Napoleon's academic progress closely mirrored his years at Brienne. He was outstanding in mathematics, was an enthusiastic fencer, but poor at drawing and dancing, and hopeless at German; as became clear later, he had absolutely no linguistic talent. Once again he read omnivorously and by now had a distinct taste for Rousseau and Montesquieu. But also, once again, the student of Napoleon is confronted by a number of anecdotes of doubtful credibility. He is alleged to have gone to the Champ de Mars in March 1785 to see the balloonist Blanchard ascend in the type of hot-air balloon made famous by the Montgolfier brothers. The story goes that Blanchard kept postponing the moment of take-off, so that Napoleon became impatient, cut the ropes keeping the balloon earthbound, and thus caused a scandal for which he was punished. But the sober historical record finds nothing more to say than that on 1 5 May 1785 he was confirmed by the Archbishop of Paris, and on the z6th of that month he took part in a review presided over by the Minister of War, Marshal Segur.

For the first time in his life Napoleon made a true friend. Alexandre Des Mazis, was an ardent royalist from a military family in Strasbourg, who was in the year ahead of him and a senior cadet in charge of musketry training. He needed to draw on the resources of this friendship when news came that Carlo Buonaparte had died and the family was in straitened circumstances. Sustained pain and vomiting had led the ailing Carlo to consult physicians in Paris, Montpellier and Aix-en-Provence, but they were powerless against cancer. Carlo died on 24 February 1785, leaving Napoleon in financial limbo. He wrote to his uncle Lucien, the archdeacon, asking him to sustain the family until he qualified as an officer, and set to work to cram two or three years' work into as many months.

Carlo's death caused Napoleon considerable financial anxiety but no great sorrow or grief. He despised his father and could not see that he had any achievements to his credit. The emotions he felt seem to have been indifference and relief. In 1 8oz he rejected a proposal by Montpellier Municipal Council to erect a monument to his father in these words: 'Forget it: let us not trouble the peace of the dead. Leave their ashes in peace. I also lost my grandfather, my great-grandfather, why is nothing done for them? This leads too far. ' Much later he said Carlo's death was a happy accident, for he was an unsubtle political trimmer and in the post- 1789 quicksands would certainly have made the kinds of blunders that would have finished off Napoleon's career before it got started. Yet Napoleon, especially as a Corsican, could not simply slough off his need for a father; at this stage he 'solved' the problem by elevating Paoli to the position of father-figure.

Napoleon immersed himself in his studies, now desperate to make the grade as an artillery officer. Entry to the elite corps of the artillery was normally a two-stage process.  First came an examination on the first volume of Etienne Bezout's Cours de Mathematiques, the artilleryman's bible. There then followed a year in artillery school, after which cadets were examined on the next three volumes of Bezout; if successful, candidates were then commissioned as second lieutenants. Oustandingly gifted boys could take a single examination on all four volumes of Bezout and go straight into a regiment with a commission. Only a very few attempted this feat every year, but among them in 1785 was Napoleon Buonaparte.

Every summer an examiner came to the military school to test artillery candidates. Until 1783 it had been the renowned Bezout himself, but then his place was taken by Pierre Simon, marquis de Laplace. One of the great authentic scientific geniuses of the eighteenth century, Laplace was a brilliant mathematician who specialized in astronomy. His theories explained the motions of Saturn and Jupiter and its moons, the workings of the tides, the nebulae in deep space, electromagnetism and molecular physics. In September 1785 Laplace subjected Napoleon to a rigorous examination in differential equations and algebra as well as the practical applications of mathematics.

Only fifty-eight candidates were taken into the artillery from all schools and colleges in France. The Ecole Royale Militaire in Paris should have had the edge but, of the seventeen boys put in for the examination, only four featured among the successful fifty-eight. Among them was Napoleon, placed forty-second, Des Mazis, placed fifty-sixth and Napoleon's bitter student rival Le Picard de Phelipeaux, who was forty­ first. To be forty-second out of fifty-eight does not sound distinguished, and this fact has contributed to the persistent idea that Napoleon was not a particularly brilliant student, but it must be remembered that he was up against students who in some cases had had two years' more study than he. In September, just sixteen, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He and Des Mazis had expressed a wish to join the same regiment, and the request was granted; the two friends were gazetted to join the La Fere regiment at Valence in the RhOne valley. Some have speculated that Napoleon's request had an ulterior motive, since the La Fere regiment was known to have served in Corsica ever since 1769. But if there was Machiavellianism in his method, Napoleon was disappointed: by 1785 only twenty men from the regiment remained in Corsica and the rest were in Provence.


Napoleon's education was now complete and his personality formed in all essentials; there would be no decisive change in attitudes until 1792 and probably no fundamental shift in world-view until 1795 , when he first tasted real power. He entered the Army shockingly ill-prepared for military life, at least by modern standards. Knowing nothing of the real conditions he might encounter on a battlefield, and still less of Army regulations, he was rather like the nineteenth-century English gentleman with a classical education sent out to administer India; he was to learn the craft of soldiering on the job. Cynics have claimed that the Ecole Royale Militaire was little more than a finishing school, but that even so it left

Napoleon as much of a primitive savage as when he entered it.

If the military schools at Brienne and Paris had been designed to promote social inequality, as was claimed, they failed miserably with Napoleon. The experience of being a poor boy among rich cadets embittered him and left him cynical. If the idea of racial and cultural equality had been taken seriously at Brienne, he would not have been bullied for his Corsican origins. At the Ecole Royale in Paris the official lip service paid to equality between the eighty-three paying students and the 132 scholarship boys simply resulted in a kind of crude 'levelling up' where the poor were trapped by peer pressure into living beyond their means. Napoleon grew to hate aristocrats whose only 'virtue' was that they had been born in the right bedroom. He referred to them as 'the curse of the nation . . . imbeciles . . . hereditary asses', and his hatred was compounded by the aristocratic contempt for those of lesser breeding, even if they were a hundred times more talented. Actually, in the context of the ancien regime, Napoleon was luckier than he knew for the artillery, to be entered only by those of great mathematical talent, was the only branch of the Army where a career genuinely was open to talent.

It may be that contempt for an organized religion that could condone blatant injustices contrary to its own official teachings was what finished Catholicism for Napoleon. Certainly by the time he left Brienne he had lost his faith, though still obliged to make public obeisance to its forms. Napoleon's later explanation for his alienation from the Church was threefold. First there was the hypocritical force-feeding of rote-learned religious doctrine at Brienne, often inculcated by monks, like the Bertons, whose own credentials as believers were open to doubt. Then there was his reading of Rousseau, who believed in a civil religion that was the ideology of the State, and loathed Catholicism for forming a middle layer between the citizen and society. Additionally, Rousseau, like Machiavelli, believed in the old civic virtue of Ancient Rome and Sparta, and in line with this theory believed Christianity turned out effete, emasculated soldiers and citizens. Finally, Napoleon's love of the ancient world was affronted by the bigotry of the monks at Brienne who taught that the classical authors, for all the brilliance and elegance of their writings, were roasting in Hell because they were pagans. This idea seemed spectacu­ larly absurd to the young Napoleon. We might add that although Napoleon believed, along with the Catholic Church, in original sin, he was a thoroughgoing pessimist about human nature and did not believe in redemption in any form.

At this stage Rousseau was still the lodestone Napoleon steered by. It is easy to see the appeal: Napoleon in his teens was also a fanatical Corsican nationalist and Rousseau had praised Corsica as the one society in Europe where true freedom and equality might emerge. The visionary view of Corsica as a society where Spartan simplicity, civic virtue, equality and austerity contrasted with the corruption of mainland France, almost as though Rousseau's Social Contract had been given physical form, was reinforced by his worship of Paoli, who by the later years in Brienne had already displaced Carlo as father-figure. Napoleon's critics then and since have argued that his Francophobia was deeply illogical, given that he was drawing on French funds to obtain an education and had obtained the place at Brienne solely because he was accepted as belonging to the French nobility. One senior officer at the military school in Paris finally got a bellyful of Paoli and Corsica and rounded on Napoleon sternly: 'Sir, you are a King's cadet; you must remember this and moderate your love for Corsica, which is after all part of France.'

Slighted for his low-grade Corsican nobility, regarded as a bore for his island nationalism, Napoleon had further reason to believe, on the evidence of his school years, that he was an Ishmael, with every man's hand turned against him. He experienced severe difficulty in making friends, was let down by most of those he did make, but on the other hand seemed to make bitter enemies by the mere fact of his existence. At Brienne he was taken up by Fauvelet de Bourrienne, who later painted an idyllic picture of the two supposed friends bathing in the ice-cold waters of the Aube. Bourrienne's Army career was a failure but in 1797 Napoleon appointed him as his secretary. His reward was to find that Bourrienne cheated him at every opportunity. Bourrienne was a fraudster, embezzler, defalcator and money launderer on a grand scale. Napoleon treated him with great indulgence, but again received scant recompense. Bourrienne's ghosted memoirs - a cynical moneymaking exercise - were a work of blatant propaganda, still uncritically used by Napoleon's critics as an authentic picture of the man.

Another Brienne schoolfriend was one of those who accompanied Napoleon to the military school in Paris: Laugier de Bellecour, the son of a baron. Laugier had flirted with the homosexual set at Brienne, but Napoleon warned him that if he succumbed to their blandishments, that would be the end of his friendship. Laugier either did resist, or was able to persuade Napoleon that he had. But once in Paris the temptation was simply too great. Laugier 'came out', to Napoleon's disgust, and when the Corsican coldly told him their friendship was over, Laugier, angry and distraught, assaulted him. Laugier came off the worse from the encounter, and a contemplated charge of assault against Napoleon was dropped, since the school authorities knew all about Laugier's proclivities.


At the military school in Paris Napoleon had the first of the 'hate at first sight' experiences that were to dog him through life. His enemy was Le Picard de Phelipeaux, who just pipped him into forty-first place in the artillery examination, became an emigre after the Revolution, and fought with the British against Napoleon at Acre in 1798. But Napoleon had the gift for rubbing up the wrong way against young females as well as male rivals. In 1785 he sometimes visited Madame Permon, a Corsican and an old friend of Carlo; she had married a rich French commissary officer and had two daughters, Cecile and Laure. There seems to have been an instant antagonism between Napoleon and Laure who, seeing his long legs in officers' boots, laughed at him and called him 'Puss in Boots'. Although Napoleon tried to turn the whole thing into a joke, i t was clear he was deeply affronted . He would not have liked Laure anyway: she had been dressed as a boy until the age of eight and was as assertive as only men were supposed to be in that era. Later she married Napoleon's friend Junot and was a persistent thorn in the Bonaparte side. A kind of female Bourrienne, like him she would do anything for money and in that capacity later brought out eighteen volumes of memoirs which rival Bourrienne's for their unreliability.


Napoleon could  never abide any gender uncertainty or 'unnatural' behaviour by assertive or strident women. His ambivalent feelings about his mother are at the root of this, but if tradition is any guide, as a cadet he had further experiences that made him wary of women. He was said to have met up with two young women, then been shocked and incredulous to find they were lesbians. The other story from his cadet years concerns the attempt to seduce him by a much older woman. But the sixteen-year­ old Second Lieutenant Bonaparte was still sexually timid and repressed. He was allegedly the only successful artilleryman in Paris posted to the La Fere regiment who did not visit a brothel in Lyons on the way south. With a chip on his shoulder about his social origins and his nationality,

an uncertain touch with his male peers and a fear and suspicion of women, Napoleon needed little else to make him feel as though he were one of nature's loners. But, to cap all, he was short of stature, only 5'6" when fully grown. Alfred Adler has made us aware that this is a key feature in the overcompensation of despots; most dictators have been small men - Caesar, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Franco as well as Napoleon. It is no exaggeration to say that the sixteen-year-old Napoleon's experience of life denoted the authoritarian personality in the making.