His pride had begun with the self-centeredness natural to all organisms. In his youth it swelled defensively in the clash of individuals and families in Corsica, and then against the class and racial arrogance of students at Brienne. It was not by any means pure selfishness; it allowed devotion and generosity to his mother, to Josephine and her children; love for the “King of Rome”; and an impatient affection for his brothers and sisters, who also had selves to pamper and preserve. But as his successes widened, his power and responsibilities, his pride and self-absorption, grew. He tended to take nearly all the credit for his armies’ victories, but he praised, loved, and mourned Desaix and Lannes. Finally he identified his country with himself, and his ego swelled with her frontiers.
His pride, or the consciousness of ability, sometimes descended to vanity, or the display of accomplishments. “Well, Bourrienne, you too will be immortal.” “Why, General?” “Are you not my secretary?” “Tell me the name of Alexander’s.” “Hm, that is not bad, Bourrienne.”44 He wrote to Viceroy Eugène (April 14, 1806): “My Italian people must know me well enough not to forget that there is more in my little finger than in all their brains put together.”45 The letter N, blazoned in a thousand places, was occasionally graced with a J for Josephine. The Emperor felt that showmanship was a necessary prop of rule.
“Power is my mistress,” he declared to Roederer in 1804, when Joseph was angling to be declared heir; “I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me, or even to covet her. … Two weeks ago I would not have dreamed of treating him unjustly. Now I am unforgiving. I shall smile at him with my lips—but he has slept with my mistress.”46 (Here he did himself injustice; he was a jealous lover, but he was a forgiving man.) “I love power as a musician loves his violin.”47 So his ambition leaped from bound to bound: he dreamt of rivaling Charlemagne and uniting Western Europe, forcibly including the Papal States; then of following Constantine from France through Milan to the capture of Constantinople, building classic arches to commemorate his victories; then he found Europe too little, a mere “molehill,”48 and proposed to rival Alexander by conquering India. It would be hard work, for himself and a million troops, but it would be repaid in glory, for him and them; and if death overtook them on the way it would not be too great a price to pay. “Death is nothing; but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”49 “I live only for posterity.”50 La gloire became his ruling passion, so hypnotic that for a decade nearly all France accepted it as its guiding star.
He pursued his aims with a will that never bent except to leap—until he had exhausted the sublime and became pitiful. His unresting ambition gave unity to his will, direction and substance to every day. At Brienne, “even when I had nothing [assigned?] to do, I always felt that I had no time to lose.”51 And to Jérôme in 1805: “What I am I owe to strength of will, to character, application, and audacity.”52 Daring was part of his strategy; time and again he surprised his enemies by quick and decisive action at unexpected places and times. “My aim is to go straight toward my objective, without being stopped by any consideration”;53 it took him a decade to learn the old adage that in politics a straight line is the longest distance between two points.
Sometimes his judgment and conduct were clouded and perverted with passion. His temper was as short as his stature, and it shortened as his power spread. He had the heat and wilds of Corsica in his blood; and though he usually managed to check his wrath, those around him, from Josephine to his powerful bodyguard Roustam, watched their every word and move lest they incur his wrath. He became impatient with contradiction, tardiness, incompetence, or stupidity. When he lost his temper he would publicly berate an ambassador, swear at a bishop, kick philosopher Volney in the stomach, or, faute de mieux, boot a log on the hearth.54 And yet his anger cooled almost as soon as it flared; often it was put on, as a move in the chess of politics; in most cases he made amends a day or a minute afterward.55 He was seldom brutal, often kind, playful, good-humored,56 but his sense of humor had been weakened by hardship and battle; he had little time for the pleasantries of leisure, the gossip of the court, or the wit of the salons. He was a man in a hurry, with a pack of enemies around him, and an empire on his hands; and it is difficult for a man in a hurry to be civilized.
He spent too much of his energy conquering half of Europe to have much left for the absurdities of coitus. He suspected that many forms of sexual desire were environmentally learned rather than hereditary: “Everything is conventional among men, even to those feelings which, one would suppose, ought to be dictated by Nature alone.”57 He could have had a covey of concubines in the full Bourbon tradition, but he made do with half a dozen mistresses spaced between campaigns. Women thought themselves immortal if they amused him for a night; usually he dispatched the matter with brutal brevity, and talked about his late partners with more coarseness than gratitude.58 His infidelities caused Josephine many hours of worry and grief; he explained to her (if we may believe Mme. de Rémusat) that these divertimenti were natural, necessary, and customary, and should be overlooked by an understanding wife; she wept, he comforted her, she forgave him.59 Otherwise he was as good a husband as his cares and wanderings would allow.
When Marie Louise came to him he accepted monogamy (so far as we know) with new grace, if only because adultery might lose him Austria. His devotion to her was doubled when he beheld her agony in giving him a son. He had always shown a fondness for children; his law code gave them especial protection;60 now the infant King of Rome became the idol and bearer of his hopes, carefully trained to inherit and wisely rule a France giving laws to a united Europe. So the great ego enlarged itself with marital and parental love.
He was too immersed in politics to have time for friends; besides, friendship implies a near-equality of give and take, and Napoleon found it hard to concede equality in any form. He had faithful servitors and devotees, some of whom gave their lives for his glory and their own; yet none would have thought of calling him a friend. Eugène loved him, but as a son rather than a friend. Bourrienne (never quite trustworthy) relates that in 1800 he often heard Napoleon say:
“Friendship is but a name. I love nobody. I do not even love my brothers. Perhaps Joseph a little, from habit and because he is my elder; and Duroc,*I love him too. … I know very well that I have no true friends. As long as I continue what I am, I may have as many pretended friends as I please. Leave sensibility to women; it is their business. But men should be firm at heart and in purpose, or they should have nothing to do with war or government.”61
This has the stoic Napoleonic ring, but is not easily reconciled with the lifelong devotion of men like Desaix, Duroc, Lannes, Las Cases, and a host of others. The same Bourrienne attests that “out of the field of battle Bonaparte had a kind and feeling heart.”62And Méneval, close to Napoleon for thirteen years, agrees:
I had expected to find him brusque and of uncertain temper, instead of which I found him patient, indulgent, easy to please, by no means exacting, merry with a merriness which was often noisy and mocking, and sometimes of a charming bonhomie. … I was no longer afraid of him. I was maintained in this state of mind by all that I saw of his pleasant and affectionate ways with Josephine, the assiduous devotion of his officers, the kindliness of his relations with the consuls and the ministers, and his familiarity with the soldiers.63
Apparently he could be hard when he thought that policy demanded it, and lenient when policy allowed; policy had to come first. He sent many men to jail, and yet a hundred instances of his kindness are recorded, as in the volumes of Frédéric Masson. He took action to improve conditions in the jails of Brussels, but conditions in French prisons in 1814 were unworthy of the general efficiency of his rule. He saw thousands of men dead on the field of battle, and went on to other battles; yet we hear of his often stopping to comfort or relieve a wounded soldier. Véry Constant “saw him weep while eating his breakfast after coming from the bedside of Marshal Lannes,”64 mortally wounded at Essling in 1809.
There is no question about his generosity, nor about his readiness to forgive. He repeatedly—and once too often—forgave Bernadotte and Bourrienne. When Carnot and Chénier, after years of opposition to Napoleon, appealed to him to relieve their poverty, he sent help immediately. At St. Helena he contrived excuses for those who had deserted him in 1813 or 181 5. Only the British won his lasting resentment of their lasting enmity; he saw nothing but mercenary hardness in Pitt, was rather unfair to Sir Hudson Lowe, and found it impossible to appreciate Wellington.65 There was a considerable justice in his self-estimate: “I consider myself a good man at heart.”66 No man, we are told, is a hero to his valet; but Véry Constant, Napoleon’s valet through fourteen years, recorded his memories in numerous volumes “breathless with adoration.”67
Persons brought up to the elegant manners of the Old Regime could not bear the blunt directness of Napoleon’s style of movement and address. He amused such people by the awkward consciousness of his carriage and the occasional coarseness of his speech. He did not know how to put others at their ease, and did not seem to care; he was too eager for the substance to fret about the form. “I do not like that vague and leveling phrase les convenances [the proprieties]. … It is a device of fools to raise themselves to the level of people of intellect. … ‘Good taste’ is another of those classical expressions which mean nothing to me. … What is called ‘style,’ good or bad, does not affect me. I care only for the force of the thought.”68 Secretly, however, he admired the easy grace and quiet considerateness of the gentleman; he longed to win approval from the aristocrats who made fun of him in the salons of Faubourg St.-Germain. In his own way he could be “fascinating when he chose to be.”69
His low opinion of women may have been due to his hurried carelessness of their sensitivity. So he remarked to Mme. Charpentier, “How ill you look in that red dress!”70—and he turned Mme. de Staël to enmity by ranking women according to their fertility. Some women rebuked his rudeness with feminine subtlety. When he exclaimed to Mme. de Chevreuse, “Dear me, how red your hair is!” she answered, “Perhaps it is, Sire, but this is the first time a man has ever told me so.”71 When he told a famous beauty, “Madame, I do not like it when women mix in politics,” she retorted, “You are right, General; but in a country where they have their heads cut off, it is natural that they should want to know why.”72 Nevertheless Méneval, who saw him almost daily, noted “that winning charm which was so irresistible in Napoleon.”73
He liked to talk—sometimes garrulously, almost always usefully and to the point. He invited scientists, artists, actors, writers, to his table, and surprised them by his affability, his knowledge of their field, and the aptness of his remarks. Isabey the miniaturist, Monge the mathematician, Fontaine the architect, and Talma the actor left reminiscences of these meetings, all testifying to the “grace, amiability, and gaiety” of Napoleon’s conversation.74 He much preferred talking to writing. His ideas advanced faster than his speeches; when he tried to write them down he wrote so rapidly that no one—not he himself—could then decipher his scrawl.75 So he dictated, and as 41,000 of his letters have been published, and doubtless other thousands were written, we can begin to understand how the honor of being his secretary was a sentence to hard labor. Bourrienne, who took the post in 1797, had the good fortune to be dismissed in 1802, and so survived till 1834. He was expected to join Napoleon at 7 A.M., work all day, and be on call at night. He could speak and write several languages, knew international law, and, with his own method of shorthand, could usually write as fast as Napoleon dictated.
Méneval, who succeeded Bourrienne in 1802, labored still harder, for “I did not know any kind of shorthand.” Napoleon was fond of him, often jested with him, but wore him out almost daily, after which he would tell him to go and take a bath.76 At St. Helena the Emperor recalled: “I nearly killed poor Méneval; I was obliged to relieve him for a while from the duties of his situation, and place him, for the recovery of his health, near the person of Marie Louise, where his post was a mere sinecure.”77 In 1806 Napoleon authorized him to engage an assistant, François Fain, who served to the end, and on all campaigns. Even so Méneval was quite worn out when he escaped from his fond despot in 1813. It was one of those love affairs that thrive on inequality recognized and not abused.